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Sacred Salubriousness

published December 2011
New research on self-control explains the link between religion and health
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Ever since 2000, when psychologist Michael E. McCullough, now at the University of Miami, and his colleagues published a metaanalysis of more than three dozen studies showing a strong correlation between religiosity and lower mortality, skeptics have been challenged by believers to explain why—as if to say, “See, there is a God, and this is the payoff for believing.”

In science, however, “God did it” is not a testable hypothesis. Inquiring minds would want to know how God did it and what forces or mechanisms were employed (and “God works in mysterious ways” will not pass peer review). Even such explanations as “belief in God” or “religiosity” must be broken down into their component parts to find possible causal mechanisms for the links between belief and behavior that lead to health, well-being and longevity. This McCullough and his then Miami colleague Brian Willoughby did in a 2009 paper that reported the results of a metaanalysis of hundreds of studies revealing that religious people are more likely to engage in healthy behaviors, such as visiting dentists and wearing seat belts, and are less likely to smoke, drink, take recreational drugs and engage in risky sex. Why? Religion provides a tight social network that reinforces positive behaviors and punishes negative habits and leads to greater self-regulation for goal achievement and self-control over negative temptations.

Self-control is the subject of Florida State University psychologist Roy Baumeister’s new book, Willpower, co-authored with science writer John Tierney. Self-control is the employment of one’s power to will a behavioral outcome, and research shows that young children who delay gratification (for example, forgoing one marshmallow now for two later) score higher on measures of academic achievement and social adjustment later. Religions offer the ultimate delay of gratification strategy (eternal life), and the authors cite research showing that “religiously devout children were rated relatively low in impulsiveness by both parents and teachers.”

The underlying mechanisms of setting goals and monitoring one’s progress, however, can be tapped by anyone, religious or not. Alcoholics Anonymous urges members to surrender to a “higher power,” but that need not even be a deity—it can be anything that helps you stay focused on the greater goal of sobriety. Zen meditation, in which you count your breaths up to 10 and then do it over and over, the authors note, “builds mental discipline. So does saying the rosary, chanting Hebrew psalms, repeating Hindu mantras.” Brain scans of people conducting such rituals show strong activity in areas associated with self-regulation and attention. McCullough, in fact, describes prayers and meditation rituals as “a kind of anaerobic workout for self-control.” In his lab Baumeister has demonstrated that self-control can be increased with practice of resisting temptation, but you have to pace yourself because, like a muscle, self-control can become depleted after excessive effort. Finally, the authors note, “Religion also improves the monitoring of behavior, another of the central steps of self-control. Religious people tend to feel that someone important is watching them.” For believers, that monitor may be God or other members of their religion; for nonbelievers, it can be family, friends and colleagues.

The world is full of temptations, and as Oscar Wilde boasted, “I can resist everything except temptation.” We may take the religious path of Augustine in his pre-saintly days when he prayed to God to “give me chastity and continence, but not yet.” Or we can choose the secular path of 19th-century explorer Henry Morton Stanley, who proclaimed that “self-control is more indispensable than gunpowder,” especially if we have a “sacred task,” as Stanley called it (his was the abolition of slavery). I would say you should select your sacred task, monitor and pace your progress toward that goal, eat and sleep regularly (lack of both diminishes willpower), sit and stand up straight, be organized and well groomed (Stanley shaved every day in the jungle), and surround yourself with a supportive social network that reinforces your efforts. Such sacred salubriousness is the province of everyone—believers and nonbelievers—who will themselves to loftier purposes.

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14 Comments to “Sacred Salubriousness”

  1. Brian Oliver Says:

    “God did it” is not a testable hypothesis. Indeed: it is not even a meaningful one. Inquiring minds would also want to know whether and in what way “God” is anything more that the formal subject (SV) of the verb “did”.

  2. Gary Whittenberger Says:

    I must disagree with Brian and Michael who claim that “God did it” is not a testable hypothesis. I think that sometimes it is. Suppose a person claims “I prayed to God to increase our rainfall above that which was expected, and he did it.” Or suppose a person claims “I prayed to God to increase the rate of cure of cancer in a group of patients, and he did it.” Scientific studies can be designed to provide pertinent evidence to undermine or support these hypotheses. To say that “God did it” is not a testable hypothesis is an overgeneralization which is refuted by some scientific studies which have already be done.

  3. Joseph P.Moore Says:

    It is imossible to measure a “dose” of prayer. How much prayer does it take to achieve the result, and how much was used? How due you know how many people are praying for the result, and how much? “God did it” is not a testable hypothesis.

  4. Burt Smith Says:

    Is this not similar to the advice to those about to retire “keep your mind and body active.” I seem to remember a study that demonstrated that active retirees lived a bit longer than couch potatoes.

  5. frank Says:

    – but you can validate his properties!
    as a great persian general found out when he took babylon and an old man greeted him saying ” i’ve a letter to you from god written a long time ago into our sacred scriptures”
    naturally after checking that the ink was dry in daniel’s copy cyrus would do well to send couriers off to the four corners of his kingdom to quickly gather samples of Isaiah 45 to make sure he had not been conned.

  6. Tony Castleberry Says:


    “God did it” is not a testable hypothesis unless and until “God” is not only defined in an unambiguous way but also itself verified to exist. And even after that one must define/explain what exactly he/it “did” and how he/she/it may have done “it”.

    “God did it” is no more a testable hypothesis than saying “It was MAGIC!”.

  7. Bad Boy Scientist Says:

    +Whittenberger “God did it” is a shorthand for a particular hand-waving argument which is inherently untestable. In fact, the strength of that argument is its being beyond the realm of human examination – IOW: untestable. True Believers trott out this argument as a discussion ender – which makes it above all else unscientific. (There are scientific speculations which are untestable but they do not seek to quench all inquiry the way the “God did it” advocates do ala “God did it; I believe it; that settles it”)

    Whereas you are technically correct, in theory it would be testable whether God did something or not, this is not the issue. The advocates of “God did it” are often uncomfortable with the whole notion of mere mortals examining God’s handiwork. We’re supposed to revel in the mystery and be thankful for all of the graces – and resist the temptation of curiosity!

  8. Brigitte cote Says:

    Stage 4 metastasized breast cancer,palliative care…God did it means absolutely nothing. I was expected to live 18 months 4 years ago. I know a lot of people pray for me, a convinced atheist, but LOVE and support of daughters, husband, colleagues and friends PLUS self-discipline to enjoy every moment DID IT.

  9. frank Says:

    ok – so how did Isaiah know who Cyrus was and how he was to take Babylon hundreds(?) of years into the future if god didn’t tell him? (especially as god specifically claims so)

  10. David Bird Says:

    All in all, if “God did” do it, then why are there no amputees with limbs spontaneously re-growing?

  11. Gary Whittenberger Says:

    To #3 Moore: Sure it is possible to measure a dose of prayer in a scientific study – it could be measured as the number of persons saying the same prayer at the same time. The question of what dosage would produce some effect is an empirical question, just as it is with a dosage of a new drug.

    To #6 Castleberry: Simply define “God” in scientific prayer studies as “an invisible person who sometimes causes desired outcomes requested by humans.”

    To #7 Bad Boy: We don’t need to allow religious people to dictate how we study their claims.

    To #8 Cote: Atheists with cancer could be randomly assigned to two groups, one getting traditional therapy and the other getting traditional therapy plus prayer, and the two groups could then be compared on various outcome measures.

    I don’t find any of the objections to be persuasive, so I still think “God did it” can sometimes be scientifically tested.

  12. Debi Says:

    I am so glad to see articles like this. As a former born-again Christian, I used to think that all atheists were “bad people.” (How can one be good without GOD?!…since we are brainwashed into believing that all humans are inherently evil and need Christ to conform us into his “perfect” image). It always shocked me to hear of non-Christians doing incredibly selfless acts of goodwill. I always thought there must be SOME kind of hidden selfish agenda behind it, even if it was just to have the satisfaction and pride in themselves for doing so, which we were also taught was sinful. (GOD must get all the glory-not us).
    I love, love, love seeing scientific explanations for our good, moral behavior! And to understand how other non-Christian cultures and people like Ghandi were/are able to resist temptation and live peaceful, emotionally fulfilling lives. THANK YOU for sharing this!

  13. Jim Barnhart Says:

    The 13th comment. How fun! Some superstitions are hard to shake.
    In my observations of religious groups, mostly Christian ones, I have noticed the support the members of these organizations get from each other and the general structure of the group to lead healthier lives and make more positive decisions. In this respect the religion is helping its members. I have also noticed that the membership generally seems to consist of a larger percentage of people who need this help than a random sampling taken outside the group. Whether that is a result of the people seeking out the help of the religion or the religion cultivating membership from those in need, or a combination of the two, I don’t know.
    Unfortunately, I have also noticed that the religion does not seem to instill any knowledge or training in the individual to be able to develop their own self control to better their lives outside of the support structure of the religion. Instead, there is a general denial of the power of the individual in favor of the teachings of the faith. This leaves the individual members at the mercy of the organization and unable to lead similarly successful lives outside of it. In this respect the membership is prevented from becoming a more mature self-reliant group of people.
    (For clarification – as I write this, I have realized that I have been speaking in reference to the 3 monotheistic religions of the Middle East more than any other because that is where most of my experience lies.)
    Until we humans can break out of our reliance on a higher power to govern our lives and realize that we govern ourselves, and take responsibility for that fact, our development into a mature advanced race of intelligent beings will be slowed.
    To sum it up: ‘God’ has never done anything – Man has done it all, from the start.

  14. Arif Uddin Says:

    There is an interesting exercise anyone can do to test how
    religion influences us by asking a simple question as Gallup poll did in its 2006-2011 survey worldwide covering 155 countries. It asked, “Is religion an important part of your daily life?”

    if you compare the results of this survey results (Gallup counted the “no” response)against the diabetes rates which are available on International Diabetes Foundation website, some very revealing results appear. Since diabetes is a disease of affluence (more food than one needs and less need to use muscle than we must for a reasonably healthy and fit body) I checked only countries that are at least as affluent as the average Egyptian or Guyanese is, i.e. at least $6500 per capita in GDP income measure in PPP (purchasing power parity for international comparisons). There are only 15 countries with comparable diabetes rate over 12 percent including Mauritius. Gallup poll did not cover Mauritious, so of the 14 countries, NONE had a “no” response rate of above 31 percent. In fact 12 out of 14 had “no” response 13 percent or less. When I compared countries with a “no” response rate of at least 50 percent and same income and population constraints, I counted 33 – but NONE with a diabetes rate of 12 percent. In fact none with a rate of even 11 or, incredibly, 10 percent either.

    As I see it’s a statistician’s ideal sample: very large, completely double-blind, and utterly random.

    I think the empirical evidence above strongly contradicts the smaller, mostly christian-denominational, and regional-at-best studies quoted here.

    Would appreciate where I might have erred in drawing conclusions.

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