"Going to church weekly is good for you," argues T. M. Luhrmann, a professor of anthropology at Stanford and the author of When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God.
"One of the most striking scientific discoveries about religion in recent years," she says in a recent op-ed published in The New York Times, "is that going to church weekly is good for you. Religious attendance – at least, religiosity – boosts the immune system and decreases blood pressure. It may add as much as two to three years to your life."
In general, Luhrmann's work focuses on "the way that ideas held in the mind come to seem externally real to people, and the way that ideas about the mind affect mental experience." She has specifically focused on and studied evangelicals and evangelical churches, documenting concrete ways in which congregants offer monetary, emotional, and tangible support to each other, which has significantly improved their lives.
Luhrmann points to a 2010 study published by the journal PLoS Medicine, which found that frequent churchgoers have larger social networks, "with more contact with, more affection for, and more kinds of social support from those people than their unchurched counterparts." This study and Luhrmann's research reveal that social support is directly tied to better health. In fact, the study shows that regular church attendees drink and smoke less, use fewer recreational drugs, and are less sexually promiscuous than others.
However, she argues that it is more than just social networks that make regular churchgoers happier, it is their ability to know God that changes their lives for the better. "Those who were able to experience a loving God vividly were healthier," she says, "at least, as judged by a standardized psychiatric scale. Increasingly, other studies bear out this observation that the capacity to imagine a loving God vividly leads to better health."
A 2010 Journal of Psychology and Theology article points to studies that found having an attachment to God was a positive quality, which significantly decreased stress more effectively than a person's positive relationships with others. As a result, she says that having a relationship with God enables "symbolic healing," which has real, positive physical effects on the body. "At the heart of some of these effects," Luhrmann says, "may be the capacity to trust that what can only be imagined may be real and good."
While not everyone benefits from "symbolic healing," Luhrmann argues that these studies have shown that when "God was experienced as remote or not loving, the more someone prayed, the more psychiatric distress the person seemed to have; when God was experienced as close and intimate, the more someone prayed, the less ill the person was."
In her most recent book, When God Talks Back, Luhrmann explores how "God becomes and remains real for modern evangelicals." She explores how "rational, sensible people of faith are able to experience the presence of a powerful yet invisible being without skepticism," and how evangelicals come to believe that God is profoundly real and claim to actually hear his voice among their everyday thoughts.