Here’s an Unchurchy Case for Church

We all experience at least occasional “moments of revelation, moments that are saturated with meaning,” the philosopher Roger Scruton observed. “When they occur, it is as though, on the winding ill-lit stairway of our life, we suddenly come across a window, through which we catch sight of another and brighter world,” he writes. In these moments, we glimpse not merely true, good, or beautiful things, but that ultimate Truth, Goodness, and Beauty that shines through them. This search for such portals to transcendence has taken a dizzying variety of communal expressions across the world’s religions, from the stillness of a Quaker meeting to the ecstatic twirling of a Sufi sema. Nonetheless, as sociologist Émile Durkheim argued, in all of these traditions, a shared pursuit of the divine or transcendent unites people into a single moral community, with potentially profound implications for their temporal as well as spiritual flourishing.

Religion, Health, and Well-Being

Decades of prior research indicates that religious participation — especially in community — leads to improved health and increased flourishing for most people. Large longitudinal studies, which track thousands of individuals over time, have provided evidence for beneficial effects of religious service attendance in particular on many health and well-being outcomes. Recent studies have found that regular attenders are

By 2009, a meta-analysis of numerous more rigorous longitudinal studies found a 27 percent reduction in overall mortality for those attending religious services regularly. And in 2022, researchers from our team at the Human Flourishing Program and the Initiative on Health, Religion, and Spirituality at Harvard University, under the leadership of our colleague Tracy Balboni, published a systematic review of large longitudinal studies of religion and health, and they found overall beneficial effects of religious participation on longevity, depression, suicide, smoking, drug use, alcohol abuse, and various aspects of well-being.

The most recent milestone in the study of religion and health is the publication of the third edition of the Handbook of Religion and Health. The handbook constitutes the most comprehensive treatment of the role of religion in shaping health and well-being to date. The authors draw upon, synthesize, summarize, and weigh the evidence of more than 10,000 studies on this topic, the great majority of which show positive effects of religious participation on many aspects of health and well-being.

Religious participation also notably encourages moral, or at least pro-social, attitudes and behaviors. For instance, regular service attenders give more generously to charities of all kinds than never-attenders, and there is experimental and observational evidence that religious believers are more trustworthy, generous, and cooperative than nonbelievers, though not only when interacting with other believers. Religious participation promotes these distinct dimensions flourishing in a variety of ways. Churches, synagogues, and mosques offer rich communities and dense networks of social support to people who might otherwise lack them. They provide a deep source of meaning — those portals to transcendence with which we began — which punctuates and potentially transfigures the more mundane rhythms of daily life. And, as Jonathan Haidt puts it, they offer “moral exoskeletons” in the form of “a set of norms, relationships, and institutions” that shape behavior as much at the level of largely unconscious convictions and desires — about the importance of family, say, or the wrongness of suicide — as at the level of deliberate choices.

Despite this important prior research into the role of religious communities in shaping flourishing, much work remains to be done. While numerous meta-analyses have been carried out, along with other books summarizing these, to the best of our knowledge, only the two meta-analyses mentioned above, on longevity and depression, have restricted attention to more rigorous longitudinal studies. We at the Human Flourishing Program hope to advance the field further in coming years, with support from the Templeton Religion Trust, by carrying out additional longitudinal meta-analyses for the effects of religious participation on outcomes such as suicide, cardiovascular health, life satisfaction, and alcohol, tobacco, and drug use. We also hope to examine how robust these findings are to potential unmeasured “confounders,” factors which might affect both religious service attendance and the outcomes in question.

Our Religious Recession

Discouragingly, in view of its effects on people’s flourishing, religious participation is now in precipitous decline across the United States, as in much of the rest of the developed world. After decades of hovering around a stable 40 percent of the U.S. population, weekly religious service participation has dropped from 44 percent in 2004 to 31 percent and falling by 2023. As Jim Davis, Michael Graham, and Ryan Burge note in their recent book, The Great Dechurching, about 40 million Americans used to but no longer regularly attend religious services, and most of them have stopped attending in the past 25 years.

This is not just a spiritual problem. While the academic and political discussion of rising rates of “deaths of despair” (due to alcohol abuse, drug overdose, and suicide) typically focuses on (undeniably important) factors such as the over-prescription of opioids and the declining economic prospects of less educated Americans, about 40 percent of the increase in suicide and 28 percent of the increase in depression since the mid-1990’s may be attributable to declines in religious participation.

The link between religious participation and public health is clear, but the implications of those findings are murkier. An atheist is not likely to be encouraged to take up church attendance by the prospect of lowering his blood pressure, and for that matter, religious believers themselves typically devote much of their time and treasure to these communities not for the sake of a longer life here below, but rather for the sake of eternal life. Moreover, it seems likely that many of the beneficial effects of religious participation on temporal flourishing may accrue principally to people who aren’t motivated by those benefits, but rather see religious participation as having intrinsic and, indeed, ultimate significance. As Christ himself put it, “Seek first the kingdom of God … and all these things shall be added to you” (Matt 6:33).

Keeping those caveats in mind, however, the link between religious participation and temporal flourishing could have important implications for individuals, clinicians, and policy makers. Tens of millions of Americans notionally identify with a religious tradition but don’t regularly participate in it; perhaps these findings could help motivate them rethink their religious apathy. Physicians might consider regularly taking a brief two-question or four-question spiritual history in clinical settings and, where appropriate, even encouraging religious community participation for those who positively self-identify with a religious tradition. And policymakers at every level should consider what might be done to promote religious participation, perhaps even by directing public funds to religious schools (a simpler prospect following the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision in Carson v. Makin), or by reviving Sunday closing laws to reduce the competition between church attendance and work or youth sports.

Toward a Theology of Religion and Flourishing

The relationship between religious participation and temporal flourishing is an empirical matter, but it also naturally raises important theological questions. You might worry, for instance, that this literature implicitly underwrites a “prosperity gospel,” which promises that good jobs, new cars, and glowing health await those with sufficient faith. This is an understandable concern, but in our view, a misplaced one. Rather than riches or sudden cures, the empirical literature suggests instead that religious participation does its work gradually and subtly, above all by changing the way we see the world and relate to one another. It offers few Ferraris, but many friends; few miraculous healings (not that we need rule those out), but much hope in the face of life’s inevitable tragedies.

You might also wonder whether this link between religious participation and flourishing is of any apologetic value for Christians: Is the increased longevity of churchgoers evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit? Here again, it’s best to tread lightly: After all, most of the goods of religious participation — social solidarity, meaning, moral guidance — ought to be available to observant Jews, Muslims, or Buddhists, as well as Christians. Most empirical studies to date have focused on Christians in the North Atlantic, and greater attention to the relationship of religion and flourishing outside Western Christianity is badly needed. When the first wave of data from our Global Flourishing Study becomes available in the next few weeks, it will offer an unprecedented resource for this kind of research.

As Karl Barth rightly observed, “What we call revelation necessarily appears as something particular in the general field that one calls religion. … We would have to deny revelation as such if we were to dispute the fact that … it also has this human face and in this regard stands in a series along with other human faces.” In the church, this near-universal human institution is taken up and transfigured — “sublimated,” in Barth’s Hegelian idiom — but it remains the case that “we have this treasure” of the gospel “in earthen vessels” (2 Cor 4:7).

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