Medical Science Meets Spirituality

This weekend about 700 health professionals, clergy members, social workers and insurance providers will meet in Boston to discuss the power of prayer.

Part of a growing merger of spirituality and the sciences, the sixth annual Spirituality and Healing in Medicine conference, sponsored by Harvard Medical School, brings these various groups together to discuss the integration of mind/body medicine into mainstream health care.

“We are addressing God and belief through the language of the day, which is science,” explains Dr. Herbert Benson, conference founder and president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

Armed with stacks of data, Benson and his fellow believers hope to convince medical practitioners and the population in general that faith not only feels better, it’s better for us physically.

Studies Say

There have been about 1,200 studies on the healing power of faith and the health effects of spirituality, says Dr. Harold Koenig, founder of the Center for the Study of Religion/Spirituality and Health at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C.

One of the largest of those studies tracked more than 5,000 Californians over 28 years. Led by Dr. William Strawbridge of the University of California at Berkeley, the research —released in 1997— showed that people who frequently attended religious services had lower death rates, were more likely to stop smoking, exercised more, had more social contacts and stayed married longer than those who did not.

There is also evidence that meditation positively affects people suffering from hypertension, depression, anxiety and infertility, among other conditions. According to Benson, 60 percent of physician visits are due to stress-related illnesses that can be remedied or improved with the physiologically soothing effects of chanting and meditation, or “the relaxation response.” Belief, he says, can reduce visits to doctors’ offices by 35 percent to 50 percent a year.

For the time being, however, health insurance is not likely to pay for people’s monthly meditation fees. “It’s not that [insurers] don’t recognize that these things can improve health,” says Joe Luchok of the Washington-based Health Insurance Association of America. “But health insurance is meant to pay for what we can’t predict.”

An Antagonistic Relationship

That said, acceptance of spirituality in medicine has grown. According to Dr. Deborah Danoff at the Association of American Medical Colleges in Washington, there has been a “significant increase” in body/mind and spirituality in medicine classes at medical schools nationwide in the past 10 years.

Of the 125 medical schools in the United States, 54 now require those classes for graduation, while 38 schools include body/mind medicine as a component of a required class. Danoff attributes the increase to the medical community’s acknowledgement that they need “an understanding of patients’ value systems in doctor-patient relations.”

But that was not always the case. Medicine and religion have been separate, even antagonistic, for the last two centuries, says Koenig, whose book, the Handbook of Religion and Health, was released this week. In fact, the power of prayer in healing was considered a laughable topic even 20 years ago when he first tried to discuss it with other doctors. “They thought I was off my rocker,” he says.

Koenig hypothesizes that aging baby boomers are growing more religious and influencing the new national enthusiasm for all things spiritual. “Our whole society,” he says, “is in a little mini revival.”

Channeling the Power

But some experts say the renewed interest in religion may have more to do with the crisis in American medicine. Cultural critic Erik Davis, author of TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information, believes the growing role of spirituality in health care stems from the fact that we are living longer but suffering from “the cold mechanics of the medical system” and stranger ills than ever.

“People are turning to alternative medicine for the simple reason that it works—psychologically for sure, and as the studies seem to say, physically as well,” Davis writes in an e-mail to “Skeptics of course will cry ‘placebo effect.’ But even if materialists provide a good explanation of what the placebo effect ‘really’ is (which I haven’t seen), that still begs the more important question: how do we channel the body/mind’s evident power to heal itself?”

Though Benson would likely cringe at the reference to “alternative” medicine — he is quick to point out that his and his colleagues’ work is based on sound science published in peer-reviewed journals — discovering how to channel that healing power is his passion. His hope is that healers and health workers of all kinds can pool their knowledge to advance body/mind medicine, spreading the gospel and good health to believers and nonbelievers alike.

“[Prayer] even works for agnostics. The body possesses a physiological response to the repetition of a phrase or action. You can leave belief up to the patient,” says Benson. “They can say ‘Hail Mary, full of grace,’ ‘Shema Yisroel,’ or ‘Om,’ but when they evoke this response they feel more spiritual. And when people experience spirituality, they have fewer medical symptoms.”