Religion and Medicine: Why Faith Should Not Be Mixed With Science

Richard P. Sloan and Larry VandeCreek

Disclosures

Introduction

Does religious faith contribute to better health? Despite a lack of solid evidence, advocates of a growing trend to integrate religion with medical treatment believe that it does. In their view, doctors would enhance their effectiveness as medical healers by considering, inquiring about, and attending to the spiritual needs of their patients. Indeed, a leading proponent from Georgetown University asserts that "the medicine of the future is going to be prayer and Prozac."[1]

We disagree.

Linking religion with medicine may seem intuitive. But, as we argue along with a group of healthcare chaplains and biomedical researchers in a report in the June 22 New England Journal of Medicine,[2] this movement oversimplifies 2 very complex and different realms of human experience. It oversteps the boundaries of medicine and diminishes the power of religion.

In doing so, it unintentionally opens the door to spiritual coercion. As patients with various illnesses, we generally accept our physicians' professional authority and expertise. There are times when we entrust them with our lives. But what exactly are we supposed to think if our doctors question us about our religious beliefs or advise us to pray more frequently? Is this within their area of expertise as well?

We are all on dangerous ground indeed if we start asking our doctors to become clerics or spiritual advisors.

Those who support bringing religion into medicine argue that there is a substantial body of evidence to prove that religious activities promote good health. They draw the conclusion that greater participation in religious activities would produce healthier individuals, and, further, that it is appropriate and even desirable for doctors to counsel their patients to that effect.

In these times of evidence-based medicine, it is essential that all recommendations by physicians be grounded in solid scientific data. So, let's consider the evidence. On the whole, it is weak, with significant methodologic flaws, conflicting findings, and a lack of clarity and specificity.[3]

To date, only a few well-conducted studies have demonstrated a link between religious activities and better health. Those studies focused on attendance at religious services, which they found was associated with lower death rates.[4,5] There is no evidence at all that other religious activities -- such as prayer or reading the Bible -- play a role in improving health, despite their importance in people's spiritual lives.

But even if we concentrate solely on church attendance, these studies only take us so far because they fail to explore important questions. For example, religious worship services vary widely in both style and content. Consider the differences between a Quaker meeting, a Roman Catholic mass, and a Jewish service. Do we really want to conduct scientific studies to determine whether some religions are more salutary or better than others?

Finally, we have to keep in mind that these types of epidemiologic studies, even when well conducted, only reflect associations at a very broad level. Correlation does not imply causation. Therefore, these studies do not provide any evidence that recommendations by physicians to engage in religious activity will lead to improved health -- assuming that those recommendations are even followed in the first place. And if there are benefits, there may be an enormous difference between attending church on your own and attending because a physician recommends that you do so.

Although more research will certainly be done in this area, it will likely miss the point. That's because its purpose appears to be justifying a role for religious activities in medical treatment -- similar to the role that antibiotics play in eradicating infections or the role of certain surgical procedures in repairing defective heart valves or replacing worn-out knees.

But religion doesn't need medicine to validate itself. It doesn't require scientific empiricism because it is based on faith. And when you mix faith with science, you serve neither and weaken both.

Evidence suggests that Americans lead rich spiritual lives. They are, however, highly personal and private lives.

They should be kept that way. It is not up to physicians to query patients on their religious beliefs or advise them on how often they should pray or go to church. Those types of discussions are appropriate when the counselor is a priest or a minister or a rabbi or an imam. They are not appropriate when the counselor is a physician, who has neither the training nor the spiritual authority to offer guidance in matters of faith.

If anything, spiritual counseling is an abuse of a physician's authority. It has the power to coerce people who are vulnerable and afraid. That is not what medicine is about. Nor is it what religion is about.

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