A University of Michigan-based project investigates connections among religion, spirituality, and health through an ambitious, multi-year national survey.

The significant existing body of research into the connections between religion, spirituality, and health presents a problem. While it hints at a correlation between religious or spiritual practices and positive health outcomes, the underlying causal mechanisms have proven elusive.

A project led by Neal Krause, a professor of public health at the University of Michigan and a renowned expert on the intersection of religion and health, seeks to answer those questions with a new approach: Whereas earlier studies focused on either religious and spiritual practices (often conducted by social psychologists) or health data (conducted by medical researchers), Krause and his colleagues aim to do both in tandem. The research team conducted a national survey of 3,000 American adults to collect information about the subjects’ religious and spiritual practices, as well as their health.

The project, “Landmark Spirituality and Health Survey,” launched in 2013, is supported by an $8 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation. Ultimately, Krause and his team aim to produce 20 published papers, hold a symposium and conferences to explore the study’s findings, and encourage further research in the field.

An Ambitious, First-of-its-Kind National Survey

The survey involves face-to-face interviews to determine each subject’s spiritual and religious practices. It also captures biological markers, including weight, height, blood pressure, cholesterol, and C-reactive protein — a measure of inflammation that signifies risk of cardiovascular disease. Krause and his team are investigating whether positive ranges of these biomarkers are associated with religious and spiritual practice — for example, whether those who regularly attend religious services show lower C-reactive protein levels. By comparing religious or spiritual behavior with subjects’ health data, the team hopes to answer more challenging questions about causation. For example, do spiritual practices affect health, or do healthier people tend to participate in spiritual activities?

The team completed its survey in the fall of 2014 — a complex process given the extensive in-person interview and lab sample analysis required for each subject — and is currently analyzing the results. Krause acknowledges that follow-up surveys will be necessary to track the subjects’ changing health or religious practices, but the initial results are promising.

It’s possible, Krause says, that the relationships encouraged by religion, such as those characterized by generosity, could help explain positive health effects. “Let’s say you’re experiencing a stressor of some kind: income loss or the death of a spouse. The effect of that on your health is reduced if you help other people. Those close relationships are very health-protective.”

Initial Findings, More Questions

This preliminary finding raises two questions: First, do the benefits of social ties expand to non-religious social activities, such as belonging to an organization like the Rotary Club? That question, beyond this project’s scope, is one Krause hopes to investigate it in future work.

Second, if religion fosters social participation, which in turn fosters health, why do we sometimes see a negative association between religion and health, particularly in the elderly? Krause notes that religious affiliation often increases with age. That can be good, but it can also intensify religious conflicts that in turn become sources of stress. While the overall associations are positive, “Religion is not always good,” he says.

On balance, religion and spirituality appear to provide “an intellectual respite,” says Krause. “When thinking about other people, you’re not worrying about yourself. That’s a good thing.”