Religion and the Abundant Life
October 1994

“Religion and the Abundant Life,” Ensign, Oct. 1994, 32

Religion and the Abundant Life

Wide-ranging research shows that highly religious people lead markedly different lives than others: they can expect to be happier and healthier and to have stronger marriages and families.

The promise of a better life to the Lord’s followers appears often in scripture. In Proverbs, we read, “Whoso trusteth in the Lord, happy is he” (Prov. 16:20). Jesus himself declared, “I am come that [believers] might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).

But is the abundant life of religious people a measurable form of existence, apparent to observers and believers alike? Or is it, as the seventeenth-century scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal surmised, hidden to all but “those who genuinely seek [God]”?1

Until recently, the good life enjoyed by the religious seemed to have been hidden if not to the outside world, then at least to the scientific community at large. As a whole, academicians and scientists tend to ignore, if not discredit, religion’s influence and its doctrines. But individual studies have emerged in recent decades examining religion and the way it affects people’s lives. Now a small but growing minority of scientists, sociologists, doctors, and psychologists are proclaiming that religion offers a better life: better mentally, better emotionally, and better physically. The results of their studies belie the often-prevalent scientific and academic notion that religion’s influence is either negative or neutral.

The results also proclaim that not just any religion provides this better life. Interestingly, studies now frequently distinguish between people whose religion simply means believing in God and people whose religion, be it Latter-day Saint or other, means an active, undeniable life-style commitment—one involving church attendance, personal prayer, and a strong inclination to seek God’s will.

The results? The “highly religious” (as many researchers call them) of many sects and creeds lead markedly different lives, empirically and statistically, than those who are less committed or those who are nonbelieving: they can literally expect not only to be happier and healthier but also to have stronger marriages, stronger families, and stronger inclinations to help others.

It is true that God “sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). Practicing believers obviously experience life’s share of personal sorrow, family difficulties, illness, and pain. Yet studies are finding that religiously committed persons derive from their faith an ability to more ably cope, overcome, and find meaning—rather than hopelessness—in life’s challenges. For them, the abundant life promised by scripture becomes a living, even measurable reality (see Matt. 5:13–14; Matt. 6:33–34).

The Happiness Factor

When Dr. David Larson, president of the National Institute for Healthcare Research and a former senior researcher for the National Institutes of Health, began his training as a psychiatrist, he decided to analyze psychiatric journals in an attempt to discover whether religion was truly harmful to mental health, as he had been repeatedly told. Instead, he discovered that “studies either ignored religion or inadequately dealt with it,” he explains. “Researchers would call subjects religious if they simply belonged to a denomination and never actually attended church.” However, in studies that adequately assessed a person’s religious dedication, Dr. Larson found “the data invariably showing religion to be highly beneficial, in 75 to 80 percent of the cases.”2

Abundant evidence validates Dr. Larson’s discovery. In 1971, a prominent sociologist also took a thorough look at studies dealing with religion and mental health. Until then, the assumption that religion is mentally bad for people had prevailed within the social sciences—an assumption that his pivotal review challenged.3 His article concluded that religion could be associated with positive outcomes. Other studies during the decade backed up his findings, with one prominent psychologist’s work declaring that religion, indeed, need not be “antithetical to emotional well-being.”4

That religion isn’t necessarily harmful to its followers might seem tepid endorsement to outsiders, but within the academic community, that finding constituted a breakthrough—one that gave validity and impetus to other studies examining religion’s happiness factor. One of the most important of these studies, published in 1978, found that faith and religious devotion constitute the strongest indicator for a worthwhile life. The importance of faith, a widely respected social scientist found, surprisingly outscored all other factors for indicating life satisfaction: number of friends, marital status, age, education, health, income, and race, in that descending order.5

More recently, a 1992 Gallup survey concluded that “religious faith and practice [is] a primary source of happiness,” with 93 percent of deeply religious people consistently characterizing themselves as “very happy.”6

Faith Promotes Coping

Skeptics have always been cynical of religion’s “happiness factor,” viewing faithful people’s hope and optimism as some sort of psychological cop-out. They charge that people delude themselves into thinking God will solve problems they can’t deal with, thus using religion as a “crutch” to avoid reality. Skeptics assume that the devout are happy, then, not because of a fulfilling life but because of a naive, passive reliance on an all-controlling Deity.

Recent studies into the problem-solving abilities of actively religious people, however, conclude the opposite: that a committed set of religious values actually helps people cope more effectively and realistically with life’s problems. Religious faith offers people a concrete value system with which to prioritize and solve their difficulties. Just as important, apparently, a religion that emphasizes agency granted by God offers followers a strong sense of both personal control and individual responsibility.

A significant study analyzed the ways various beliefs about God affect people’s problem-solving abilities. Religious followers who view God as all-controlling deal with problems ineffectively—waiting, instead, for God to solve everything. However, the same study also found that religious followers who are strong believers in agency and an active personal exchange with God solve problems with “high competence.” This approach, which features an interactive, caring relationship with God, results in higher self-worth and spiritual well-being for believers.7 Indeed, highly religious people, a different study concluded in 1989, “were significantly less distressed and manifested better psychological adjustment than medium and low religious subjects.”8

Less Suicide

Perhaps because of what some researchers call religion’s “stress-buffering role,” suicide rates are lower for religious people, particularly young people, in many countries of the world.9 And researchers in the Middletown III Project, a major sociological study of a typical American town, found, interestingly, that “church attendance is significantly related to faith in people,” another factor that might help explain the believer’s ability to find hope—and help—amidst the difficulties of life.10

Author David G. Meyers, in his book The Pursuit of Happiness: Who’s Happy and Why also notes the link between faith and emotional well-being. Religion, he observes, offers people something worth living and dying for, something bigger than themselves for which to work, a sense of connectedness, unconditional acceptance, and hope.11 “The peace of God, which passeth all understanding,” Paul called it, a peace that apparently offers solace and support as well as happiness (Philip. 4:7).

Health to Thy Navel, and Marrow to Thy Bones

Even stronger and more surprising than the research linking religion and mental health is the convincing evidence linking religion with good physical health (see Prov. 3:1–8). While the religious individually are in no way immune from the threat of ill health and disease, as a whole they benefit from what scientists have called the “naturally protective effects” of a religious lifestyle. That lifestyle offers practicing believers a remarkably healthier life, one that entails fewer physical ailments, quicker recoveries, and—particularly for active Latter-day Saints—unusually low cancer and death rates. For devoutly religious people of all creeds, alcohol and drug dependency rates are far lower than for the general population.

One study in particular found that regardless of age, “people who pray and participate more actively in their religions have better health”: the higher the level of practice, as measured by church attendance and prayer, the better the health. Active participation actually constituted a better indicator of good health than either strong religious beliefs or “how close one feels to God.” And even more remarkable, religion’s beneficial effect on health outweighed other considerations such as race and equaled that of education, long considered the pivotal factor in predicting health status.12

Church attendance has also been associated with reduced mortality rates in various samples of the American population, and for decades, clergymen have enjoyed a longer lifespan than those of individuals in other professions.13 Recently, researchers have noted that men who enjoy attending church have much lower blood pressures than men who don’t care about religion, a conclusion reached after considering other factors such as weight, smoking habits, and age. In other words, even overweight, smoking, or older men who attend church remain at a far lower risk for hypertension than their nonreligious counterparts.14

Gerontology research also suggests that religious faith helps people age successfully. Integrally related to both mental and physical health, according to one prominent gerontologist, religion has been found in various studies to help older people maintain morale, overcome difficulties, cope with illness, and ward off depression.15

Faster Recoveries

While the religious aren’t immune from sickness and physical ailments, they do tend to recover quicker from medical illnesses than do nonreligious people. In one study, for example, doctors who analyzed elderly women recovering from hip fractures found that religious patients tended to avoid post-fracture depression, learned to walk farther sooner, and thus have the potential to leave the hospital sooner than their nonreligious counterparts.16

Numerous statistics support the idea that for religious people, “health shall spring forth speedily” and “long life and peace” are likely (Isa. 58:8; Prov. 3:10). One researcher in particular identified four mechanisms religion offers that promote overall health: avoidance of health-destructive behaviors, a social network for support, a system providing meaning through which to make sense of life, and hope in physical suffering.17

The Latter-day Saint Health Miracle

While studies continue to examine the religion and health link in general, scientists, epidemiologists, and doctors have concentrated for the past three decades on a specific religious population who resist cancer and mortality statistics: members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The LDS health code, much of which is found in Doctrine and Covenants section 89, is well known to Church members. It encourages men and women to abstain from tobacco—along with alcohol, coffee, and tea. Obviously, active Latter-day Saints who follow the instructions outlined in the Word of Wisdom should manifest lower rates of smoking-related cancers. Indeed, they do.18

However, nonsmoking alone cannot account for Latter-day Saints’ low cancer rates in all areas except for prostate cancer, which for LDS males is average or slightly above average. Nor can non-smoking account for other intriguing death-rate statistics and lifestyle findings.19 Dr. James Enstrom, research professor at the School of Public Health at UCLA, set out to research a new, more thorough study of lifestyle characteristics of members of the Church in relation to low Latter-day Saint mortality rates, a study published in the 1989 Journal of the National Cancer Institute.20

For this study, Dr. Enstrom identified a subgroup of members of the Church who are likely to be religiously active, to be middle-aged or older, and to adhere to the Word of Wisdom: 10,000 California high priests and their wives. In 1979, participants answered questions regarding lifestyle and religiosity on surveys which Dr. Enstrom matched over the next eight years with Church death records. The findings of his landmark study received publicity in television and print media across the United States.

Low Latter-day Saint Death Rates

Death rates for this group of active members of the Church are among the lowest ever reported: 72 percent fewer deaths than national averages for males ages 25 to 64 years from all causes of deaths, a difference which then rose to 78 percent fewer deaths if the men never smoked and if they did engage in physical activity and practice good sleep habits. LDS females, 25 through 64, averaged 38 percent fewer deaths from all causes, and their average rose to 53 percent fewer deaths when they engaged in the nonsmoking, exercise, and sleep habits.

The decreased death rates of Latter-day Saints cannot be fully explained by the avoidance of tobacco and alcohol: comparing death rates for Latter-day Saints with national death rates from 1980 to 1987, Latter-day Saint males had approximately 50 percent lower death rates compared with national averages in all categories and in deaths due to cardiovascular diseases and cancer. Death rates for Latter-day Saint females were approximately 35 percent lower.21

Interestingly, when researchers compared Latter-day Saint populations with other typical nonsmokers and nondrinkers, Latter-day Saints still had significantly lower rates of death due to cancer and cardiovascular diseases. Dr. Enstrom concludes that a male Latter-day Saint who adheres to the Word of Wisdom, exercises, and gets proper sleep will live eleven years longer than the typical Caucasian American, and an LDS female six years longer thus making the average lifespan of this Latter-day Saint male group seven years longer than the highest life expectancy of any of the industrialized nations.22

Why the longer, healthier lives? Why the fulfillment of the physical as well as the spiritual aspects of the Lord’s promise to adherents of the Word of Wisdom? Why the blessing of “health in their navel and marrow to their bones”? (D&C 89:18.) Researchers attribute several factors to good health among Latter-day Saints: members of the Church tend to be better educated than the general population; they abstain from coffee and tea; they have lower divorce rates, marry fewer times, and avoid sexual promiscuity; and finally, they enjoy a close, supportive network of friends and family.23

Stronger Commitment = Stronger Health

As in previous studies linking positive trends to religious adherence, devoutness seems a pivotal factor to good health. Less-active Latter-day Saints have a much higher death rate than do active members.24 In the realm of drugs and alcohol, numerous studies have shown that religious commitment to a Judeo-Christian religion effectively curtails overuse and abuse. The higher the commitment, the less likely substance abuse occurs, as one study concluded with a sample of urban adolescents: personal prayer and internalization of religious principles appeared to be more significant factors for curbing drug abuse than church attendance alone.25

For all the statistics involved, however, religious commitment cannot and does not grant immunity from mental or physical ailments, early death, or life’s tragedies. What the studies do seem to indicate is that active religious involvement greatly enhances followers’ health emotionally and physically; it “renews [their] strength” when sickness or other tragedies inevitably strike, and it offers what Paul called “life and peace” to the spiritually minded (Isa. 40:31; Rom. 8:6).

The Family’s Decline

The benefits of religion for the family have been proclaimed by layman and scholar alike for centuries. “Train up a child in the way he should go,” instructs the well-known Old Testament scripture, “and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6).

However, according to a well-respected 1989 study, home religious training as Proverbs meant it has greatly declined: fathers and mothers in today’s world are much less likely to teach children to pray, take them to church, and discuss the Bible or religious principles with them than parents in past decades.26 Interestingly, sociological studies documenting the ebb and flow of American religious activity suggest no decline in church attendance and religious participation as a whole; but statistics show an increasing number of parents for whom religious training of children holds little importance.27

“A Vast Natural Experiment”

The results of such parenting, claims another study, are apparent in the form of disintegrating family values: “an important weakening of the normal imperative to marry, to remain married, to have children, to restrict intimate relations to marriage and to maintain separate roles for males and females.”28 Yet another social scientist recently summed up overwhelming sociological evidence by claiming that “over the past two and a half decades, Americans have been conducting what is tantamount to a vast natural experiment in family life.”29

The “experiment” apparently gained momentum at the same time that religion, according to some, was losing its overall influence: in the 1960s divorce rates increased sharply. Now approximately half of all marriages end in divorce. In 1960, the U.S. out-of-wedlock birthrate stood at 5 percent; in 1990, 27 percent of all births were out of wedlock.30 Yet only recently has sociological evidence surfaced that reveals the catastrophic consequences family disruption inflicts on those involved—consequences organized religion as a whole has been warning about since God commanded Adam to “cleave unto his wife” that “they shall be one flesh” (Gen. 2:24).

“Children are bearing the brunt of a profound cultural shift,” according to one political philosopher, “whose negative features we are now in a position to observe and whose continuing costs will last much longer than our own lifetimes.”31

While any particular individual child of divorce or out-of-wedlock birth is not destined for the following scenario, children from society’s single-parent families, as a whole, statistically suffer in myriad ways: by being poorer and staying poorer longer; by having emotional and behavioral problems; by experiencing a greatly weakened father-child and even mother-child relationship; by getting pregnant out of wedlock, abusing drugs, and performing poorly in school as teens; by remaining at a higher risk for physical and sexual abuse; and by growing up to have a difficult time achieving job and marital stability. As a result, statistically these children are also more likely as adults to inflict the same difficulties on their own children, thus perpetuating the cycle. Problems such as these and others have recently led even reluctant social scientists to conclude that many of society’s family units have not simply changed but that many of them are in deep trouble.32

Teenage Epidemics

Deteriorating familial support, then, accompanied by the waning influence of religion in the home, has created a host of social ills for today’s adolescents. Many are now sexually active at younger ages, resulting in what studies call “epidemic proportions” of teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. They experiment with drugs at younger ages, and ten- to fourteen-year-olds have tripled their suicide rates since 1968.33 It was reported in the early 1990s that the major cause of disability among adolescents between ten and eighteen was mental disorders, and AIDS was the seventh leading cause of death for young people fifteen to twenty-four years old.34

Considering the statistical odds against intact marriages, stable homes, and youth trying to steer clear of premarital sex and substance abuse—can religion make a difference? Actually, it is because of just such statistics that religion’s invaluable contribution to family life is becoming more readily apparent.

Religion and Marriage

One of religion’s vital ingredients for keeping families strong lies in keeping marriages together: “Neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:11). Says Dr. David Larson, “Religion and marriage data are striking because many assume that church attenders are rigid and inflexible. On the contrary, research shows that religious people, as a whole, have much more enjoyable marriages. And just as important, they have much lower rates of divorce—with all of its problematic consequences for the children, mothers, and fathers.”

The data correlating marital happiness and religious commitment are not only striking but also decades old. Research as far back as the 1930s has consistently come up with the finding that highly religious people report more satisfying marriages than those who are not religious.35

Yet until recently, social scientists have ignored or discounted the happiness factor in religious marriages, theorizing that religious couples are more likely to offer researchers positive responses, more likely to tell people what they want to hear, even if the answer isn’t true. Calling this tendency toward socially acceptable responses the “marital conventionalization” argument, sociologists put little stock in the happy marriage studies—that is, until the early 1980s.36

A landmark study published in 1982 confronted the marital conventionalization theory with these findings: even among the couples questioned who did not respond in a “conventionalizing” way, religion still predicted marital satisfaction.37 Important 1984 and 1986 studies went on to substantiate the data: researchers again conducted a study that screened out “socially desirable” responses, yet the researchers actually found religiosity a better predictor of a happy marriage than even socioeconomic or familial conditions.38

In essence, studies have invariably found that individuals within religious unions are willing to marry the same spouse again if they could relive the past; enjoy an absence of marital discord; and are less likely to divorce.39

Commitment to Others vs. Self-Fulfillment

Researchers offer various reasons for the connection between marital happiness and religious commitment. But several studies point to the value system to which religious people generally ascribe, one that puts the needs of spouse, children, and others above the needs of the individual. In the 1980s, for example, research increasingly reflected evidence that emphasis on self-fulfillment negatively affects marriage and family life. “Individualistic” attitudes, studies showed, pit the individual’s needs against the family’s and greatly undermine the welfare of marriage and children.40

Significantly, then, a 1991 Canadian survey concluded that people committed to religion and marriage are far less likely to hold individualistic values. It backed up what studies in 1973 and 1986 determined: traditional and religious values involve stronger commitment to marriage—a commitment, writes one researcher, that involves not only a “have to,” but also a “want to.”41

Low Divorce for Latter-day Saints Married in Temples

When examined within various religious groups, as one study did in 1985, commitment to marriage appears strongest within Latter-day Saint, Catholic, and Protestant unions. The same study also found that, among religious groups, Latter-day Saints tend to have the highest rates of marriage and the lowest rates of divorce. Although Latter-day Saint divorce rates have risen since 1985, the study’s comparison of Latter-day Saint couples married in a temple and those not married in a temple remains valid today: temple marriages are significantly less likely to end in divorce than nontemple marriages.42 Another study involving marriage statistics from the intermountain United States found that the lowest divorce rates existed among Latter-day Saint couples, and the highest existed among couples in which neither spouse claims a religious affiliation.43

For deeply religious couples, particularly Latter-day Saints married in the temple, religion offers stability, commitment, and an awareness that “marriage is ordained of God” (D&C 49:15). It also offers husbands and wives the opportunity to live joyfully with the spouse whom they love—not a minor achievement in this age of marital discord (see Eccl. 9:9).

Religion and Rearing a Family

A 1990 Newsweek article noted that many “baby boomers” who dropped out of organized religion are now returning to it. The main reason: the desire to teach their children solid values.44

Statistically, the odds for raising a united, happy, and even moral family favor those who turn to religion for help. An extensive review documented research on family life and religion from the 1930s to the present, summarizing sixty years of research with the following proposition: highly religious families are happier, more successful, larger, and more likely to avoid divorce and substance abuse.45

These conclusions mirror the strong connection that the Connecticut Mutual Life Report on American Values in the 80s found between commitment to family life and strong religious devotion: “With striking consistency, the most religious among us place a greater importance on the full range of family … activities.”46

The most religious families among us, in turn, are probably more apt to teach and discuss values and morals. The family as an “ethical entity,” explains one domestic policy analyst, is responsible for transmitting—or failing to transmit—the beliefs necessary not only to sustain oneself, but also to sustain the community.47

Commitment to Religious Life Vital for Latter-day Saint Families

Yet another study looked specifically at Latter-day Saint families with large numbers of children. Previous studies have shown children from large families to be at an emotional disadvantage, receiving less affection and attention. But this study found that religiosity makes a significant difference—in fact, the key difference—in whether Latter-day Saint adolescents perceived that they received adequate amounts of attention and affection.

Parents’ temple attendance and dedication to the gospel was a stronger indication to children of parental love and appreciation than were family activities, personal attention, or family size. In fact, the study concludes, the mother of a large, devoted LDS family tends to be more affectionate, understanding, and accepting, because she “finds herself continually exposed to a philosophy which stresses the eternal importance of motherhood and the family.”48

Interestingly, another sociologist found in an analysis of Mormon family life that Latter-day Saint couples married in the temple are not only more likely to engage in home religious activities such as family scripture study and prayer but are also more likely to share, as husband and wife, in child-rearing responsibilities. Perhaps this cooperative sense of parenting and religious training accounts for the study’s other conclusion that, for this Latter-day Saint sample, “personal spiritual devotion emerged as the single most important influence on adult well-being.”49

Latter-day Saint teens, obviously, benefit from growing up amid concerned parents, bishops, and youth leaders, and these youth are less likely to experience what one report portrays as the life of today’s adolescents: “Often neglected by adults … [getting] lost in the mass … [suffering] the consequences of anonymity—a scourge of modern society and a condition that makes people, young and old, behave at their worst.”50

“Upper Levels” and Less Promiscuity

Youth from religious homes in general enjoy the benefits of having a strong value system to counteract what the same report calls the media’s glorification of casual sex, “the implication [being] that self-indulgence is a virtue.”51 Previous studies have shown religion to be such a strong deterrent to sexual permissiveness that the relationship between high religiosity and lower levels of promiscuous sexual involvement has recently been dubbed an “empirical generalization.”52

Another study using a sample of religious college students found that even within a church-going community, an “upper level” of religious behavior exists. Youth who attend church more often and lead more religiously committed lives are much less likely to engage in premarital sex than their less religious counterparts.53 They are also much less likely, as has been discussed, to suffer from drug and alcohol problems.54

Researchers dealing with church-attending adolescents have found not only that religious commitment significantly discourages premarital sex and substance abuse but also that it discourages problem behavior in general.55 One study even went so far as to conclude from its research that youth who want to escape from inner-city crime and poverty have a statistically better chance of succeeding if they go to church. Attendance at church constituted the most important predictor of a young man getting out of the ghetto, a more important predictor than even having parents with jobs.56

Religious Teens Excel

The benefits of rearing children in religious homes consist not simply of avoiding social ills. While church-attending parents have no guarantees that their children will grow up to become productive, well-educated, and altruistic adults, “[bringing] them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” apparently increases that likelihood (Eph. 6:4).

In an analysis of research on social competency in adolescents, sociologists concluded that religion encourages “prosocial development” in teenagers: that is, such “socially valued … characteristics as self-esteem, academic achievement, intellectual development, creativity, [and] moral behavior.”57

According to the same study, the ability to plan for the future characterizes socially competent adolescents, and religious beliefs encourage that tendency. For example, a survey of young Latter-day Saint males shows that the more spiritually committed the youth, the more committed he is to future goals such as education, employment, a Church mission, and marriage.58

Religious values not only help youth envision the future and thus achieve their potential socially but also apparently help youth achieve their potential academically. A researcher in 1987 determined college students’ intellectual abilities from their SAT scores and, in analyzing their grades, concluded that religiously committed adolescents are significantly more able to reach their academic potential.59

Religiously committed youth are also more prone to good deeds and helping others. A Gallup survey in 1990 found that “active involvement in religious organizations” has a major impact on teen philanthropy. Youth belonging to religious institutions were much more apt to volunteer and make charitable contributions than youth with no religious affiliation.60

“Blessed Are the Merciful” (Matt. 5:7)

The combination of stronger family lives and better physical and mental health might account for the reasons behind the highly religious minority’s consistent willingness to volunteer and help others. But for the devout and faithful of all religions, the primary factor for fulfillment lies not so much in particular lifestyle habits as it does in lives lived in the service of others.

“He that loseth his life for my sake,” Jesus Christ said, “shall find it” (Matt. 10:39). Research verifies what the Savior said. According to an in-depth study published in 1992 by the Gallup organization, the religiously devout lead “noticeably happier, more fulfilled lives”—lives that, not coincidentally, are marked by their commitment to helping, volunteering, and giving. Gallup asked a set of questions about religious practices—including prayer, belief in the Holy Spirit, and church attendance—to a wide array of people, and then went on to find out about participants’ inclinations to help the needy, practice racial tolerance, and forgive others.61

Compassion, Tolerance, and Ethical Behavior

The findings, published in the book The Saints among Us, by George H. Gallup, Jr., and Timothy Jones, indicate that the greater the religious commitment and involvement participants displayed, the greater their concern for others; the less the religious affiliation and devotion, even for strong believers in God, the less involvement in helping others. “Compassion, tolerance, and ethical behavior consistently rise as spiritual commitment increases,” according to the authors.62

Religious people, especially highly religious people, the study found, spend significantly more time helping people burdened with problems, are much less likely to be prejudiced, and have an easier time giving and forgiving.

A Church for Saints

Particularly interesting for Latter-day Saints, Gallup’s study not only examined how religious devotion translates into good works but how certain kinds of worship promote and maintain a believer’s spirituality. According to the authors, then, just what kind of religion does it take to create and maintain a “saint”?

Above all, an organized religion. Many a missionary can attest to the prevailing attitude against organized religion—“I believe in my heart; why do I need to attend a building every week?”—but a structured church means much more than a weekly dose of preaching. It offers community, opportunities to learn from others, and an enormous incentive to practice good works.

Spiritual growth, the authors continue, also requires mentors, guides, and examples, people who show others better ways to live their religion. For this reason, theology professor and writer George Hunter bemoans the fact that “in most churches we do not have the structural opportunities set up to encourage people to talk about what God is doing in their lives.”63

Latter-day Correlations

For members of the restored gospel who gather for shared testimonies every month, what God is doing in their lives is a highly familiar refrain. Committed members will also recognize the benefits of an organized religion, especially one led by members themselves, ensuring “that members should have the same care one for another” and that “all the members do their duty” (1 Cor. 12:25; D&C 20:55). Involvement through callings, committees, and teaching responsibilities not only creates mentors, guides, and examples but also countless opportunities to serve and help others.

Active participation, after all, is what creates the “upper levels” of religiosity mentioned in study after study. It also prevents people from lapsing into what C. S. Lewis called “a moderated religion [which] is as good … as no religion at all.”64 Participating, as active Latter-day Saints do, in a church “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets” brings added blessings (Eph. 2:20). The doctrine of agency, an inspired Church organization, family and youth programs, and the Word of Wisdom offer members effective means with which to deal with problems and invaluable ways to find joy in living.

The Sun’s Light and Warmth

Perhaps no one better understands the difference a religious approach to life can make better than those who have converted. After turning from atheism to Christianity, writer Malcolm Muggeridge compared entering the religious life to a journey “into the azure sky, beyond appetite, where love is all-embracing, all-encompassing, and the dark confusion of life sorts itself out, like an orderly smiling countryside suddenly glimpsed from a high hill as the mists disperse in the sun’s light and warmth.”65

Yet believers know that even with a strong reliance on the Lord, not all is sunny, and darkness often looms. As Eliphaz counsels a suffering Job, “Man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7). But in those troubles, religion lightens the load—offering hope, renewing strength, uniting families, and encouraging followers to help others.

“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden,” Jesus said, “and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). For those who have discovered the abundant life—one no longer hidden from the world—the yoke is indeed easier, and the burden lighter (see Matt. 11:30).


  1. Blaise Pascal, Pensees (New York: Viking Penguin Inc., 1966), p. 155.

  2. Telephone interview conducted by the author with David Larson, M.D., 11 Feb. 1994. All other quotes from Dr. Larson are from this interview.

  3. Rodney Stark, “Psychopathology and Religious Commitment,” Review of Religious Research 12, no. 3 (1971): 165–76.

  4. See the following: Allen E. Bergin, “Religiosity and Mental Health: A Critical Reevaluation and Meta-analysis,” Professional Psychology: Research and Practice 14, no. 2 (1983): 170–83.
    Daniel K. Judd, “Religious Affiliation and Mental Health,” AMCAP Journal 12, no. 2 (1986): 71–108.

  5. Christopher Kirk Hadaway and Wade Clark Roof, “Religious Commitment and the Quality of Life in American Society,” Review of Religious Research 19, no. 3 (Spring 1978): 295–307.

  6. George H. Gallup, Jr., and Timothy Jones, The Saints among Us (Ridgefield, Conn.: Morehouse Publishing, 1992), p. 43. The question obviously arises: If religious involvement leads to emotional, social, and spiritual well-being, what about Jonestown, Waco, and other disastrous results of religious dedication? Psychologists are currently studying, but have not yet definitively determined, what personal characteristics combine with religious characteristics to produce negative outcomes.
    See Alan Bergin, “Values and Religious Issues in Psychotherapy and Mental Health,” American Psychologist 46 (1991): 394–403.

  7. Kenneth I. Pargament, Joseph Kennell, William Hathaway, Nancy Grevengoed, Jon Newman, and Wendy Jones, “Religion and the Problem-Solving Process: Three Styles of Coping,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 27, no. 1 (Mar. 1988): 90–104. See also Kenneth I. Pargament and June Hahn, “God and the Just World: Causal and Coping Attributions to God in Health Situations,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 25, no. 2 (1986):193–207.

  8. Mark E. Crawford, Paul J. Handal, and Richard L. Wiener, “The Relationship between Religious and Mental Health/Distress,” Review of Religious Research 31, no. 1 (Sept. 1989): 16; see pp. 16–21.

  9. See the following: Jie Zhang and Darwin L. Thomas, “Familial and Religious Influences on Suicidal Ideation,” Family Perspective 25, no. 4 (1991): 301.
    Steven Stack, “The Effect of Religiosity on Suicide in Sweden,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 30, no. 4 (Dec. 1991): 462–68.
    Frank Trovato and Rita Vose, “Domestic/Religious Individualism and Youth Suicide in Canada,” Family Perspective 24, no. 1 (1990): 69–79.
    Steven Stack, “The Effect of the Decline in Institutionalized Religion on Suicide, 1954–1978,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 22, no. 3 (Sept. 1983): 242; see pp. 239–52.

  10. Howard M. Bahr and Thomas K. Martin, “‘And Thy Neighbor as Thyself’: Self-Esteem and Faith in People as Correlates of Religiosity and Family Solidarity among Middletown High School Students,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 22, no. 2 (1983): 132; see pp. 132–44.

  11. See David G. Myers, “Who’s Happy? Who’s Not?” Christianity Today, 23 Nov. 1992, pp. 23–26.

  12. Kenneth F. Ferraro and Cynthia M. Albrecht-Jensen, “Does Religion Influence Adult Health?” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 30, no. 2 (June 1991): 199; see pp. 193–202.

  13. See the following: G. W. Comstock and K. B. Partridge, “Church Attendance and Mortality,” Journal of Chronic Diseases 25 (1972): 665–72.
    G. W. Comstock and J. A. Tonascia, “Education and Mortality in Washington County, Maryland,” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 18 (1977): 54–61.
    J. S. Levin and H. Y. Vanderpool, “Is Frequent Religious Attendance Really Conducive to Better Health? Toward an Epidemiology of Religion,” Social Science and Medicine 24 (1987): 589–600.
    H. King and F. B. Lock, “American White Protestant Clergy as a Low-risk Population for Mortality Research,” Journal of the National Cancer Institute 65 (1980): 1115–24.
    H. King and J. C. Bailar III, “The Health of the Clergy: A Review of Demographic Literature,” Demography 6 (1969): 27–43.

  14. David Larson, H. G. Koenig, B. H. Kaplan, R. S. Greenburg, E. Logue, H. A. Tyroler, “The Impact of Religion on Men’s Blood Pressure,” Journal of Religion and Health 28, no. 4 (1989): 265–78.

  15. See the following: Harold G. Koenig, James N. Kvale, and Carolyn Ferel, “Religion and Well-Being in Later Life,” The Gerontologist, Feb. 1988, pp. 18ff.
    Koenig et al., “The Use of Religion and Other Emotion-Regulating Coping Strategies Among Older Adults,” The Gerontologist, June 1988, pp. 303ff.
    Koenig, “Religious Coping and Depression among Elderly Hospitalized Medically Ill Men,” American Journal of Psychiatry 149 (Dec. 1992): 1693–1700.
    Jeffrey S. Levin, “Religious Factors and Aging, Adjustment, and Health,” Journal of Religion and Aging 4 (1988): 133–46.

  16. P. Pressman, J. Lyons, D. Larson, J. Strain, “Religious Belief, Depression, and Ambulation Status in Elderly Women with Broken Hips,” American Journal of Psychiatry 147, no. 6 (1990): 758–60.

  17. Ferraro and Albrecht-Jensen, “Does Religion Influence Adult Health?” p. 194. See also “The Faith Factor: An Annotated Bibliography of Clinical Research on Spiritual Subjects,” National Institute of Healthcare Research, Rockville, Md.

  18. See the following: J. E. Enstrom, “Cancer Mortality among Mormons,” Cancer 36 (1975): 825–41.
    J. E. Enstrom, “Cancer and Total Mortality among Active Mormons,” Cancer 42 (1978): 1943–51.
    J. E. Enstrom, “Health and Dietary Practices and Cancer Mortality among California Mormons,” in J. Cairns et al., eds., Banbury Report 4: Cancer Incidence in Defined Populations (Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y.: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, 1980), pp. 69–90.
    J. L. Lyon, M. R. Klauber, J. W. Gardner, et al., “Cancer Incidence in Mormons and Non-Mormons in Utah, 1966–1970,” New England Journal of Medicine 294 (1976): 129–33.
    J. L. Lyon, J. W. Gardner, D. W. West, “Cancer Incidence in Mormons and Non-Mormons in Utah during 1967–75,” Journal of the National Cancer Institute 65 (1980): 1055–61.
    J. W. Gardner and J. L. Lyon, “Cancer in Utah Mormon Men by Lay Priesthood Level,” American Journal of Epidemiology 116 (1982): 243–57.

  19. Ibid.

  20. J. E. Enstrom, “Health Practices and Cancer Mortality among Active California Mormons,” Journal of the National Cancer Institute 81, no. 23 (6 Dec. 1989): 1807–14.

  21. Ibid. Author also conducted phone interviews with Dr. Enstrom, Jan. 1994.

  22. Ibid.

  23. Ibid.

  24. See Enstrom, “Cancer and Total Mortality among Active Mormons” and “Health and Dietary Practices and Cancer Mortality among California Mormons.”

  25. See the following: H. Wesley Perkins, “Religious Traditions, Parents, and Peers as Determinants of Alcohol and Drug Use among College Students,” Review of Religious Research 27, no. 1 (Sept. 1985): 15–30.
    H. Wesley Perkins, “Parental Religion and Alcohol Use Problems as Intergenerational Predictors of Problem Drinking Among College Youth,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 26, no. 3 (Sept. 1987): 340–57.
    C. Kirk Hadaway, Kirk W. Elifson, and David M. Petersen, “Religious Involvement and Drug Use among Urban Adolescents,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 23, no. 2 (June 1984): 109–28.

  26. Arland Thornton, “Changing Attitudes toward Family Issues in the United States,” Journal of Marriage and Family 51 (Nov. 1989): 873–93.

  27. Theodore Caplow, Howard M. Bahr, Bruce A. Chadwick, et al., All Faithful People: Change and Continuity in Middletown’s Religion (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), pp. 294–301.

  28. See Thornton, “Changing Attitudes toward Family Issues in the United States,” p. 873.

  29. Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, “Dan Quayle Was Right,” The Atlantic Monthly, Apr. 1993, p. 84; see pp. 47–84.

  30. Ibid., p. 50.

  31. Jean Bethke Elshtain, “Families, Communities, and Habits of the Heart” (transcript of address presented at Plenary Session, NCFR, Baltimore, Md., Nov. 1993), p. 2.

  32. See the following: N. Glenn, “The State of the American Family,” Journal of Family Issues 8, no. 4 (1987).
    David Popenoe, “American Family Decline, 1960–1990: A Review and Appraisal,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 55 (Aug. 1993): 527–55.
    Elshtain, “Families, Communities, and Habits of the Heart.”
    Whitehead, “Dan Quayle Was Right.”

  33. Fred M. Hechinger, Fateful Choices: Healthy Youth for the 21st Century (New York: Carnegie Corp. of New York, 1992).

  34. National Commission on Children, Beyond Rhetoric: A New American Agenda for Children and Families (Washington, D.C.: National Commission on Children, 1991).

  35. See Darwin L. Thomas and Craig Carver, “Religious Influence on Prosocial Development of Adolescents,” in Thomas Gullota, ed., Advances in Adolescent Development: Vol. III, The Promotion of Social Competency in Adolescence (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, in press), p. 206.

  36. Darwin L. Thomas and Marie Cornwall, “Religion and Family in the 1980s: Discovery and Development,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 52 (Nov. 1990): 989; see pp. 983–92.

  37. Walter R. Schumm, Stephan R. Bollman, and Anthony P. Jurich, “The ‘Marital Conventionalization’ Argument: Implications for the Study of Religiosity and Marital Satisfaction,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 10, no. 3 (1982): 236–41.

  38. See the following: Erik E. Filsinger and Margaret R. Wilson, “Religiosity, Socioeconomic Rewards, and Family Development: Predictors of Marital Adjustment,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 46 (1984): 663–70.
    Filsinger and Wilson, “Religiosity and Marital Adjustment: Multidimensional Relationships,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 48 (Feb. 1986): 147–51.

  39. See the following: Richard A. Hunt and Morton B. King, “Religiosity and Marriage,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 17, no. 4 (1978): 399–406. Norvall D. Glenn and C. N. Weaver, “A Multivariate, Multisurvey Study of Marital Happiness,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 40 (1978): 269–82.
    Susan H. Hartley, “Marital Satisfaction among Clergy Wives,” Review of Religious Research 19 (1978): 178–91.
    “Religion Plays Key Role in Marriage Stability,” Emerging Trends 11, no. 6 (June 1989): 4.

  40. Walter J. Goltz and Lyle E. Larson, “Religiosity, Marital Commitment, and Individualism,” Family Perspective 25, no. 3 (1991): 201–19. See studies reviewed on p. 204.

  41. Ibid., p. 204. See studies reviewed on pp. 201–4.

  42. Tim B. Heaton and Kristen L. Goodman, “Religion and Family Formation,” Review of Religious Research 26, no. 4 (June 1985): 343–59.

  43. Howard M. Bahr, “Religious Intermarriage and Divorce in Utah and the Mountain States,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 20, no. 3 (Sept. 1981): 251–61.

  44. Kenneth L. Woodward et al., “A Time to Seek,” Newsweek, 17 Dec. 1990, pp. 50–56.

  45. Kip Jenkins, “Religion and Families,” in Stephen J. Bahr, ed., Family Research: A Sixty-Year Review, 1930–1990, 2 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1991), 1:235–88.

  46. Research and Forecasts, Inc., Connecticut Mutual Life Report on American Values in the 80s (Hartford: Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Co., 1981), p. 135.

  47. William Golsten, as cited by Elshtain, “Families, Communities, and Habits of the Heart,” transcript, p. 5.

  48. Melvin L. Wilkinson and William C. Tanner III, “The Influence of Family Size, Interaction, and Religiosity on Family Affection in a Mormon Sample,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 42, no. 2 (May 1980): 297–304.

  49. Darwin L. Thomas, “Future Prospects for Religion and Family Studies: The Mormon Case,” in Darwin L. Thomas, ed., The Religion and Family Connection (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1988), pp. 357–82.

  50. Hechinger, Fateful Choices, p. 26.

  51. Ibid.

  52. See the following: J. K. Cochran and L. Beeghley, “The Influence of Religion on Attitudes toward Nonmarital Sexuality: A Preliminary Assessment of Reference Group Theory,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 30(1):45–62. Paul Haerich, “Premarital Sexual Permissiveness and Religious Orientation: A Preliminary Investigation,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 31, no. 3 (Sept. 1992): 361; see pp. 361–65.
    Arland Thornton and Donald Camburn, “Religious Participation and Adolescent Sexual Behavior and Attitudes,” Journal of Marriage and Family 51 (Aug. 1989): 641–53.

  53. See the following: J. Timothy Woodruff, “Premarital Sexual Behavior and Religious Adolescents,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 24, no. 4 (1985): 343–66.
    Woodruff, “Reference Groups, Religiosity, and Premarital Sexual Behavior,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 25, no. 4 (1986): 436–60.

  54. See Perkins, “Religious Traditions, Parents, and Peers as Determinants of Alcohol and Drug Use among College Students.”
    Hadaway et al., “Religious Involvement and Drug Use among Urban Adolescents.”

  55. See Thomas and Carver, “Religious Influence on Prosocial Development of Adolescents.”

  56. Richard R. Freeman, “Who Escapes? The Relation of Church-going and Other Background Factors to the Socioeconomic Performance of Black Male Youths from Inner-city Poverty Tracks,” working paper no. 1656, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, Mass., June 1985.

  57. Thomas and Carver, “Religious Influence on Prosocial Development of Adolescents,” p. 195.

  58. Ibid., p. 208.

  59. D. S. Zern, “The Relationship of Religious Involvement to a Variety of Indicators of Cognitive Ability and Achievement in College Students,” Adolescence 22 (1987): 883–95.

  60. “Religion Has Early Impact on Teen Volunteering and Giving,” Emerging Trends 13, no. 6 (June 1991): 4.

  61. Gallup and Jones, The Saints among Us, p. 23.

  62. Ibid.

  63. Ibid., p. 111.

  64. C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: Macmillan, 1977), p. 43.

  65. Malcolm Muggeridge, Jesus Rediscovered (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1969), p. 123.

  • Elizabeth VanDenBerghe serves in the Primary in the Holladay Eighth Ward, Salt Lake Holladay South Stake.

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