By now, everybody knows that religious involvement correlates with better health and longer life. But a group of researchers has discovered a dark side to religion. For two years, Ken Pargament, Ph.D., of Bowling Green University and his colleague Harold Koenig of Duke Medical School ran extensive tests on 595 sick and elderly patients, controlling for age, race, and physical and mental health.

They found that when old women and men get sick, they die sooner if they fall into certain religious traps. The most dangerous are reflected in remarks like:

  • "God has abandoned me."
  • "Does God still love me?"
  • "The devil made this happen."
  • "God is punishing me for my lack of devotion."

    Of the four negative factors quoted above, all were deadly, but feeling punished by God for lack of devotion turned out to be the least destructive, with the most deadly being despair, the feeling of being abandoned by God--"Why hast Thou forsaken me?"

    There's a high risk from the original sin of putting self before God's will

    When Pargament first told me about these bitter good-byes, I felt an abiding sadness because I've personally suffered with devout people who had expected their prayers to make their bodies whole again. It was one of the ironic lessons from my mother's last agony. All her life, she'd had the kind of Methodist strength that let her stand up for black friends in a small town down South, but in her 70s she slid into a terminal depression when her faith struck back at her like an avenging angel.

    Since her prayers did not heal her body, she decided the fault had to be hers. Her faith must be too weak, her prayers worded wrong, or she must have sinned. In despair, her imagination hunted back over her life for some monumental evil, anything bad enough to match her pain, wrong enough to explain why Jesus had abandoned her in her hour of need. In one depressive episode, she imagined that she'd had an affair with the local doctor. No amount of family argument, or humor, could quite wash away this improbable invention.

    You don't have to be an old-fashioned true believer to build this trap for yourself, though it has long been one of religion's secret punishments that ministers hear about over and over. And its frequency may be on the rise. When faith healing was reborn in the 1960s, New Age gurus urged the sick to "take responsibility" for having diseases such as cancer. To them it was a logical step toward psychological self-cures, but it confounded cure with cause and was akin to blaming the victim for crimes such as rape. Worst of all, the burden of guilt, a shaming self-blame, often hits the patient just when she needs to focus all her inner resources on healthy action.

  • This quasi-religious form of self-torture is all the more deadly when it comes dressed in the warmth of good friends and caring healers. In the 1970s and '80s, for instance, Stephanie Simonton of Ft. Worth taught hundreds of cancer victims to take responsibility through "imaging," as she called her form of guided imagery. Each patient would invent a mental image of a friendly predator that would fight a wild-cell tumor within. A dedicated healer and good friend, Stephanie secretly gave hours of telephone therapy to my first wife, then dying of breast and pancreatic cancers. Together, they borrowed a shark image from our neighbor Peter Benchley's book "Jaws," and imagined it swimming through her bloodstream on the prowl for cancer cells.

    Stephanie poured all her conviction and energy into such efforts for cancer patients across the country, determined to keep them alive with her own vivid energy--even after she came down with cancer herself. She finally took her own advice, backed away from the overload, married her lover, and rebuilt her life around an ideal of greater pleasure.

    Because I was the editor of Psychology Today, psychological healers across the country knew about my family's situation and generously volunteered to heal us. Some were so convinced of their ideas that they were insensitive to the burden of guilt they inspired in my wife. Vulnerable, she already blamed her cancer on the Jungian sin of failing to "individuate," failing to fully realize her unique personhood.

    "These medical doctors don't promise you anything but death," one hard-sell healer told her, "so why bother with Sloan Kettering?" Since we didn't dare tell our mainstream doctors about her alternative medicine efforts, the best I could do was hours of research to screen out the weird ones that might hurt her. In spite of all this, her final present to our four teenagers was the grace and courage of her last six months.

    It's easy to understand why traditional doctors and scientific researchers tend to fight off new mind/body medical discoveries: These efforts can degenerate into something very like magic and ritualistic incantations in which people try to exercise the power of ego rather than humbly submit to God's will. Healers, for all their benign intent, often move into spell-casting not too different from Harry Potter and other young wizards in "The Goblet of Fire."

    The danger is greatest when our need is most desperate, at the moment when we are trying to order God to do our healing for loved ones or ourselves. A new field of medical research is beginning to show that spiritual practices, from prayer to forgiveness, have significantly healthy side effects on our bodies. But there's a high risk from the original sin of putting self before God's will. Attempts to use these powers to our own ends can drive us into exactly the kind of religious traps that Ken Pargament and Howard Koenig have found in their research. In her dying days, my mother paid a miserable price for this ordinary human hope--that God would hear her prayers and cure her.

    T George Harris is a widely respected journalism professional who garnered two National Magazine Awards for Psychology Today and American Health. He also served as a correspondent for Time and as Time-Life-Fortune bureau chief in several cities.

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