“The Good News”
Disclaimer: The implications of the scientific research discussed, and my interpretations, may be challenging for some individuals to read. It is not my intent to change anyone’s beliefs about religious topics or doctrine. Rather, I will be presenting useful and well verified research for your consideration that may have beneficial consequences for your health.
There are a lot of scientific research reports with important implications for our health that very few people know much about. But while most of these studies are well designed and meet the highest standards of high-quality research methods, their results are often in conflict with widely accepted scientific theories. Because of this conflict, the results are usually ignored.
Since the implications of these reports are so important, it should be well worth your time to carefully consider this summary of the findings. What I will be presenting here will demonstrate how science and religion are more connected with each other than we usually assume. It will also provide insights that may provide a greater feeling of well-being, and may even lead to improved health. To begin, I will do a very brief survey of the many religions and systems of belief that are well established across the modern world, with a focus on the fundamental assumptions on which there is widespread agreement.
The modern world’s belief systems
About 85% of the world’s population accepts that a non-physical, spiritual reality exists in some form or another. This, of course, would include ideas and beliefs about such things as our possession of a soul, our expectations of an after-life, and the existence of an intelligent Creator of everything that exists. Since these things are not directly observable, those of us that hold these beliefs take them on faith.
One important consequence of these beliefs being faith-based is that there exist thousands of different faith traditions that can put us in conflict with one another. This is especially true when these beliefs include expectations about what others should believe and how they should behave. Another important consequence of our faith-based beliefs is that we naturally assume we will have to pass on to an after-life reality before we will have direct access to ultimate truth and be able to verify what we now believe.
In addition, the nature of these widely shared assumptions leaves most us with a divided sense of our own individual lives and the universe we live in. On the one hand, there is the day-to-day content of our lives that is the concern of modern science and our steadily advancing technology. On the other hand, there is our concept of a separate spiritual reality which is the concern of theologians, philosophers, and the ministers of our many religions. For the most part, most of us assume that these are independent realities, with little or no interaction.
If you look back at the historical record over the last five or six centuries, it is apparent that this dualistic approach to what is most important in our lives was not always as firmly entrenched as it is today. Things began to change, though, when the “natural philosophers” who were developing what is now modern science came into conflict with the power of the Catholic Church. Out of this conflict emerged a kind of agreement that has now become so well accepted that it is now almost never questioned. This dualistic approach to reality means that scientists almost always limit their experimentation and theories to those phenomena that are directly observable in the physical world, while theologians and church leaders are considered to be the authorities concerned predominantly with spiritual issues and beliefs.
What we have now, as a direct consequence of this unquestioned agreement, is that many scientists are either atheists or agnostics. Even those scientists who belong to a religious tradition usually believe that any spiritual influence in the world is minimal, except where it impacts the decisions of the believers of a given religion or faith tradition. In contrast, theologians and religious leaders believe that while a direct spiritual influence does exist within the events of the physical world, it still must be completely be taken on faith.
But what if this imagined rigid division of our reality is not accurate, and it is just an artificial agreement we have chosen to accept as if it were real? What I am going to demonstrate, using the results of pertinent scientific research studies, implies that this well-accepted division of our reality is not only artificial, it is also misleading in a way that has important detrimental consequences for our health and well-being. If you are not accustomed to considering these kinds of questions, this may be a tough line of reasoning to follow at first. To make it easier, I will take us through some simplified examples that I hope will more clearly introduce the approach I will use.
The existence of invisible influences
To start, consider that even though we accept certain scientific concepts as completely true, they are not directly observable. A few of these are gravity, magnetic fields, and the movement of invisible “radio waves” across widely separated locations. Although we cannot see, or in any way directly sense, these fields of invisible influences, we know beyond any doubt that they exist because we see their impact on things we can observe, and these observations allow us to indirectly verify their existence. Take the electromagnetic waves that carry radio and television signals as an example. Although they are completely invisible to us, we know they are constantly present everywhere on our planet since the use of a radio receiver of sufficient power and properly adjusted to their frequency readily verifies this.
In some ways, spiritual concepts like “the power of prayer” are much like the electromagnetic fields that make radio and television broadcasts possible. To better see what I mean, imagine several people sitting around a table praying for the well-being and healing of another group who are suffering from a severe illness. If you were to walk into the room and see this group in silent prayer, it might appear like nothing is happening. In this situation, like the electromagnetic fields of radio waves, any effects that the people in prayer might be having would be completely invisible. But just like you can test for the presence of radio waves by turning on a radio, you could test the effects of the people praying by measuring the changes in the illness of the group being prayed for. While this measurement requires careful scientific design, and the sophisticated application of modern statistical analysis, it is possible for us to design experiments to verify the health impacts of prayer. In fact, this scenario has already been tested in several well-designed scientific studies. “State of the art,” highly sophisticated scientific methods were followed, and the results were quite clear. I will summarize one of the best.
Healing effects of prayer directed toward people in a coronary care unit
In 1988, a study by Randolph Byrd, MD was published in the Southern Medical Journal. Dr. Byrd studied 393 patients in the CCU of San Francisco General Hospital for 10 months. He randomly assigned about half of them to be in the experimental prayer group and the other half served as controls and received no prayer through the study protocol. While all the patients in study agreed to participate, they had no knowledge of whether they were being prayed for or were serving as controls. Nor did their treating physicians and the hospital staff know to which group they belonged. This was a prospective, blinded, randomized, and well controlled scientific study design.
The treatments received in the CCU, such as medications, days of ventilatory support and need for cardio-pulmonary resuscitation were carefully followed and used as measures that allowed the researchers to monitor the progress of the illness experienced by study participants. The results were quite astounding: those in the prayer group required much less treatment. In fact, the statistics indicated that the people prayed for did so much better than the control group that the researchers would have had to run well over a thousand similar studies to find one like this by chance alone. And, as you might expect from these results, the survival of the group that received prayer intent was also much higher.
Since several other studies of prayer improving the health of seriously ill patients have confirmed these results (please see the references for further examples), we can draw several firm conclusions. One is that prayer can be demonstrated to have an important impact on the health of those who are prayed for in the same way we scientifically verify the action of physical interventions like drugs. But beyond the beneficial actions of prayer, these studies also clearly suggest how we can test the truth of many other spiritual beliefs using modern scientific methods. This is an immensely powerful tool! On the one hand, it can be used to help us further strengthen our faith in what we already believe to be true. On another, we can also use it to compare the health benefits of belonging to different faith traditions or religions. Perhaps most important of all, it can be used to help clarify the original meaning of ancient teachings which have become obscured by language and cultural changes over the thousands of years since they were first presented.
These prayer studies are only a tiny sample of a huge amount of high-quality research reports that address the health impacts of human beliefs and religious faith traditions. Before I begin to further explore these, though, for some readers it may be helpful to briefly discuss how to interpret scientific research reports so that we can effectively derive reliable guidance from them.
Interpreting scientific research reports
If you are already experienced in reading and comparing the results of scientific studies in order to determine what is reliable and what is not, you may want to skip this section.
Obviously, modern scientific research has provided us with amazing by-products, such as our incredibly convenient electronic devices and our extremely effective medical treatments. From these successes we know beyond any doubt that the scientific method is quite potent, but to use it most effectively, the results of scientific research must be interpreted carefully.
Most of us are aware of how scientists develop their theories and how they use carefully designed experiments to test their validity and accuracy, but people without a strong scientific background often put far too much emphasis on research reports that have not been replicated by independent researchers. If you look at the results of a lot of scientific research reports, you know that some are distorted by a researcher’s bias and others use poorly designed methods. People that lack this experience are often are not completely aware how necessary it is for potentially important results from any experiment to be retested by independent researchers before being accepted as reliable. Isolated and unvalidated reports can be quite misleading.
Scientists use carefully designed reporting procedures to ensure the reliability of their results. One of these is that the editors of journals that communicate research results ensure that the methods and conclusions are carefully reviewed before accepting reports for publication. Another is that when enough research has accumulated on a given topic, review articles are usually published that compare, contrast, and evaluate the existing literature to further help us arrive at reliable conclusions on important topics.
There are now literally thousands of research reports available to us concerning how religious and spiritual beliefs impact the health of those who hold them and use them to guide their lives. As I have evaluated this research literature, I have taken great care to be sure that my conclusions are firmly based on well-replicated and consistently confirmed research reports. I have also included references at the end of this presentation to allow you to evaluate the accuracy of what I am reporting on here.
Since most of the studies available to us that explore the health impacts of spiritual beliefs have evaluated Christian worship, I will begin with a review of research involving the followers of Christian teachings.
The health impacts of attending Christian worship services
The large number of potentially useful research studies involving Christian worship that are readily available for review give us an excellent opportunity to explore this topic. From the standpoint of scientific research analysis, it is important that the studies of Christian church members have included people who base their worship on remarkably consistent translations of the New Testament Gospels. This allows us to ask if the depth of involvement in the Gospel teachings, for all Christian denominations taken together, correlates with changes in the health of the participants. Since all the different groups use consistent translations, we can reasonably expect the results to be comparable.
It is also important to note that the Christian scriptures proclaim, in no uncertain terms, the healing power of what they contain. This healing power is relatively easy to test by comparing the frequency of attending services with the level of health or illness of those in the group we are investigating. It is reasonable to expect that if the Gospels have this healing power, those who attend most consistently would derive the greatest health benefits. We can not only compare their health and well-being to their frequency of participation, and we can also follow the changes in these measures over time by following the development of new diseases, the changes in severity of already existing disease, and their mortality risks.
While the frequency of participation in worship services lacks somewhat in its precision for measuring the depth of involvement and commitment to following Christian teachings, it has still been shown to be a reliable and repeatable indicator that correlates well with more precise indicators of their commitment. The health impacts are also reliably measured using questionnaires, reviewing medical records, and obtaining death certificates.
How, then, do the predictions of the New Testament Gospels hold up if we look at the health impact of Christian worship for the members of all the various denominations taken together? Are those who are most deeply involved with their religious faith healthier? The thousands of studies testing these questions clearly confirm the benefits of Christian worship services! They show that those who attend most frequently have a more positive state of mind and are less likely to suffer from mental illness of all types. Beyond these mental and emotional benefits, those most deeply involved with their religious faith also have had a lower incidence of newly diagnosed physical illnesses of all types that have been studied. Existing illnesses were often slowed in their progression or sometimes even healed. As you would expect based on these findings, it has also been shown that the most devout Christian faithful usually have both less debilitation in later life and have a longer life span.
These conclusions cannot be explained by the effects of already known factors such as genetics, the environment, and health behaviors. Their significance remains even after researchers statistically control for the effect of all the risk factors that scientists have discovered in the past. Putting this all together, one of the most important messages from these data is that the failure to consider the health effects of our deeply held beliefs and our participation in religious services and activities means we are missing very important information about the causes of human disease and their impact on the quality of our lives.
As further support for these conclusions, review articles that have carefully analyzed these research reports verify them. This extensive body of research results clearly confirms what is stated within the New Testament Gospels: taking “The Good News” to heart is healing. This is true now, just as Gospel writers reported it was over two thousand years ago.
This research literature not only adamantly supports these conclusions, it also gives us the means to explore important questions that naturally arise from them. In the remainder of this presentation, I will briefly summarize the research that answers some of the most important. One obvious question is: How do different Christian denominations compare to each other in their health impacts? Another is: How do those involved in non-Christian religious or spiritual groups compare to Christians? Yet another important question, that we can at least begin to answer, is: What is it about attending religious services that is so beneficial to our health and well-being? I will then close this presentation with some further considerations of how what we are finding about the health impacts of religious beliefs and behaviors matches up with the widely accepted scientific theories of modern medicine concerning the causes of human illnesses and disease.
How do Christian denominations compare to each other in their impact on health, well-being, and longevity?
This question has been carefully evaluated within the review articles I have previously referred to and have cited at the end of this presentation. Based on the results of thousands of well-designed, scientifically valid, studies, we can conclude that no one specific Christian church or denomination has a monopoly on health or well-being benefits. Nor are any left out. Of course, there is variation from one to another for any specific disease process, but these variations are readily attributable to differences in environmental factors, shared genetic variations and cultural variations in behaviors that have impacts on health.
Personally, these conclusions make me wonder about all the conflicts, strife and wars that have occurred between Christian groups who have adopted different doctrines based on the same Gospel teachings. From a health and well-being perspective, the conflicts have been wrong-minded and unnecessary. The research certainly suggests that this is so.
How do Christian and non-Christian faith traditions compare?
Although the research reports are far less extensive than what we have for Christians, those that we do have also show that the other widely-shared faith traditions that have been studied, and which profess values similar to the Christian Gospels, provide health and well-being benefits similar to those enjoyed by Christian believers. Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam are all included. Among the references I include in support of this conclusion, studies of the health impacts of members of Israeli kibbutzim are notable for the demonstration of powerful health benefits for Kibbutz members who adhere closely to Judaic traditions, as compared to the kibbutzim that do not incorporate involvement in a strong Judaic tradition within their structure.
Just as we found in comparing different Christian traditions to each other, no tradition or belief system, be it Christian or non-Christian, has a monopoly on health and well-being benefits. At least from the standpoint of these benefits, it is not a question of which system of belief is THE right one, it seems that the most appropriate question is which is best for the individual who participates.
The next topic to be addressed, a brief exploration of how it is that participating in Christian worship services is beneficial to one’s health, will also serve to shed light on why non-Christian faith traditions provide similar health benefits to those Christians enjoy.
Is it just participating in religious services that matters, or is there more to it than that?
Here, I will again just briefly summarize a lot of the research literature and indicate how it gives us important clues to the answer to this question. Most of these studies involve Christian groups, but research involving non-Christian groups provide similar results.
Research that compares those who attend public religious services to those that worship privately through personal religious activities, such as prayer and the reading of scriptures at home, show similar health benefits for both groups. This strongly suggests that it is personally involving one’s life in the teachings themselves that has the most important health impacts, rather than compliance with public participation expectations.
To continue this question of why religious beliefs promote health, the results of questionnaires that explore the emotional states of those who involve themselves with religious activities are particularly instructive. Those who report deriving more confidence, re-assurance, joy, and more of a sense of peace because of their participation do much better with their health than those who do not report receiving these emotional benefits. In contrast, those who report feeling fearful, or feel that they may be “out of favor” with their Creator, do worse. Some evidence even suggests that, from a health perspective, those who have a fearful and negative reaction to religious participation actually do worse than those who are non-believers and do not participate in any religious services of any kind. This is probably already obvious to just about everyone who reads this, but the scientific evidence confirms that it is not just sitting in the pew or reciting memorized prayers that matters, it is how deeply you involve yourself with uplifting and supportive teachings, as well as your positive emotional response to them, that makes a difference in your life.
This conclusion, that both what you believe and how these beliefs are expressed in your life are powerful determinants of your health and well-being, brings us to the last question to I will address in this presentation.
How do the health benefits of spiritual and religious activities relate to the benefits of modern medical treatments?
What the research studies show us in answer to this question may be the most astonishing of all that I am presenting here. I say astonishing because this is not what most physicians and other medical scientists believe, nor is its potential benefits usually included within our modern medical healthcare systems. If the current medical literature is any indication, it is also not a widely accepted and important part of what medical students are learning today.
To begin, I will briefly summarize how modern medical science currently views the human body and what causes the diseases and illnesses that many of us experience. Scientists know, beyond question, that the human body is an extraordinarily complex organic machine with a huge number of parts and subsystems. Due to this complexity, we now recognize thousands of diseases that can result from the failure of any part, organ, or subsystem of the body. We have also concluded that each of these diseases has its own set of unique, physical, pre-disposing factors that are considered to fully explain why one individual develops a given disease while others do not. And, as we all know, each organ system now has its own medical specialists who focus on the diagnosis and management of the many diseases or disorders that each body organ can develop. Since it is assumed that the body’s diseases are caused by the disruption of its physical systems or subsystems, the main treatments medical science relies on today are an array of interventions such as drugs, surgery, or other physically based therapies.
This approach to human illness has been tremendously successful, but what the research I have been presenting is telling us (and which is often ignored) is that it is incomplete and, due to this incompleteness, it is limited in its explanatory power.
One example of the limitations of the currently accepted model of human disease is its failure to explain why some of our patients can live into their ninth or tenth decade of life with little or no illness, while, at the other extreme, some patients have developed a very long list of medical diseases by the time they reach their fiftieth birthday. Medical researchers usually assume that such extreme variations must be due to differences in genetic inheritance, environmental circumstances, or habitual lifestyles. A careful review of these possibilities, however, is completely unconvincing. When you combine all the physical factors that we currently recognize, most of the variability in health status remains to be explained.
Another failure of our current theoretical model of the causes of human disease is its complete failure to explain what has been called the “spontaneous remission” of predictably fatal illnesses like advanced cancers. These presumably random occurring cures can happen even without any of the usual medical treatments being utilized, and when death from the disease was considered to have been 100% certain. These unexplained cures have been sporadically reported in medical journals for many years, but since they seem to be unpredictable, they are usually ignored by medical research scientists. The continuing reports of their occurrence and our inability to explain them, though, clearly is telling us that our current understanding of what causes disease and the factors that may promote its healing, is incomplete in important ways.
Perhaps the most important and clear failure of modern medicine is its inability to stop the progression of chronic disease like diabetes, dementia, kidney failure and degenerative arthritis. Certainly, we have developed many drugs that decrease some of the discomfort and dangers these chronic diseases cause, and which may even slow their progression, but these disease processes usually continue to advance despite all these efforts. Medical researchers usually attribute these failures to undiscovered or still poorly understood physical processes or factors. It could well be, though, that our failure to prevent and cure chronic diseases is due to an incomplete and misleading theoretical model of the underlying causes of these chronic and relentlessly progressive maladies.
Obviously, what the research involving the religious and spiritual impact on human disease is telling us does not fit well within the model of the causes of human disease that I described earlier in this presentation. In contrast to what the physical model of human disease predicts, the studies of the impact of religious and spiritual activities on our health are telling us that there is something about engaging one’s life within a positive system of beliefs that is healing, and which applies to ALL human disease in a comprehensive fashion. This is a completely different understanding of the nature of the disease process itself than the one held by most modern medical professionals and researchers.
This new understanding that I am describing is saying that each one of the huge number of human diseases has a single, underlying emotional and cognitive factor as an important part of its source. To further clarify this source, the research strongly indicates that positive emotional states such as appreciation, confidence, satisfaction, and joy tend to heal any disease we are experiencing. In contrast, it is also showing us that negative emotional states such as fear, discouragement, discomfort, and frustration tend to cause or worsen all the disease processes medical science currently recognizes.
In this new understanding, our genetics, our environment, and our behavior are what determine the specifics of which diseases each of us will develop should we move in the direction of physical decline. But they do not determine whether physical decline or healing will occur. The research is now leading us to envision the underlying, general tendency toward more disease or toward healing to be a product of what we believe to be true, and the emotional state that these beliefs create for us.
To be clear, I am not saying that the research into the physical determinants of disease which medical scientists have completed up to this point is not both valid and extremely useful. What I am saying is that it is not the complete explanation we have believed it to be, and it is not likely to be the ultimate answer that most of our medical researchers expect it to eventually become.
To develop a much more complete image of what is driving both the disease process and the healing process, we need to better understand and include the impact of human consciousness and of our chronic emotional set points. This brings me to the end of this brief introduction to a rarely recognized and vastly underutilized literature of health research and its profound implications for our health and well-being. I will finish by briefly summarizing what I feel are some important take-home messages.
Reliable scientific research confirms what many of us already believe: prayer does, indeed, heal. It not only tends to heal those to whom it is directed, it even helps heal those who are praying for others.
Prayer is far from the only religious or spiritual activity that has a healing impact; all types of positive religious or spiritual involvement are healing to those involved. This is especially true of those that take these teachings completely to heart and use them as guides for their lives.
The impact on our health is not limited to religious and spiritual involvement. If we look at the big picture of what it is saying, the research is also telling us that what we occupy our minds with, what we believe about our bodies, what we believe about our world, and what we believe about our purpose here on earth, all have a profound effect on our health, our well-being, and our longevity.
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If you found this presentation to be interesting and helpful, the next should be even more so. In it I will begin to address more directly what the Christian Gospels say about the potential power of human consciousness and review research that clearly demonstrates the truth of these assertions. While the scientific research indicates that healing is a byproduct of all the world’s widely shared and followed faith traditions, I have found the Christian sacred literature to be the most clear and comprehensive in its presentation of concepts with the potential to heal human illness. Therefore, I will be using the Christian Gospels as a guide to the further exploration of how scientific research supports spiritual teachings.
Research reports showing the healing effect of prayer:
1. Byrd RC, Positive therapeutic effects of intercessory prayer in a coronary care unit population. South Med J 1988; 81:826-829
2. Harris WS, Gowda M, et al. A randomized, controlled trial of the effects of remote, intercessory prayer on outcomes in patients admitted to the coronary care unit. Arch Int Med 1999; 159:2273-2278
3. Sicher F, Targ E, et al. A randomized double-blind study of the effect of distant healing in a population with advanced AIDS. WJM 1998; 169:356-363
Review articles evaluating research reports concerning the health impacts of attending religious worship services (the most recently published are listed first):
4. Koenig HG, Religion, spirituality, and health: the research and clinical implications. ISRN Psychiatry 2012 (published online, includes 600 citations of individual research reports)
5. Levin J, Spiritual determinants of health and healing: an epidemiologic perspective on salutogenic mechanisms. Altern Therapies 2003; 9:48-57 (includes 64 citations of individual research reports)
6. Koenig HG, McCullough ME, Larson DB, Handbook of Religion and Health. NY,NY: Oxford University Press; 2001 (includes citations of over 2,500 individual research reports)
7. Levin JS, Schiller PL, Is there a religious factor in health? J of Religion and Health 1987; 26:9-36 (includes citations for 221 research reports)
A couple representative studies showing the health benefits of non-Christion religious participation:
8. Kark JD, Shemi G, et al, Does religious observance promote health? Mortality in secular vs religious kibbutzim in Israel. Am J Public Health 1996; 86:341-346
9. Al-Kandari Y Y, Religiosity and its relation to blood pressure among selected Kuwaitis. J Biosoc Sci 2003; 35:464-472
Some research reports that help determine why attending religious services and participating in spiritual practices provides health benefits:
10. Levin J, God, love and health: findings from a clinical study. Rev Rel Research 2001; 42:277-293
11. Ironson G, Stuetzle R, et al, View of God as benevolent or punishing and judgmental predicts HIV disease progression. J Behav Med 2011; 34:414-425
12. Pargament K I, Koenig H G, et al, Religious struggle as a predictor of mortality among medically ill elderly patients. Arch Intern Med 2001; 161:1881-1885