BY THE CHLEW STUDY
Although the relationship between spirituality and health is somewhat of a mystery, a growing body of research suggests that spirituality has a positive effect on both physical and mental health.
In the Chicago Health and Life Experiences of Women study ( CHLEW ) we included several questions about spirituality and religion in an attempt to better understand the importance of spirituality and religion for lesbians and their health ( the CHLEW is a longitudinal study of nearly 450 lesbians in the Chicago metropolitan area ) . While we have not yet looked at specific relationships between spirituality and religion and health, some of the early findings related to lesbians' views about spirituality and religion are interesting—though perhaps not surprising. These findings clearly indicate that lesbians are much more spiritual than they are religious.
About a third of lesbians in the CHLEW reported that they are Protestant ( 16% ) , Catholic ( 13% ) or Jewish ( 5% ) ; nearly another third selected 'other' from the list of religious affiliations; and a third reported that they have no religious preference. These results differ a good deal those in a national study of urban/suburban women. Using the same questions, researchers found that women in the general population primarily identified as Protestant ( 40% ) or Catholic ( 24% ) ; identified as Jewish ( 2% ) . Only about a fourth ( 24% ) gave 'other' as their religious affiliation and only 11% said they had no religious affiliation.
We also asked the question 'How religious you would say you are?' ( 'religious' in this question was defined as 'how actively one currently follows the teachings of a specific religion and participates in that religion' ) . The vast majority of the women in the CHLEW said that they were not at all religious ( 44% ) or only somewhat religious ( 45% ) . Very few ( about 10% ) said that they were very religious. On the other hand, when asked about spirituality ( defined as 'how often one spends time thinking about the ultimate purpose of life or one's own relationship to a higher power in life' ) the majority of CHLEW study participants said that they were very spiritual ( 48% ) or somewhat spiritual ( 46% ) ; only 6% were not at all spiritual. Responses of lesbians and heterosexual women to the spirituality question were very similar, while the two groups of women differed substantially in terms of religiosity ( in the national study nearly one-fourth of the women said that they are very religious ) .
Lesbians and other sexual minorities are often unwelcome or excluded in many mainstream religious organizations and many may no longer practice the faith traditions of their families of origin—which likely explains much of the differences between lesbians and heterosexual women described above.
Interest in spirituality has grown dramatically over the past few decades. For example, a molecular biologist at the National Cancer Institute recently authored a book in which he argues that spirituality is embedded in our DNA; he believes that he has located one of the genes responsible for spirituality in humans. Among the potential implications of spirituality being governed by our DNA is not only that human spirituality is an adaptive trait, but that some people are inherently more spiritual than others.
In other words, spirituality may not only be simply a matter of individual preference, a product of the environment, or a philosophy of the world—but a part of one's genetic code. Obviously, this is an argument that could be easily debated, but it raises intriguing questions about links between sexual orientation and spirituality. We hope to report more specific results from the CHLEW about the relationship between spirituality and health in the future.
The continued success of the CHLEW depends largely on our ability to locate and re-interview women who participated in our first round of interviews in 2000-2001. We have lost contact with about 35 of the women who were interviewed in the first phase of the study. If you or anyone you know participated in the first phase of the study please call our toll-free number 1-866-933-3459 or contact us via e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org ) . No one can replace the original participants ( we cannot add lesbians to the study who did not participate in 2000-'01 ) , so it is critically important that we locate each of the missing participants. We very much appreciate your help and look forward to bringing you more interesting and useful information about important health issues in our community.