Religious Capital, Social Capital and Health


Religion plays a prominent role in many societies and can affect many aspects of people’s lives, including their health. Ephraim Shapiro and Chen Sharony explore this link.

Health economists have noticed that church attendance correlates with measures of good health. Research experience together with the health effects of social capital raise questions about whether the health gains stem from the religious capital (the effect of the message and its experience) or the effect of the social capital (of social groups with free interpersonal exchanges, concern for the well-being of others, and trust), or perhaps both effects. Ephraim Shapiro and Chen Sharony explore these issues in the Elgar Companion to Social Capital and Health  (Chapter 6), beginning with a thorough literature research.
The effect of church attendance on health is reported on four measures of health: Mortality (reduced as much as two thirds in some reported studies), physical health (clearly improved for some cardiovascular categories though less clear for some others); mental health (for example, lowers depression); and improves some health behaviours (noticeable benefits regarding smoking and getting exercise). Are these same benefits provided across different religious capital? Shapiro and Sharony examine these effects in Christian, Jewish, and Mohammedan religions, finding similar benefits, though suggestions of differences. For those more strongly adherent among Muslims there are more health benefits than among the less fastidious. And studies between Jewish religious Kabutzim with nonreligious ones was found to provide better health in the former.

Though despite many more such results, the authors explain the difficulties of separating the roles of religious capital from those of social capital. Social capital benefits health status in many studies, most of which are unrelated to religion. Moreover, the two forms, social and religious capital, occur together in most religious experiences.  The congregation meets together and the communities formed have most of the same features as just described for social capital. Statistical studies find that the two are well correlated. As Putnam said, “faith communities…are arguably the most important repository of social capital in America”.

What conclusions are possible given this large literature review and Shapiro and Sharony’s assessment of it? They found cases where the religious message makes a difference for health gains whether related to one of several religious philosophies (secular, Christian, Mohammedan, or Jewish) or to the strength of the individual’s adherence to it. The authors also explain the very close and complex relationship between religious capital and social capital. While this separation will likely remain the goal of continued research, Shapiro and Sharony conclude by describing practical policies to encourage the growth of the two working together.

Folland Comp Social

Elgar Companion to Social Capital and Health edited by Sherman Folland and Eric Nauenberg is out now.

Read chapter six Religious and social capital and health free on Elgaronline


Also on ElgarBlog: Read Why Trust is Good for your Health by Martin Ljunge. Read Martin Ljunge’s chapter Trust promotes health: addressing reverse causality by studying children of immigrants free on Elgaronline for a limited time

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  1. Social Capital in EpidemiologyElgarBlog from Edward Elgar Publishing - December 7, 2020

    […] Religious Capital, Social Capital and Health Ephraim Shapiro and Chen Sharony explore the link between religion and health […]

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