Does Religion Do Harm? New Evidence

March 18, 2009

I’m sometimes asked, “What’s the point of investing so much energy in being critical of religion? After all, what harm can it do to believe?” A study appearing today in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) sheds new light on that question.

Holly G. Prigerson, the study’s senior author and director of the Center for Psychosocial Oncology and Palliative Care Research at Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, told the New York Times that terminal cancer patients who reported drawing comfort from religion were significantly more likely to demand heroic care during their final week of life than those less attached to faith. Strong believers were also significantly less likely to engage in advance-care planning activities like making a living will, signing a do-not-resuscitate order, or naming a health-care proxy.

You’d think it would be the other way around. It makes sense that enthusiastic believers who know they’re going to a better place would be more willing to let go of life gracefully than atheists and humanists who think death is the end. But exactly the opposite turns out to be true. Why? Well, some devout Christians may fear that they’re headed somewhere less than pleasant after death. But Dr. Prigerson thinks she’s pinpointed the real problem: “To religious people, life is sacred ... they feel it’s their duty and obligation to stay alive as long as possible.”

The difference between the most and least religious patients in the study was profound. Only 3.6 percent of the least religious received mechanical ventilation during the final week of life, compared to 11.3 percent of the most religious.

So, what harm can faith do? Apparently the superstition that one’s life is a gift from God inclines the terminally ill to do greater harm to themselves, their loved ones, and society at large. Times reporter Roni Caryn Rabin notes that “[a]ggressive end-of-life care can lead to a more painful process of dying ... and greater shock and grief for the family members left behind.” As for society, there’s an enormous difference in cost between ordinary and heroic care. Medicare spends a third of its budget on patients in their last year of life, and a disproportionate amount of that on patients in their final week of life. It’s impolite to talk dollars and cents when life hangs in the balance, but every dollar spent on terminal care is one less dollar available for medical research, disease prevention, education, infrastructure, you name it ... and strong faith apparently drives the faithful to consume more than their share.