Special Issue: Religion, Healing, and Public Health

Spirituality and Modern Medicine

Science on a wing and a prayer?

Jorge L. Juncos, Associate Professor of Neurology, Center for Compelemntary and Alternative Medicine, and Kathleen Kiley, Dream Insights


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

For 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 care budget.

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.