Do You Believe In?
Special, Guest-Edited Issue on Religion, Healing, ad Public Health
can't hide from religion in Georgia. If you don't go after it with
a positive agenda, it will come after you."
Director, Interfaith Health Program
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
Perspectives on Health and Healing
Can Science and Religion Work Together?
A three-pronged approach to health, healing, and spirituality
P. Venugopala Rao, Associate Professor of Physics
Carla Gober, Registered Nurse and Doctoral Candidate, Graduate Division
and Modern Medicine
Science on a wing and prayer?
Patient and Healer
Four anthropological observations
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
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
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
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
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