Religiosity, Health, Well-being and Cherry-Picking

I recently debated Nick Soutter on the Modern-Day Debate channel, where he compiled articles from a blog I wrote in 2017 to refute my claims in that blog. He identified random quotes from within the studies to make the claim that I intentionally quote mined and misrepresented the studies. He further appeared in the comments section of a blog I just posted to provide support for his claim that I am a cherry-picker. In response, I have pasted his specific claims, along with my responses from the articles in the original blog. You can decide which one is guilty of cherry-picking.


Can I assume that this means you’ll include that it’s not the religion, but “participation in voluntary groups (recreational, civic, and religious) buffers individuals against the harmful psychological effects of developing functional limitations” (Greenfield & Marks), if you haven’t already?


We would expect that participation in voluntary groups is beneficial. For context, please consider elements of the study.

Abstract from Greenfield & Marks (2007)

Guided by social identity theory, this study investigated having a closer identification as a member of one’s religious group as an explanatory mechanism for linkages between more frequent formal religious participation and better subjective psychological well-being (more positive affect, less negative affect, and more life satisfaction). Multivariate regression models were estimated based on data from 3,032 respondents, ages 25 to 74, in the 1995 National Survey of Midlife in the U.S. Results provided support for the hypothesis that religious social identity would mediate the associations between more frequent religious service attendance and all three dimensions of subjective psychological well-being examined. These findings contribute to understandings of self, religion, and health while indicating the continued importance of drawing on well-developed social psychological theory in investigations of linkages between religion and mental health.

Discussion from Greenfield & Marks

Consistent with previous research (Levin & Tobin, 1995), more frequent religious service attendance was associated with higher levels of subjective psychological well-being across all three dimensions of subjective psychological wellbeing investigated. These associations, however, were explained by the strength of an individual’s religious social identity. In other words, more frequent formal religious participation was associated with having a stronger religious social identity, which, in turn, was associated with higher levels of subjective psychological well-being. Although previous reviews on mediating factors between religion and health have identified a range of potential explanatory factors— including health behaviors, coping, meaning, and social support (George et al.. 2002; Oman & Thoresen, 2005)—the findings of our study point to social identity as an additional type of psychosocial factor through which religiosity can promote individuals’ psychological well-being.


A few others maybe you should consider would be:

“We find little evidence that other private or subjective aspects of religiosity affect life satisfaction independent of attendance and congregational friendship.” (Lim & Putnam)


Abstract from Lim and Putnam (2006):

Although the positive association between religiosity and life satisfaction is well documented, much theoretical and empirical controversy surrounds the question of how religion actually shapes life satisfaction. Using a new panel dataset, this study offers strong evidence for social and participatory mechanisms shaping religion’s impact on life satisfaction. Our findings suggest that religious people are more satisfied with their lives because they regularly attend religious services and build social networks in their congregations. The effect of within-congregation friendship is contingent, however, on the presence of a strong religious identity. We find little evidence that other private or subjective aspects of religiosity affect life satisfaction independent of attendance and congregational friendship.

Conclusion from Lim and Putnam

The study’s contribution to the literature of religion and subjective well-being is not limited to stronger evidence for religion’s influence on life satisfaction; our findings also shed new light on the specific mechanisms of religion’s influence. Our analyses suggest that social networks forged in congregations and strong religious identities are the key variables that mediate the positive connection between religion and life satisfaction. People with religious affiliations are more satisfied with their lives because they attend religious services frequently and build intimate social networks in their congregations. More important, religious identity and social networks in congregations closely interact. Congregational social networks are distinct from other social networks only when they are accompanied by a strong sense of religious belonging. Conversely, a strong sense of identification enhances life satisfaction only when social networks in a congregation reinforce that identity. Equally important is the suggestion that private and subjective dimensions of religiosity are not significantly related to life satisfaction once religious service attendance and congregational friendship are controlled for. These findings suggest that in terms of life satisfaction, it is neither faith nor communities, per se, that are important, but communities of faith. For life satisfaction, praying together seems to be better than either bowling together or praying alone.

The discrepancy between our findings and those in several previous studies—especially those that emphasize subjective or spiritual aspects of religion (e.g., Ellison 1991; Greeley and Hout 2006)—merits closer inspection. First, while we examine a long list of variables that tap different aspects of religion, our study does not include every variable examined by previous studies. This is particularly the case for subjective and spiritual aspects of religion, which tend to be defined and measured in different ways across studies. As our findings for ‘‘feel God’s love’’ and ‘‘feel God’s presence’’ suggest, even questions that seemingly tap a similar dimension of religion can yield very different outcomes. It is therefore possible that this discrepancy arises from ways in which subjective and spiritual aspects of religion are measured.

Second, our findings are not completely inconsistent with previous studies. For Lim and Putnam 927 Downloaded from at UCLA LAW LIBRARY on December 19, 2010 example, ‘‘feel God’s love,’’ which is significantly related to life satisfaction with the conventional p-value, is one of the variables Greeley and Hout (2006) use to construct the index of ‘‘religious feeling.’’ The real difference lies in the fact that we include measures of religious social networks—rarely examined by previous studies (cf. Krause 2008)—that turn out to be strongly related to life satisfaction and mediate almost all of the effects of religious service attendance. These findings are insensitive to model specification and supported by the panel data analyses. Given this robust evidence for friendship within a congregation and religious identity, and also the relatively weak and inconsistent findings on other dimensions of religion, we reach a different conclusion than do previous studies. In addition, even though our finding for ‘‘feel God’s love’’ is consistent with some previous studies, this should be viewed with caution. First, as mentioned earlier, other variables that seemingly measure a similar concept (e.g., ‘‘feel God’s presence’’) are not significantly related to life satisfaction after controlling for religious service attendance. Second, this variable is likely to be deeply confounded with life satisfaction; it thus seems almost impossible to establish a causal relationship between the two variables. In fact, this appears to be a serious challenge to many of the previous studies that focus on subjective or spiritual dimensions of religiosity, as their findings often hinge on measures such as ‘‘feeling inner peace and harmony’’ or ‘‘feeling that life really has no meaning.’’ While it is plausible that certain aspects of subjective or spiritual religiosity have positive effects on life satisfaction, the issue of endogeneity must be addressed in a more rigorous way before we can make any conclusions….

Even if social networks in non-religious contexts could have a similar effect on life satisfaction as that of congregational friendships, it is difficult to think of any non-religious organizations in the United States that are comparable to congregations in scale and scope of membership base, intensity of member participation in collective rituals, and strength of identity that members share. Even if social networks and identities forged in non-religious organizations could have benefits comparable to those we found here, congregations are nevertheless unique among American voluntary organizations as a source of life satisfaction.


“Forms of religiosity that do not promote social capital (intrinsic) do not predict high life satisfaction. Religiosity is also context-dependent. Religious people are happier in religious nations. In other words, it is not religiosity per se that makes people happy, but rather a social setting it offers.” (Okulixzan-Kozaryn, 2010)


Yes: Social Conformity Theory has been examined in this context and findings across multiple studies have indicated that people are happier in places where their values align with the values prevalent in their cultures.


“it is worth noting that some religious phenomena (e.g., ecstatic or mystical experiences, speaking in tongues, and other religiously normative rituals that involve altered states of consciousness) seem to generate losses of self-control.” (McCullough & Willoughby, 2009)

And in relation to the self-discipline benefits you examine: “A self-regulation analysis of religion suggests that religion is well suited to motivate any behavior that is predicated on self-control and self-regulation, whether that behavior is studying hard for final exams or donning an explosives belt and then detonating it on a crowded city bus.” (McCullough & Willoughby, 2009)


Conclusion from McCullough and Willoughby (2009)

On the basis of this review, five conclusions are warranted. First, there is strong evidence for our proposition that religion is positively related to self-control as well as to traits such as Agreeableness and Conscientiousness that are considered by many theorists to be the basic personality substrates of self-control (e.g., Aziz & Rehman, 1996; e.g., Bergin et al., 1987; Desmond et al., 2008; French et al., 2008). There is also substantial evidence that religious parents tend to have children with high self-control (Bartkowski et al., 2008). Except for one study suggesting that individual differences in religiousness precede longitudinal changes in Agreeableness (at least for women) and a single experiment showing that religious cognition is automatically recruited for self-control (Fishbach et al., 2003; Wink et al., 2007), however, the available evidence for evaluating whether religion causes self-regulation or self-control is rather meager.

Second, evidence supports our propositions regarding how religion influences goal selection, goal pursuit, and goal management. Specific religions prescribe specific goals for their followers to pursue. Recall, for instance, the research on differences in Christians’ and Buddhists’ ideals about low-arousal and high arousal positive affect and the research on differences in Jewish and Christian ideals about controlling one’s thoughts (e.g., A. B. Cohen & Rozin, 2001; Tsai et al., 2007). Moreover, some specific values (which are highly abstract goal states) are particularly important to religious people from several world religions: Jews, Christians, and Muslims from around the world appear to value positive social relationships and social harmony more, and individualistic and hedonistic pursuits less, than do nonreligious people (Roberts & Robins, 2000; Saroglou et al., 2004)…

Third, the evidence for the proposition that religiousness promotes self-monitoring is mixed. On one hand, some results suggest that individual differences in religiousness are associated with higher public or private self-consciousness (which have been used previously as proxies for self-monitoring), but other studies have found no such relationships. On the other hand, several experiments support the idea that religious cognition promotes self-monitoring (Baldwin et al., 1990; Wenger, 2007) and (perhaps through its intermediate effects on self-monitoring) behavioral change in the direction of prosocial goals, such as honesty and generosity (Randolph-Seng & Nielsen, 2007; Shariff & Norenzayan, 2007). This preliminary research should be bolstered by more stringent tests in the future. We also found little data for evaluating the proposition that religion promotes the development of self-regulatory strength.

Fourth, the existing evidence seems reasonably supportive of the proposition that some religious rituals (e.g., meditation, prayer, religious imagery, and scripture reading) promote self-regulation. For example, studies show that some forms of meditation and prayer (a) affect the cortical regions that subserve self-regulation (e.g., Aftanas & Golosheykin, 2005; Azari et al., 2005; Brefczynski-Lewis, Lutz, Schaefer, Levinson, & Davidson, 2007; Newberg et al., 2003); (b) influence attentional variables that are foundational to self-regulation (Chan & Woollacott, 2007; Tang et al., 2007); and (c) dissipate negative emotion, especially among religious participants (Koole, 2007). Other studies suggest that positive religious imagery (Weisbuch-Remington et al., 2005) and scripture reading (Wenger, 2007) may serve similar regulatory functions, although more research on this proposition is clearly needed.

Fifth, we found four studies that supported (Desmond et al., 2008; C. Walker et al., 2007; Welch et al., 2006), and only one that refuted (Wills et al., 2003), the proposition that religion’s ability to promote self-control or self-regulation can explain some of religion’s associations with health, well-being, and social behavior. However, studies that are better suited to evaluating cause and effect, with a more diverse collection of outcomes and more religiously diverse samples, will be necessary in the future to improve scientific confidence in the roles of self-control and self-regulation as mediators of religion’s associations with health, well-being, and social behavior. It is worth noting that even though most of the research we reviewed herein was conducted in North America with people who were predominantly from Christian backgrounds, the evidence gathered from people from other nations, and from other religions, is also generally consistent with our conclusions (e.g., Aziz & Rehman, 1996; Francis & Katz, 1992; French et al., 2008; Saroglou et al., 2004; Watson et al., 2002; Wilde & Joseph, 1997). We therefore suggest (with openness to the possibility that we are incorrect) that the conclusions we have drawn herein may reflect not simply how religion operates within a particular nation, or a particular society, or a particular religion, or at a particular time in history, but rather, a general feature of religion itself.


“The health benefits of religion) disappears in the presence of controls for health behaviors, social networks, and prior health status”. (Yeager et al., 2006)

“in all cases, private (intrinsic) religious practices and stronger beliefs are associated with worse health”, (Yeager et al., 2006)


Abstract from Yeager et al., 2006

We use data from a nationally representative, longitudinal survey of older Taiwanese to examine the relationship between religious involvement-including religious affiliation, religious attendance, beliefs, and religious practices-and self-reported measures of overall health status, mobility limitations, depressive symptoms, and cognitive function; clinical measures of systolic and diastolic blood pressure, serum interleukin-6, and 12-h urinary cortisol; and 4-year mortality. Frequency of religious attendance shows the strongest, most consistent association with health outcomes. But, with only one exception, this relationship disappears in the presence of controls for health behaviors, social networks, and prior health status. Religious attendance remains significantly associated with lower mortality even after controlling for prior self-assessed health status, but the coefficient is substantially reduced. Other aspects of religiosity are only sporadically associated with health and, in all cases, private religious practices and stronger beliefs are associated with worse health; again, this relationship disappears after controlling for prior health status. These results suggest that reverse causality may partly account for both the positive and negative correlations between religiosity and health. We find no significant associations between religious involvement and biological markers. Notably, even after controlling for prior health, participation in social activities has a more robust effect on health than religious attendance. Consequently, we question whether the purported health benefits are attributable to religion or to social activity in general.


“health benefits of religious attendance have been explained by the larger social network (not intrinsic religiosity).” (Teinonen, Vahlberg, Isoaho & Kivela, 2005)


Other studies that you failed to cite have identified the positive relationship between subjective well-being and intrinsic religiosity, such as Byrd, Hageman, and Isle (2007).


“religion or spirituality impedes the recovery from acute illness” (Powell, Shahabi & Thoresen, 2003)

Abstract from Powell, Shahabi & Thoresen, 2003

Evidence is presented that bears on 9 hypotheses about the link between religion or spirituality and mortality, morbidity, disability, or recovery from illness. In healthy participants, there is a strong, consistent, prospective, and often graded reduction in risk of mortality in church/service attenders. This reduction is approximately 25% after adjustment for confounders. Religion or spirituality protects against cardiovascular disease, largely mediated by the healthy lifestyle it encourages. Evidence fails to support a link between depth of religiousness and physical health. In patients, there are consistent failures to support the hypotheses that religion or spirituality slows the progression of cancer or improves recovery from acute illness but some evidence that religion or spirituality impedes recovery from acute illness. The authors conclude that church/service attendance protects healthy people against death. More methodologically sound studies are needed.


“(mortality correlations with religion are) largely attributable to cross-sectional and prospective between class differences in personality traits, social ties, health behaviors, and mental and physical health” (Smith, McCullough & Poll, 2003)


Abstract from Smith, McCullough & Poll (2007)

[Correction Notice: An erratum for this article was reported in Vol 130(1) of Psychological Bulletin (see record 2007-16852-001). In the article, the description on p. 616 (Other Potential Moderators of the Association section) of results from Burris’s (1994) previous study of intrinsic and extrinsic religious orientations and their associations with depressive symptoms was incorrect. Burris (1994) indeed found a positive association between extrinsic religious motivation and symptoms of depression. However, this effect was qualified by a significant Intrinsic × Extrinsic interaction, such that persons who scored high on both orientations reported more symptoms of depression than did persons who scored high on intrinsic orientation only, whereas persons who scored low on intrinsic orientation reported a depression level that was between those two groups. Furthermore, the effect size (r) reported in Table 2 (p. 619) for this study should be .23, not -.11, and the sample size should be 200, not 100. These corrections result in a change in the reported random effects weighted average effect size (r) across all 147 studies (reported on p. 623, Omnibus Analysis section) from -.096 to -.094. All substantive conclusions of the review remain the same.] The association between religiousness and depressive symptoms was examined with meta-analytic methods across 147 independent investigations (N = 98,975). Across all studies, the correlation between religiousness and depressive symptoms was -.096 [-.094], indicating that greater religiousness is mildly associated with fewer symptoms. The results were not moderated by gender, age, or ethnicity, but the religiousness- depression association was stronger in studies involving people who were undergoing stress due to recent life events. The results were also moderated by the type of measure of religiousness used in the study, with extrinsic religious orientation and negative religious coping (e.g., avoiding difficulties through religious activities, blaming God for difficulties) associated with higher levels of depressive symptoms, the opposite direction of the overall findings.


These are a few of the quotes from your sources that I think you should include so as to avoid the appearance of cherry-picking!


Bonus Meta-analytic Study

Abstract from Chida, Steptoe and Powell (2009)

The relationship between religiosity/spirituality and physical health has been the subject of growing interest in epidemiological research. We systematically reviewed prospective observational cohort studies of the association between this potentially protective psychological factor and mortality using meta-analytic methods. Methods: We searched general bibliographic databases: Medline, PsycINFO, Web of Science and PubMed (up to 20 March, 2008). Two reviewers independently extracted data on study characteristics, quality, and estimates of associations. Random effects meta-analyses, subgrouping, and sensitivity analysis were performed. Results: There were 69 studies (28 articles) and 22 studies (11 articles) investigating the association between religiosity/spirituality and mortality in initially healthy populations and diseased populations, respectively. The results of the meta-analyses showed that religiosity/ spirituality was associated with reduced mortality in healthy population studies (combined hazard ratio = 0.82, 95% CI = 0.76–0.87, p < 0.001), but not in diseased population studies (combined hazard ratio = 0.98, 95% CI = 0.94–1.01, p = 0.19). Notably, the protective effect of religiosity/spirituality in the initially healthy population studies was independent of behavioral factors (smoking, drinking, exercising, and socioeconomic status), negative affect, and social support. We divided studies according to the aspects of religiosity/spirituality measure examined, and found that organizational activity (e.g. church attendance) was associated with greater survival in healthy population studies. Multi-dimensional aspects were related to survival in both the healthy and diseased populations. Religiosity/spirituality was negatively associated with cardiovascular mortality in healthy population studies. Conclusions: The current review suggests that religiosity/spirituality has a favorable effect on survival, although the presence of publication biases indicates that results should be interpreted with caution.


I hope you enjoyed reading these studies and can rest assured that religiosity has positive outcomes for people.


Byrd, K.R., Hageman, A., & Isle, D.B. (2007). Intrinsic motivation and subjective well-being: the unique contribution of intrinsic religious motivation. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 17,141-156.

Chida, Y., Steptoe, A., & Powell, L.H. (2009). Religiosity/spirituality and mortality: A systematic, quantitative review. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, 78:81-90.

Greenfield, E.A., Marks, N.F., (2007). Religious social identity as an explanatory factor for associations between more frequent formal religious participation and psychological well-being. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 17, 245–259.

Lim, C. & Putnam, R.D. (2006). Religion, social networks, and life satisfaction. American Sociological Review, 75(6), 914-933.

McCullough, M.E. & Willoughby, B.L.B. (2009). Religion, self-regulation, and self-control: Associations, Explanations, and Implications. Psychological Bulletin, 135(1): 65-93.

Powell, L. H., Shahabi, L., & Thoresen, C. E. (2003). Religion and spirituality: Linkages to physical health. American Psychologist, 58, 36 –52.

Smith, T. B., McCullough, M. E., & Poll, J. (2003). Religiousness and depression: Evidence for a main effect and the moderating influence of stressful life events. Psychological Bulletin, 129, 614 – 636.

Teinonen, T., Vahlberg, T., Isoaho, R., & Kivela, S. (2005). Religious attendance and 12-year survival in older persons. Age and Ageing, 34, 406 – 409.

5 Replies to “Religiosity, Health, Well-being and Cherry-Picking”

    1. Thanks so much Michael. I prayed over this one as I wondered whether the effort would be worthwhile. You showed me it is!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Hi Dr Thomason,

    Did Nick send you evidence of his claims after the debate, as he said he would?

    Gavin Hurlimann


    1. We had a back and forth – but the bottom line is he discounts both the abstracts which summarize the findings and conclusions – and the general conclusions. The bottom line is intrinsic religiosity correlates with multiple positive health outcomes.


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