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Has Science Proven the "Divine" Health Benefits of Religion?

Gary P. Posner, M.D.

August 23, 1998

(USA Today)The first sentence of the July 25, 1998, USA Today article reads, "Maybe doctors should write 'Go to church weekly' on their prescription pads." If they were all to do so in lieu of prescribing standard medical therapy, we need only look at the morbidity/mortality statistics for Christian Scientists, as compared to the general population, to predict the untoward consequences.

Maybe publications should be more forthright with their readers as to the sources of the information they are dishing out. Something seemed vaguely familiar about the article's opening line, its cast of characters and their claims, and the "212 studies" cited by one of them. A review of my files soon revealed the truth: USA Today had simply republished verbatim an old Associated Press story from February 1996!

The recycled article (which has since been rearchived by USA Today and properly dated), entitled "Religious beliefs linked with good health," speaks of the growing body of evidence confirming that "religion can be good medicine." Up front and center is Dr. Dale Matthews of Georgetown University who, along with several others, had "recently" (in 1996, that is) presented his case at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Matthews was said to have reviewed 212 studies regarding religion and health, with three-fourths showing a positive effect. Just as parapsychologists fill their journals with "positive" studies of psychic power, researchers who set out to "scientifically" validate their religious beliefs usually manage to do so--at least to their own satisfaction, if not to that of the scientific community at large.

And a large proportion of those "212 studies" were apparently carried out by parapsychologists. In "Appendix 1" of his 1993 bestseller Healing Words, Dr. Larry Dossey, perhaps the premier proponent of "The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine" (the book's subtitle), speaks of the "131 controlled trials" on "spiritual healing" previously surveyed by Dr. Daniel J. Benor and published in the journal Complementary Medical Research in 1990 as well as in Benor's then-upcoming 1993 book, Healing Research. According to Dossey, "Ten [of these 131 studies] are unpublished doctoral dissertations, two are masters' theses, and the rest are published primarily in parapsychology journals. These publications have peer review standards as rigorous as many medical journals."[1]

In the USA Today article, after pressing for physicians to encourage their patients' religious activities, Matthews emphasizes that "I'm not saying that physicians should supplant clergy or that prayer should supplant Prozac." What he reportedly has said more recently is that there may soon be no rational basis for physicians to prescribe anything other than religious activity and Prozac. Matthews has been quoted as having told the following in late 1997 to "a slightly bewildered crowd" of future doctors at St. Louis University School of Medicine: "The medicine of the future is going to be prayer and Prozac. If we can prove the medical benefits of intercessory prayer [prayer by strangers, at a distance, without the knowledge of the recipients], it's going to be page one news. You're going to see a revolution. The world of medicine will be turned upside down."[2]

USA Today then quotes Duke University Medical Center's Dr. Harold Koenig as offering that "people who attend church are both physically healthier and less depressed." (Q: As compared with whom?) He acknowledges that those who shun church in favor of praying alone at home, with or without TV evangelists, suffer worse health than others. (Again, exactly who are the others?) Dr. Thomas Oxman of Dartmouth Medical School had earlier shown that people who participate in organized secular group activities such as a historical society, local government or senior-citizen center appear to accrue life-protective health benefits following cardiac surgery.[3] Taking all this into account, it appears that the social aspects of religion, rather than a deity, may be largely responsible for its beneficial effects on health. [This explanation has been reinforced by more recent research, as reported on Aug. 17, 1998, in USA Today's article, "Prayer can lower blood pressure." Quoting David B. Larson, co-author of a relevant study in the 8/18 issue of the International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine, "There is something to the social part [of religion] that is very important, and you don't get that sitting on your couch ... If they relied on TV or radio, it wasn't as beneficial."]

The divine nature of the health benefits is raised next, as the article resurrects Dr. Randolph Byrd's CCU study of intercessory prayer, carried out in 1982-83 at San Francisco General Hospital and published in the July 1988 Southern Medical Journal. This decade-old study is still considered the cream of the crop, which helps explain the scientific community's indifference to the entire genre. In the Preface to Healing Words, Dr. Larry Dossey hailed the Byrd paper as the seminal "scientific study that strongly supported the power of [intercessory] prayer in getting well." But on page 185 of the same book, Dossey cites my critical assessment of the Byrd study.[4] And later on the same page, he acknowledges that the study had actually "missed the mark ... [S]tatistically significant life-or-death effects ... simply did not occur."

Dr. Jeffrey Levin, the next to be quoted in the USA Today article, makes the most sense, as he offers the placebo effect, and the more-healthful-than-average lifestyles of religious people (e.g., less smoking and alcohol), to help explain religion's health benefits.

Harvard cardiologist Dr. Herbert Benson then notes that faith's stress-reducing effects can help alleviate such conditions as high blood pressure, anxiety and "infertility." Sure, saying a prayer, or taking a deep breath, can be relaxing. But with regard to infertility, Benson stands accused of grossly exaggerating his own published findings. A book review of Benson's Timeless Healing reports that the original research article[5] actually contains "no evidence that the relaxation response improved the conception rate, as the authors are careful to point out there; there were no matched controls, they note, to show what the conception rate would have been without the relaxation response."[6]

Concluding the USA Today article, clinical psychologist Kenneth Pargament of Bowling Green State University urges physicians to take religion more seriously. We already take it seriously. But as far as replacing modern medicine with "prayer and Prozac" is concerned, I'm afraid that we will have to wait until one or more of the next "212 studies" accomplishes what the first 212 have not--providing compelling and reproducible (by nonbelievers) evidence that the beneficial health effects of religion are due to something more extraordinary than socialization, relaxation and placebo.


[1] Larry Dossey, Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine, Harper San Francisco, 1993

[2] Hampton Sides, "Prescription: Prayer," St. Petersburg Times, December 29, 1997 (reprinted from the New York Times Magazine)

[3] Bruce Jancin, "Death Risk After Heart Surgery Rises For Patients With No Religious Beliefs," Internal Medicine News & Cardiology News, July 15, 1993

[4] Gary P. Posner, "God in the CCU?" Free Inquiry, Spring 1990

[5] A. Domar, H. Benson et al., "Psychological improvement in infertile women after behavioral treatment: a replication," Fertility and Sterility, 58:144-147, July 1992

[6] I. Tessman and J. Tessman, "Mind and Body" (book review of H. Benson's Timeless Healing: The Power and Biology of Belief, New York, NY, Scribner, 1996), Science, 276:369-370, April 18, 1997

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