Health and Religion

People avoid good health habits, convinced what is good for them isn't better but bitter.

This article is adapted from a chapter in Better Isn't Bitter by Leo R. VanDolson, Ph.D., an associate editor of the Adventist Review.


Wilbur Wright arrived in France in 1908 intent on demonstrating the superiority of his flying machine over the experimental models being produced there. Understandably, quite a bit of hostility greeted him, since the French were committed to defending their own aviators' claims of priority.

Wilbur first exhibited the flying ability of his craft at Le Mans on August 8 of that year. When a catapult shot him thirty feet into the air to begin his flight, the large crowd of spectators gasped with surprise. They were used to seeing long and often unsuccessful takeoffs.

Then his flying machine dipped its left wing sharply and banked for a turn. The crowd panicked. This was the first they'd seen or even heard of an airplane turning like that, and they thought Wilbur was going to crash. Up to then the few flights that had taken place in France involved wide, jerky, level-winged circles as the only means of turning.

As Wilbur continued to gracefully circle the grandstand, the frightened gasps of the spectators turned into wild, enthusiastic cheering. When he gently landed on the field after his performance, the shouting, applauding mob thronged about his plane. Everyone tried to shake his hand at once. Even the French aviators present acknowledged that the Wright brothers had come up with the best approach to manned flight and a greatly superior flying machine. Something better speaks for itself.

Yet, every day people shy away from practicing good health habits, convinced that what is good for them is bitter rather than better.

We'll all be further ahead if we come to understand that health-behavior change not only is good for us, but can be more enjoyable, too. Whether it be stopping smoking or just learning to drink five or six glasses of water each day, when we take a positive approach and accept the necessary life-style changes as something better rather than something bitter, they become an enjoy able experience in themselves.

But somehow we've come to look upon the laws that govern life and health as restrictive and "taking all the fun out of life." What perverse quirk of mind causes us to think that it's fun to hurt ourselves, as well as those whom we love and who depend on us, by continuing to practice health-destroying habits that can only kill us in the long run?

The "more abundant life"

In the Bible our Creator offers us a "more abundant life" (see John 10:10). If we're not experiencing a joyful, happy, healthful, "more abundant" life, whom are we cheating? Mainly we're cheating ourselves—robbing ourselves of both quantity and quality of life.

Think of the cost involved. I was shocked the other day to learn of the unexpected death of a good friend who had been my major professor in graduate school. We were working together on materials for my doctoral dissertation in the field of health education, and were particularly involved in the question of motivation. He challenged me to develop a conceptual model that would help predict health-behavior change.

He himself suggested smoking cessation to illustrate the model, and became keenly interested in this project in spite of the fact that he was an incessant chain smoker. The professor made several suggestions that greatly strengthened the conceptual model, and his enthusiasm got to me. Finally, I mustered up enough courage to ask him why he continued to puff away when he seemed to under stand so clearly the reasons for stopping smoking.

"Oh, I enjoy it," he said, "I know it doesn't do me any good—in fact, it's detrimental to my health. But I really enjoy it and don't want to quit."

The conversation was the first of many in which we earnestly discussed his smoking habit.

For about two years I'd been out of touch with him. Then a friend told me that he had passed away. When I ex pressed my shock, the-friend exclaimed, "Oh, hadn't you heard? It was a tragedy—he was only 45. He died of lung cancer." What a terrible price to pay for clinging to a death-dealing habit just be cause he enjoyed it so much!

Most of us are in the same boat, whether we realize it or not. We continually violate health laws in some way or other, probably only vaguely aware that what we're doing is harmful.

Of course we enjoy it. We wouldn't be doing what we're doing unless we did. If we're aware of breaking a law, it may add a little excitement and the thrill that comes along with being a daredevil. But inevitably it catches up with us. A law of life isn't a law if we can break it with impunity.

Can you remember the days when you felt really alive? You had the whole world by the tail and looked forward to wading into the challenges of that particularly glorious day. A sense of well-being made you feel that it was truly great to be part of everything that was happening.

How would you like to feel that way most of the time? The point is—you can. By cooperating with the laws of life and actively putting them to work for you, you will find a renewed vigor and joy of life that you may have thought you'd never experience again.

A complicated task

One of the great tragedies in the health field today is that people ordinarily do not become concerned about their health until something goes wrong. All too often, efforts at health education follow this same pattern and are based on the negative; fear of death, fear of disease, and fear of failure. How much more effective is the challenge to accept "something better"—a happier, healthier, more abundant way of life.

Motivating human behavior is a far more complicated task than merely wagging a threatening finger or presenting factual statements in lecture form. Scientists have so concentrated on the "what" and the actual that too often the "why" or the philosophical is over looked. As a result, man has mastered the outer physical world to a much greater extent than he has been able to master the world within his own being.

Social scientists, however, have begun to take a new interest in the field of behavior and motivation. Ernest Dichter reports on developments in his book Motivating Human Behavior. He believes the old carrot-and-stick approach is still one of the best ways to get results.

"In a recent experiment, a psychiatrist succeeded in stopping men from having extramarital experiences or dreaming of other women by administering electric shocks to them each time a picture of a woman other than their wives was shown to them. At the same time, sweet music was played when a picture of their wives was shown. The psychiatrist re ported that within a few weeks, these unhappy men lost all interest in other women—at least as goals of amorous pursuits. This is, indeed, a successful method of changing human attitudes. It is one of the oldest techniques in training and education. Our whole process of civilization is brought about with more or less success as a result of scolding the child and lauding it." 1

But in showing the superiority of the positive approach, Dichter points to re cent marketing research:

"To the international organization S.O.S. Kinderoerfer, which builds villages for orphans and underprivileged children in various parts of Europe, we suggested that a smiling child be shown instead of an abandoned or starving one—that this smile was the beautiful thing the giver was buying. Our headline, then, was 'How much is this human smile worth to you?' " 2

Dichter also emphasizes that attempting to change human behavior inevitably involves one in a discussion of values.

Currently educators are concerned with "value clarification strategies." The most effective motivation in behavior change actually has to do with our values. And religious values are coming to be recognized as among the strongest of motivating factors.

An example is found in the nationwide sample of smokers polled by the agencies connected with the National Clearinghouse for Smoking and Health in 1970 and reported on in 1971. According to Selwyn M. Waingrow, assistant to Dr. Daniel Horn of the National Clearing house, there is a definite correlation be tween permanent smoking cessation and religious motivation. In a talk presented to the Public Health Association of Seventh-day Adventists meeting Tuesday evening, November 14, 1972, in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Mr. Waingrow stated that the only clear predictor that an individual will stay off smoking permanently is that he is motivated to do so by religious convictions of one kind or another.

Religion, of course, is more than a mere motivating factor. It involves behavior. In its best sense religion doesn't push an individual to change his habits, it pulls him. It leads to a new and better way of life that involves the whole man—physically, mentally, socially, and spiritually.

Of course, all of us want the most accurate and latest health information available, but we are quickly bored unless we see a practical application. Dry facts, piles of statistics, scare tactics, and the hard-sell approach so often used in health presentations all seem to turn us off.

Modern research shows that we are dynamic in nature—that there is a wide band of potentialities available to us. At rare moments we glimpse the horizons of what could be. We witness the achievements of others and take courage that we, too, may achieve what they have. We need, somehow, to abandon our fears and recognize our God-given potential and talents. From infancy, how ever, we hear many more saying No than we hear saying Yes.

Dichter makes some very practical applications of this thesis. He points out that physicians, when prescribing reducing diets, too often concentrate on the diet and the prohibitions rather than what is more significant—the continuous reassurance the dieter needs that progress is being made.

The same thing is true concerning religion. Too many people see it in terms of prohibition rather than in terms of encouragement and challenge to heighten the potential of one's life. Certainly we need to change the restrictive structure within which we usually perceive religion, and recognize that what God has to offer is far better than any thing we have yet discovered for our selves.

Today's health problems are admittedly more difficult to cope with than the epidemics of the past, since they involve socioeconomic factors and our whole way of life. For too long many practitioners of health care have, it seems, been deliberately ignoring one of the most useful motivational instruments in health-behavior change—religion. Recently, this fact has been receiving attention and growing recognition. The subsequent development of the holistic approach to health care, which includes the spiritual along with the physical, mental, and social, gives great promise of developing a truly effective approach to the prevention and treatment of today's health problems.


1 Ernest Dichter, Motivating Human Behavior (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1971), p. 11.

2 Ibid., p. 13.

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This article is adapted from a chapter in Better Isn't Bitter by Leo R. VanDolson, Ph.D., an associate editor of the Adventist Review.

September 1979

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