What do you believe in?
Special Issue: Religion, Healing, and Public Health
Arri Eisen, Senior Lecturer in Biology and Director, Program in Science and Society, Special Issue Guest Editor


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

What do you believe in?

We in the academy have tended to ignore that question. It’s okay for us to study what others believe in and why they believe in it, then compare these beliefs to what others believe. But to discuss or dissect our own beliefs and examine their relevance to our scholarship—this is not for the scholarly.

Such thinking is especially common among scientists. Personal beliefs should not be part of the conversation, not part of the equation; reality is what it is, and the true test of what counts is that it can be demonstrated experimentally and repeated independently.

Scientists are not alone. Many of our colleagues in the humanities and social sciences—those studying, among other things, what others believe and why—have made a strong effort to “scientificize” their own studies—to make politics, history, even literature, into scientific fields, and thus leave personal belief out of the picture.

When three years ago I somehow found myself co-leading a group of self-selected colleagues in a weekly faculty seminar on “science and religion,” we were all a bit uncomfortable, surprised, and maybe relieved to find ourselves talking about our own beliefs. We found that in discussing science and religion, personal belief and experience could not be ignored. Our group consisted of folks from nearly every school at the university, and we found ourselves free of departmental baggage, disciplinary egos, and political restraints, and we deeply reflected on how our work fit into the way the world works—or should work—and how our personal views fit into all of this. We became close friends, and many of us continue to talk frequently.

I came away from this first seminar thinking this type of reflection was a crucial element that has been excised from the body academic. And that the body is much weaker for it. These were not conversations over beer; these were serious intellectual debates among serious scholars from diverse disciplines, examining the big questions. Wasn’t this what universities were supposed to be about?

Unexpectedly, I found myself in an odd position. Here I was,
thinking this stuff was important, and yet I was an integral part of a scientific culture that scoffed at mixing the words spirit and science in the same sentence; a culture that often scoffs even at our colleagues in the humanities and social sciences (regardless of their efforts
to the contrary), because they don’t do “real” experiments; a culture that, in every campus I have been on is physically and intellectually entirely separated from the rest of the campus.

Exploring Boundaries

Ironically, not being in a tenure-track position, where I had to be part of this culture—in other words, in a position in which I didn’t have to get grants, run a lab, and do “real” experiments for a living—I was able to keep going and explore these boundary areas without too many people noticing or caring. A whole new world and perspective on the possibilities and richness of academia emerged.

I grew up the son of a geneticist in the South, where science and
religion means “Evolution versus Creation”—a conversation I have found useless. A much richer conversation, the one in which I and others have been involved at Emory, focuses on issues of healing, medicine, spirituality, health, and religion. Emory is an obvious treasure trove of expertise and information in this area. In fact, with strong liberal arts departments and superb education and research in medicine, theology, nursing, and public health, we should be a world
leader in it.

With my colleagues Gary Laderman in religion and P.V. Rao in physics, and with support from the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, an affiliate of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, we have developed over the past year an integrated program exploring issues in health and religion. The project began with another weekly faculty/graduate student seminar, specifically on public health, healing, and religion. This seminar had readings approaching issues in this area from a dozen different disciplinary perspectives. The seminar served as a catalyst and testing ground for ideas and materials we then used to develop an undergraduate course, Mind, Medicine, and Healing, which we are currently teaching. The students spent the first two weeks of the senior seminar reading from works of the many perspectives explored in the faculty seminar. From these readings, they formed a set of “core questions” at the boundaries of health, healing, and mind.

The students are also reading books by three distinguished surgeon/humanists, Sherwin Nuland, Lori Arviso Alvord, and Richard Selzer, all of whom will visit Emory for the climax of our year of integrated activities in science and religion, a public symposium, New Perspectives on Health and Healing: Can Science and Religion Work Together? (see sidebar opposite page). The students will meet with these scholars and continue the conversation they started by sending them their list of “core questions.” It is these questions that will serve as a foundation for the symposium. Finally, the students will present at the symposium research projects they have developed in the course.

In This Issue


And thus we come to this issue of the Academic Exchange. The editors graciously invited me to be their first guest editor, and it appeared sensible to use this issue of the Exchange to cultivate further this exploration of spirituality and healing. Many folks have had the kindness to contribute. My attempt was to give small tastes of the kinds of topics, ideas, and debates that have arisen in our discussions and symposia, so that the reader could further investigate intriguing issues on his or her own.

Public health, perhaps more than any other academic area, has grappled with questions of belief, religion, and health. Gary Gunderson, the director of the Interfaith Health Program at the Rollins School of Public Health, is one of the leaders in the effort to integrate the efforts and influences of religious institutions with those of the health community to improve health. In an interview with Academic Exchange editor Allison Adams, Gunderson discusses his rich experiences in this arena and with the politically charged faith-based initiatives championed by the current administration in Washington, D.C. And Lori Alvord, the first woman Navajo surgeon and keynote speaker at our April conference, previews her thoughts in an interview that moves across the spectrum of issues in health and religion.

Since that first faculty seminar, we have found it revealing and powerful for each participant to read a personal statement to the group. This open discussion of personal beliefs has proven an effective way to bridge the sciences and humanities. The statements, which vary significantly in format and length, address these questions: What brings you to this discussion? Why are you interested in science and religion, healing and spirituality? Carla Gober, a nurse who is now a graduate student in the Graduate Division of Religion, gives a striking example of one of these personal statements—providing not only an engaging story but one that illustrates the value both of the experience itself and the reflection upon it. P.V. Rao gives us a different take—that of growing up between two different cultures of healing—and discusses the effect his religion has on the mix.

Jorge Juncos, an associate professor of neurology in the Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, and his co-investigator, Kathleen Kiley of Dream Insights, present an even-handed approach to the contentious issue of the effect of prayer on healing. The literature in this area is expanding quickly in fields likeneurotheology and brain-imaging. I include their work as one of many examples of the quest for designing scientifically sound experiments to examine issues of belief.

Finally, Peter Brown from anthropology writes a sort of “self-anthropological” reflection on the seminar as a lens through which we examined meanings of belief, our own cultural biases as Americans and academics, and the impact these issues of religion and health have on research and society.

I hope you can spend a few minutes with these issues. After all, we are all going to get sick. Shouldn’t our best minds be working to figure out the best ways to get better? This is interdisciplinarity with a purpose. Think about it again: What do I believe in? You can’t deny it’s an important question. Perhaps your answers will help uncover solutions to the problems and conundrums of your own teaching and research.