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.



#1 Personal Failure (Guest) on Wednesday March 18, 2009 at 11:43am

You’re absolutely right. in every way. having seen an 83 year old man, still mourning his wife’s death, be given painful cancer treatments in order to procure a few extra weeks of life, I fully agree.

She should have just let her father pass on with dignity and morphine. What she did do was abusive and cruel.

#2 diogenes99 on Wednesday March 18, 2009 at 2:37pm

“Fate” or “God’s will” used to determine the time of death.  This has been shadowed by recent political pro-life philosophy. If you go back a few generations and look at the beliefs of our ancestors, you’ll see deep religious belief, but also people willing to let go.  “Religion” and “deep belief” are not the culprits.  The problem is the modern, bizarre philosophy that our mission is to fight for God’s right to life in every speck of human tissue or sell!  Where did this come from!?

#3 mikethebikey on Wednesday March 18, 2009 at 4:03pm

It always amazes me that people are prepared to be told by religion how to live there lives , what I find even more amazing is how religion wants to tell us when and how we should die. In some cases people spend the last days or months in agony for an invisible deity and bronze age superstitious beliefs .
  IF your dog was in agony you would have it euthanized , why would you not want the same for yourself ?
    Lobby your government and discuss it with your friends.

#4 Guest (Guest) on Thursday March 19, 2009 at 6:19am

Need new evidence? Just check out the latest advise given by the Sky Ghost CEO (Pope) about condoms in Africa.

He essentially signed the death warrant of millions of Africans who will no longer use a condom because they don’t want to anger god.


#5 William Pearsall (Guest) on Sunday March 22, 2009 at 2:03pm

My uncle was a devoted Christian and didn’t ask for these “aggressive treatments.” He took chemo and when it didn’t work asked to be placed on morphine until he was better or nothing else worked. He was kept under for 5 days and then taken off ventilation and pain killers. My uncle was ready to go, and glad to be going. Some Christians that fight death may feel that their work on earth isn’t through and wish to continue it, besides when our time is up, it’s up and WE know it.

#6 guest (Guest) on Monday March 30, 2009 at 9:53am

Promoting condom use has increased rates of AIDs and STDs…. check out Uganda before condom use and after condom use was promoted. Plus what does this half to do with his article…..

#7 mikethebikey on Monday March 30, 2009 at 11:29am

Guest number 6 . Who told you that your priest or the world health organization ? Your priest I’m betting!

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