Christmas is a season of spiritual wonder. We know that prayer works, but going to church?

A new study strongly suggests that regular attendance at religious services reduces the risk of death by approximately 20%. And new archeological findings have unearthed evidence that over a thousand years ago, people believed that the soul was separate from the body.

The researchers evaluated the religious practices of over 90,000 post-menopausal women and examined the prospective association of religious affiliation, religious service attendance, and strength and comfort derived from religion with subsequent cardiovascular events and overall rates of mortality. The study showed as much as a 20% decrease in the overall risk of mortality for those attending religious services.

Researcher Eliezer Schnall says, “Interestingly, the protection against mortality provided by religion cannot be entirely explained by expected factors that include enhanced social support of friends or family, lifestyle choices and reduced smoking and alcohol consumption. There is something here that we don’t quite understand.”

Humans have been church goers for a long time. Archaeologists in southeastern Turkey have discovered an Iron Age chiseled stone slab that provides the first written evidence of an ancient, Iron Age religion. It was an 800-pound basalt stele, 3 feet tall and 2 feet wide. At the time it was built, vast empires emerged in the ancient Middle East, and cultures such as the Israelites and Phoenicians became part of a vibrant mix.

The man featured on the stele was probably cremated, a practice that Jewish and other cultures now shun because of a belief in the unity of body and soul. According to the inscription, the soul of the deceased resided in the stele. The carving depicts a handsome, bearded figure, wearing a tasseled cap and fringed cloak and raising a cup of wine in his right hand. He is seated on a chair in front of a table laden with food, symbolizing the pleasant afterlife he expected to enjoy.

Beside him is his inscription, elegantly carved in raised relief, enjoining upon his descendants the regular duty of bringing food for his soul. Indeed, in front of the stele there were remains of food offerings and fragments of polished stone bowls of the type depicted on the table.

The inscription reads: “I, Kuttamuwa, servant of Panamuwa, am the one who oversaw the production of this stele for myself while still living. I placed it in an eternal chamber(?) and established a feast at this chamber(?): a bull for [the storm-god] Hadad?” It was written in a script derived from the Phoenician alphabet and in a local West Semitic dialect similar to Aramaic and Hebrew. The finding sheds a striking new light on Iron Age beliefs about the afterlife. In this case, it was the belief that the enduring identity or “soul” of the deceased inhabited the monument on which his image was carved and on which his final words were recorded.

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