Even Atheists Can Be Healthy

Let me explain.

Occasionally a general interest newspaper will recount that some sociological or medical journal had reported that ‘believers’ live longer, worry less, have better sex lives, lower blood pressure; whatever. And by ‘whatever’ I mean you can just about fill in the blank with any health and happiness variable and there is research of one kind or another that supports the claim that ‘faith’ is good for you.

Now, were I an atheist or agnostic, I would find this rather irritating. My thoughts would run along the lines that the research was shoddily done, failed to prove what the conclusion claimed or was just an inside job masquerading as science. Problem. You can throw out a lot of the literature on this topic but not all of it, in fact not most of it; you are stuck with the stark fact that something associated with a religious disposition must be good for the good old biological self. Well, rats! There must be some way around this without ‘believing’ in anything supernatural or transcendent.

There is. But first I need to talk about the course grain and fine grain detail of the belief literature. At first pass, the course grain, many of these studies are epidemiological; they ask someone if they are religious, have a ‘faith life’, and then delve into their personal history of heart attacks, strokes, cancers, high blood pressure and so on. Often these are as statistically sophisticated as any other survey based data and they do in fact point to some kind of health effect of such belief. They don’t, can’t really, quantify what constitutes belief; they sometimes ask denominational questions like are you a Baptist or Muslim? They do very little more than that. Some of the more recent ones ask about prayer life, meditation and contemplation and so on but not much; mostly see the next section for this aspect of the issue. I could go on about this literature but, for now, let me move on to the fine grain nature of some of this literature. This is where a kind of bench science is done and where the supernatural seems to contaminate the work.

Some researchers actually measure someone’s blood pressure or adrenalin levels or cortisol levels during some kind of spiritual practice. Notice this is very different than asking someone if they are ‘religious.’ Quite frankly most of this research is done by convinced advocates. The most common example is the work promoted by TM, transcendental meditation, advocates. Now let me be clear; I think the results of such studies are accurate: TM does bring your blood pressure down. Of course, Tai Chi and the Rosary, and Yoga do too. Some of the ‘prayer’ literature hasn’t held up but that is a problem for another day: big opening here for the atheist or agnostic still hanging on to see how they too can be healthy.  The point is that there are many different kinds of activities labeled ‘spiritual disciplines’ which seem to be good for us Homo sapiens.

If one tries to be an anthropologist of man on the earth in the flow of time one amazingly invariant thing will emerge; all world historical religions have discovered a central place in the practice of their religion for, my shorthand, “rhythm, movement, breathing and inner silence” Think Yoga, Tai Chi, The Christian Prayer of the Breath, Whirling Dervishes; on and on. Even an Orthodox Jew at the Wailing Wall or during a service has many different body movements associated with repetitive words like ‘holy holy, holy.’

Hmmmm. OK, we are getting somewhere.

Now let me take another tack. We know that those who have a hobby, a spiritual discipline and intimate relationships live longer than those who don’t; much longer actually. I’ll get back to the atheist loophole in a minute. Actually looking at these three variables will help us do that. My reading of the importance of these three variables runs something like this: a hobby is our escape from time, a spiritual discipline is how we learn the meaning of time and our intimate personal relationships are how and why we stay rooted in time. This easy, natural relationship with time is what helps us focus on the simple things of diet, exercise, relaxation and friends. Read that again; I snuck a lot of my argument by in the last few sentences. I should expand but not today.

One further question might have occurred to you: why does the doc spend so much time trying to describe practices that at first glance appear somehow related to religion and then try to un-tether the connection? I’ll tell you why! Many of my patients are atheists and agnostics; great people, just not religious or they are even anti-religious, anger, which isn’t healthy but there you go. When I start to lay out the case for hobbies and intimate relationships they immediately even intuitively ‘get it.’ When I start on the meditation/contemplation/spiritual discipline story their eyes glaze over and not from boredom, I’ve explored that angle already. Nope; the problem is that they have so thoroughly rejected anything that smacks of the transcendent, the supernatural, the religious that they can’t even wait until the end of the discussion to reject it out of hand. The crux of the issue, and why I want my atheists to see the loophole, is that something associated with the ‘appearance’ of religious practice is clearly healthy for us: those who engage in contemplative prayer tend to both have a real hobby and real, lasting and meaningful relationships. They do all of the emotionally healthy things as a matter of course. And emotional health is aggravatingly, annoyingly linked to physical health.

Now as I would not be an ‘evangelist’ for faith in the course of my work as a physician I’ve looked at this problem long enough to become convinced that the transcendent is not the essential feature; the very act of these practices is what works for the biological self. Rhythm, movement, breathing and interior silence is the activity which somehow breeds hobbies and intimacy and emotional health.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m ‘religious’ and believe there is a reward, compensation or comfort in that; it is just not my business to ‘sell’ that to anyone. I am selling the trappings however. Be a good pragmatist, not my usual practice by the way, Dewey not Peirce, and adopt the appearance, at least some of the practices, of spiritual disciplines and be healthier. I’ve looked, you’re stuck, nothing else works as well. Spiritual discipline, intimacy, relaxation, emotional health and then, poof, you are healthy. Even the vegetables taste better!

Have Fun, Smile, and God Speed,

Dr. Mike

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