I’m as befuddled as Libby at XX about this reported study that’s flying around the internet that claims that faith makes you fat. This is such a classic example of causation not equaling correlation that you could probably use it in a textbook, but that’s hardly the only problem with it. Casey Schwartz at The Daily Beast also notes that this was a 20-year study, but they only asked about religiosity once, at the beginning of the study, and just assumed that young people who go to church a lot keep up the habit. So even the correlation isn’t necessarily as strong as being touted.
I’m all for telling people that going to church is bad for them, don’t get me wrong, but this is just silly. Odds are that it’s just a cluster of lifestyle and demographic issues—the study says it controlled for race and income, but not geography, for instance—and that singling out church just doesn’t really get us there in terms of an explanation. I’d bet, for instance, that religious people are more conformist, and that alone will have an impact on your waistline in a culture where there’s pressure at every turn to overeat. Frankly, I bet you’d find a greater correlation between being a football fan and being fat.
I think these researchers are playing a little fast with the facts in order to achieve two goals, one more noble than the other. The less noble one is simply getting headlines. Hey, it can have an impact on your funding and prestige, and it’s probably hard to resist the temptation. And the other reason is a little more noble:
“Here’s an opportunity for religious organizations to initiate programs to help their congregations live even longer,” Feinstein said. “The organizations already have groups of people getting together and infrastructures in place that could be leveraged to initiate programs that prevent people from becoming obese and treat existing obesity.”
I think it’s hard not to look at churches at an excellent place to promote health messages and healthy habits, because churches are so good at getting people to do other things, especially if they attend church frequently. But the way to do that isn’t “OMG FAT”. Not only is it bad science mixed with a dose of fat-shaming, but it’s also going to backfire. Odds are all that you’re going to convince people to do is not go to church. And there are more honest ways to do that.