The Healthiest People

DAVID AWBREY

April 27, 1993|By DAVID AWBREY

Wichita, Kansas. -- In 1993 America's obsession for mental and physical fitness, the best way to a healthy body and sound mind might be through a robust spirit.

That seems to be the conclusion of a recent study from Purdue University, which found that people who worship regularly get sick much less often than those who don't.

Kenneth Ferraro, associate professor of sociology at Purdue, said that people who don't participate in religious activities were more than twice as likely as ''practitioners'' to report health problems. ''We found that religion was almost as great an influence on health as age and social class,'' he said.

Part of the reason for this healthy glow in the pews may be that many religions promote a positive lifestyle, which includes refraining from alcohol use and smoking. Organized religion also provides a social network that gives moral and sometimes financial support to people with health problems.

Professor Ferraro's research dovetails with the thinking of Carl Jung, the famed Swiss psychologist. In his essay, ''The Stages of Life,'' Jung noted the practical benefits of a vibrant spiritual life. A belief in some form of life after death, he argued, makes NTC the here-and-now more meaningful and thus more healthy.

''I have observed that a life directed to an aim is in general better, richer and healthier than an aimless one. . . . As a doctor, I am convinced that it is hygienic . . . to discover in death a goal toward which one can strive, and that shrinking away from it is something unhealthy and abnormal which robs the second half of life of its purpose,'' Jung wrote.

It could be argued that a major cause of many of the social, cultural and personal problems that plague the late 20th century are due to the declining influence of religion in many people's lives.

In his recent book, ''Care of the Soul,'' Thomas Moore, a psychotherapist, said that a greater belief in religion could put many people in his profession out of business. ''I suggest that a person who turns to the Bible as a compendium of insight into the nature of the soul does not need psychology,'' he wrote. ''Generally, psychology is more abstract, less imagistic, more scientific and less poetic than the Bible, and therefore has less promise for care of the soul.''

Especially among the cultural and economic elites, religion does little to shape personal, social or political life. The psychiatrist has replaced the priest as society's source of wisdom; the pursuit of material wealth has replaced the seeking of spiritual enlightenment as the primary purpose of life; situational ethics has replaced traditional morality as the guide to conduct.

This loss of faith has been devastating to modern culture. Who, for example, would argue that today's art -- obsessed with sexual degradation -- matches the soaring medieval cathedrals as a tribute to creativity? Who could argue that Saturday morning cartoons or TV sitcoms give children role models as positive as the Hebrew patriarchs or Christian saints? Who would say that contemporary literature strikes as profound a chord as the Bible?

Dutch psychiatrist Jan van den Berg says that spirituality rather than sexuality is the most repressed area of today's society. While virtually every possible sexual predilection is fodder for Oprah, Phil and Sally Jessy, seldom do the media focus on the sacred in human life.

And when religion does make the news, it usually concerns sensational examples of religious extremism, such as the Branch Davidian wackos in Texas, the bombing of the World Trade Center allegedly by radical Muslims or the shooting of an abortion doctor in Florida allegedly by a pro-life zealot.

Yet the most severe problems facing society today are of the spirit and soul, not of politics or public policy.

For example, a primary cause of poverty in the United States is unwed teen-age mothers. If young people could learn the virtue of abstinence, the country could virtually wipe out poverty and its accompanying social ills. But how often do you hear sex educators tell young people that their bodies are gifts from God that they should respect?

Likewise, issues ranging from drug abuse to spouse abuse to child abuse stem largely from a failure of personal character, which stems partly from a failure to instill spiritual values in people.

The Constitution rightly separates church from state, as institutions. However, the push to separate religion from society has aggravated innumerable social problems. And the separation of humanity from the divine through secular explanations for existence has brought emotional and psychological trauma to millions of people.

David Awbrey is editorial-page editor of the Wichita Eagle.

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