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Study to examine relationship between health and religion

By Katie Burke, Daily News Editor
Published October 8, 2013

Going to church may be good for the soul, but a University researcher is looking to find out if it lowers blood pressure too.

Public Health Prof. Neal Krause and four of his colleagues have received $8 million from the John Templeton Foundation to conduct in-depth research in the next three years on the relationship between religion, spirituality and health.

“The field (of religion and health) is very disoriented, very disjointed; a phenomenon like religion is very complex,” Krause said.

The John Templeton Foundation was founded in 1987 to fund research projects that include focuses on science, character virtue development and freedom and free enterprise.

The foundation’s website states, “Our vision is derived from the late Sir John Templeton’s optimism about the possibility of acquiring ‘new spiritual information’ and from his commitment to rigorous scientific research and related scholarship.”

With the grant, Krause and his colleagues from across the country will conduct a survey of 3,000 people over the age of 18 around the United States. The team has pinpointed a variety of religious factors to test as well as biological markers such as weight, blood pressure and presence of stress-related hormones.

Krause said some of the religious dimensions the survey will examine include social relationships in religious communities, prayer, forgiveness and religious coping responses.

“The list goes on and on, and that’s one of the reasons why we’re doing the study, because the list is so long, it’s time to pare this down a little bit and see if we can isolate important components,” he said.

Krause initially entered the research field to study stress and health among older adults. He said that as he interviewed his subjects, religion became a common factor in dealing with stress — a fact that is contrasted by trends of younger generations.

The application for the grant was a long, tedious process. Krause said he spent a few years focusing his research and finding the right questions to present to the foundation. The foundation has two grant-making cycles each year, and full proposals can only be submitted by invitation only.

According to the foundation’s website, grants are aimed at “contrarians” and “intellectual entrepreneurs” to connect different fields and address research questions that have previously gone unanswered.

With regard to political and social implications of religious impacts on health, Krause said his team is focused on basic initial research rather than executing any institutional change.

“Let’s say I go over to the hospital and try to implement something that’s religiously oriented; that could certainly be interpreted as a conflict of church and state,” he said.

Krause said religion may not always be a positive factor in relation to health.

“I’m not coming into this thinking that religion is good for everybody or that it’s the silver bullet we’ve all been waiting for, because what my research and what other people’s research has found is that it can have detrimental effects on people, as well.”