For some people, leaving their religion means more than taking a spiritual risk. They could be risking their physical health as well, according to one recent study.
In the study conducted done by Christopher Scheitle, a senior research assistant in sociology at Penn State University, 40 percent of those who said they practice a religion with strict social, moral and physical guidelines reported themselves to be in excellent health.
As they moved further from their strict religion, the percentage of those describing themselves in excellent health declined. About 25 percent of those who switched to a more liberal religious group said they were in excellent health, and the figure dropped to 20 percent for people who quit religion all together.
"Previous research showed some association between belonging to a religious group and positive health outcomes," said Scheitle, whose study is published in the current issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior. "We became interested in what would happen to your health if you left a religious group. Would people demonstrate any negative health outcomes?"
In the study, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormon) and Jehovah's Witnesses were defined as "strict" religions. Both of the exclusive groups have strict guidelines for how members should live, including no alcohol consumption or tobacco use.
They also happen to be two religious groups that are not embraced by theological Christian conservatives, with the first group claiming the Book of Mormon as a holy text and the second rejecting the doctrine of the Trinity, among other major differences.
In his report, Scheitle suggested the decline in health could be a result of resuming unhealthy behaviors prohibited by the group, losing the formal and informal support structures that promote positive health, or suffering from increased stress.
"You could lost your friends or your family becomes upset when you leave, leading to psychological stress and negative health outcomes," he said.
The sociologist said more studies need to be conducted to determine the correlation between leaving a religion and health. He emphasized that the study does not show that leaving a religion directly results in bad health.
Results of Scheitle's study based on the examination of 30,523 cases collected from 1972 through 2006 in the General Social Surveys conducted by Opinion National Research Center.
Out of this data pool, the researcher narrowed the number down to 423 people in strict religious group, 96 people who switched religion, and 54 who are no longer affiliated with any religion.