• Health

Keeping (Or Finding) The Faith

5 minute read
David Bjerklie

Not all that long ago, you’d have had a hard time finding a research institute, an academic department or even a decent conference exploring the link between spirituality and health. And with good reason. Health is science, spirituality is something else entirely, and people who say otherwise clearly need to sit down with a medical journal or two.

But that’s all changing. Everyone’s got a stake in getting human health right–whether families and individuals simply trying to stay well or governments trying to build a functioning health-care system that doesn’t break the bank. With so much on the line, no one can afford to take options off the table.

For that reason, investigators around the world backed by both public and private money are studying the faith factor in all manner of diseases and conditions. They have examined the spiritual-care needs of children with terminal illnesses and looked at how religion and superstition affect schizophrenia in China and how spirituality influences the well-being of college students in Malta and nuns in India. They have probed the links between religion and psychological woes too: neuroticism in Dutch twins, obsessive-compulsive symptoms in Italians, death anxiety among Egyptian nursing students and substance abuse in adolescents in Jerusalem. They have tried to measure the benefits of Bible therapy for patients with Alzheimer’s disease, as well as the impact of religious guilt and congregational criticism on doubting members of the flock. They’ve looked at the health effects of psychoactive sacramentals (think peyote) and the spiritual preferences of neo-pagans (think Wiccans and druids).

The fact that what began as a trickle of studies has become a torrent doesn’t mean that everyone is happy, and many scientists will continue to have nothing to do with what they see as fluff. Still, the movable feast of institutes, academic treatises, self-help books, websites, healing centers and luxury spas with a spiritual bent grows steadily larger. Here is just a sampling of what’s available.

Center for Spirituality and The Mind
University of Pennsylvania

Brain Scans: A workshop for high-tech imagery: this is your brain on prayer–or meditation or speaking in tongues. Researchers also study changes in blood pressure, hormones and immune-system function during spiritual practices. www.uphs.upenn.edu/radiology/csm/index.html

Center for Spirituality & Healing
University of Minnesota

Shaman Outreach: Fifty faculty members from a dozen academic areas conduct research into alternative medicine and healing traditions, including those of shamans serving the local community of Hmong immigrants from Southeast Asia. www.csh.umn.edu

Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health
Duke University

Community of Scholars: Academic powerhouse that promotes research to improve our understanding of “spirituality, health and human flourishing.” Aims to push the interdisciplinary field into a “new era of significance, visibility and impact.” spiritualityandhealth.duke.edu/index.html

National Center for Complementary And Alternative Medicine
National Institutes of Health

Federal Faith: Alternative medicine established this beachhead with the Federal Government in 1991. NCCAM funds research and serves as a clearinghouse for consumer information on acupuncture, herbs, hypnosis and more. nccam.nih.gov

Templeton Foundation
West Conshohocken, Pa.

Private Philanthropy: Family foundation established by the late philanthropist Sir John Templeton. Its mission is to address big questions and foster dialogue between science and religion through grants, prizes and book publishing. templeton.org

Books. Reads that range from self-help to scholarly

How God Changes Your Brain By Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman; Ballantine

Authors Newberg and Waldman have written a self-help field guide to the health benefits of spirituality. Just minutes of daily meditation can slow the aging process, build intimacy with family and friends and provide broader rewards even for nonbelievers. It appears that positive thinking is one of the many names of God.

Medicine, Religion And Health By Harold G. Koenig; Templeton Foundation Press

Koenig is a co-director of Duke’s Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health. His latest book on the subject offers an overview of research into faith’s effect on mental health, cardiovascular disease and mortality, as well as guidelines for health-care professionals on how they can integrate spirituality into the care they offer patients.

Blind Faith: The Unholy Alliance of Religion And Medicine By Richard P. Sloan; St. Martin’s Griffin

Dragging religion into clinical medicine, argues Sloan, is bad for both. Too much of the research is sloppy and funded by folks who have a stake in finding that belief is good for us. The result is bad science, bad medicine–and even bad religion when faith is trivialized by being treated like just another item in the health-care system’s bag of tricks.

Religion and Healing In America Edited by Linda L. Barnes and Susan S. Sered; Oxford University Press

This rich collection addresses the multicultural world of spirituality that immigration has created in the U.S. The authors explore healing traditions usually left out of mainstream research into belief and health, such as those with roots in the Caribbean, Mexico and South Asia.

Pilgrimages. When a spa is spiritual enough, thank you very much

1. Chiva-Som, Hua Hin, Thailand

2. The Raj Maharishi Ayurveda Health Spa Fairfield, Iowa

3. Mii Amo Spa at Enchantment Resort, Sedona, Ariz.

4. Mandarin Oriental Riviera Maya Playa del Carmen, Mexico

5. Ten Thousand Waves Santa Fe, N.M.

6. Ananda in the Himalayas Rishikesh, India

7. Canyon Ranch, Lenox, Mass.

8. COMO Shambhala Retreat Uma Paro, Bhutan

Websites. Online sources for seekers

The Government on Health
Washington weighs in with a guide that includes an A-to-Z index of topics, including spirituality and health.

One-Stop Faith Shop: Beliefnet.com
Explore your faith, and check out tips on health, finance, love and more. Also has blogs, prayers, news, and guidance for contacting your guardian angel.

Onscreen Magazine: Spirituality-Health.com
A bimonthly that celebrates the “Soul/Body Connection” and “reports on the people, the practices and the ideas of the current spiritual renaissance.” Polls and self-tests too.

The Doctors Speak: webmd.com
Medical site that also covers prayer, spirituality and health topics.

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