2016-06-30
Excerpted from "God for the 21st Century," by permission of Templeton Foundation Press.

Is religion good for your health? Do prayer and faith help you heal?

A vivacious--and vexing--lady visited my medical office often, armed with a beguiling smile, a rapier wit, and intractable pain from arthritis. Each visit brought forth a languorous litany of incurable woe: She had sampled every painkiller in the pharmacopoeia, with scant success. "Is there anything that does help you?" I asked one day, in desperation.

"Faith and prayer!" she exclaimed. "And singing in the church choir!" Faith, prayer...and singing? Are these listed in the Physician's Desk Reference? Should they be? Karl Marx dismissed religion as "the opiate of the people." Is religion, like codeine and other opiates, an effective "drug" for pain and other disorders? What's the proper dose? Are there side effects?

The medical effects of faith are a matter not just of faith but also of science. More than 300 scientific studies demonstrate the medical value of religious commitment (including worship attendance, prayer, Scripture study, and active participation in a spiritual community). These benefits include enhanced prevention and treatment of mental disorders (e.g., depression, suicide, and anxiety); medical and surgical illnesses (e.g., heart disease, cancer, sexually transmitted diseases); and addictions, reduced pain and disability, and prolonged survival. In addition, spiritual treatment (e.g., prayer, religiously based psychotherapy) enhances recovery.

My answer is yes! The documented health benefits of religious beliefs and practices and the burgeoning spiritual interests of patients compel us to address matters of faith with our patients. All medical professionals can learn to recognize the medical impact of faith and to encourage, when appropriate, the healthy use of spiritual beliefs and practices. Praying for or with patients may be a valuable, meaningful option in certain instances, depending on the beliefs and wishes of both the patient and the doctor.

Some cautions are in order regarding possible "side effects." While some clinicians may develop particular expertise in handling spiritual problems, physicians will not replace clergy: each role is unique, and both are needed in the care of the sick. Similarly, I do not suggest or sanction use of faith-based approaches instead of medical care: we need prayer and Prozac, clergy and clinicians, faith and medicine.

Participating in prayer and religious activities does not guarantee good health: Both saints and sinners alike eventually get sick and die. Patients should not follow "doctor's orders" in matters of faith: Choosing a particular spiritual tradition (or none at all) should not be forced, nor should it be based on the mistaken belief that one faith offers a greater likelihood of obtaining health benefits than another. Indeed, the very purpose of faith is not merely to lower blood pressure or add a few moments or months of life, but to seek truth and find God.

Despite these legitimate concerns, I do believe that physicians can--and should--encourage patients to continue or consider authentic, autonomous religious activity. Perhaps clinicians of the twenty-first century will join with clergy to develop a new synthesis of scientifically based and religiously meaningful medical care to help persons who suffer and seek our aid.

Shall we pray?

For the faithful, religious commitment offers many health advantages. A cohesive, comforting set of beliefs and participation in sacred rituals may endow a sense of meaning, purpose, and hope. Faith offers a "peace that passeth understanding" in times of pain, grief, and disability. Healthy lifestyle choices (e.g., exercise, proper diet) are more common and unhealthy behaviors (e.g., nicotine, alcohol, and drug use; suicide attempts; high-risk sexual activity) less common among religious persons. Persons of faith usually cope effectively with stress and have strong social support and a high quality of life (e.g., well-being, self-esteem, job and marital satisfaction, altruism).

In this health-conscious age, patients are demanding more from medical professionals. They want more compassion and less dispassion, more listening and less lecturing; they seek healers of the mind and spirit, not just mechanics of the body.

According to recent scientific studies and polls, two out of three individuals would like to address spiritual issues with their doctors, and half would even like their doctors to pray with them.

Is this something new? The latest fad? Actually, the bond between religion and medicine is quite ancient. Since the dawn of recorded history, these twin traditions of healing have been partners in the care of the sick, plowing together the holy ground of healing.

The success of modern medical practice came at a price: There seemed to be "no room at the inn" for religion in healing. Nonetheless, the dogged persistence of chronic diseases and the alarming advances of AIDS and other scourges have tempered any hope or expectation that science will eventually, inevitably solve all mysteries of illness.

A new willingness to consider alternative healing practices and a growing civility between religion and medicine is in the air. It's time to reunite these long-separated traditions of healing. In my office, I encourage everyone to exercise regularly, eat properly, stop smoking and excessive alcohol use, take medicines correctly, and even wear seatbelts. Should I tell them to pray, read Scripture, attend worship, or work at a soup kitchen?

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