Does Being Religious Put People at Greater Risk of COVID-19?
My father Bill was a deeply religious man who was devoted to three things: God, his local church, and his family. But shortly after retiring, my father became very ill. Worse yet, he refused to go the doctor to see what was wrong. I eventually convinced him to see a doctor by telling him I would donate money to his local church, if and only if he got himself quickly to a doctor. He did so. But by this time, my dad’s lung cancer had already spread to his ribcage. A year later, the cancer had taken his life. If he had gotten to a doctor earlier, there’s a decent chance he’d be alive today. Sadly, it was partly my dad’s belief that “God will take care of me” that prevented him from getting an early diagnosis for his cancer.
Is my dad’s story the exception or the rule? Does being religious keep people healthy? Or does it prevent people from taking precautions that could keep them out of harm’s way? Although research on the relation between religiosity and health is still in its early stages, it looks like there is some truth to both positions. A 2009 review paper by Yoichi Chida and his colleagues examined 91 studies of religiosity (including spirituality) and mortality. They found that, in healthy populations, religious people lived longer, on average, than less religious people. But, in populations that were already suffering from serious diseases, religiosity was not connected to increased survival.
Religiosity can promote health via several routes. One is that religion provides people with social support. Social support refers to having someone who “has your back” when the going gets rough, whether they help you financially, in practical ways, or by providing emotional reassurance. Needless to say, religious people usually get a good deal of social support from their fellow believers.
Religion also promotes health for behavioral reasons. Most world religions frown on a wide range of risky and unhealthy behaviors such as drug and alcohol abuse, criminal behavior, and risky sex. Most world religions also forbid suicide. Zsolt Nyiri and I suggested that this is why suicide rates are substantially lower in more religious nations than in less religious nations, as well as why they are lower among more religious people than in less religious people.
But, as was the case for my father, religion may sometimes lead people to ignore health risks—by putting things “in God’s hands” when their medical problems could be handled by mere mortals. Furthermore, some of the tenets that make religious people kind to others can occasionally backfire among religious people who have fallen deeply into trouble. For example, Memoona Hasnain and her colleagues studied religiosity levels in more than 800 illegal injection drug users. Ironically, they found that more religious drug users were more likely than less religious drug users to share their drug use paraphernalia in dangerous ways, presumably because they wanted to be helpful to other users.
In light of findings such as these, along with my own experiences with deeply religious people, I wondered if people who are more religious might not take the current risk of COVID-19 as seriously as public health experts suggest we should. This is a tough question to answer. But this didn’t stop me from taking a first stab at it.
To look into this question, I consulted public records on both religiosity levels and internet search behavior across all 50 U.S. states. Gallup public opinion polls show that states vary widely in their citizens’ average level of religiosity. For example, in both Mississippi and Utah, about 60% of people say that religion plays an important role in their daily lives, but in New Hampshire and Vermont, this figure is below 25%.
I also used the Google research tool, Google Trends, to see how often people in different states had searched for terms indicating that they were seeking useful information about COVID-19 in the past 30 days (February 19 to March 19, 2020). The main search term I selected was “Coronavirus safe,” which was connected to more specific search terms such as “coronavirus safe to fly” and “coronavirus safe to travel.”
I found a strong negative correlation between the religiosity levels across the 50 states and the frequency with which people in each state searched the internet for ways to be safe from COVID-19. The more deeply religious a state was, the less frequently people in that state searched the internet for information about the dangers of COVID-19.
Of course, religiosity levels vary with other important variables that might predict who seeks out useful information about COVID-19. Knowing this, I controlled statistically for two other important variables—the percentage of people in each state who were college educated and the number of known cases of COVID19 in each state, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on March 20, 2020. Not surprisingly, both of these variables, especially the education levels in each state, were also related to how much people searched for how to be safe in the face of COVID-19. But the strong association between religiosity levels and such searches remained even when I accounted for both of these competing variables.
My tentative conclusion is that, when it comes to the invisible risk posed by this new virus, religion may represent a risk factor that deters at least some people from educating themselves about what they can do to stay safe in the face of the growing pandemic. To the degree that this is true, medical professionals and public health officials who are dealing with deeply religious populations may face more pushback and disinterest about how to prevent the spread of COVID-19 than they might expect. Perhaps medical experts can help people in highly religious places take the threat of COVID-19 more seriously—and flatten the coronavirus curve. To do so, they might remind them that “thou shalt not test the Lord thy God” (Mathew 4:7). Of course, this means that one should not take unnecessary health risks. It also might not hurt to remind believers that “God helps those who help themselves.”
For Further Reading
Chida Y., Steptoe A., & Powell, L.H. (2009). Religiosity/spirituality and mortality: A systematic quantitative review. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, 78, 81–90.
Hasnain, M., Sinacore, J.M., Mensah, E.K., & Levy, J.A. (2007, Jan 18). Influence of religiosity on HIV risk behaviors in active injection drug users. AIDS Care, 7, 892-901
Pelham, B. & Nyiri, Z. (2008). In more religious countries, lower suicide rates: Lower suicide rates not a matter of national income. Retrieved at https://news.gallup.com/poll/108625/more-religious-countries-lower-suicide-rates.aspx
Brett Pelham is a social psychologist who studies the self, religiosity, gender, judgment and decision-making, and health psychology. He is also a co-editor at Character and Context.