The XX Factor

Church Makes You Fat and News Stories Make You Stupid

Damn you, correlation ! Why can’t you be causation ? If you were, then we’d know that cell phone towers cause high birth rates , vaccines cause autism , and believing in God makes you fat . Instead, all we have are numbers and the wild inferences of researchers and writers.

The Daily Beast takes a look at this faith-fat study , critiquing recent research out of Northwestern suggesting that “religious people were 50 percent more likely to become obese.” The Beast ’s writer finds fault with how the researchers measured religiosity, suggesting that the researchers made a flawed assumption when they imagined peoples’ religious habits would hold steady for nearly two decades.


Maybe so. But that’s not what troubles me about the way this study is being reported . (CBS News: “Does God make you fat?” Hartford Courant: “Faith makes you fat.” Time magazine: “Why Going to Church Can Make You Fat.”) Several theories have been proposed to explain the researchers’ findings, including the speculation that maybe people eat too much fattening food at church (not enough fruits and veggies are being served). Or that church-goers have more friends to eat and drink with . Or that fat people tend to seek out church, looking for acceptance despite their size.  But what about the possibility that the connection is much more tenuous, that it has to do with demographics rather than direct cause-and-effect? What if the people who tend to go to church are also the people who tend to become overweight for a myriad of reasons-geography, demographics, cultural practices-that have nothing to do with chowing down on donuts after services?

This happens over and over in news stories-reporters put the most provocative news up top, headline writers lay on even juicier language and only if you read to the bottom do you get all the caveats and nuanced thinking.