The systems shaping the conditions of daily life,” the

The edited volume, Religion as a Social Determinant of Health,
is unique in the fact the editor, sociologist Ellen Idler, brings together
interdisciplinary scholarship at the intersections of religion and public
health to illuminate their complex, ever-present, and often overlooked
interactions. Works featured in this volume draw attention to how religion
shapes the health of billions of people across the globe, whether in the form
of practices ranging from diet to pilgrimage, or in broader macro-level
political and economic contexts. Through their bridge-building scholarship the
authors whose work is presented in this volume demonstrate that religion acts an
independent social determinant of health while also affecting other economic
and political determinants. They contend that it is vital to recognize
religion’s role as an integral part of the “conditions in which people are
born, grow, work, live, and age, and the wider set of forces and systems shaping
the conditions of daily life,” the social determinants of health, if current
and future public health challenges are going to be addressed in more
efficacious and just ways (WHO, 2017).           

            In the
first chapter, “Religion: The Invisible Determinant,” Idler explains the key
theoretical positions on which the volume builds its assertions for considering
religion as an independent social determinant of health. She posits that
religion serves as a source of social support, social control, and social
capital for adherents. In so doing, religion acts directly on population health
by bringing individuals into communities and defining roles, regulating their
behavior, as well as providing for them in ways that may be related to yet
distinct from state-level institutions. A vital point in Idler’s theoretical
framework is that religion’s role as a social determinant of health can be both
positive and negative and is context specific. Idler draws attention to the
ways religion has been overlooked by the world’s premier public health
institution, the World Health Organization.

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 Following this first chapter, the book is
divided into five parts that flesh out Idler’s theoretical framework by
providing specific examples of public health practices across faith traditions,
looking historically at the intersections of religion and public health,
examining religion and public health across the life course, charting ways in
which religion and public health interact across the globe, and describing how religion
plays a role in three contemporary public health challenges.

Part one of the book examines
religious practices that impact public health from diverse faith traditions.
This section is divided by timing of specific practices, i.e. daily, weekly,
annually, or a one-time event, and scholars of each tradition highlight health
implications of these practices. An example of daily religious practice is
vegetarianism among Seventh Day Adventists, which has both deep spiritual
meaning and potential added health benefits for practitioners. On the other end
of the time spectrum, traditional Hindu cremation practices in India are discussed
in regards to potential public health impacts, especially given close proximity
to and handling of the dead, which may prove dangerous if the deceased died of
communicable illness. The religious practices discussed in this section provide
insight into how lived religious realities impact the health of billions of people
worldwide across the life course.

In the second part of the volume little
known historical connections between religion and public health in England and
the United States are explored. The works in this section foreground ways
religious leaders have been at the forefront of many reform movements, mobilizing
their resources to affect change that directly impacts public health. One
author in this section describes how the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, was
motivated by his theological understandings of spiritual and physical health to
create dispensaries and a health manual for laity. Other examples show how
religion and public health are linked to more macro-level political causes.
Movements like the Temperance Movement and the Social Gospel Movement were
rooted in Christian theological beliefs about issues ranging from widespread
alcohol use to the injustices affecting the disenfranchised. Religious support
was also vital to the U.S. Federal Government passing the Comstock laws of
1873, which effectively criminalized many aspects of sexual expression and
reproductive autonomy at the time. The historical analyses presented in this
section provide insight into the long-standing intersections of religion and
public health—for better or worse—and bring our attention to the lineage of
many contemporary political issues.

            Part three
of the volume examines religion and public health across the life course.
Through this framework the authors interrogate how exposure to certain
religious tenets can impact the lives of adherents over time. Particular areas
of interest in this section include religion’s connections to the reproductive
and sexual lives of adherents, which impact everything from abortion to condom
use, as well as how religion and mental health intersect in ways that are both
helpful and harmful to health. Also examined are ways religious teachings and
their rules for living, like those related to sexual practices, diet, alcohol use,
or other behaviors shape people’s identities and have the potential to impact
health. An important component of this section is presentation of epidemiological
and empirical data that demonstrate the links between religion and public
health in ways that can be categorized scientifically. This section also points
to the need for further research to be conducted that examines religion’s
impact on the health of populations over the life course.

            Part four demonstrates
that though religious viewpoints and institutions have been present in
responding to global public health issues, understanding these connections and
how they work to benefit global health have not been prioritized. Works presented
in part four discuss ways in which large organizations, like the Christian
Medical Commission, the healthcare arm of the World Council of Churches, have
been motivated to address public health crises from their theological
understandings, as well as how smaller indigenous institutions have addressed
public health issues facing their own populations from similar religiously
rooted perspectives. The African Religious Health Assets Mapping Program,
ARHAP, is another example discussed. This program is particularly novel in that
it seeks to develop a framework for thinking about how religion shapes people’s
health and health seeking behavior. It also seeks to conceptualize ways to
assess and leverage the assets of religious communities to respond to public
health issues impacting their communities. This section emphasizes the need for
those in the field of global health to strengthen connections with religious
communities in order to better utilize resources and examine ways in which
religion impacts the health of communities in which they work. 

            The confluence
of religion and three public health challenges, HIV/AIDS, Alzheimer’s, and the
potential for pandemic influenza, are discussed in part four. This section
draws our attention to how religion has played or could play a role in
confronting these potentially life-threatening diseases. Of these challenges,
religion has played perhaps the most controversial role in responses to the
global HIV/AIDS epidemic. The authors show how religion has served as a force
that has been barrier to public health by promoting certain types of sexual
behavior while stigmatizing and shaming others. 
However, these works also stress that some of the most supportive
responses to HIV/AIDS have come from religious communities, providing
life-giving social support as well as physical and healthcare resources. Other
works in this section highlight that religion’s role in addressing Alzheimer’s
and the potential for the pandemic flu is somewhat less fraught because these
are not such moralized illnesses. The descriptions of these illnesses look at
how religious communities and institutions can serve as public health partners
by teaching congregants about these two public health issues and how they can
be sources of social and material support for those impacted. This final
section shows first hand the problems that may present themselves when religion
and public health have competing priorities, yet it also points to how these
differences can be overcome when the goals of religion and public health align
to preserve life and give hope.

            Idler’s
edited volume is at the forefront of interdisciplinary scholarship that speaks
to the unique ways that religion impacts public health the world over. By
highlighting communal level religious practices that shape the health of
adherents, examining how religious beliefs act as barriers to and facilitators
for public health, and showing ways in which religion and public health can act
in partnership, the book articulates a poignant argument for why religion must
be considered a social determinant of health. It demonstrates why the social
determinants of health framework that is utilized by those in the field is
missing a critical driver of population health, religion. This work serves as a
model for the type of bridge-building capacity that interdisciplinary
scholarship in religion and public health has to enrich the world. In so doing,
it points to ways in which those in the fields of public health and religion can
better serve those in communities in which they work. Idler’s work does not shy
away from the fact that mapping the ways religion shapes public health may be challenging
and that bringing religious communities and institutions into partnership with
public health can prove difficult, but she and the other authors reveal that
this endeavor is an ethical necessity if we are to challenge injustice and
improve public health.