Religion makes you healthier

Religious people are likely to be healthier, according to a report from the Office of National Statistics (ONS).

The ONS was created to collect and publish statistics related to the economy, population and society of the UK. It reports directly to the British parliament, but is independent.

The ONS report, Exploring Religion in England and Wales, has been published after extensive research in 2016-18 among 100,000 people and found that 64 per cent of people with no religion were satisfied with their overall health compared with 68 per cent of Christians, 69 per cent Sikhs, 72 per cent Hindus and 77 per cent Jewish people.

Sikhs were less likely to be in mental ill-health than those identifying as one of several other religious groups.

In addition, those ticking the “non-religion” box were more likely to drink and twice as likely to smoke. One in five atheists smoke compared with one in 10 Christians.

The ONS decision to research religion was designed to investigate equality issues among nine protected characteristics in the Equality Act, which include religion. Any disparity could then be addressed.

Speaking to the Religion Media Centre, Paola Serafino at the Centre for Equalities and Inclusion in the ONS, said: “The aim of the research was to explore differences in the outcomes of people of different religious identities across various areas of life, including education, work and health among others.

“We have produced some estimates that are broken down by religion for the first time, alongside some estimates that were already published. The purpose is to highlight what can be said now and areas where the evidence base could be improved in terms of looking at differences in the outcomes of people of different religious identities.”

She added: “This is part of a programme of work  to explore inequalities in our society. The reasons for inequalities are complex, as today’s findings show, with a range of factors to be taken into account. These findings are not intended to provide definitive answers but to add to the growing evidence base on equalities.”

The publication uses the lens of “religious affiliation”. This captures how respondents connect or identify with a religion, irrespective of their practice of it. Missing from this dataset is the concept of “belief”.

The report also finds:

CRIME

  • The most relevant data relating to crime and religion relates to hate crime. In 2018-19, 103,379 hate crimes were recorded by police in England and Wales, an increase of 10 per cent on the previous year. This may, however, be due to improvements in crime recording by police.
  • 68 per cent of Sikh adults said crime has gone up “a little” or “a lot” locally in the past few years; this was higher than the opinion of Christian adults (51 per cent), Buddhist adults (46 per cent), and adults with no religious affiliation (46 per cent).

PARTICIPATION

  • Over half of adults in England and Wales who identified as Sikh or Muslim said they considered political beliefs important to their sense of who they were.
  • 62 per cent of Jewish adults said they had participated in political activities in England in 2016-17, but only 26 per cent of Sikhs and 27 per cent of Hindus reported this.
  • Volunteering was higher among the Jewish (44 per cent), Buddhist (31 per cent), “‘any other religion” (30 per cent) or Christian (23 per cent) than remaining religious groupings in England and Wales.
  • In 2016-17, 71 per cent of Muslim adults in England reported feeling that they belonged to their neighbourhood but only 26 per cent agreed that many of the people in their neighbourhood could be trusted.
  • In England in 2016-17, 66 per cent of Christian adults said they felt they belonged to their neighbourhood and 47 per cent said that most people in their neighbourhood could be trusted.
  • EDUCATION AND WORK
  • Between 2012 and 2018 in England and Wales, fewer Christians reported having a degree or equivalent qualification than all other religious groups. This probably reflected an older-age profile.
  • Over the same period, Muslims were more likely to report having no qualifications than most other religious groups.
  • Muslims had the lowest employment rate of all religious groups across England and Wales in 2012-18. This can, in part, be attributed to the number of Muslim women looking after their family and/or home, with 57 per cent of respondents giving this reason. This is significantly higher than for other religious groups.
  • In 2018, median hourly pay was highest among those who identified as Jewish
  • Differences in qualification levels were stronger predictors of employment outcomes than religious affiliation, though occupation was the strongest predictor of median pay.

LIMITATIONS AND NEXT STEPS

The programme to improve data held on religion is long term and the report identifies areas for improvement.

In education, data on educational attainment does not capture religious affiliation. In future insights into the relationship between individual characteristics, family background, geography and educational attainment in England will be collected.

In health, studies such as on life expectancies in England could provide an opportunity to consider how gaps in the evidence on health by religious affiliation could be addressed.

In crime, it is valuable to take into account factors such as such as ethnicity, age and where a person lives when considering religious affiliation and victimisation.

COMMENTATORS

Michael Wakelin, who chairs of the Religion Media Centre:

“Well, it’s clearly complex! But I guess this has something to do with an attitude of gratitude. If you are of the opinion that God loves you and he created you are more likely to be grateful for what you have.  Also if you have a faith you are likely to be more hopeful for a better future so that even if things are a bit tough now they will improve in God’s good time.

“For Christians there is an understanding that love and suffering are the two great mysteries that cannot be separated – so perhaps we endure the one in the knowledge that it is part of the other – leading eventually to a time of no more tears. As Charles Wesley put it, ‘Ours the cross, the grave the skies’.”

Stephen Evans, chief executive officer at the National Secular Society:

“Caution must be applied before granting religion any magic explanatory powers based on these findings.  To do so would oversimplify a much more complex and nuanced picture. More research into the interplay between religion, non-religion, and health is necessary before any potential inequalities can be understood and addressed.”

Dr Lois Lee, senior research fellow in religious studies at Kent University and leader of the research programme Understanding Unbelief:

This project is extremely important to help those trying to implement equalities and discrimination law and policy to work with the category ‘religion and belief’.  Unfortunately, the report makes no serious attempt to engage with ‘belief’ in ‘religion and belief’. ‘Belief’ is intended to capture worldviews that are not traditionally religious but are comparable to it, and should be subject to the same protections. Non-traditional worldviews pose recognised challenges to the implementation of equalities and discrimination law, and those with non-traditional worldview identities are a significant and growing population, so this issue should demand attention in the ONS’s work.”