February 9, 2004

Symposium to explore connections between religion, health

By Stephanie Sonnenfeld

Exploring possible connections between an individuals' health and their religious faith will be the topic of Emory's fifth annual Symposium on Science and Religion, to be held Tuesday, Feb. 17.

Harold Koenig, associate professor of medicine and psychiatry at Duke University, will be the keynote speaker for the luncheon event that begins at noon in Cox Hall Ballroom.

Koenig is founder and director of the Center for the Study of Religion/Spirituality and Health at Duke University Medical Center, and has published extensively in the fields of mental health, geriatrics and religion. Most recently, he was featured in the Nov. 10 Newsweek cover story discussing faith and medicine. Koenig also has been nominated twice for the prestigious Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.

Responding to Koenig's keynote will be Gary Gunderson, director of Emory's Interfaith Health Program in the Rollins School of Public Health, and Charles Raison, assistant professor of psychiatry.

" Spirituality now appears to be ubiquitous in humans, with significant associations to all sort of health outcomes," Gunderson said. "The question is, so what? Can we do anything to amplify the positive effects and mitigate the negative ones, and do so at large enough scale to matter to our communities?"

To do so will require an intense social examination of religion--in a time when thinking about religion in public is likely to be controversial and contentious, he added.

" Koenig bypasses the popular but not very helpful arguments about man and monkeys to focus on how faith is a factor in the relationships between us and the most vulnerable fellow humans--those living in the twilight of age, the shadow of mental illness, the exclusions of HIV/AIDS and our own children going through the transitions of adolescence. We can't afford to be foolish, wrong or self-serving in these questions," Gunderson said.

One challenge facing those who want to bridge the gap between spirituality and medicine is discovering insights the two areaas can bring to the other, Raison said.

Events like the symposium, which bring the medical community and communities of faith together, are of tremendous value in this process," he said.

Koenig also will speak at a Feb. 17 interfaith service at 7:30 p.m. in Cannon Chapel. The service will include music by the Meridian Chorale, led by music director Steven Darsey and Timothy Albrecht, University organist.

University Secretary Gary Hauk, who will moderate the symposium, said this year's multi-faceted topic holds interest for Emory's religious and medical ties. In particular, Hauk said Koenig's empirical studies on religion and medicine will bring more focus and data to ongoing conversations about connections between the two.

Hauk added that symposium planners have discussed expanding the program to include a weekly lunch forum, where participants could discuss issues facing Emory's medical and religious communities.

"It may be a spark to continue the conversation in another venue," he said.

The symposium is sponsored by the Walter Candler Lectureship, the University Secretary's Office and Meridian Herald, a nonprofit organization dedicated to enhancing cultural understanding.

Both events are free and open to the public, but reservations are required for the luncheon. For more information, contact Betsey Tanner at 404-727-6007 or btanner@emory.edu.