Health: Getting well can be a religious experience

Take a pew. The latest research suggests that believing in God could be good for your mind, body and soul.
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The Independent Culture
WESTERN SCIENTISTS readily dismiss religious belief as irrational. Freud goes as far as calling it "a universal obsessional neurosis". However, studies suggest that religious people are not as misguided as some like to think. Physically and mentally, not to mention spiritually, the faithful are on to a good thing.

Religious people appear to enjoy longer, healthier, happier lives. While sceptics rely on pills and surgery, the more reverent patients find that God cures the body and mind as well as the soul. Could there come a time when health insurers will ask how often we pray, as well as our smoking, drinking and exercise habits?

The health benefits are clear. Of 212 studies examining the effects of religious commitment on health, 75 per cent found a positive benefit, 17 per cent revealed a mixed effect or no effect, and seven per cent found a negative effect.

Research shows that religious people, often defined as those who attend church regularly, are less likely to become delinquent, to abuse drugs and alcohol or to commit suicide.

Dr Herbert Benson, president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute, which is associated with Harvard Medical School, has studied the "placebo effect" of belief - or "remembered wellness", as he prefers to call it. "If you believe that something, be it a pill or a prayer, will relieve a symptom the belief will revive the memory of not having the symptom. We can turn on a rash, vanish warts by belief," he said. "Even with surgery, if you believe the surgery is going to be successful it is more likely to be so."

The second reason why religion aids health is down to what he calls the "relaxation response". "When you are under stress the body evokes something called the fight or flight response," he said. "That is due to a release of adrenalin ... The body possesses a physiological counterpart to the fight or flight response: the relaxation response, which comes about as a result of repetition, be it a word, a sound, a prayer, a phrase, jogging, knitting, meditation or yoga.

"In Catholicism it's `Hail Mary, full of grace', in Protestantism it's `Lord Jesus Christ have mercy upon me', in Judaism it's `Shalom' and in Hinduism it's `Om'. People who pray regularly in this fashion evoke the relaxation response, which counteracts the harmful effects of stress," said Dr Benson. He is cuurrently conducting his own research into the power of prayer, by looking at two groups of 600 heart by-pass patients, who are told that they may or may not be prayed for by a team of intercessors. He intends to follow the patients' medical history for two to three years.

A recent study by Dartmouth Medical School, in New Hampshire, showed that of men over 54 undergoing heart by-pass surgery, those who believed in God had one-third of the mortality of those who did not. Another survey among 232 elderly patients undergoing elective open heart surgery, showed that the "deeply religious" and those who derived strength and comfort from religion were more likely than others to be alive six months after surgery.

Dr Dale Matthews, associate professor of medicine at Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington DC, and a committed Protestant, frequently offers to pray with his patients, taking their hand and explaining what he calls the "faith factor".

However, he does not want people to perceive prayer as an instant cure. "It is very important not to look on religion as a tool for better health. It simply doesn't work. You can't snap your fingers and pop to a faith gym or take a faith pill. It has to be authentic."