The Rejection of Pascal's Wager
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Do Christians Lead Healthier Lives?

In his book God: The Evidence (Forum 1999), Patrick Glynn attempted to present a series of scientific evidence that purports to show that reason "no longer stands in the way" of believing in God. Despite having no scientific training to speak of, his PhD from Harvard is for English and American literature, Glynn claimed that his research into the physical sciences, psychology and medicine shows that there is a revolution in science away from the traditional materialistic worldview.[1] His first "evidence" was the anthropic principle which we have discussed elsewhere.

Here we look at his claim that Christians lead better lives mentally and physically and that this shows that humans are somehow "wired for faith". He also cited evidence for the efficacy of prayer.

  • Let us have a more detailed look at Glynn's argument..
  • Even if the data is correct, Glynn's conclusion that god exists does not follow.
  • Recently the collectors of the data, the body which funds these types of research and the data collection/interpretation methods have all been seriously called to question.
  • Furthermore there is evidence to the contrary - that Christianity is harmful to the individual both psychologically and physically.
  • We can conclude that Glynn's argument from better health fails to prove that that God exists and certainly fails to convince skeptics that Christianity becomes "more attractive" due to this.

Glynn's Argument

Glynn started by pointing out that:

[S]cientific research in psychology over the past twenty-five years has demonstrated that, far from being a neurosis or source of neuroses as Freud and his disciples claimed, religious belief is one of the most consistent correlates of overall mental health and happiness. [2]

As evidence for this statement Glynn cited a series of studies summarised and compiled by David B. Larson and Susan S. Larson published by the "National Institute of Healthcare Research" which purports to show the psychological advantage of faith. Some of the studies cited include: [3]

  • Non-churchgoers were four times more likely to commit suicide than frequent churchgoers. (study cited: G.W. Comstock & K.B. Partridge "Church Attendance and Health", Journal of Chronic Disease 25 (1972) p665-672)
  • Religious people experience lower levels of stress and depression than their non religious counterparts. They were also able to recover from surgery faster than their atheist and agnostic counterparts. (Pressman, P. et.al., "Religious Belief, Depression, and Ambulation Status in Elderly Women with Broken Hips" American Journal of Psychiatry 147 1990:p758-760)
  • Other studies show that believers have lower drug and alcohol abuse, better marital sex (!) and better overall happiness.
Based on this examples, Glynn concluded that:

[T]he burden of the research would invite the speculation that the human mind is in some sense designed to require faith-that the religious "drive" or hunger is as powerful as any other, that the human mind does not find itself at rest until it acknowledges and develops a relationship with the godhead. [4]

In other words, we are happy only when our brains are working to (religious) specifications!

Next, again citing the work of Larson and Larson, Glynn lays out the medical evidence for religious faith:[5]

  • Among men, frequent churchgoers had a 40% lower risk of arteriorsclerotic heart disease than infrequent church attendees. (Comstock & Partridge, op cit)
  • Among women, the risk of heart disease, pulmunory emphysema and suicide were double for infrequent church goers compared to their more religious counterparts. (Comstock & Partridge, op cit)
  • Religious commitment is positively correlated with lower blood pressure and better general health status.
Then, citing the works of Dr. Herbert Benson, The Relaxation Response (Anchor 1975) and Timeless Healing (Simon & Schuster 1996), Glynn claimed that meditation and prayer, brought about by faith in god or something similarly transcendental, lower blood pressure levels, reduce chronic pain and generally provide significant improvements in patients with cancer, AIDS and other diseases. Glynn specifically mentioned a report by Benson from his book Timeless Healing which asserted that "thirty six percent of women with unexplained infertility became pregnant within six months of completing the program". In other words, prayers improve fertility![6]

These studies show, according to Glynn, that the human psyche is "wired for god". Significantly he disagreed with Dr. Benson that it (healthier effects of religious beliefs and prayer) could have been an evolutionary adaptation of the early human to cope with their environment. He argued that the fact that prayer actually brings about cures or remission of physical diseases shows that it could not have been derive from "purely materialistic, mechanistic forces churning blindly over time."[7]

Thus because believers are better off mentally and physically and because prayer works, god exists!..at least according to Patrick Glynn.

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Invalid Conclusions

Even if we, for the sake of argument, accept the findings presented by Glynn as true, his conclusion-that "god exists"- does not follow.

Firstly if the correlation of health to religiosity leads one to conclude that the belief is "true" then, as Jeffrey Shallit suggested [8], shouldn't this line of reasoning be taken to it's logical conclusion? Perhaps we can find the one true religion by finding out which religion or sect boasts the healthiest adherents? If this is the case then perhaps Mormons are the adherents of the true faith. (A study done in 1989 by James Enstrom, an epidemiologist at UCLA, on 400,000 California Mormons, showed that there were 50% fewer cases of cancer among these people than the average American.)[9]

Of course most Christians would not find such a line of reasoning convincing and would probably to point the Mormon prohibitions on smoking, drinking and caffein, among others, that could account for their better overall state of health over the general public. This leads to the second possible explanation for the studies cited by Glynn. For, even if the data is correct, it is simply possible that many "normal" factors could easily account for the better health status of Christians; a "supernatural" explanation would not be needed.

As Matthews et.al. [10] pointed out many of the health benefits of religiosity can be explained quite mundanely. Religious people tend to congregate together, this gives them a sense of social support or connectedness which have been long known to be quite predictive of overall well being. Beliefs can also have a placebo effect on believers helping them cope with diseases better. Furthermore research in psychotherapy has shown that expectancy in a patient is a significant predictor of how they would respond to various therapies.

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Flawed Data and Interpretation

The above objection is sufficient to show that there is no proof of God's existence to be found in the overall health status of the religious. Glynn probably saw this but added another argument as support for belief in God.

Even if their beliefs were to be proved illusions, religiously committed people tend to lead happier and healthier lives...[11]

Thus following Pascal, Glynn is arguing that even if a belief is untrue, it's benefits ought to make one a believer!

However, recently the data cited by Christian apologists has been seriously questioned.

First the source of the studies raises alarm bells. The work used by Glynn The Forgotten Factor in Physical and Mental Healh: What Does the Research Show? by David and Susan Larson was published by the innocently named "National Institute of Healthcare Research" (NIHR). It turns out the NIHR is funded by the Templeton Foundation which has the stated goal to reintroduce religious faith into modern life. As pointed out by Kevin Courcey, a registed nurse, the NIHR "are only willing to fund research which shows a positive link between religion and health. This puts extraordinary pressure on the researcher to find such a link." The research projects of David Larson and Herbert Benson are among the many beneficiaries of Templeton Foundation.[12]

Secondly, the methods of data collection and interpretation has been questioned by other research scientists. In a study published in the respected British medical journal, The Lancet, Richard Sloan, E. Bagiella and T. Powell, all from Columbia University, subjected many of these studies to critical scrutiny and showed that these suffer from a number of methodological flaws:[13]

  • Failure to Control for Intervening Variables
    Many of the studies fail to control for other factors which could affect the results.
    • For instance in the study by P. Pressman et.al. cited by Glynn above on elderly women after hip surgery, it was reported that those who were religious generally recovered from surgery faster and were less stressed. Yet there was no control for age! In other words there is no way of knowing if the women who recovered faster were simply younger, hence had more robust health, than the others!

    • Another poignant example is the study by Comstock and Partridge cited by Glynn in support of the relationship between church attendance and health. As Comstock himself later admitted their study omitted considering a very important cofactor: people with poorer health were less likely to go to church! Thus it would not be surprising that people who go to church were healthier, else they would be at home convaslescing!

  • Failure to Control for Multiple Comparison
    Many of the studies commit the error of reporting the hits and ignoring the misses. This will of course give biased results. In otherwords if one is conducting multiple statistical tests the likelihood of finding something significant becomes higher.
    • In one study, in which David Larson of the NIHR was listed as one of the co-authors, it was "reported that religious attendence was inversely associated with interleukin-6 in the elderly. However interleukin-6 was one of the eight variables and there was no attempt to control for multiple comparisons". The other seven results were not reported.

  • Conflicting Findings
    Dr. Sloan and his colleagues also reported how many studies have conflicting results.
    • In two studies, it was reported that religious attendance has a positive correlation with lower mortality, but only in women. In another study, "neither church attendence nor religious involvement was associated with lower mortality."

    • In yet another study, "religious comfort and strength" supposedly correlate with more survivors of heart surgeries but "religious attendance" showed no similar correlation.

Dr. Herbert Benson's work on prayer has also been seriously questioned. In their review of Benson's book Timeless Healing,[14] Irwin and Jack Tessman had pointed out that Dr. Benson grossly exaggerated the results of his own findings. They pointed this out specifically in relation to his claim on fertility (which Glynn cited-see above): in his original study in July 1992 [15], Benson and his co-authors noted that there was no evidence that the "relaxation response" improved the conception rate. Thus Benson is claiming for something which even his own published research does not support!

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Harmful Side Effects of Christian Beliefs

It must also remembered that there are some studies which show that religious beliefs actually have an adverse effect on patients. In a study published in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine (2001), the researchers reported that there higher rate of mortality (around 6% to 10%) among religious believers who struggle with their faith. Furthermore struggles of faith which include "feeling alienated from or unloved by God" or thinking that the devil was the cause of their diseases "were associated with a 19% to 28% increase in risk of dying during the approximately two year follow up period". [17].

It is important amidst all this arguing about the finer points of statistical analysis, to remind ourselves that the large scale harmful side effects of Christianity are well known. Even a cursory look into the historical record of Christianity should suffice to convince all but the most brainwashed that Christianity had wrought immeasurable harm onto the world. These calamaties-the medieval inquisition, the Spanish Inquisition, the with hunts and the wars of religion-have caused literally millions of deaths. As we have shown, these are the direct consequence of Christian theology. A million deaths are more poignant than arguing whether a 0.05 significance level in the healing rate of ageing Christians after hip surgery proves God's existence!

In contrast to the minute "advantages" claimed for prayer (and the so-called "relaxation response"), we have the many who have killed themselves or their loved ones through excessive belief in the healing power of prayer and not seeking the appropriate medical attention. Nobody would argue that death is not a very healthy state!

It is also important to remember many of the studies conducted do not differentiate between "liberal" believers that tend to "pick and choose" what they like and more conservative or fundamentalist Christians who "swallow" the theology wholesale. With liberals the total Christian message does not "really take". As I mentioned in another posting, liberals are simply closet humanists! The harmful side of the Christian doctrine do not permeate their very existence. [a] With fundamentalists this is not the case and it is here that we should seriously look at the real effects of Christian beliefs.

Many psychologists have implicated fundamentalist Christianity with the genesis of the psychological disorders of schizophrenia and depression.

Behavioral scientist, Dr. Robert Ellis, has concluded that there is a strong relationship between the religiosity normally seen in fundamentalists and emotional and mental illness. According to Ellis, the religious attitude "discourages self-acceptance, self-interest, and self directedness, which are all necessary for sound mental and emotional functioning."[18].

In his book Deadly Doctrine: Health, Illness and Christian God-Talk, psychiatrist Dr. Wendell Watters, Professore Emeritus in Psychiatry at McMaster University, Ontario, Canada associated Christian doctrine with the genesis of schizophrenic disorders. He suggested that the Christian doctrine on sex, self-esteem and communication (exarcerbated by "prayer" which tends to make the believer withdraw from outside contact) among others, are major contributors in the development of schizophrenia in children with limited adaptive potential.[19]

Dr. Edmund Cohen, psychologist and ex-fundamentalist, had identified depression as one of the most common psychological disorders among fundamentalist Christians. Citing the results of a study conducted on affective disorders among the Amish which shows that depression is the most common cause of admission into mental health care facilities in this group, Dr. Cohen showed that the simpler, bucolic lifestyle is just a thin veneer for the terrifying alternative mental world they live in:

[O]ne finds that they see the whole secular culture around them as Satanic and temptation fraught; every outsider, benighted and hell bound. The Old Order Amish bucolic world always threatens to snap open a trap door beneath the feet, and send the backslider down the tubes into the no-exit concentration camp if the guard of rigidity be let down. The sect really presents, like the biblical indoctrination itself, a superbly effective set of psychological social controls...[20]

In this sense the psychological worldview of the Old Order Amish is very similar to that of many fundamentalist Christians.[b]

Certainly none of these psychologists are claiming that all fundamentalist Christians suffer from psychological disorders! Merely that the teachings of fundamentalist Christians makes one more susceptible towards such psychopathologies. As an extension of this, it is also possible that the world of the fundamentalists, with its continuous presence of the evil and good spirits, is a magnet for people who are already psychologically pathological. I couldn't help equating Dr. Wattter's description of the symptoms of schizophrenia with what I have seen in some pentecostal churches!

The schizophrenic disorders are conditions in which the individual patient manifests severe disturbances in perception, cognition, speech, emotional life, and behavior. Disturbances of perception, cognition and speech include hallucinations, delusions, loosenings of associations, excessive concreteness and symbolism, incoherence, neologisms (making up words), mutism, echolalia (repeating words spoken by others), verbigeration (word repetition), and stilted language.[22]

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Conclusion

The "argument from better health" fails to convince for a few reasons:
  • Even if, for the sake of argument, we accept the results of the studies as presented, in no way do we have to invoke supernatural explanations for this. These could be explained mundanely, for instance, the Mormon prohibition on smoking and drinking is the direct cause of low incidence of cancer among it's adherence.
  • Much of the data and many of the studies conducted are flawed. Thus there is no basis to the claim that Christians in general enjoy healthier lives.
  • Furthermore, it is a historical fact that Christianity had been responsible for millions of deaths through it's countless persecutions of heretics, witches and wars of religion.
  • There is data showing that extreme forms of Christianity are actually co-factors in the genesis of psychopathologies.
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Notes

a.Indirectly however liberals do cause harm- by providing the main raw material, lukewarm Christians, as potential converts for fundamentalist churches. In his book The Mind of the Bible Believer, psychologist and ex-fundamentalist, Edmond Cohen, mentioned the "bait and switch" method of these conversions. By firstly presenting a benign persona of the Bible, using the word "love" a lot, fundamentalist Churches are able to attract lukwarm believers who are already predisposed to beleive in this. Once they are "in" of course, the "sugar coating" disappears. This is what Dr. Cohen remarked about the role of the liberal churches here:

Ironically, the liberal preachers of the mainline denominations, by talking themselves and their followers into the notion that they had found something contemporary and gratifying for the Bible to mean, set their people up to become recruits for the new, conservative Christian hucksters. Between the attempted liberal redefinition of the Bible message and the host of distracting features to be observed in conspicuous manifestations of incomplete biblical indoctrination, the present-day Evangelical American simply does not know what he is looking at, when he encounters a conservative Christian group...The misleading biblical surface impressions are not inadvertant. Initial recruitment contacts could not succeed without them. A short description of Device I [The Benign Persona of the Bible-PT], is that a colossal bait-and-switch sales pitch is worked on the new believer.[16]

b.How does one account for the cheerfulness one normally sees in fundamentalists churches? Dr. Cohen explains it thus:

In successful and growing mini-Reformationist-churches [Dr. Cohen's term for a grouping of churches which trancends denominations-recognizable by an intensely Bible centered approach to worship and life], one encounters a well-planned and well-acted show of cheerfulness, which I now understand to be partly a compensation for the cheerlessness that would really be appropriate for the teaching, and partly, still more Device I [Presenting a "benign persona of the bible"]...it agress with our expectations that, under a discipline that so distorts normal investment of psychic energy, purposely misrouting that energy, people would feel drained and, to convince themselves, would prattle incessantly about how filled they supposedly feel. [21]

References

1.Glynn, God, The Evidence: p18-19
2.ibid: p61-62
3.ibid: p62-65
4.ibid: p74-75
5.ibid: p80-82
6.ibid: p82-89
7.ibid:p87-89
8.Shallit, Jeffrey "Designing the Designer: Review of 'God the Evidence'", Skeptic Magazine Vol 6 No.2 1998 p81
9.Clean Living Mormons Live Longer(Newpaper excerpt)
10.Matthews, W.J. et.al. "God's HMO: Prayer, faith, belief & physical well-being", Skeptic Magazine Vol. 8 No.2. 2000 p68
11.Glynn, op. cit.: p77
12."Studies on Prayer and Healing Flawed", Internet Infidels Newletter May 1999
13.Sloan, RP, Bagiella, E. & Powell, T., "Religion, Spirituality and Medicine", The Lancet, 20th February 1999 Volume 353, Number 9153
"Faith-Medicine Connection Challenged", Skeptic Magazine Vol. 7 No.1 1999 p8
14.Tessman, Irwin and Tessman, Jack, "Review of Herbert Benson's 'Timeless Healing'"Science 18th April 1997 Vol. 276 p:369-370
Posner, Gary P., "Has Science Proven the "Divine" Benefits of Religion?", USA Today,August 23rd 1998
15.Benson, H. et.al. "Psychological Improvements in Infertile Women after Behavioural Treatment: A Replication", Fertility and Sterility Vol 58, p144-147 July 1992
16.Cohen, The Mind of the Bible Believer: p171
17.Pargamen, K.I., H.G. Koenig, N. Tarakeshwar and J. Hahn 2001. "Religious Struggle as a Predictor of Mortality among Medically Ill Elderly Patients" Archives of Internal Medicine 161 (10): 1881-1884
quoted in Shanks, God, the Devil and Darwin: p146-147
18.Ellis, Albert, "Is Religiosity Pathological?" Free Inquiry Vol 18, No.2 Spring 1988
quoted in Watters, Deadly Doctrine: p70
19.Watters, Deadly Doctrine: p137-146
20.Cohen, op cit: p389-390
21.ibid: p389
22.Watters, op cit: p138

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