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
five months a patient we will call “Mr. T” had noted
that his right hand had progressively gotten clumsier. Since his
right hand was his dominant hand, this peculiar experience slowly
became as frustrating as it was disabling. He saw himself transform
from a self-reliant go-getter to a man humbled by the need to have
others accommodate his new handicap. Within months, the clumsiness,
and later weakness, spread to his right leg and left side following
a similar march of symptoms.
His speech then began to go. First there was a softening of the
voice, then he required a microphone to be heard, and finally, he
had to learn sign language when he could no longer write. No sooner
did he learn sign language than his hands stopped working altogether.
With his ability to communicate severely impaired, strangers assumed
he could not hear, or that he was somehow mentally incapacitated.
Within a year his eyes began to close involuntarily. It seemed as
if someone did not want him to touch, speak, or now see. To add
to this seemingly dehumanizing experience, his back and leg muscles
began to develop painful muscle spasms requiring frequent pain medication.
Finally the muscles of his chest wall became stiff, making it difficult
to breathe. Medications did not help, yet he was not spared their
side effects. After a few weeks of breathing difficulties, he died.
His final diagnosis was primary lateral sclerosis, a rare condition
related to Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Mr. T’s deeply rooted practice of prayer, his religious faith,
and his family provided him with resilience throughout the ordeal.
Neverthe-less, given the final outcome, how could he claim that
prayer provided healing in his case? The answer to this question
was always clear to him and his family as they understood that healing,
like quality of life, transcends physical comfort. His serenity
in the face of such Job-like suffering was humbling to behold. He
never complained, and he refused all extraordinary measures that
could have extended his life. Death itself came with a measure of
peace and tranquility.
It has been the experience of many, including those who practice
religion and medicine, that a strong faith in one’s God makes
a great difference in quality of life under any circumstances. Traumatic
experiences and the imminence of death augment the value that faith
brings to life. As Goethe’s Faust notably exclaimed as he
glimpsed eternal truth (“God”) and contemplated his
mortality, “Stop this moment, it is so beautiful.”
Physicians and healers agree that the main goal of all healing arts
is to improve quality of life. If we accept the premise that prayer
and spirituality can enhance quality of life, then these practices
are far too important and intriguing to be ignored by science and
medicine. In fact, the experiences of a number of traditionally
trained physicians like Howard Koenig (Duke University Center for
the Study of Religion, Spirituality, and Health), Leonard Laskow
(American Board of Holistic Medicine), and Andrew Newberg (University
of Pennsylvania Medical Center) already support the notion that
the power of prayer has a biologic basis that can be exploited as
a legitimate tool of medicine. Nevertheless, as it relates to the
healing arts, Koenig concedes that “Science and philosophy
have struggled with these mind-body-spirit questions for centuries
without coming up with definitive
[evidence-based] explanations, and none is clearly on the horizon.”
A few scientifically controlled studies have found that intercessory
prayer may be an effective adjunct to good medical care. The scientific
community is still troubled, however, by the fact that most of the
evidence to support the potential medical value of prayer has emerged
from uncontrolled studies. Further, Fred Rosner (Queens Hospital
Center) and others have criticized studies that examined the use
of prayer for medical healing on the basis that results could be
attributed to the mantra-like (repetitive) quality of prayer. This
quality can ameliorate despair and despondency, making the prayer-mediated
connection to the sacred more difficult to examine.
In light of these uncertainties, studying the mechanisms through
which prayer may act as a healing tool could have value to both
society and medicine. Is there a biology underlying the way prayer
can bring about serenity and inner peace? Was there something special
about Mr. T that enabled him to access these biologic processes
better than someone else? Is a strong religious faith a pre-requisite
to maintaining serenity in the face of hardship, or can a strong
positive outlook devoid of faith accomplish the same thing?
In religious practices based on the Judeo-Christian tradition, prayer
is used to help cope with suffering in general, and illness-related
suffering in particular. In this setting, the intent is to use prayer
to strengthen the bond with God and to make this connection an integral
part of the healing process. The healing brought about by prayer
in this setting is deemed so powerful that, as in the case of Mr.
T, it does not require physical health.
Regardless of the many gaps that still exist in our understanding
of how prayer and spirituality may bring about healing, we believe
in their intrinsic good and in the potential medical value of such
practices. Similarly, we understand that unlike other medical interventions,
the value of prayer to society transcends its potential medical
uses and thus does not depend on science’s ability to identify
the mechanisms responsible for its role in healing, physical or
otherwise. That said, it is our opinion that evidence-based outcome
research remains essential as society contemplates whether spiritual
healing practices should be included as line items in our health
In this regard, one of the roles of science in disease-centered
healing practices has been to help constrain personal and group
biases as well as other human weaknesses associated with any practice
or profession. This approach has helped foster integrity, transparence,
and accountability in medicine. Before government and the insurance
industry can even consider assigning a monetary value to these practices
(such as prayer or spiritual healing), traditional scientists and
spiritual healers need to show due diligence in providing the evidence
needed to evaluate these interventions in a medical context. Perhaps
a good start would be for practitioners of these professions to
learn more about the language of each other’s disciplines.
In so doing they might discover a surprising amount of convergence.