Religious Geographic Context and Individual Health: A Multilevel Approach

Fanhao Nie, Purdue University


Can the religious values of an entire geographic area affect the health of people living in that same area, even people with different religious values? Two of the founders of sociology, Max Weber and Emile Durkheim, believed that the dominant religious values in a country or region could affect diverse outcomes, such as economic development and suicide rates. Although many researchers have followed Durkheim's lead and have examined how individual religious values affect health behaviors and related outcomes, few have considered the ways that personal religious values are deeply embedded within local religious subcultures. That is, little research has investigated whether and how the religious values of other people living in the same area may influence an individual's health behaviors and related outcomes. Using multilevel regression analyses on nationally representative survey data merged with data about the areas where each respondent lives, I found that higher conservative Protestant population share in a county is related to a wide range of negative health behaviors and outcomes, such as more underage drunkenness, higher body mass index (BMI), and lower self-efficacy. In contrast, higher Jewish population share in a county may lead to higher self-efficacy and lower BMI, the latter of which is explained by county-level socioeconomic characteristics. Catholic population share is associated with mixed health-related outcomes—while higher Catholic population share may reduce BMI, it may increase underage drunkenness frequency. Surprisingly, the above religious contextual effects are not confined to one’s individual religious identity. In other words, when a county has higher Catholic population share, every adolescent living there may be more likely to have underage drunkenness regardless of personal religious identity.




Olson, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Religion|Geography|Public health|Sociology

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