sealPurdue News
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May 1995

Religion a strong factor in health of African-Americans

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- African-Americans who keep the faith are more likely to keep their health.

In a study based on a national survey, researchers found that blacks who scored the highest on measures of religious activity also reported being the healthiest. "Religion seems to be an equalizing factor for African-Americans in terms of health," says Kenneth F. Ferraro, a Purdue University professor of sociology. "White Americans overall are healthier than African-Americans. However, the health status of blacks who attend religious services at least two or three times a month, for example, is similar to that of whites who say they never attend church."

Ferraro conducted the study with Jerome R. Koch, a visiting assistant professor of sociology at Texas Tech University. Their findings were reported in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

The study was based on a national survey of 3,617 adults. They were asked how they would rate their health and whether they had certain health problems. They also were asked to rate their religious beliefs and how often they sought comfort in religion.

Ferraro notes that religion is a more important predictor of health for blacks than for whites. "While studies show on average that all religious people enjoy better health than nonreligious persons, we found that religion had its greatest positive effect on the health of blacks," he says.

"Religion provides a source of comfort to blacks who face plenty of disadvantages. What we found was that religion helped them deal with inequalities and injustices. It's a way of looking at the world that says 'things may look rough, but I can make sense of the situation and put things in perspective.'

"We know that anger, hatred, unforgivingness -- they all carry physical consequences for the body. However, there are certain practices associated with religion that are beneficial. If religion helps a person to forgive and turn the other cheek, then it provides a coping mechanism that certainly is a factor in whether these stresses lead to the development of chronic illnesses."

In addition to the comforting aspects of religion, Ferraro points out the healthy behavioral practices associated with religion. "Moderation and Sabbath rests may also benefit one's health," he says.

Religion is an advantage sought more often by blacks than whites. "Blacks are more religious," Ferraro says. "In terms of religious identity, practice and the consolation or comfort they receive from religion, blacks score higher on each of these indicators. For instance, nearly 45 percent of black adults attend some type of religious service at least once a week in comparison to only 36 percent for whites."

He notes that religion traditionally has been one of the few areas of support for African-Americans. "When you consider the institutions that blacks have had to rely on, the church -- unlike government and education -- has been an empowering institution throughout American history. Where would the civil rights movement have been without the church?" he asks.

The strength of the church has remained even though African-Americans have made political strides. Roger Finke, a Purdue associate professor of sociology, says some academics thought the church might lose its importance once civil rights were attained. "That didn't happen," he says. "Today the black church is just as strong as ever. In fact, most black churches are either growing or holding their own."

Ferraro says black churches seem to practice what they preach. "These churches typically give more tangible support to their members," he says. "They often provide meals, community service and public education about disease. Blacks tend to identify with the African Methodist Episcopal churches and certain Baptist denominations that have long been associated with supportive practices regardless of the makeup of the congregation."

For African-Americans, Ferraro predicts spiritual and physical health may go even more hand-in-hand in the future. "Where do you have health screenings in black neighborhoods?" he asks. "More and more they take place in churches. For African-Americans, the church is one of the institutions that seems to be responsive to their needs. In terms of coping with the world, it's a unique resource."

Sources: Kenneth F. Ferraro, (765) 494-4704, Internet, ferraro@vm.cc.purdue.edu
Roger Finke, (765) 494-4715; Internet, finkerk@vm.cc.purdue.edu
Writer: Beth Forbes, (765) 494-9723; Internet, beth_forbes@purdue.edu
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail, purduenews@purdue.edu

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