Dr. David Wilbur: Power and Illusion: Religion and Human Need. Part 10
by Ervin Taylor
This is Part 10 of the summary of Dr. David Wilbur’s book. It should be emphasized that all of the text in this series of blogs in bold font in the body of the text of the chapter summary has been kindly provided by Dr. Wilbur. If there are any of my own comments, they will follow in regular type.
Summary for Chapter 9: Religion and Health
The relationship between religion and health has become of considerable interest in recent years, generating thousands of articles in the medical literature.
Difficulties of Studying the Health-Related Effects of Religion
The validation of medical interventions most reliably depends on providing them randomly to part of a population and seeing how the treated population varies from the untreated “controls.”
This is not an option for religious belief which for many people is a significant part of a life history. An exception may be some religious behaviors such as remote intercessory prayer for the healing of an unaware third party and such studies have been done. There are good reasons to think that powerful belief systems do affect human health even though it is hard to confidently study and quantitate this.
Well-Being and Believing
Religious participation is on the average associated with a greater sense of well-being and less depression and anxiety. Religious people who treat their relationships with other people as sacred may also on average have more successful relationships.
Mortality and Morbidity
Multiple studies have found a consistent reduction in overall mortality for those who regularly attend public religious services. An effect of religiosity on progression of cancer hasn’t been seen in similar studies.
Mormons and Seventh-day Adventists expect their members to avoid alcohol and tobacco and both groups have better survival and less cancer compared with population norms.
Habit Modification/Addiction Control
Belief in a higher power is an important part of the ideology of Alcoholics Anonymous which has been the most widely utilized approach to addiction control, though alternatives exist. One review suggests that addiction control is better for those with increased religiosity and/or practicing meditation.
Prayers or entreaties for supernatural healing have been common to many religious traditions and certainly predated Christianity in the Mediterranean world. People often take any evidence of such healing as proof of the truth of the involved religious system.
Several factors (other than divine intervention) may explain the widespread belief in such healings. These include the self-limiting nature of certain human illnesses and the unpredictable courses of other serious illnesses. Some of our afflictions are psychosomatic and emotional changes may alter their expression—a distinct possibility for many religions. Placebos are also powerful interventions for at least symptom control and prayer may function as a placebo for believing patients. Additionally one must note the human tendency to remember unusual events (possible healings) and forget common events (failure of prayer for healing).
Prayer is the most common form of complementary and alternative medicine use reported in a Harvard study. Prayer by one party asking for a benefit for a third party is called intercessory prayer and its effects can be studied as a blinded scientific experiment if that third party is unaware of its happening.
In the nineteenth century Francis Galton looked for retrospective objective evidence of the benefits of various kinds of prayer without any positive results. More recently multiple-blinded prospective trials of intercessory prayer have been reported. Several meta-analyses of these trials have appeared in the medical literature, most recently in 2009, all failing to find clear evidence of prayer’s benefit.
At an individual and personal level prayer is still much in use and a source of hope for true believers.
Religious participation is associated with better physical and mental health. Religions are unique aggregations of beliefs and behaviors and it is nearly impossible to isolate the effects of a particular part of this system. It remains unclear whether an educated person with a healthy lifestyle, good socialization and at least middle class financial resources would be benefited by adding a religious belief system to his repertoire. Lots of people think he would be benefited so the question will still be studied.