Religion, spirituality and health

Dr Tan Min MinWritten by Dr Tan Min Min, Research Fellow, South East Asia Community Observatory (SEACO), Jeffrey Cheah School of Medicine and Health Sciences

My research looks at the relationship between religion, spirituality and physical and mental among older adults in a predominantly Muslim and multicultural community. It is a project funded by the John Templeton Foundation, a philanthropic organisation that supports the intersectional studies of religion and science.

Religion and spirituality are related to better health e.g. longer lifespan, lower blood pressure, better immune function and mental health etc. Older adults often turn to religious and spiritual beliefs and activities to cope with issues related to ageing. Religion and spirituality gain importance as a person ages and people tend to become more religiously involved and spiritual as they grow older. Religious experiences also differ across cultural and ethnic groups.

However, most of the studies in religion and health were conducted in predominantly Christian populations. There is a lack of studies conducted in populations of other religions, such as Islam, one of the major religions in the world. Most of the previous studies on religion and health included samples from the U.S and other Western countries; there are only a handful of studies from Asia.

In Malaysia more than 90% of the population have a religious affiliation. About 60% of the population is Muslims. The rest of population consists of adherents of Buddhism, Hinduism, Chinese folk religions and Christianity. This multicultural landscape provides an opportunity to examine the intersectionality of culture and religion, and how it affects health. It is unknown whether Malaysians experience similar health benefits from religion as those from the Western countries, and my research aims to examine how religion influences health in a multicultural setting in Malaysia.

The project will help to identify how religion is beneficial to health especially among Muslims and other non-Christians older adults and set the stage to the development of health intervention programs for non-Christians that integrate religion/spirituality. One of the two outcomes of this project is the improvement of health among older adults through faith-based health promotion programs. Religious communities are one of the very few places where people from different socioeconomic status and ethnic and cultural background gather regularly, thus religious communities present an ideal channel to conduct health promotion activities especially in communities where there is a lack of access or resources for non-religious health promotion programmes. Compared with hospitals and other clinical settings, religious communities present a non-threatening and supportive environment for health promotion. Religious communities could be a potential channel to promote health, especially among those who are difficult to reach due to lack of health education and poor access to health care.

The results of this project will also provide a significant opportunity for health professionals to improve health promotion program by accommodating and understanding participants’ religious beliefs. While it is impossible to manipulate a person’s religiosity and unethical to “prescribe” religious intervention or activities, he or she could be encouraged to participate in more public and private religious activities.