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
do you believe in?
We in the academy have tended to ignore that question. Its
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 scholarshipthis 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 sciencesthose studying, among other things, what
others believe and whyhave made a strong effort to scientificize
their own studiesto make politics, history, even literature,
into scientific fields, and thus leave personal belief out of the
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
worksor should workand how our personal views fit into
all of this. We became close friends, and many of us continue to
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.
Wasnt 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 dont 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.
Ironically, not being in a tenure-track
position, where I had to be part of this culturein other words,
in a position in which I didnt have to get grants, run a lab,
and do real experiments for a livingI 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 Creationa 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
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
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
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 statementsproviding
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 takethat of growing up between two different
cultures of healingand 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
I hope you can spend a few minutes with these issues. After all,
we are all going to get sick. Shouldnt 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
cant deny its an important question. Perhaps your answers
will help uncover solutions to the problems and conundrums of your
own teaching and research.