Special Issue: Religion, Healing, and Public Health

To understand our patients fully, we need to understand their beliefs, or we will not be effective as their healers.

—Lori Arviso Alvord, Assistant Professor of Surgery and Associate Dean for Student Affairs, Dartmouth Medical School

What Do You Believe In?
Special, Guest-Edited Issue on Religion, Healing, ad Public Health

"You can't hide from religion in Georgia. If you don't go after it with a positive agenda, it will come after you."
Gary Gunderson, Director, Interfaith Health Program

"To understand our patients fully, we need to understand their beliefs, or we will not be effective as their healers."
Lori Arviso Alvord, Assistant Professor of Surgery and Associate Dean for Student Affairs, Dartmouth Medical School

New Perspectives on Health and Healing
Can Science and Religion Work Together?

An integrated exploration
A three-pronged approach to health, healing, and spirituality

A cross-cultural perspective
P. Venugopala Rao, Associate Professor of Physics

Mrs. Bradley's body
Carla Gober, Registered Nurse and Doctoral Candidate, Graduate Division of Religion

Spirituality and Modern Medicine
Science on a wing and prayer?

Between Patient and Healer
Four anthropological observations

Return to Contents


Alvord, keynote speaker at the April Emory conference New Perspectives on Health and Healing: Can Science and Religion Work Together?, describes her experience as the first Navajo woman surgeon in The Scalpel and the Silver Bear (Bantam Books 1999). Gary Laderman, associate professor of religion, is one of the conference organizers.

Gary Laderman: Does your definition of health differ from Western medicine’s?

Lori Alvord: Health is generally defined as physical and mental health. I follow Navajo interpretation, which defines health as keeping in balance every part of one’s world: mental, physical, spiritual. Careful tending to our relations with other humans, the animal world, and the environment results in the health of individuals, communities, and the local ecosystem.

GL: Is spirituality a dimension of health?

LA: Spirituality is a central dimension of health for those people who consider themselves spiritual beings. For them, a lack of spiritual health can lead to physical illness through lack of attention to the body, possibly through substance abuse or over-eating and lack of exercise. It can lead to mental illness, such as depression and abuse of self or others. A vibrant spiritual life, though, seems to have a protective effect on their health, particularly by protecting against the effects of stress.

GL: Is religion crucial to healing?

LA: Religion can be a force for healing. It can give meaning to life, and there is something important about the “will to live” that greatly aids a person facing severe illness. Beyond that, religion can help a person maintain strong connections to
family and community, which is beneficial for caring for patients when they become ill. Some religions also help patients keep many areas of their life in balance. Many people believe elements of religion—prayer, for example—have the power to heal as a direct result of the religious intervention. I believe there is (for lack of a better word) an energy process that occurs during prayer and ceremony—possibly from a higher power—that is highly beneficial to those who experience it.

GL: Can religion be unhealthy?

LA: Individuals can become obsessed with religion at the expense of their families or personal well-being. From a Navajo perspective, this would mean the person is out of harmony by not balancing all areas of their life; a person who prayed all day and didn’t take care of the horses and crops would probably be frowned upon. There are also well-known “clash-points” where some religions disallow elements of western medicine—Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christian Scientists. Many people living in the modern world would say these are examples of “unhealthy” aspects of religion.

GL: Even though as a surgeon you primarily deal with individual bodies, do you also take the social body—that is, public health—into account?

LA: Yes, I have a deep respect for public health, as I see the inter-relatedness of all things. I think about the environment patients go home to. Do they have health insurance? Can they obtain their medications? Is their housing adequate? Will they be exposed to infectious diseases? What is their nutritional status? So much depends on socioeconomic class and the resources available. And then, in a larger sense, we need to be mindful of the need for clean air and water, pure soil to grow food, and a sustainable planet.

GL: Why is it important for medical schools to include religion or spirituality in their curriculum?

LA: Students need to understand that their patients frequently do not separate their experience of illness and their spirituality. Many look to their spirituality to help them respond to their illness. In order to understand our patients fully, we need to understand their beliefs, or we will not be effective as their healers.

GL: What are the most promising trends in American medical culture? The most disturbing?

LA: Perhaps the most promising trend is that our youngest doctors are our most idealistic. They are open to many dimensions to healing, and I think they will be willing to explore areas that previous generations may not have been comfortable with. They are interested in the healing practices of other
cultures and are willing to think about creating a health care system that addresses the whole patient and their family. They are interested in creating safer communities and a cleaner environment.

The most disturbing may be the over-allocation of resources to treating and curing disease rather than preventing it and the obsession with high levels of technology rather than health education and wellness programs. I worry about the fact that medical institutions continue to advocate health by encouraging patients to “eat right, exercise, and get enough sleep” but are unable to provide those basic essentials to those who pass through their training programs.