Prayer (Not an Afterlife) Lowers Anxiety in the Sick

From Tom Rees of Epiphenom:

It’s clear that stressful situations can bring out the religion in people. What’s not clear is whether turning to religion actually helps to relieve anxiety.
Even less well understood is which aspects of religion, if any, are effective. Does the social support that comes with attending religious meetings help or some other religious activity, or is it some facet of belief itself?
Terrence Hill at the University of Miami and his colleagues have looked at this question using data from the General Social Survey. Basically, they were looking to see what aspects of religion correlated with anxiety (health warning: these are just correlations; the effect could go either way).
Unfortunately, they don’t tell us whether religious people are more or less anxious than the general population. But they do show that, after correcting for other factors that can affect anxiety (gender, wealth, ethnicity, etc.) more religious people are a little bit less anxious. (Even after including a number of demographic factors in their model, including religion, they could still only explain about 12 percent of the variation in anxiety between people, so clearly the major causes of anxiety lie elsewhere.)
What they found was that church attendance was linked to a very small reduction in anxiety. Belief in the afterlife was linked to a somewhat larger reduction. However, people who believe that human nature is fundamentally perverse and corrupt (as opposed to basically good) tended to be slightly more anxious.
With prayer, the results were more complex. What they found, first of all, was that people who prayed more often were neither more nor less anxious than people who didn’t pray. Digging a bit further, they found that prayer had different effects in different people. In people with poor health or finances that had recently worsened, prayer significantly decreased anxiety. In people without these problems, prayer was linked to more anxiety.
There was a similar interaction between belief in the afterlife and financial decline. Remarkably, however, belief in the afterlife did not reduce anxiety more in people whose health was poor. Perhaps they were not looking forward to meeting their maker!
On a more serious note, this supports other evidence that suggests that religious beliefs are particularly valued by people looking for support in this world rather than hoping for a happy afterlife.

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