Sunday, March 01, 2009

How faith can heal

The February 23 issue of Time magazine has a special section called "How Faith Can Heal," with a cover pic of a woman in prayer. It's a typical Time religion cover story: making all the right nods to religion, without any concessions to the supernatural. That is to say, a religious person can read the issue with satisfaction, and a naturalist will find nothing to complain about.

We've known for a long time that religious belief has a healthy payoff (about the same as regular exercise and taking statins), presumably for the same reasons placebos work. Certain religious practices -- meditation, deep prayer -- clearly are conducive to good health (I wish I could learn to relax). The mind and body are connected in myriad ways, and Time makes it clear that the health benefits of spirituality are neurobiological. The magazine does not hesitate to acknowledge that every double-blind study of intercessory prayer in a medical context has shown no effect.

Time knows that religion sells, and the editors have developed a slick way to package their product. They are careful to call their story "How Faith Can Heal," not "Faith Is a Placebo." A careful reading, however, shows it all comes down to the same thing. The parietal lobe gets central billing; the ghost in the machine shows up not at all.

So if belief in the supernatural makes us statistically healthier, why don't naturalists jump on board? Presumably because we value our commitment to reality more than a marginal life extension. Religious naturalists can hope for the best of both worlds by seeking to fill our lives with love, tranquility, wonder and celebration -- scientific medicine and a bit of the sugar pill too.

Curiously, Time does not mention what I would guess to be the most powerful influence of supernaturalist faith on health: The vast number of scientific hospitals started and maintained by people of faith, and the long tradition of medical service by religiously motivated nursing sisters. That is to say, people with a sincere belief in the supernatural have been prominent in bringing the benefits of scientific medicine to believers and unbelievers alike. A naturalist can read about the heroic service of nursing sisters fighting ebola in the Congo and admire them no less than we admire the secular Doctors Without Borders who do the same thing. What both groups have in common is selfless service to one's fellow men and women, which may be what religion at its best is all about. The prayers of the sisters may even add a remedial benefit for patients who are aware they are being prayed for -- as long as the sisters also have an adequate supply of disinfectant and pharmaceuticals.