Organized Religion

Faith and its Repercussions on Health

In a nutshell : In this article, a dual attempt is being made : one, to correlate faith in the supernatural with the sub-optimization of health and two, to discover possible strategies to preclude this sub-optimization.

Why do people have faith in the supernatural ?

It is a simple truth that the vast majority of the world believes in divinity and all its associated precepts (i.e. an afterlife, a soul, heaven, hell, karma, reincarnation, fate etc.).

There are any number of reasons for this.

Protection : As a student of psychology and a secular humanist, I believe it lies in stress reduction. That is to say, to believe in an omnipotent agency watching over you helps ease the worries of everyday life. One must simply have faith in their particular divinity, hold on to its predefined ethical code, and it will protect and aid you. There can be no doubt that this is an enticing proposition.

Immortality : Naturally, however, the appeal doesn’t stop there. What if, by holding on to religion, you never had to die? Therein we discover the other great lure of religion, namely, a belief in the afterlife. After all, everything is within the power of a being that is omnipotent. When one dies, one’s spirit merely ascends to the higher plane on which God dwells, to live there for all eternity in complete bliss.

Justice : Therefore, a religious person has the patronage of his or her divine agency, which affords both daily protection and spiritual immortality. As the commercials say, “But wait! There’s more!”. What if, by joining a religion, all of the people you have ever hated get tortured for all eternity? That sadistic boss, the robber who vandalized your house and took away all the black-money you had stashed away, even the man who tried to tell you that your religion was bullshit and everyone who’s ever wronged or hurt you, gets to burn for ever once they die.

Now, who can beat that triad ? Protection, Immortality, and Justice to boot.

But there is a price to pay.

Why is Optimal health important to us ?

Health is defined by the World Health Organization as a state of complete physical, mental & social well-being and not the mere absence of disease or infirmity. Some people are inclined to say, “I virtually never get colds, coughs or fever, so I am quite fit and healthy”. But this cannot be deemed as optimal health. A man is of optimum health if he/she works with gusto & supererogatory zeal for 8 hours in a day in a bank, office, factory, shop, mall, school or college and then when he returns home, he has enough energy to take his family for an outing (Restaurant, Cinema or Rock concert or Symphony) or at least should be able to play indoor games with his kids.

For attaining this kind of health, a certain amount of knowledge of Preventive Medicine is essential. Preventive Medicine however comprises three distinct phases : Primary, Secondary & Tertiary.

Primary prevention is preventing diseases through appropriate nutrition & dietetics, exercise regimens & stress control. Secondary prevention is when we get some symptoms of pain, fever, bleeding or lumps and we visit a clinic, the doctor puts us through lab tests, X-rays, ECG to narrow down the diagnosis. Here what is prevented is not the disease, since the disease is already there but what is prevented is the progression & aggravation of the disease.Tertiary prevention is the stage of drugs & surgery when we have a full blown disease and we seek the help of doctors. Here what is prevented is morbidity & mortality and the complications of diseases.

Faith & the Sub-Optimization of Health

Religious fanatics neglect to take appropriate actions in all the three phases of Preventive medicine, and hence for them optimum health, more often than not, is elusive and slippery.

In Primary Prevention : They have a laid-back approach to life and are primarily lazy, indolent and averse to exertion. This laziness is derived from a largely sub-conscious illusion of invulnerability and a partly conscious sense of self-complacency & security that “a sky dad or mom is watching over them and will prevent all serious illnesses”. So they are not willing to personally invest the necessary effort to prevent illness by first learning about Primary prevention and then translating it into practice by actually exercising, by planning their food intake, avoiding fatty foods and exercising portion control. They are always giving examples of centenarians who smoked 2 packets a day, drank alcohol, ate fried stuff and never did any exercise other than walking to the toilet several times in a day, to rationalize & gloss over their own aversion to a self-disciplined dietary & exercise regimen.

In Secondary Prevention : For the deeply religious, everything is pre-ordained by God(s). What is fore-ordained is bound to happen and nothing we do, can forestall it. So they say : no point in frequent check-ups and lab tests. Perhaps some of the symptoms like fever and pain are caused by the deities to test their faith. They will say, “Do you claim that microbes and antigens like viruses, bacteria, parasites & toxins cause all this morbidity ? Well perhaps the divine beings are working through these agents to remind me of my laxity in my piety. So I must retain my faith in the supernatural and regain my religious fervour”. However they think whatever happens is for the best in the long run, though it may appear not so beneficial to them right now. That is because of their implicit assumption that the sky-daddy will not forsake them for ever, though he may be inattentive to their needs at the moment, because of other preoccupations. That is why acccording to them, we must pray to give him a gentle reminder.

Also belief in Immortality leads some religious people to disregard present health. Immortality means immortality of the soul, the shedding of the outer garment or physical body at death. The body can be destroyed but the soul is immortal and indestructible (Bhagawat Gita). Such a religious belief could lead individuals to ignore their bodies or lead to extreme ascetic practices.

An early 20th century painting of religious quackery from Azerbaijan.

In Tertiary Prevention : Religious people visit temples for many reasons, primarily :

– to assuage their guilt in amassing wealth through illegal/immoral methods or committing some crime and cleverly evading capture by the police – by seeking divine forgiveness,

– to ensure a comfortable lower berth, metaphorically speaking, in Heaven ( and avoid the uneven lower side berth in 2 AC as it were) in the Afterlife,

– for keeping Mannat (Hindi) or Harake (Kannada) – for favours received already, lest He/She gets angry at our ingratitude and refuses to do us favours in future,

– to ensure success in exams, interviews, elections or entry into reality shows like the KBC (Kaun Banega Crorepathi),

– to request the Lord to cure serious illnesses in themselves or their family members,

– and then some ……….

So one of the important reasons for those visits to Thirumalai or Sabarimalai or Vaishnov Devi or Amarnath cave or Shirdi Niwas is to ensure their own good health or the good health of their loved ones. The rich load the Hundis with their black money, the poor tonsure their heads or break a specified number of coconuts, but does this have any effect on the health of the petitioner or the health of his loved ones ?

It’s anybody’s guess.

This is the time when the religious people who wish to play it safe, resort to anecdote-based ‘Alternative medicine’ and not evidence-based modern medicine, as an additional safety measure to cure their ailments.

Being religious means being okay with believing in things without evidence ( Soul, Afterlife, God(s), Heaven, Hell, Reincarnation, Maya, Karma) and with the same mind-set, believing in pseudo-sciences like : Astrology, Reiki, Vastu shastra, Ayurveda, Homeopathy and the 1001 other delusions of our ancestors. After all ‘Faith’ (in God or in Alternative medicine) is belief in something not only without evidence but despite evidence to the contrary.

If these people get cured by the Alternative systems of medicine, even though it might be because of a “Placebo Effect” or because of “Self-Limiting Diseases”, their faith in these systems gets reinforced. Failing to obtain a cure here, they reluctantly go to the practitioners of modern conventional medicine. By this time it might be too late even here to cure the disease. They might die and the family members say that God(s) recalled him/her early because the person was a favourite of the God(s). What nonsense. To begin with, all human lives are transient & fleeting enough as they are but they are made even more brief through their religious dogmatic beliefs. That is the tragedy.

So I say : Religious people will find it more difficult, if not impossible, to be healthy compared to the prudent folks who practice Preventive Medicine. Unless of course they follow the advice of Oliver Cromwell :

“Pray to God and keep your gunpowder dry”.

My parents practiced this pragmatic philosophy. I would say that they were quite progressive-minded for their times. They followed the advice of modern medical specialists while simultaneously dispatching a prayer to the sky-daddy in tandem – as a backup prop and contingency plan. If the treatment succeeded, it was primarily because of the grace of the sky-daddy and if it failed it was because of the limitations of modern medical science. A simple, naive faith indeed but it kept them happy. If happiness is the end-goal for all of us, who is complaining ?

Also, it helped them to remain healthy for most of their lives, as they followed the advice of medical specialists!

Possible Strategies to preclude this Sub-Optimization

The whole point of a non-theistic approach to life ( Whether we call it positive atheism, Scientific naturalism or secular humanism), is discovering that mankind is all alone and must seek meaning and happiness on earth (not in an after-life), for itself, by itself. The modern intellectual realises that he is responsible in a large measure, for his own destiny. Living on a minor planet on the edge of a small galaxy in an infinitely vast universe ( It is estimated that there are more than 100 billion galaxies like our milky way galaxy, each with 100 billion stars and millions of planets), man has come to see that he cannot look outside himself for salvation.

This realization is a privileged one and not meant for the faint-hearted who have a compulsive need to suck on the pacifier of blind faith.

So the person liberated from these illusions of faith has to create meaning and happiness for himself in his own life. This life is all that we have. Whereas the deeply religious are solely obsessed with ensuring a secure & happy life after death for the soul, the secular humanists are only concerned with life before death and how to create meaning & happiness while living inside their physical bodies. For the latter, the physical body is paramount, i.e., more important than anything else. And for ensuring our happiness on this planet, it is imperative that we focus on Preventive Medicine and in particular on what our interventions ought to be for optimum bodily health.

This is because sickness and happiness, needless to say, are mutually exclusive entities.

The ten commandments for self-care of our health are :

  1. Don’t use tobacco or drugs at all.
  2. Don’t drink alcohol but if you are habituated to it, do not consume more than 2 ounces per day.
  3. Eat a diet low in saturated fat, transfats, cholesterol and salt and consume complex carbohydrates of whole grains with a Low Glycemic index but eat a diet high in soluble and insoluble fiber, fruits, vegetables and fish (if you are a non-vegetarian). Use Olive oil or Canola oil for deep frying if necessary. Eat one walnut everyday for the essential omega 3 fatty acids for brain & nerve health.
  4. Stay lean. Do not develop a paunch or if you do develop a pot belly, take drastic action through a diet to reduce.
  5. Take a multivitamin & mineral supplement daily as also an antioxidant comprising Vitamins A,C & E and minerals Zinc & Selenium, to protect yourself from all the pollution caused free radicals.
  6. Exercise regularly for 40 to 60 minutes each day. After 25, Wogging is best : 10 mts. of Jogging followed by 20 mts. of brisk walking, then a repeat of 10 mts. of Jogging and 20 mts. of brisk walking. If you have pain in your knees or you are beyond 40, choose a low impact exercise like brisk walking, biking or swimming.
  7. Avoid excessive stress. Try offsetting the stress by listening to soft music, do some meditation or play with children.
  8. Minimise your exposure to radiation ( X-rays, mammograms, CT scans or angiograms) which could mutate your DNA and cause cancer. Insist on MRI or Ultrasonics if that option is available.
  9. Protect yourself from sexually transmitted diseases, by confining your intimacy to your spouse.
  10. Obtain immunizations, screening tests, lab tests and get yourself clinically examined periodically because certain diseases are “Asymptomatic” viz., Hypertension, Osteoporosis and Silent Ischemia among several others.

It is too risky & puerile to completely rely on unseen supernatural forces to come to our aid. The locus of control of our health ought to be internal and coming from within ourselves and we can certainly do a lot to prevent morbidity & suffering in our lives by practicing preventive medicine.

About the author

V.N.K. Kumar

He is a Management Trainer & consultant. Has degrees in Engineering & Management. He is a Secular Humanist. Born 1938.

28 Comments

  • Regarding taking multivitamins, mineral supplements and antioxidants daily (5th commandment above) – has it not been proved to be unnecessary and sometimes even detrimental to a person’s health?
    I am not too sure about the 8th commandmant too – a doctor would be able to clarify that. I will talk to a doctor and get back on this.
    The second half of the 9th commandmant sounds judgmental. Wouldn’t ‘Protect yourself from STD’ suffice? Having multiple sexual partners is a personal choice, right?

    • Intimacy to spouse, doesn’t have anything to do with STD!
      Having multiple partners will not necessarily cause AIDS. These commandments of self care are vague

      • Indian Freethinker,
        ……These commandments of self-care are vague.

        Vague? Perhaps. There are books written on this topic by medical scientists but who has the patience to plod through 400 odd pages ? In the limited space that I had, I tried to give an encapsulated version of Preventive Medicine. Please read “The new handbook of Health & Preventive Medicine” by Kurt Butler & Lynn Rayner, Prometheus Books, 1990.

        ….Multiple partners.

        Having sex with multiple partners (who are free of Aids) does not cause HIV/AIDS. I agree. But having multiple sex partners (MSP) raises the risk that one of your partners will be infected, which raises the risk that you will be infected with STD/STI. If you have MSP chances are good that your partners have MSP of their own.

    • Satish,
      Many correlation studies have been done on Religion & Happiness but not so many on Religion & Health. Some studies have shown that relative to nonreligious folks, those active in their religions live longer with a variety of diseases and are healthier in general, viz., if you are having serious cardiac surgery and receive strength and comfort from your religious faith, you will be almost three times more likely to be alive six months later. The trouble is that social scientists don’t really know why. One seemingly obvious reason could be that religious people are more likely to practice healthy behaviours. Indeed many religions prohibit such unhealthy practices as excessive drinking, drug use, promiscuous sex and smoking.

      My point is : Do we wait for all the correlation studies to come in and then take action on how to lead a healthy life or take some empirically tested preventive measures right now to ensure our health.

      • I agree that many of these causal relationships have to be empirical rather than statistics based. After all, we get only one life time, which cannot be wasted waiting for conclusive proofs……

        • Que lindo es!!Es similar a un bizcocho o me lo parece sólo por la forma?,la semilla de amapola me encanta,ese crujir,el crack-crack…..mira me perece bárbaro que te estés comiendo ese coulant…pero encima que te acuerdes de mí y me lo digas,suena a recochineo,te podrías haber acordado de la Neus,que se hincha a chp0º&#823c;oreguÃontale,las cosas que hace…jejejejeUn besote

  • Taking Vitamins & minerals as supplements is a controversial subject. If you take a balanced diet, you don’t need any supplements. For this to happen, you have to take so many vegetables & fruits per day. For younger people eating in canteens & hotels or travelling extensively this is impossible and for elderly folks to buy all these, wash all the pesticides from them, and make them edible is a challenge, specially if they do not have strong teeth. That is why nutrition scientists recommend supplementation. Ofcourse too much of Vitamin A can lead to hypervitaminosis. Too much of Iron is bad. So you should be careful.

    X-rays (whether plain,in mammograms,in CT scans or in angiograms) have ionising radiation which can mutate the DNA in cells and cause cancer. MRI uses radio waves and Ultrasonics use sound waves which are safer.

    I have no comments on the third point. You are right. It is a free country and everyone is free to choose his/her lifestyle.

  • Excellent Article!
    The connection between faith in god and preventive medicine is indeed new and compelling.
    Looking forward to reading more such articles in Nirmukta.

  • I suppose, every day Hindusim has bestowed on most the deterministic outlook. In your article, you say that through Preventive measures and excercising (pun intended) one’s free will i.e. taking proactive action, one can be in charge of one’s life to an extent. That is refreshing.

  • Steve Jobs, the smartest person in the world made a totally dumbest mistake. Upon finding out that he was in very early stages of Pancreatic Cancer, Jobs took up stupid “Alternative Holistic Medicine” and ruled out surgery. A check up after nine months revealed that the Cancer had progressed to an extent that significantly reduced his survival chances.
    As usual, the Holistic crowd will surely come up all kinds of bizarre explanations except admitting that it is BS.

  • This is an excellent article. The whole point of belief in an almighty (who is protective) is to ‘pass the buck’! Therefore the relationship built between religious belief and health is logical, consistent and refreshingly original! More such articles may make the common man become more aware and therefore pragmatic. Keep it coming!

    • Saideep,
      Thanks for the feedback. You are right. People with a laid-back attitude towards life resort to Buckpassing their health problems onto their imaginary god(s).But the secular non-theist will proudly say “The Buck stops here with me” and will tackle his health care head-on with Primary Prevention ( Exercise regimen, Nutritious diet & Stress control), Secondary Prevention (Periodical medical tests) and Tertiary prevention ( Avoiding the Quacks and seeking the help of doctors properly qualified in Evidence-based medicine. viz., MD/DM or MS/M.Ch). Even educated people do not do any research on consulting doctors. One of my relatives went to an Orthopaedic surgeon 20 years ago seeking advice for his obesity. He is still obese.

  • Saurabh,
    Couldn’t agree with you more. Walter Isaacson, the official biographer for Steve Jobs says that Jobs refused conventional treatment for 9 months after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Instead of opting for surgery, he took on a vegan diet, acupuncture, herbal remedies etc., he found on-line and even consulted a psychic.

    Perhaps marketing & technological savvy doesn’t go hand-in-hand with scientific good sense. Perhaps such things as contracting cancer makes anybody that little bit irrational. Wonder what I would have done if I had his cancer & money ? Perhaps I would have distributed my wealth among African nations like Bill Gates & Warren Buffet or given it to the Rockefeller University for researching pancreatic cancer remedies or given it to some terrorist organization to bomb the Headquarters of Microsoft, before kicking the bucket !

    • Actor Steve McQueen met the same fate some years back as he was trying Apricot extracts and Nature stuff from Mexican doctors. Also, my observation with Indians in US has been that if they use both Western and Ayurvedic treatments at the same time and get well, the full credit almost always goes to the Holistic stuff, while blaming any side effects or failures to Western medicines.

      • Saurabh,
        You are spot-on in your observations and very scientific in your thinking. Deepak Chopra in USA talks about Ayurveda & God in the same breath. Basically he says we should balance the three Doshas : Vata, Pitta & Kapha. If you ask him about these doshas, he will say that these are the different kinds of metabolism in our body. I only know the three kinds of metabolism : BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate), TEF (Thermic effect of feeding) & TEA (Thermic effect of activity) and these are not equivalent to those doshas. It requires a Leap of Faith & Gullibility to accept all this, which unfortunately I am incapable of.

        The other Alternative medicine which is popular in India is of German origin, Homeopathy. It talks of the Law of Similars, Law of Infinitesimals, Dilution beyond the Avagadro’s constant & water molecules having memory. This also requires a Childlike gullibility to get convinced of.

        Perhaps people, who lack the scientific temper, do something (either in their behaviour or in forming certain beliefs) and then spend the rest of their lives justifying them and discovering socially acceptable reasons for them (Rationalization).

  • Interesting and well researched article ! On the same line of thought a few religious practices , be it the fasting of Ramadan, or the abstinence pre-sabarimala, or the observance of Len among Christians seem to cleanse the body, and the mind.What say ?

    • Your comments remind me of the Adaptation-level theory. This theory suggests that happiness will usually be a rather transient phenomenon. The reason for this is that high levels of happiness are achievable only when the events that happen to us are much better than our expectations or adaptation level. Thus paradoxically, happiness in the present is most attainable if our previous experiences have been sufficiently miserable and unhappy such that, we expect little of life.

      One of the simplest ways of increasing the pleasure we derive from some activity is to attempt to reduce the adaptation level beforehand. This approach is associated with the world’s major religions, most of which advocate periods of abstinence, whether it is the Christian Lent from Ash wednesday to Easter eve or Hindu Shivaratri or as you rightly said, Islamic Ramadan.

      The Islamic tradition of Ramadan involves complete fasting during the hours of daylight throughout the ninth month of the Muslim year. The abstinence itself may not be pleasurable, but it serves the useful function of whetting the appetite for the breakfast after sunset, by secreting enough Ghrelin hormone.

      These are the few redeeeming features of Religious practices. The theme of the article however is the adverse implications of religion on our health. Fasting gives rest to our digestive tract and we get rid of visceral fat and the excess triglycerides in our sub-cutaneous adipose tissues. But I have seen people stuffing themselves up to their noses before sunrise as if they expect famine conditions for a month. Thus such practices cannot benefit the health of the individual.

  • Dear Professor Kumar
    A well written message. It is timely and helps many people who need guidance. Keep it up.
    It is a service to society. I hope that others will follow your example

  • As a fitness professional, I’d just like to request you to add resistance-training (not weight-lifting) to your recommendation no. 6. It is one of the safest and most-underrated fitness activities.

    Thanks.

  • Deep,

    You are one of those commentors who believes in seeing the good points in an essay and tries to supplement it with useful suggestions. Thanks. You are spot on when you say that Resistance exercises are also essential for improving our fitness. Resistance exercises could be Push-ups or sit-ups/crunches, pull-ups using just our body weight or external weights like dumbells/barbells.

    Benefits of Aerobic Exercises

    It improves the cardiac function and our VO2 max lung capacity by decreasing LDL cholesterol and Increasing HDL cholesterol, by increasing Insulin-sensitivity. Remember that Type 2 adult onset diabetes is caused by Insulin-resistance and not by Insulin-deficiency. It also decreases our Blood pressure and body fat. But most importantly, aerobic exercise builds collateral circulation in our coronary arteries. Even if your main arteries are blocked 40 to 50%, you can still survive because aerobic exercise builds natural bypass capillaries to nourish the heart muscle beyond the narrowed artery.

    Benefits of Resistance Exercises

    When we improve the tone & strength of our upper body muscles through resistance exercises, we automatically raise our BMR (Basal metabolic rate). This is because body fat in the sub-cutaneous adipose tissues or in the visceral region (Omentum fat) is a dead tissue whereas muscle is a live tissue with arteries, capillaries, veins in it and so even when you are idle you will be expending calories. So an increased BMR helps us to reduce our body fat even when we are sitting or sleeping.

    Also when we do resistance exercises, the muscles contract, they pull the joints via the tendons. When the bones are under tensile stress like this, they react to that by creating more bone cells. This increases the BMD (bone mineral density) which strengthens the bones and prevents Osteoporosis and fractures on falling or injury.

    My suggestion of just aerobic exercises at point no. 6 in the ten commandments was to suggest the bare minimum to those people who think visiting the toilet from the drawing room/bedroom is exercise.

    • Thank you for the compliment and accepting my suggestion.

      I’d like to point out that its a myth that jogging/walking/aerobics is the bare minimum or safest form of exercise.

      Overweight people or completely sedentary individuals should not start there or at least limit it to walking since their joints aren’t strong enough to bear the repetitive impact and it can cause acute pain/overuse stress injuries. Strength-training is the foundation. That was the reasoning behind my comment. Swimming of course is easy on the joints.

      I am sorry if this seems to be an off-topic comment but I had to point out this myth.

      Thanks again

  • Hi, am trying to evaluate the benefits of cow urine. Seems to me everyone in India swears by it for cure everything from colds to cancer. I am finding it difficult to substantiate either way through robust investigation.

    Would appreciate if you could point me in the right direction.

    Many thanks!

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