When we are sick, we rely on our physicians to heal us. And for good reason: they possess the knowledge, tools, drugs, and procedures to conquer many maladies. But not all illnesses respond to the ministrations of modern medicine, as many of us learn with the passage of time.
As we age, virtually all of us will be afflicted with one or more chronic diseases, some of which can be quite devastating. Cancer, once considered an acute disease, now often falls within this category. If good fortune prevails, medicine will control the progression of the disease. If not, we hope it will at least provide us with a modicum of comfort.
But medicine is not omnipotent, which is why, for some patients, healing is not the sole province of doctors. Those patients turn to their religious and spiritual beliefs in the hope that solace and, perhaps, healing will be found there. But do such beliefs—and the accompanying prayers, spiritual self-examination, and other practices—truly make a difference in the trajectory of our health?
If longevity and reduced mortality are the ultimate proxy for health, the jury may be out on that question. More than two dozen studies have revealed a correlation between how long we live and the degree to which we regularly attend religious services.1
According to researchers Doug Oman and Carl “One of the most thorough of these studies, an eight year follow-up of more than 20,000 adults representative of the US population, found a life expectancy gap of over seven years between persons never attending services and those attending more than once weekly.”1 The correlation between religious attendance and longevity is so strong that even the National Institutes of Health acknowledge it.2
But it is not just the length of our lives that may be affected by our spirituality or religious beliefs; it is also the quality of our lives. Researchers have found strong correlations between our beliefs and our ability to maintain hope, derive meaning and purpose, and maintain critically important relationships during times of great adversity.
It is important to note that our beliefs can also have an adverse effect on health, as was powerfully demonstrated in a study of HIV patients by Gail Ironson and colleagues. Ironson sought to determine the impact of both positive and negative views of God on the progression of this devastating disease.
Ironson’s results were tied to two clinical indicators of disease progression: CD4 cells (an important component of one’s immune system) and the viral load (the amount of active virus circulating in the patients’ bloodstreams). Ironson’s findings: “Those who viewed God as merciful/benevolent/forgiving had five times better preservation of CD4 cells than those who did not view God positively. Those who viewed God as harsh/judgmental/ punishing lost CD4 cells at more than twice the rate of those who did not view God negatively.”3
Such conclusions are powerful and provocative, yet many scientists remain skeptical about the relationship between religious beliefs/ spirituality and health. It’s not that they refute their colleagues’ findings, assuming that the research is methodologically sound; rather they raise important questions regarding the interpretation of those findings and the attribution of positive benefits to religion and spirituality.
Part of this skepticism comes from a well-founded distrust of the words religion and spirituality because there is no universally agreed upon definition of the terms. For some people these words communicate a profound and personal relationship with God, whereas for others they communicate a more agnostic outlook on life, where one’s sense of spirituality is derived from community. With such disparity it is understandably difficult to draw meaningful conclusions about the influence of religion and spirituality on health.
Beyond semantics looms another important issue: Are there discernible mechanisms at work, underlying religious and spiritual beliefs, that impact health outcomes? Oman and Thoresen offer four such mechanisms1 that may be responsible for improved health and well-being:
- Health behaviors. Certain religious traditions foster the adoption of positive health habits while discouraging negative behaviors. When smoking, alcohol consumption, promiscuous sex, and other detrimental behaviors are shunned, adherents may benefit from such prohibitions.
- Social support. There is vast evidence supporting the power of social connection in fostering health and well-being. Faith and religious organizations form the very heart of the social network for many people. Thus religion/spirituality brings social connectedness, which is essential to health.
- Psychological states. Oman and Thoresen suggest that religious beliefs/spirituality may contribute to a heightened sense of emotional or psychological well-being—whether through elevated levels of positive affect, such as joy and hope, or reduced levels of negative emotional states, such as despair.
- Psi influences.Psi in parapsychology refers to phenomena that cannot be explained using conventional rules of science. Mystical or transcendental experiences, synchronicity, and other phenomena fall into this category. Because we are unable to explain, measure, or replicate these phenomena, they remain largely outside the realm of scientific investigation.
So what should you take away from this research-oriented discussion?
Empirical research is important, but each of us will approach our health and well-being in a very personal way. Some of us will primarily turn inward, with our focus on how health issues change our sense of self and perhaps our direction in life. For others the journey will be more outwardly focused, emphasizing the importance of personal relationships in helping us cope with whatever health issues arise. Others will ultimately look upward, to God and their relationship with Him.4
- Oman D, Thoresen CE. “Does religion cause health?”: Differing interpretations and diverse meanings. Journal of Health Psychology. 2002;7(4), 365-80.
- Hummer RA, Rogers RG, Nam CB, Ellison CG. Religious involvement and U.S. adult mortality. Demography. 1999;36(2):273-85.
- Ironson G, Stuetzle R, Ironson D, et al. View of God as benevolent and forgiving or punishing and judgmental predicts HIV disease progression. Journal of Behavioral Medicine. 2011;34(6):414-25. doi: 10.1007/s10865-011- 9314-z.
- Swinton J, Bain V, Ingram S, Heys SD. Moving inwards, moving outwards, moving upwards: The role of spirituality during the early stages of breast cancer. European Journal of Cancer Care. 2011;20(5):640-52. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2354.2011.01260.x.