Religious Engagement and Mental Health: Controversial Study Prompts Discussion


Religious Engagement and Mental Health

In the ongoing global analysis of the COVID-19 pandemic, a recent article has ignited debate by presenting a unique perspective on how individuals are navigating the pandemic’s impact through religiosity.

The study, distinguished by its application of mathematical methods to examine the interplay between religious engagement and mental health during the pandemic, was recently presented at the Asia Meeting of Econometric Society (AMES-CSW) 2024 held at the Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi.

Research Findings Unveiled: A Different Lens on Coping with COVID-19

Published in the November 2023 issue of the European Economic Review, the study conducted by Girish Bahal, Sriya Iyer, Kishen Shastry, and Anand Shrivastava delves into how engaging in religious practices has affected mental health outcomes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The researchers conducted an online survey involving 5,178 American adults, revealing that involvement in religious practices significantly alleviated the consequences of psychological disorders amid the pandemic.

Religious Engagement and Mental Health

Kishen Shastry, one of the presenters, emphasized the significant correlation between the intensity of religiosity and access to religious services concerning mental health outcomes during the pandemic. He highlighted the role of engaging in religious congregations, particularly those allowing physical attendance, in enhancing mental stability during challenging times.

Audience Skepticism: Debating the Specificity of Religiosity

Despite the presentation and the prestigious audience, which included scholars like Sanjeev Goyal from Cambridge University, skepticism arose regarding the specificity of “religiosity” as a cause for improved mental health.

Some attendees questioned whether non-religious strong community engagement could achieve similar results. The debate even considered alternative scenarios, such as group activities like football fan meetings, suggesting comparable support and involvement.

Questions on Applicability: Cultural Concerns and Generalization

The survey’s limited scope, focusing on 90% of Christian respondents surveyed from February to March 2021, raised concerns about its applicability to diverse cultures with different religious systems, particularly Hinduism and Islam.

Audience members questioned the study’s generalizability to nations with varied religious practices, leading to a robust discussion about the cultural implications of the findings.

Clarifications on Religiosity: Addressing Cultural Contexts

Responding to concerns, Kishen Shastry clarified that the study concentrated solely on attending religious gatherings and the concept of “religiosity,” rather than individual spirituality. The distinction aimed to address worries about the suitability of the findings in various cultural contexts, acknowledging the differences in worship practices between Christianity and Hinduism.

Faith or Friends? Exploring Alternatives

The discussion also delved into the researchers’ choice to focus on individual “religiosity” while advocating for the benefits of “community engagement” during a pandemic. Attendees suggested alternatives, such as football fan meetings, which could offer similar support and involvement.

Shastry defended the focus on religion, highlighting its accessibility, wide availability, and a larger pool of participants compared to other community activities.

Student Perspective: Emphasizing Community Element

Gursidak Gagneja, an IIT-Delhi student, praised the presentation but emphasized the importance of the wider community element. While acknowledging the positive influence of religiosity on mental health, he noted that non-religious community endeavors could achieve similar advantages.

Unveiling Multifaceted Pandemic Effects

In conclusion, the debate sparked by this research reflects the ongoing quest to understand the multifaceted effects of the pandemic on people’s mental health. While the researchers centered their study on religiosity and its connection to well-being, lingering concerns persist about how broadly these results can be generalized to other cultural and religious contexts.

Mental well-being remains a critical area for future research, exploring various factors like religion in relation to social order following a global pandemic.

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