Faith Healing?

In an age of CAT scans and magnetic resonance imaging, when physicians have been replaced by technicians, it is easy to forget that society’s original healers were priests and shamans.

“Medicine began in magic and was suffused with mysticism, and much of its healing power is still by use of various forms of magic, whether by that name or not,” says Sherwin Nuland, surgeon, medical historian, and author of How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter. “We have certainly not paid sufficient attention to the spiritual needs of our patients.”

Nuland, of Yale, spoke at a conference coordinated by Emory’s Program in Science and Society in April, part of a year-long investigation into faith and religion’s roles in healing, funded through a $70,000 grant from the University of California at Berkeley.

“As scientists, we have a tendency to leave personal beliefs out of the picture,” said Arri Eisen, director of the Science and Society program. “Scientific culture scoffs at the idea of putting the words spirit and science in the same sentence.”

While much of the evidence suggesting that faith can contribute to medical healing has been anecdotal, a few controlled studies have shown prayer and meditation to have a measurable positive impact. Surely the topic is worthy of further study, says Jorge Juncos, associate professor of neurology and a researcher in Emory’s Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

“Is there a biology underlying the way prayer can bring about serenity and inner peace?” Juncos asks. “Studying the mechanisms through which prayer may act as a healing tool could have value to both society and medicine.”

In the Navajo tradition, health means keeping balance in every part of one’s world–physical, emotional, and spiritual, said Lori Arviso Alvord, assistant professor of surgery at Dartmouth Medical School and author of The Scalpel and the Silver Bear: The First Navajo Woman Surgeon Combines Western Medicine and Traditional Healing, who gave the keynote lecture at the conference. “Religion can be a force for healing,” she says. “It can give meaning to life, and there is something important about the will to live that greatly aids a person facing severe illness.”

Being confident that healing will occur is, indeed, a powerful force, says Joyce Burkhalter-Flueckiger, director of Emory’s Asian Studies Program and associate professor in the Department of Religion, who witnessed this firsthand through her field work with a Muslim religious healer in southern India.

The healer, whose patients called her Amma (literally, “mother,”) would declare success even before her patients left her clinic, showing that “the actual means through which the illnesses were attacked were less important than the confidence in the healer herself.”–M.J.L.



© 2003 Emory University