Healthy Beliefs

"How can you study God scientifically?" I ask Grace O'Neill, an undergraduate majoring in sociology and religious studies.

church steeple

"How can you not?" O'Neill responds playfully. She peers at me from behind the short blonde tuft of hair that keeps falling into her eyes. O'Neill's research suggests that the more important religion is to an adolescent, the less likely that teen will participate in risky behavior. But I'm a psychology major, and the scientist in me is skeptical. Each person defines God—and spirituality—and religion—differently. How can you pin down such an abstract, variable concept? More important, how can an experimenter remain unbiased facing such an emotionally charged topic?

O'Neill agrees that it's tricky. "When you study social sciences, you have to detach yourself from your subject—but with something like religion, it's virtually impossible. Everyone's really close to religion, and each person has his or her own bias about it. It's like politics." She pauses, settling contemplatively into her chair. "But, religion is such an integral part of life and culture. Shying away from it because of the difficulty of defining it doesn't make sense."

When I pose the same question a week later to Karen Carver, O'Neill's adviser and a professor of sociology at Penn State, she mirrors O'Neill's conviction. "Only ten percent of people in America identify themselves as atheists. That means 90 percent of people believe in some sort of God. As a scientist, I can't discount that. Can you?"

Other social scientists, Carver says, have already shown that being spiritual can positively affect a person's health. For instance, a fascinating double-blind experiment found that individuals who were prayed for recovered faster from a variety of coronary traumas than those not prayed for. "When I first heard about this, the social scientist in me was not quite sure," O'Neill said. "But, the believer in me thought, 'Wow, this is really interesting!'"

O'Neill and Carver are some of the first researchers to use the newly available National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health ("Add Health") to study religion. Add Health allowed them access to questionnaires and interviews completed by 12,105 adolescents in grades seven to 12. Carver and O'Neill selected the teens' responses to questions dealing with religious attitudes and health. They created a composite measure of "religiosity," looking at the questions asking adolescents how important religion is to their life, how frequently they attend church, and how frequently they prayed. "We got around the problem of coming up with a universal definition of religion because the teens could interpret the word 'religion' in the questions however they wanted," O'Neill explains. She and Carver defined health as self-rated general health, accident risk, homicide risk, and suicide risk. They found that, in general, adolescents who were more religious were healthier, regardless of how religious their parents were.

Lifestyle choices and the social context around religion explain a large portion of healthy outcomes. Because many religions have specific rules about moderating drug and alcohol intake, religious individuals tend to abuse substances less. Past research has shown that people with social support groups are healthier, and religious people are more likely to develop supportive networks. Increased self-esteem is another possible link between religion and health. If people have a positive outlook on life, they will be more likely to take setbacks in stride.

Yet, in some cases, oddly, being religious actually increased a teen's risky behavior. O'Neill and Carver found that adolescents with religious parents were more likely to report driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Another unusual finding shows that the more religious a parent was, the less likely the adolescent would wear a seat-belt. "Logic would say this is backward—but religious people tend to believe, 'If I'm going to die, I'm going to die,'" O'Neill offers.

O'Neill and Carver hope that if they can pinpoint why religion can sometimes lead to risky behaviors, they will be able to take proactive measures to reduce the frequency of these occurrences. And, that is a very good reason for studying God scientifically.

Grace O'Neill graduated in May 2000 with a B.A. in religious studies and sociology from the College of the Liberal Arts. Her research poster," The Effect of Religious Attitudes and Practices on Adolescent Health," won first prize in the University's 1999 Undergraduate Research Fair in the Social and Behavioral Sciences category. Her adviser is Karen Carver, Ph.D., assistant professor of sociology, 211 Oswald Tower, University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-6398; carver@pop.psu.edu. Writer Anna Hershenberg graduated in May 2000 with a B.A. in English and honors in psychology.

Last Updated September 01, 2000