How Religious Communities Relate Physical Health to Theology First Name Bonnie Last Name Williams Terminal Degree(s) Bachelor of Arts Institution/Organization Furman University
This study examined the way religious teaching does or does not influence health behaviors. Previous studies examining the influence of religion on health have used variables such as church attendance to examine the rate of mortality, body mass, or health behaviors (2002 George et al., 2008 Schlundt, 2011 Sullivan). These studies use religion as a “social capital” (2011 Maselko et al.) that influences health behaviors based upon a measurement of religious involvement or significance of religion in a person’s life called salience. Additionally, many Christian groups promote specific health/bodily care behaviors such as fasting or vegetarianism, and many more have specific beliefs regarding the value of the body such as Catholic theology of the body (2008 Seyfer, 2003 Willett). In particular, Seventh Day Adventists’ beliefs about health central to their religion affect their behaviors. The Adventist Health Study surveys and documents the dieting habits of Seventh Day Adventists in a longitudinal study (2003 Willett). The results of this study show that Seventh Day Adventists have healthier body weights and longer life expectancies, even creating a “Blue Zone” in Loma Linda, California (2003 Willett). This religious group is a clear example of how religious teaching can affect health behaviors in a positive way.
Given the data from Loma Linda showing how religious beliefs directly impact behavior, we sought to see if this was the case for other Christian denominations. This research consisted of a qualitative and quantitative data collection and analysis. A survey was distributed via email to five churches of the denominations Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, and Seventh Day Adventist. Two churches had some form of health program such as a fitness center, two had no health program, and the Seventh Day Adventist group was used as a baseline comparison because of data supporting the relationship between health and religious teaching. The qualitative research consisted of a series of 20 semi-structured interviews with self-selected participants. Interviews were coded for themes related to teaching style of the church, teaching or promotion of health, and teachings on illness and death. The surveys were analyzed for health behaviors and prevalence of disease in each church.
Results show that in four of the five churches all churches reported styles of teaching that were indirect on matters of ethical behaviors. In these churches, members reported guidance rather than unified, enforced beliefs and thus behaviors. Conversely, our baseline church reported having strong, unified moral teachings. This church also reported strong teachings on how to treat the body and health behaviors and used terms such as “temperance” or “sin” to describe proper and improper treatment of the body, which was called the “temple.” Additionally, the findings from the survey that dietary health was significantly better for this church population. This research shows that there may be a connection between unified, moral associations of health and better health behaviors, however, further research will need to be completed in order for this finding to be conclusive and generalizable.