Overheard in my workplace locker-room- “You are not feeling better because you only believe in taking medicines, not prayers. If you have Faith and pray, you will feel better”. I am not an atheist, but I realized that I have never resorted to praying to help heal my body. I also realized, that there are many people who may believe otherwise. Which approach has more benefit? As with most such dilemmas, I decided to look at the scientific evidence. At first instinct, this seemed antithetical. How can anyone measure the effects of Faith on the body? Yet, I decided to give it a go. I found a lot of interesting studies that I would like to share with you.
Many “alternative healing” techniques use spirituality as a tool. This is not an attempt to examine the effects of such techniques on health and health outcomes. My intention was to look at the effect of religiosity and faith on your health.
When others pray for you
Intercession is the noun form of the verb “intercede”, which means to act on behalf of someone else. In religion, Intercessory prayer is praying for the benefit of another person. The mediator may be a friend, relative, priest or other religious figures. Almost all major religions have some form of such praying. There are many well-designed studies that show that Intercessory prayer and Distant Healing Intention have small but positive effects on the health or mental state of the person being prayed for. However, in most studies, the subjects know they may be prayed for.
A 2009 Cochrane review of intercessory prayer concluded that “evidence does not support a recommendation either in favour or against the use of intercessory prayer. We are not convinced that further trials of this intervention should be undertaken and would prefer to see any resources available for such a trial used to investigate other questions in health care.” There was a sharp criticism of this review because its “mixture of theological and scientific arguments is unsound and unhelpful and would, if accepted, make all scientific endeavours meaningless.” The critics were pointing to the fact that the Cochrane review dismissed the effects of intercessory prayer on health due to inconsistent results in available studies. The purpose of a scientific review is not to form an opinion but to evaluate current evidence as hard facts.
Studies on this subject are hard to design, carry out and interpret. As an article on Distant Healing Intention notes, “Despite the continuing popularity of DHI as an alternative healing modality, when it comes to assessing clinical efficacy, high-quality experiments have so far failed to show reliable effects. The contradiction between persistent popularity and lack of clinical effectiveness may be due on the one hand to some healers, in some contexts, who do seem to produce remarkable outcomes, and on the other hand by conventional RCT protocols that may be incompatible with the nature of DHI phenomena.” Again, what this essentially means is that we don’t quite know how to test the effects of Distant Healing just yet.
The religious beliefs of your family may affect your health. A study from 1997 examined maternal religiosity as a protective factor against depression in offspring and found that if the child of a religious mother grows up agreeing with that attitude, it protects them from depression.
The question is not whether you should or should not pray for your family and friends- do what makes you happy. However, at this time there is no scientific evidence that intercessory prayer is efficacious. Being around spiritual people and harboring respect for their spirituality, as it turns out, will do you some good.
When you have the Faith
A study of 88 patients with Traumatic Brain Injury found a positive correlation between feeling a personal connection with god and having better rehabilitation outcomes. A correlation, however, does not mean cause and effect. It is hard to say whether having a personal connection with god helped rehabilitation or being rehabilitated brought a sense of connection with god.
A review on the spirituality and psychological well-being among breast cancer survivors found that coping through “turning to God” for women without a significant prior relationship with God, or minimal spiritual behaviors may experience diminished well-being. Meaning, if you are not spiritually inclined at the outset, you may not feel any benefit from spirituality during times of distress.
A Danish study looked at the associations of faith, distress and mental adjustment in cancer survivors and found that spiritual well-being was associated with less distress and better mental adjustment. The same study also noted that specific aspects of faith including ‘belief in a god’, ‘belief in a god with whom I can talk’ and ‘experiences of god or a higher power’ were associated with high confusion-bewilderment and tension-anxiety. To me, it appears to be the difference between Spirituality and Religiosity.
A study from 2011 found that moral or religious objections to suicide may protect against suicidal behavior in bipolar disorder. This study found that patients who reported religious affiliations had fewer past suicide attempts, had fewer suicides in first-degree relatives, and were older at the time of first suicide attempt than patients who did not. Interestingly, it also noted that religiously affiliated patients had more children and more family-oriented social networks than non-affiliated patients.
Then I found an article that studied the relationship between religiosity, spirituality, and depressive symptoms in pregnant women- a subject that is personal to me, having been diagnosed with depression during my last pregnancy. This study found that while religiosity or spirituality was significantly associated with fewer depressive symptoms in pregnant women, this association became weaker as social support increased!
What I believe
Current evidence from research does not support the conclusion that there is any efficacy to prayer, faith or religion as isolated variables. My journey of reviewing the literature on this subject has led to this conclusion:
Having a strong social network positively affects health outcomes.
We are social beings and the positive effects of feeling like an important member of society and the sense of support that comes from having loved ones around you cannot be overstated. Whether faith and religion provide health benefits by themselves is up for debate. What they do provide, is the social network, the sense of belonging, a positive attitude and, at times, ritualistic methods of stress reduction.
An estimated 84% of the world’s population is religiously affiliated. Faith is a powerful force in the lives of individuals and communities worldwide. Modern medicine can only benefit from using this power to build a healthier world.
Do you think praying makes a difference to your health? What do Religion and Spirituality mean to you?