A new research has found that a community's religious environment - i.e. the type of religious congregations within a locale - affects mortality rates, often in a positive manner.
LSU associate professor of sociology Troy C. Blanchard along with co-author John Bartkowski from the University of Texas at San Antonio and other researchers from the University of West Georgia and the University of Alabama at Birmingham found that people live longer in areas with a large number of Catholic and Mainline Protestant churches.
He suggested two key reasons for these findings.
Blanchard said that these religions usually organize outreach efforts for the needy and homeless, invest in the health infrastructures of their town and participate in other forms of public charity.
"First, these types of churches have what's known as a 'worldly perspective.' Instead of solely focusing on the afterlife, they place a significant emphasis on the current needs of their communities," Blanchard said.
"Secondly, these congregations tend to create bridging ties in communities that lead to greater social cohesion among citizens," said Blanchard.
He said that this enhanced sense of connection between people provides collective encouragement for healthy behaviour.
In comparison with Catholics and Mainline Protestant congregations, Conservative Protestant churches have a mixed effect on community health.
The 'otherworldly' character of Conservative Protestantism leads congregations in this tradition to focus on the afterlife.
Conservative Protestantism is also a more individualistic faith, one in which the believer's personal relationship with God is paramount.
These types of churches are thought to downplay the importance of using collective action, including human institutions, to improve the world.
Communities dominated by Conservative Protestant churches tend to have higher mortality rates.
However, this finding has an important caveat, because there are different types of Conservative Protestant churches, namely, Fundamentalist, Pentecostal and Evangelical.
"We find that a greater presence of Fundamentalist and Pentecostal congregations is associated with higher rates of mortality, but communities with a large number of Evangelical congregations have better health outcomes," Blanchard said.
"Evangelical congregations do a better job of engaging the broader community and promoting social connectedness that is so essential for longer life expectancies. Fundamentalist congregations tend to be more reclusive, and this insularity is linked with higher mortality rates," he added.
These results were published in the June issue of Social Forces, a leading journal in the field of sociology.