- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A monumental change is occurring in the world of psychology. The emerging answer to the question “Is religion good for your health?” is (drumroll, please) “It depends.”

What, you’re not impressed?

Then you must have missed the psychology classes that still present religion through Sigmund Freud’s eyes - a “universal obsessional neurosis” that mirrors people’s infantile defenses against an unknown world. The all-powerful God is a projection of one’s father, and religious life is a collection of wishful fantasies, magical thinking and desperate rituals to appease a god who can punish or reward.

In other words, the previous answer to “Is religion good for your health?” was “no.”

What is causing learned men and women to reconsider religion as part of a healthy life? An explosion of studies - roughly 7,000 since 2000, according to Dr. Harold Koenig, who teaches psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center - is suggesting that being religious is associated with positive health outcomes.

Specifically, religious involvement is linked to lower rates of stress, depression, substance abuse, delinquency, cigarette smoking, sexual promiscuity and risky sex practices, less use of medical services and fewer hospitalizations and long-term care, researchers told a Dec. 3 Heritage Foundation conference called “Religious Practice and Health - What Research Says.”

Family religiosity is associated with better mental health outcomes for youth, said Elizabeth Hair of Child Trends, citing data from 9,000 teens in the 1997 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth.

Among seniors, those who are religious tend to have higher levels of gratitude, which facilitates forgiveness and close relationships and results in fewer depressive symptoms, said Neil Krause, health behavior professor at the University of Michigan.

Religious involvement is further linked to higher rates of well-being, happiness, physical exercise, academic achievement, seat-belt use, quality sleep, vitamin use, regular doctor and dentist visits, marital stability, intact families and social-support networks.

One of the few adverse findings was that religious people tended to weigh more than nonreligious people. Too many potluck dinners, someone joked.

The devil, however, is still in the details.

Just as religion is not a blanket pathology, it’s not a blanket panacea, said Kenneth Pargament , a psychology professor at Bowling Green State University.

Spirituality can be a potent resource when people experience problems: It can reduce stress, for instance, he said. But it can also be a source of problems if it, say, fuels anger about life or steers someone away from a medically sound treatment. This is why the question of whether religion helps or hurts “depends” on a person’s particular beliefs in a particular situation, said Mr. Pargament.

There’s still a long way to go before medical and mental health professionals start advising patients to “take two aspirin, say a rosary and call me in the morning.”

While more than 90 percent of Americans believe in God, only 7 percent of scientists profess such faith, said Dr. Koenig. “Education is key,” he said. Health care training currently doesn’t include classes on religion, but without it, he added, professionals may not be able to fathom their clients.

• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com