Counting on Faith

Dr. David Larson is a medical researcher who likes to tell people his favorite book of the Bible is Numbers. "Like the Count on Sesame Street, " he says, "I like to count." Among the things he likes to count most are health risk factors—what helps people stay healthy, what helps them recover from illness, and what puts them at risk for disease. As he told attendees of the recent Wilberforce Conference on worldview, he especially likes to count the ways religious commitment can help people live longer. Psychiatry has long held that religion is harmful to people—but Dr. Larson's research is providing dramatic evidence that this stereotype is off target. It's a stereotype that Dr. Larson confronted when he began his psychiatric training as a young man. In fact, one of his professors, knowing Larson viewed religion to be a potentially helpful factor in patients' lives, urged him to give up his plans of becoming a psychiatrist. "For psychiatric patients," this professor said, "religion can only be harmful." The psychiatrist was stating the conventional wisdom handed down from Sigmund Freud, who viewed religion as "a universal obsessional neurosis." But Larson refused to be deterred. As he continued his research, he noticed a surprising pattern: Religion was not associated with mental illness after all. In fact, quite the opposite: The published data showed that religion actually helped protect against both mental and physical disease. For example, studies have shown that older adults who frequently attend religious services may have healthier immune systems. Heart surgery patients with strong religious beliefs are much more likely to survive surgery. Church-going folks also have lower blood pressure, even when risky behavior like smoking are factored in. Most dramatic of all, the simple act of attending church each week is linked with reducing risk of earlier death by about 25 percent. Religious commitment also protects people from addictions and mental disorders. Consider: Alcohol abuse is highest among those with little or no religious commitment. Among youth, studies have found an inverse correlation between religious commitment and drug abuse. The non-religious are also much more likely to suffer from depression and commit suicide. Larson says that patients so value having their doctors address their religious beliefs that today more than half of all U.S. medical schools are teaching tomorrow's doctors how to take medical histories that include the patient's religious background. The new scientific data provide a wonderful tool for apologetics. Christians believe that God created humans to have communion with Him, and to live according to His laws. If we live contrary to God's plan, the consequences are invariably harmful. The research clearly shows that if we ignore biblical principles, we pay a steep price in terms of stress, depression, family conflict, and even physical illness. It's empirical evidence that a biblical view of human nature does indeed conform to reality. And that's what we need to tell our friends if they repeat that old canard that religion is harmful. The research shows that a healthy dose of religion can actually keep them healthy. Dr. Larson will help them count the ways.


Chuck Colson


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