What Religion Can Do for Your Health
Why practices like prayer and attending church can have a powerful effect on our mental and physical well-being.
Dr. Harold G. Koenig is co-director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology, and Health at Duke University Medical Center, where he also serves on the faculty as Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and Associate Professor of Medicine. Dr. Koenig is the author of many books, including "The Healing Power of Faith," "Faith and Mental Health," and "Spiritual Caregiving," and he has been nominated twice for the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He spoke with us recently about why he believes being part of a religious community can make people healthier—and happier.
A recent study suggests that praying for others does not improve their health. How do you interpret the results?
I think the results are very consistent with good science and good theology. Good science because there's no acceptable scientific mechanism or pathway by which prayer—at least the way it was designed in this study without people knowing whether or not they were prayed for—could have any effect, and it's good theology because God is not predictable, he's not a part of the material universe.
It tells us nothing about the effectiveness of prayer.
Do you think it's impossible to do that?
It's impossible for studies designed like this. God would have to be quantitative and predictable, which is ludicrous in the context of any Christian or Jewish or Islamic tradition and even within the Eastern traditions.
How do you measure God's will for a person? Ninety-six percent of the participants in the Harvard study had someone else praying for them. We don't know how much prayer they had, we don't know how sincere the prayers were. None of that was taken into account, and it would be very hard to measure those things. And none of the benefits to the prayed-for group were measured after 30 days. Maybe God healed them after 30 days—we don't know. You can see that this study is ridiculous.