Faith and religious practice boost health of individuals and communities

Written by William C. Duncan

October 21, 2022

Voices in the media are predicting a serious season of illness during the winter with increases in COVID, flu and colds all coming at the same time. The New York Times recently published a guide to immune health to help readers prepare.

Activity, rest and a healthy diet are all likely to be helpful. There may be another, less immediately intuitive, resource for staying healthy.

That resource is faith.

A study of 1,178 older adults conducted at the Duke University Medical Center found “that people who regularly attend religious services appear to have a healthier immune system than those who don’t.”

A 2020 article in the Journal of Religion and Health discussed health and religious practice in the context of the COVID pandemic. It describes “the adverse effects on immune functioning that fear, anxiety, and psychological distress cause.” By contrast, positive emotions “have the exact opposite effect on the immune system as do fear and anxiety.” Religious teachings and practices, among Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus, the article points out, are important sources of these positive emotions.

A clinical study of “252 individuals with HIV infection” found that compared to the control group, patients in “spiritual growth groups” and others who focused on stress management found robust “improved immune function.”

For those who do become ill, religious groups can also provide critical assistance. Some representative news stories report efforts of faith-based organizations:

  • A news story describes how a “faith-based, nationally accredited community health center,” the Agape Network, partnered with a Florida urgent care provider to distribute thousands of COVID-19 test kits.
  • When a North Carolina hospital’s “average daily census rose from between 60 and 80 patients to between 110 and 120” because of COVID, “Samaritan’s Purse – an evangelical Christian charity known for treating Ebola patients and victims of war abroad” – set up a 30-bed field hospital next to the hospital in a week. Samaritan’s Purse subsequently “stood up a 54-bed unit in Los Angeles County, California, next to Antelope Valley Hospital.”
  • In early 2022, the Eugene Oregon Seventh-Day Adventist Church began distributing “COVID care packages” – “small bags full of supplies to help sick families ride out their quarantine.”

Some who are uncomfortable with claims of religious freedom see religion as something like a special interest that merits distrust. The good that religious groups and people of faith do for everyone around them, even the nonreligious, is an important corrective to the accusations of harm. The remarkable good that religious faith and practice do for those who are religious – and for everyone they interact with in the case of a highly communicable disease that can kill the immunocompromised – suggest that religious faith and practice is more intrinsic to personal, community and society-wide well-being than critics admit.

Knowing these realities can help change the conversation about religious liberty and diffuse the mistrust so that religious people and others can work together to allow all to act on their beliefs and convictions.

More Insights

Connect with Sutherland Institute

Join Our Donor Network