That's according to some Australian researchers, who've just published a series of studies in a special issue of the Medical Journal of Australia.
PODGER: Like many western societies, Australia has become increasingly secular in recent decades. Church attendance is a fraction of what it was in the 1950s and 60s. Australian National University epidemiologist Richard Eckersley, who's authored one of the Australian Medical Journal papers, says the distrust many Australians have of organised religion means they miss out on many psychological benefits.
ECKERSLEY: A lot of people have a pretty hostile view of religion, essentially seeing it as a source of misguided notions about life and a source of problems and conflict. But religion as perhaps the most common cultural expression of the spiritual - not the only expression - does provide many of the things that are conducive to well-being - and these include social support or social networks, a coherent belief system, a sense of purpose, a clear moral code. Religions tend to package these things in a way that makes them accessible to people and that historically I think has been its social role and value.
PODGER: While the studies present a body of evidence showing faith communities are healthier, on average, and that people who pray tend to be happier, there are no clear answers on how it all works. Religionists argue in favour of divine intervention; sceptics suggest it may all be down to healthier life choices and close-knit communities. Dr Eckersley says the scientific jury is still out, but says eschewing spirituality altogether may deprive people of known associated benefits.
ECKERSLEY: The coherent belief system, the social networks, the moral codes and everything, reduce stress, increase happiness and this benefits physical health. There's now pretty good evidence that psychological wellbeing is linked to physical health, so things like depression and social isolation are regarded to contributing to the risk of things like heart disease now. These sorts of benefits go beyond the lifestyle choices of how well you eat or whether you decide whether or not to smoke or how much you drink or abuse drugs, which are kind of the more direct ways in which religious beliefs and teaching can benefit health.
PODGER: While Dr Eckersley's findings may cause a stir amongst the scientific establishment, psychologist Marek Jantos's work goes even further. His paper focuses on the health benefits of prayer and meditation. He argues that both are necessary for good health, and produce subtly different positive effects in the brain:
JANTOS: Meditation, in producing that very general, quietened relaxed state and all the benefits associated with that, is actually associated with a quietened mental state as well, but when we look at people engaging in prayer, there are studies which show quite clearly that that is associated with increased cortical activity, it's more in tune with a very attentive state, a cognitive alert state, as opposed to just a relaxed, quietened state.
PODGER: While meditation is known to reduce stress, blood pressure, heart rate and anxiety, Dr Jantos says prayer is far less accepted as having a place in the secular medical arsenal. But he says it can be of equal benefit to patients -- even if doctors don't think it will work.
JANTOS: If we know that there are benefits derived from engaging in such a ritual, then we should not discourage that practice if patients request it.
PODGER: None of the Medical Journal papers suggests that spiritual practices are a replacement for medical treatment. Some prayer studies in the past have found no evidence of benefit to patients; in one American study, a group of heart patients who were prayed for had a higher rate of complications than those who were not. But the Australian studies do call for spiritual practices to be at least considered alongside conventional therapies.