Religious Affiliation Protects People’s Well-Being During Distressful Times, Study Finds

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    Researcher Byron Johnson, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor of Social Sciences and founding director of Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion
April 15, 2020

Evidence from the Great Recession may apply to anguish over COVID-19, Baylor University researcher says

Media Contact: Terry Goodrich, Baylor University Media and Public Relations, 254-644-4155
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WACO, Texas (April 15, 2020) – Religious Americans were better able than less religious ones to weather the economic storm of the 2008 recession, at least in terms of well-being, according to a study that may have implications for the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Scholars at Baylor University, Duke University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology analyzed data from the Gallup organization’s U.S. Daily Poll between 2008 and 2017, which surveys 1,000 United States adults daily on political, economic and well-being topics. The research included data from the 18-month Great Recession.

The study is published in the journal SSRN.

“Houses of worship contain networks of social support, a shared sense of identity, norms, trust, accountability and reciprocity,” said Byron Johnson, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor of Social Sciences and founding director of Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion. “These networks of social and spiritual support help build and sustain relationships that can be invaluable sources of encouragement in times of trouble.

“What our study allows us to conclude is that religiously active Christians who report faith is important in their lives are better able to deal with either economic booms or busts. For active Christians, social well-being is not based on the economy.”

Researchers analyzed respondents’ answers on two questions:

  • “Please imagine a ladder with steps numbered from zero at the bottom to 10 the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom represents the worst possible life for you. On which step would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?”
  • “On which step do you think you will stand about five years from now?”
  • In this Q&A, Johnson discusses how engagement in a local place of worship and viewing one’s faith as important affect well-being over time.

    Q: Life has its ups and downs — financially, psychologically, etc. Does faith fluctuate, too?

    JOHNSON: Economists have found a strong association between measures of subjective well-being and the business cycle. When the economy is doing well, people feel good; when the economy is bad, people feel down.

    The short answer to your question is that faith can give people hope. We find this not only in contemporary studies, but we know this from historical accounts of the early Christian church and the rapid rise of Christianity in the decades following Jesus’ resurrection. From an obscure movement, in just a couple of hundred years, Christianity became a worldwide religion that not only provided people with hope but taught adherents to be concerned for others’ welfare. Almost 2,000 years later, we know from thousands of peer-reviewed publications that faith — most often measured by frequency of attendance at religious services — tends to be associated with a host of beneficial outcomes: greater longevity, less depression, less suicide, less smoking, less substance abuse, less divorce, greater social support, higher levels of meaning and purpose in life, greater life satisfaction and more civic engagement.

    Q: COVID-19 has disrupted in-person worship. What’s the effect on us now, and what will it be in the future?

    JOHNSON: Millions of Americans now regularly stream religious services. The same can be said for Zoom meetings of thousands of church-related classes and small groups, as well as community Bible studies and video meetings of innumerable fellowship groups. This remarkable technological development shows just how much people value their connections with these communities and how creative they will get to sustain them.

    Perhaps we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg in terms of what churches will do soon. Many of the elderly — one of the country’s largest and fastest growing demographic categories — are not able to attend religious services as they once did, and these new technologies may allow shut-ins to remain active and engaged in religious communities. Perhaps people seeking religious engagement are being exposed to a host of different religious services that meet their needs in ways a single congregation might not. Might people become more serious about their religious identity as religion becomes much more accessible? Could the pandemic and the massive faith-based response draw people in significant numbers to religion for the first time? These are empirical questions that we should seek to answer.

    Q: Can you elaborate on how you conducted the study?

    JOHNSON: Sociologists, psychologists and public health scholars previously have studied the effects of religious affiliation on well-being, but these studies have been plagued by at least one of two challenges. First, samples in most studies are quite small, largely because running experiments is time-consuming and expensive. Second, the evidence is purely correlational—not causal. So, we tried something different.

    Using nearly a decade of data, comprising millions of respondents from Gallup’s U.S. Daily Poll between 2008 and 2017, we were able to compare individuals in a county at one point in time with observationally equivalent individuals in the same county at another point in time. We were then able to quantify how their reported social well-being varies in response to different local economic conditions, which we measured using year-to-year county employment growth over every quarter. Because we tracked respondents in the same county over time, our statistical model controls for differences across space.

    Q: Will you do future research related directly to COVID-19?

    JOHNSON: Yes, we hope to look at Gallup data pre- and post-COVID-19 to see what effect, if any, religious involvement and practice have had on how people are dealing with the pandemic. Our results suggest that religion and religious communities will continue to play a driving role in helping people cope with uncertainty by keeping their eyes pointed toward the eternal, even as storms surge around them.

    ABOUT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY

    Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked research institution. The University provides a vibrant campus community for more than 18,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 90 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions.

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