TILDA misreads study on religion and health

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Middle-aged and older people who attend religious services regularly are significantly happier or less likely to show “depressive symptoms”, says a new Irish study.

On the other hand, those who claim to have a strong faith but rarely practise it are likely to have worse mental health.

The Trinity College TILDA study on growing old involved more than 6,000 (mainly Catholic?) adults aged 50+. The findings are important. But how did the researchers interpret them? Did personal prejudice distort their spin? They might research that too.

The only reason offered for the beneficial effects of religious practice was that it led to “larger social networks.” Trinity professor Rose Anne Kenny noted that it’s already well known that being socially involved is “associated with improved health and wellbeing and lower mortality.” So, if religious attendance helps the 50+ to be socially engaged, then “alternative ways to socialise will be necessary as we develop into a more secular society,” she said.

It’s a rather trite comment. Why not ask if the benefits of religious practice might not be partly or even mainly due to the religious (Catholic) beliefs themselves and to the act of worship?

Don’t the experts tell us that people’s mental health and social involvement are much affected by their view of themselves and by their hopes? So, whether they see themselves as God’s children or just as meat on legs will surely impact their lives. As will their belief about death: extinction or door to eternal happiness with God.

Indeed, our mental health is affected by our views on a wide range of issues: the purpose of life, God’s care for us, the value of self-sacrifice, suffering, and so on.

A key effect of religious practice is to strengthen our religious beliefs and hopes and their impact on us. Why no mention of this in the study?

If, in fact, it was specifically their beliefs and their worship that benefited people’s mental health, why ignore or hide this behind a trite or shallow comment?

This undermines whatever help the study might be to policy-makers The Trinity College research was mainly funded by George Soros and the Health Department. Neither of which “do” religion.