Losing your religion deemed unhealthy

Sep 22, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- People who leave strict religious groups are more likely to say their health is worse than members who remain in the group, according to a Penn State researcher.

The percentage of people who left a strict religious group and reported they were in excellent health was about half that of people who stayed in the group, said Christopher Scheitle, senior research assistant, in sociology.

"Previous research showed some association between belonging to a religious group and positive ," Scheitle said. "We became interested in what would happen to your health if you left a religious group. Would people demonstrate any negative health outcomes?"

About 40 percent of members of strict religious groups reported they were in excellent health, according to the study. However, only 25 percent of members in those groups who switched to another religion reported they were in excellent health. The percentage of the strict religious group members who dropped out of religion completely and said their health was excellent fell to 20 percent. The difference between switchers and non-switchers, in reference to health, is statistically significant for the strict groups. The researchers reported their findings in the current issue of the .

The study also indicated that people who were raised and remained in strict religious groups were more likely to report they were in better health than people affiliated with other religious groups. Scheitle, working with Amy Adamczyk, assistant professor of sociology, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at the graduate center, City University of New York, defined strict religions, such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Jehovah's Witnesses, as exclusive groups with strict social, moral and physical guidelines for members.

The researchers suggested several possible reasons for the declining health conditions reported by former members.

Strict groups typically require members to abstain from unhealthy behaviors, such as alcohol and tobacco use. These groups also create both formal and informal support structures to promote positive health, according to Scheitle. The social bonds of belonging to the group might be another factor for better health.

"The social solidarity and social support could have psychological benefits," Scheitle said. "That could then lead to certain health benefits."

Religious beliefs may also promote better health by providing hope and encouraging positive thinking.

Besides losing connection to these health benefits, exiting a religious group may increase stressful situations.

"You could lose your friends or your family becomes upset when you leave, leading to psychological stress and negative health outcomes," said Scheitle.

The study does not necessarily mean that leaving a group causes poor health, Scheitle said. Poor health actually could prompt a member to leave the group. Strict sectarian groups require active involvement in meetings, services and social events that hinder participation by unhealthy members. An unhealthy member may also question membership in a group that promotes the belief in an all-powerful being who has failed to heal his or her condition.

For the study, Scheitle examined a total of 30,523 cases collected from 1972 through 2006 in the General Social Surveys. Of those, more than 10,000 switched to another religion and more than 2,000 dropped out of religion completely. A total of 423 strict religious group members were studied with approximately 96 members switching to other religions and about 54 members no longer affiliated with any religion. The Opinion National Research Center has conducted this survey annually or biennially since 1972. Scheitle said drawing deeper conclusions about the health issues from leaving a strict religious group would require more exact studies. Those longitudinal studies are new in the religious field, he added.

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User comments : 6

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ereneon
5 / 5 (2) Sep 22, 2010
People get sick when they go to places they have never been before because they don't have immunity to the native organisms there. Did they not even control for something that simple?
bottomlesssoul
5 / 5 (2) Sep 22, 2010
It only takes a few years of isolation to become institutionalized if you live in narrow restricted circumstances. I expect the same result might be found from people leaving prison after long stays.

Being in an environment that encourages you to not think for yourself leads to not thinking for yourself for most people. Spend too much time like that and you will forget basic skills. It's called learned helplessness.
Zilwiki
5 / 5 (1) Sep 22, 2010
Believing your group has the answers to all life's questions and problems, and that you really really won't die, is comforting. To leave that state of ignorance is to give up that false comfort.
Jim1138
5 / 5 (1) Sep 23, 2010
exmormon.org reports many who leave the church are harassed. I would imagine that would have a bit of effect. I imagine any fundie religious group is not much better.
RobertKarlStonjek
5 / 5 (2) Sep 23, 2010
This tells something about the nature of reporting, not the level of health. To make sense of the results, an independent health evaluation needs to be done. For instance those that are still in the group may report good health for reasons other than reflection on their actual health and those that leave the group may by more inclined to visit a doctor ~ who knows...
Nairb
4.5 / 5 (2) Sep 23, 2010
I know several people who left such groups. The fact that they are not allowed to have any contact with family members still in the group is a significant sourse of stress to them.

Feelings of guilt can be another significant stressor in peoples life.

I could see that these two things could affect percieved health.

Interesting to see studies looking at those who left less strict religions.

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