As the country marks the 10th anniversary of 9/11, a new study purports to show the benefits of religious involvement or spiritual belief in coping with the long-term impact of the event. And Jews, who constitute both a religious group and the nation’s least religious ethnic group, are evident on both sides of the debate that the study seems set to provoke.
According to the study, which will be published in an upcoming edition of the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, religious and spiritual Americans reported better physical and emotional health in the three years after the September 11 attacks — the period during which the study took place.
“The more likely people were to participate in religious activities, the more likely they were to experience positive emotion, and the less likely they were to ruminate about the events of 9/11 and the less likely they were to develop physical health problems,” said Roxane Cohen Silver, one of the psychologists who wrote the study. “The same basic message comes from what we call spirituality.”
The study, which was published in preliminary form on-line last February, was an offshoot of a larger investigation by Silver and E. Alison Holman, two researchers at the University of California, Irvine, about the long-term effects of September 11 on the nation’s psyche. For their study on religiosity and spirituality, Silver and Holman partnered with another Irvine colleague, Michael Poulin, and with the University of Denver’s Daniel McIntosh. The researchers surveyed a national sample of about 1,300 adults age 18 and older, asking them, in a series of online questionnaires, about their religious and spiritual practice and their physical health and mental health — both in relation to 9/11 and in general — in the three years after the attacks. The researchers made a distinction between religiosity and spirituality. Religiosity is associated with religious institutions: churches, synagogues and mosques. Spirituality, on the other hand, has to do with a set of beliefs that are often — but not always — tied to religious institutions.
The researchers showed that attendance at religious services was associated with positive emotions such as happiness, affection and joy; lower odds of developing new mental and musculoskeletal ailments, and a smaller number of intrusive, unwanted flashbacks to 9/11. Spirituality was also linked to positive emotions and to lower odds of developing new infections, but it was also coincident with a higher number of 9/11 flashbacks, albeit ones that quickly went away.
Silver said her findings on 9/11 were consistent with previous research she had conducted with McIntosh on coping with the unexpected death of an infant. “We found that religion had at least two important roles in coping,” she said. “One was that participation in a religious organization — in a church or in a synagogue or a mosque — provides people with social contacts, and we know that social support is beneficial in coping with an event. Another way in which religion plays a role is helping people with a particular worldview make sense of tragedies.”
By itself, none of this clarifies how religion may have operated to help American Jews cope and heal after 9/11, Silver cautioned. Silver is a practicing Conservative Jew, though she emphasized that her own religious identity had no bearing on the study. And she warned against extrapolating the results to apply to Jews, who in general are not as religious — in that they don’t attend synagogue regularly — as their Christian counterparts.
“It is important to recognize that the message of this paper in terms of religious participation may or may not be appropriate for Jews,” Silver said. “The majority of people who might identify with being Jewish might not go to religious services weekly, which is different from Christians.”
But Lawrence Bush, a self-proclaimed Jewish atheist and the author of “Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist,” published in 2008, said that the benefits of religion and spirituality — a rich sense of community, a strong sense of ethics — exist in abundance in the secular world. According to Bush, though Jews as a whole are not particularly religious, they still glean these goodies.
“Jewish identity is not just a religious identity, it is a peoplehood identity,” Bush said. “There are lots of Jews out there who derive humanistic benefits out of a sense of belonging to the Jewish people, whether they go to synagogue or not. I would expect Jews to derive benefits that might not be available to a non-churchgoing Protestant or Catholic or Muslim.”
Richard Sloan, a (non-Jewish) professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, raised the same point, albeit more generally. Sloan said that the Silver study hewed to a preconceived narrative about religion’s beneficial effects and then fit the findings — which he also questioned — into this storyline. If scientists are to study the connection between religion and health, he said, they would be better off investigating what aspect of religion is beneficial to health. Is it the fact that belonging to a community drives away a sense of isolation? And where, beyond church, might a person access community?
“There is an implicit message here, in this paper and in many papers in this area, and that is that religion and spirituality are good for you — they are good for your mental health and for your physical health,” he said. “I think that is misguided and dangerous.
“The conflation of religiosity and spirituality with health is bad for medicine and bad for religion,” he said. “If religion is meaningful to people and it calls to them, nobody would dispute the value of that. But to use religion or spirituality as a transaction through which you can attain good mental health or physical health is offensive to religion, or at least it ought to be.”
Silver, for her part, said that psychiatrists should not make recommendations to patients struggling with 9/11 based on her research. “We cannot say that people coped better because of religion,” she said. “All we can say is that people who were more engaged in religious activities were also those who coped better.”
Kenneth Pargament, a professor of psychology at Bowling Green State University who is a leading researcher on the impact of religion in overcoming trauma, said that the study’s findings fit into a larger body of research that shows how religion can have beneficial effects. “For the most part, religion and spirituality seem to be significant resources to people when they are experiencing major life trauma,” said Pargament, who is also Jewish. “Religion and spirituality are sources of help rather than harm.”
It is important for psychologists not to “prescribe” religion to their patients, Pargament agreed. But if a patient is open to religion — or has a religious past — then religion and spirituality might enter into an individual’s course of treatment.
“There are people who lose touch with religion or spirituality, and there is nothing wrong with encouraging them to get back in touch with who they are,” he said.
Contact Naomi Zeveloff at firstname.lastname@example.org
Naomi Zeveloff is the former Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.