New Horizons in Religion and Health

Jonathan Morgan

Chiragh Dheli, New DelhiBeginning a blog-post with the words “cultural consonance” isn’t exactly click-bait.    But if you’re at all interested in the relationship between religion and health, then pay attention to this phrase.

In a variety of ways, religion and spirituality seem to be pretty good for your health.  Researchers explore this relationship in a variety of different ways. Actually, let me rephrase that, because “a variety” sounds too simplistic – what I really mean is that there are thousands and thousands of these studies out there.  Just check out this database!

Sorting through them all is a herculean task.  Sometimes they’re looking at mental health outcomes, where the intuitive connection is probably the strongest.  Other times they’re suggesting that spirituality helps people recover from surgery more quickly.  The various connections are substantiated well enough that the U.S. Army feels comfortable incorporating “spiritual fitness” as part of their Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program.

But, of course, these findings aren’t clean cut.  Researchers go back and forth about why this relationship might exist.  Is it the social support of a religious community or the comfort of religious beliefs?  Is there some underlying trait that supports both religiosity and health?  Or is it the coping strategies that come along with religious practices?  Like I said, sorting through all this is incredibly difficult.  And it’s made all the more difficult because of the relatively modest effects of the relationship. (For the statistically literate: if your research explains 20% of the variance, you’re ecstatic).

That brings us to cultural consonance.

The cognitive anthropologist, Craig Dressler, developed this concept as a fancy way to talk about how closely someone fits their community’s ideal.  For example, if you’re a hipster and you’ve got a cool beard, your dad’s old flannel, a sweet fixie, you only drink single origin coffee, or PBR, and you play in an experimental synth-pop band that you only nonchalantly care about (sorry guys, I had to pick someone to caricature), then you have pretty high levels of cultural consonance.  Not all cultural norms are so clearly articulated, but the idea is that we all have some sense of our community’s ideal behaviors and beliefs.

Dressler used this idea in his research to get at the psychological stress of falling outside of that norm.  (Just remember how stressful middle-school was!) And while we all may intuitively agree that it’s incredibly difficult when you don’t fit in, it’s notoriously challenging to model that relationship.  But cultural consonance provides a way to do just that, and Dressler has used the model to study how “social incongruence” can impact blood pressure, BMI, and various factors of psychological health.

The challenge of this tool is finding which cultural model is the most relevant to individuals.  For example, Dressler’s work in urban Brazil found that people’s consonance with a cultural model of the ideal family life was the best predictor of major depression.  But other times, perceived skin color, or national identity, or what food you eat provided the cultural standard by which people judged themselves.  And across the board, how closely people come to the standard also predicts many of their health outcomes.  You probably see where this is going.

The medical anthropologist, Francois Dengah, has been using cultural consonance as a tool to measure well-being among Brazilian Pentecostals, and his results are incredibly promising.  Remember above when I said researchers get excited about explaining 20% of the variance in their outcomes?  Dengah’s model is explaining 51% of the variance in psychological well-being!  That’s a level of explanation that you almost never find in the social sciences.

Dengah’s argument is complex, but it hinges on the ability to parse out the interlocking cultural models within which people live.  Among the community he’s studying, Brazilian Pentecostals, adherence to the ideal religious lifestyle seems to override all other cultural models.  For example, imagine you’re a member of the church but have a hard time experiencing the Holy Spirit, or haven’t converted your family (both part of the ideal model).  If this is the case, then even if you conform to the broader society’s ideals of success, like making lots of money, you’re still likely to experience some serious psychological stress.

In other words, the Pentecostal community is able to alter the perceived value of other cultural models.  In this case, conforming to those things “of the world” becomes radically less important to people who have bought in to the Pentecostal community’s ideal.*  And these differences in what people value impact their health.

This is a much more dynamic model than simply measuring church attendance or how many times someone prays.  Instead, it looks at these behaviors in light of the religious ecosystem that gives them meaning.  It also captures how religion can dramatically shift the way we orient ourselves towards broader cultural models: the influence of the ideal American dream loses its appeal if you join an ascetic community that encourages vows of poverty.

If we take all of this seriously, then perhaps the well-being that aligns with religiosity doesn’t come from any particular belief or any particular practice.  This research suggests that the reason religious people may be happier and healthier than the non-religious is because they fit into their cultures better than their secular counterparts.  If Dengah’s research is any indication, then how well we fit into our communities may be one of the best predictors of our health.  Furthermore, there may be particular communities that are able to overturn larger cultural ideals in favor of their own.

This isn’t a full-blown conclusion; research examining cultural consonance within religious groups is still in its infancy.  But, this tentative consequence would also explain why the positive relationship between religion and health unravels within European samples – being Pentecostal in Scandinavia would probably bring a fair amount of stress into your life!

Cultural consonance is the first tool I’ve found that provides a way to integrate beliefs and behaviors within their unique context and then compare all of this to health outcomes.  And if we have any hope of understanding the connection between religion and health, we need such a tool that is able to handle this much complexity in one fell swoop.


*It’s worth noting that there is no single Pentecostal ideal.  Some communites’ ideal (e.g., the prosperity gospel folks) may look very much like mainstream consumer success.

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