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
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
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?