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Spirituality and Healing: As Above . . . So Below

Religion and spirituality have been largely banished from modern science and medicine. In our zeal to free science from the constraints of religious dogma, we have neglected an important component of health and well being, the spiritual factor.

With the emergence of CAM, however, spiritual and religious influences upon health have once again emerged as an appropriate domain for scientific inquiry.

It is ironic that spirituality should be treated as an alternative healing approach. Since earliest times and through all cultures, religion, medicine, and healing have always been closely connected. Throughout recorded history, community health care was typically delivered by religious figures, including medicine men, ministers, shamans, rabbis, priests, witch doctors, and holy men. Such healers were often the tribal or community leaders and the most educated members of the community. Even our modern health care delivery system traces its origins to the hospitals founded by the early Christian church.

Although spirituality and religion have again been recognized as important factors in health care, it's important to remember that these two elements are not identical. Spirituality is not synonymous with religiosity. One does not have to be religious to be spiritual, or vice versa. Broadly defined, spirituality is an inner sense of something greater than oneself, a recognition of a meaning to existence that transcends one's immediate circumstances. Religion, on the other hand, refers to the outward, concrete expression of spiritual impulses, in the form of a specific religion or practice.

Spirituality includes a broad range of characteristics, such as: a diminished focus on self; a feeling of love that leads to acts of compassion, empathy, gratitude; and the experience of inner peace. These characteristics are not only inherently enriching, but also eminently conducive to health and healing.

In spite of the modern separation of religion and spirituality from our secular life, Americans are essentially religious by nature. According to a 1997 survey of spiritual trends compiled by Duane Elgin and Coleen LeDrew of the Millennium Project, 96 percent of Americans believe in God or a universal spirit.

Today, faced by the limitations of modern medicine, and particularly its inability to adequately treat chronic illness, people are increasingly drawing upon inner resources to promote healing. In a 1994 survey by King of 203 adult inpatients of family practitioners in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, 77 percent felt that doctors should consider patients? spiritual needs.

In response to the recent inclusion of spirituality in medicine, modern scientific medicine is beginning to subject religious practices and spiritual beliefs to the same kind of scientific investigation that has been applied to other complementary and alternative treatment modalities. Epidemiological studies, or those involving large populations, and randomized clinical trials are now demonstrating that religion and spirituality can contribute to medical outcomes.

During a 1995 survey of studies on the effect of religion in healing, Dr. Dale Matthews of the Georgetown University School of Medicine found that scientific studies have shown religion to be beneficial to healing 81 percent of the time, neutral 15 percent of the time, and harmful 4 percent of the time. Any new pharmaceutical drug that offered such benefit-to-risk ratios would be an overnight success!

Medical professionals are beginning to acknowledge the need to include spiritual and religious concerns in clinical care, due to a growing body of promising research. A leading force in this movement is the National Institute for Healthcare Research, a private nonprofit organization in Rockville, Maryland, founded in 1991 by Dr. David Larson. NIHR has conducted reviews of medical research that have documented the positive benefits of religious commitment, and these reviews have attracted the attention of mainstream media. NIHR is also introducing spirituality into the curriculum of the nation's leading medical schools, and has organized several influential national conferences.

As a sign of the times, the front-page article in the February 1998 Harvard Health Letter focused on "Faith and Healing: Making a Place for Spirituality." Noting a major national trend among patients and practitioners, the article stated, "Today, the long-standing wall between medicine and religion is crumbling, due in part to the disillusionment of many Americans with what they see as high-tech, impersonal health care." There is a profound cultural shift toward spirituality, as evidenced in numerous national polls and such television series as Touched by an Angel, with its growing audience.

For many years, researchers have made some attempts to document the impact of spirituality and religion on health. However, careful, well-designed research on this subject is a relatively recent phenomenon. In 1997, Dr. Michael McCullough wrote that a review for the NIHR had found nearly thirty published studies on religion in peer-reviewed scientific literature, dating over the last twenty-five years. In these relatively recent studies, religious participation was found to be protective against death from respiratory disease, cancer, heart disease, suicide, and even stressful medical procedures. This protective effect was found in both men and women, who came from different religions, ages, ethnic groups, and countries. However, McCullough cautions that fewer than a dozen of the studies were designed rigorously enough to draw firm conclusions. Following are examples of some of the well-designed studies.




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Copyright © 2000 by Dr. Kenneth R. Pelletier, Inc.

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