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Healing and Faith
Apr 1, 2000

The relationship between faith and healing has always been a point of curiousity and controversy. Most of us have heard stories of people recovering from serious diseases due to their faith. Exploring and investigating this relationship by scientific means has been a taboo among scientists and medical doctors for centuries. As recently as 15 years ago, it would have been considered academic suicide to propose such a study.

But this has started to change. Increasingly, professionals from respected institutions are conducting scientific studies of the effects of faith in healing. Recent conferences at Harvard, the Mayo Clinic, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) signal this change, as does major media coverage on PBS, NBC Nightly News, CNN, and CBS This Morning. Below we give examples of such scientific studies, the people behind them, and their findings.

Dr. Herbert Benson

Dr. Herbert Benson is an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and the founding president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Boston's Deaconess Hospital. As the author of 150 scientific papers and six books, Benson has made important contributions to our understanding of the physiology involved in the healing effects of faith.(1)

As a young cardiologist working with people suffering from high blood pressure, Benson noticed that their blood pressure was the highest during office visits. He reached this conclusion after noticing that after treating his patients with anti-hypertensive medicines to lower their blood pressure, they would report such symptoms as fainting. This indicated that the adjusted blood pressure was generally too low. Since doses were set according to measurements made during the visit, the calibration was correct. He concluded that their blood pressure should have been lower before or after the visit.

To establish a model for stress-induced hypertension, he stopped his routine in cardiology and returned to physiology research at Harvard Medical School. Once when he was studying monkeys, about 15 young people involved with Transcendental Meditation asked him to study their responses to stress. Electrodes were attached to their chests and scalps to measure their heart waves and brain waves. Masks collected their breath as they exhaled, so their metabolism and rate of breathing could be measured. Then baseline measurements were taken while they sat quietly for 20 minutes. The same measurements were taken again while they meditated for 20 minutes, and then one last time while they sat quietly without meditating. The individuals had a 17 percent decrease in their metabolism during meditation, and a 20 percent drop in their rate of breathing. Also the frequencies of brain waves were lowered.

Benson identified two basic components of Transcendental Meditation: meditation and prayers involving the repetition of a word, sound, or movement with the out-breath; and passively setting aside other thoughts when they come to mind and returning to the repetition.

When he studied various religions and cultures, he found these essential elements in virtually every one of them. The earliest account was in Hinduism, where there were accounts of individuals focusing on their breathing and repeating a phrase of scripture while disregarding every-day thoughts. The pattern was found in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Shintoism, Taoism, and Confucianism. He posited that this practice may be conducive to improved health perhaps by reducing parasympathetic nervous system responses to stress, known as the "fight or flight response".*

Benson sees his work not as alternative medicine but rather as one leg of a three-legged stool. In his words: "One leg is pharmaceuticals, another leg is surgery and other procedures, and the third is self-care. That last leg includes nutrition, exercise, and the relaxation response. It's vital not to neglect the last leg, because 60 to 90 percent of visits to doctors are for conditions related to stress, where employing pharmaceuticals and surgery is not effective." (2)

Benson also found out that as much as faith inspires prayer, this form of prayer or meditation inspires health. He and his colleagues treated such conditions as hypertension and cardiac arrhythmia with the relaxation response, the common ingredient in his self-care program and prayer/meditation practices. They cured 75 percent of insomniacs, treated symptoms of depression in people with AIDS and cancer, and relieved nausea and vomiting related to chemotherapy. In a fertility program for infertile women that emphasizes self-care through relaxation response techniques, proper nutrition, and re-framing thinking patterns, 34 percent become pregnant in contrast to 15 percent in other programs.

Dr. David Larson

Psychiatrist David Larson is the president of the National Institute of Healthcare Research and author of the teaching workbook, The Forgotten Factor (co-authored with his wife Susan). In this book, he discusses the relationship between religion and health. Numbers supporting his work come from Gallup polls showing that 95 percent of Americans believe in God, and that although half believe in Hell, 80 percent sanguinely trust in a forgiving God. In addition, 40 percent of Americans attend worship services weekly.

During his psychiatric residency at Duke University, Larson asked a professor for some guidance on how to bring his faith into psychiatric practice. The response was: "Are you the type person who wants people to believe like you do?" Although he said he was not, the professor continued: "It is obvious you are going to hurt your patients." He recalls that anyone who would bring up that subject would be quickly labeled as a fundamentalist.(3) But his later research and extensive publications have brought attention, which helped fund the National Institute for Healthcare Research. The Faith in Medicine program, which the institution funds, gives $10,000 grants to medical schools for courses on religion and health. Johns Hopkins and George Washington University are among the eleven schools that have received the grants.

Dr. Harold Koenig

Among the pioneers of the study of faith's healing potential is Harold Koenig, an associate professor of psychiatry and director of the Center for the Study of Religion, Spirituality, and Health at Duke University Medical Center. Koenig first noticed the significance of faith as a factor in medical recovery when he was a young family doctor. He was consulted about a patient who had been hospitalized for a month after hip surgery. Her husband had died of a sudden stroke, and she had slipped on ice at his funeral and fractured her hip. The surgeon warned him that she was emotionally vulnerable. Indeed, she had experienced events that normally would trigger clinical depression and thus undermine her recovery.

He was therefore surprised to find the old lady cheerful when he entered her room. She said: "What can I do for you, Doctor?" Koenig's search for obvious signs of depression-fatigue, darkened or tear-reddened eyes, difficulty concentrating-indicated nothing. Upon further conversation, he discovered that she maintained her cheerful mood by reading the Bible. She told him: "If I wake up alone or afraid, I read my Bible or talk to God. He is always there, even when my loved ones are not. It's the most important thing that keeps me going."

Koenig was impressed. When she recovered with few complications, he felt compelled to study further the medical significance of such deep faith. Since that event, numerous patients have told him how their faith helped them cope, thus speeding their physical healing. His research team, which has studied thousands of Americans since 1984, has compiled powerful evidence that religious faith not only promotes overall good health, but also helps patients recover from serious illness.(4)

"By praying to God, patients acquire an indirect form of control over their illness." They believe they are not alone in their struggle, and that God is personally interested in them. This safeguards them against the psychological isolation that batters so many seriously ill people. In a study of 455 elderly hospital patients, Koenig found that people who attended church more than once a week averaged about four days in the hospital. People who never or rarely attended church spent about ten to twelve days of hospitalization.

Dr. Dale Matthews

Dale Matthews is an associate professor of medicine at Georgetown University Medical Center, Washington, DC. As a young internist in the early 1980s, he met a patient with strong faith who would make a lasting impact on his life. The man said: "I am a devout Christian. If you're going to be my doctor, I want you to pray with me" before allowing Matthews to treat him. Matthews had never shared his own faith with his patients, so at first he was reluctant. But nevertheless he joined hands with the man, who he hoped would keep quiet and keep the matter secret. After all, he did not want to be labeled "unscientific." He was alarmed when the man's booming voice filled the examination room. But Matthews had a crucial realization that day: His patient was a whole person, not a composite of symptoms and tests forming a "case." This led him to become sensitive to signals indicating that religion is important to a patient. If someone says: "I hope from God that nothing bad shows up in these tests," Matthews will say: "Tell me your thoughts about God." He declares: "We cannot prove scientifically that God heals, but I believe we can prove that belief in God has a beneficial effect." In his recently published book The Faith Factor, he incorporates religious wisdom, scientific research, and patients' stories to make a case for the faith-health connection.(5)

Statistical Findings

Health care institutions are beginning to pay attention to the faith-health connection. Harvard Medical School, the Mayo Clinic, and the AAAS have sponsored conferences on spirituality and health. Nearly half of all American medical schools now offer courses on the topic. Below we give findings of some published studies on the topic.

• In a survey of 269 doctors at the 1996 meeting of the American Academy of Family Physicians, 99 percent said they thought religious beliefs could contribute to healing. When asked about their personal experiences, 63 percent of doctors said God intervened to improve their own medical conditions. Their patients agree even more enthusiastically that prayer is a powerful tool in healing. Polls by Time/CNN and USA Weekend show that about 80 percent of Americans believe spiritual faith or prayer can help people recover from illness or injury, and more than 60 percent think doctors should talk to patients about faith and even pray with those who request it.

• According to researchers at Columbia University, children whose religiously committed mothers are less likely to suffer from depression later in life.(6) In their study, 60 mothers and 151 children were followed over 10 years to determine if there was any relationship between a mother's religious commitment and resulting depression in her children. The study found that daughters, but not sons, of women who considered religion to be highly important were 60 percent less likely to have a major depressive disorder at the 10-year followup. A second important factor linked with less depression was the degree to which the children embraced their mother's religion. When the mother and child were members of the same religious denomination at the followup, daughters were 71 percent less likely to suffer from a major depressive disorder while sons were 84 percent less likely.

• Another significant finding of the study was that highly religious mothers were less likely to be depressed themselves.(7) Women for whom religion was highly important were 81 percent less likely to have major depression at the 10-year followup. This finding is consistent with other studies showing an inverse relationship between religiosity and depression. Several possible explanations exist for these findings. According to the researchers, highly religious mothers also were less likely to be divorced or exhibit poor social functioning—-both of which could contribute to depression in children. Another potential explanation comes from a recent study at the Medical College of Virginia, which found that religion can protect people from depression by buffering them against stressful life events.(8)

• A Dartmouth Medical School study found that heart patients were 14 times more likely to die following surgery if they did not participate in group activities and did not find comfort in religion. Within six months of surgery 21 patients died, but there were no deaths among 37 people who said they were "deeply religious."

• A Yale University study of 2,812 elderly people found that those who never or rarely attended church had nearly twice the stroke rate of weekly church-goers.

• A survey of 5,286 Californians found that church members have lower death rates than nonmembers—regardless of such risk factors as smoking, drinking, obesity, and inactivity.

• Those with a religious commitment had fewer symptoms or had better health outcomes in seven out of eight cancer studies, four out of five blood pressure studies, four out of six heart disease studies, and four out of five general health studies. According to one research analysis, people with a strong religious commitment seem to be less prone to depression, suicide, alcoholism, and other addictions.

• Can others' prayers help? In a 1988 study by cardiologists Randolph Byrd, 393 heart patients in San Francisco General Hospital Medical center were divided into two groups. One was prayed for by people around the country; the other did not receive any prayers from study participants. Patients did not know to which group they belonged. The group that was prayed for experienced fewer complications, fewer cases of pneumonia, fewer cardiac arrests, less congestive heart failure, and needed fewer antibiotics.(9)

• Researchers studying a sample population of 2,730 drawn from the Alameda County Study—a long-term research project of health and mortality—found that people who both attend religious services and participate in other activities through their place of worship receive protection from the stress of financial burdens, health issues, and other problems.

• In a study of nearly 600 severely ill hospital patients aged 55 and older, researchers measured 47 ways of coping. They discovered that patients who sought a connection with a benevolent God as well as support from clergy and church members were less depressed and rated their quality of life as higher, even after taking into account the severity of their diagnosis. Researchers also found that patients who gave spiritual support to others by praying for them or encouraging their faith also faired better emotionally.

• Another recent study conducted at Duke University revealed more striking results. In the first study to examine the role of religion in recovering from depression, researchers followed 87 patients aged 60 or older who were diagnosed with depressive disorder after being admitted to the hospital for a physical illness. They discovered that religion can help people recover from depression. In fact, the more spiritual the patient, the more quickly he or she recovered.(10)


Can faith really heal? According to some researchers, the answer is a definite yes. The study of the link between religious faith and physical healing is very young. But there are important signs that faith can have significant positive impact on health, complementing such conventional medical practices as pharmaceuticals and surgery. Increasingly, professionals from respected institutions are looking into the relationship of faith and healing via scientific methods. Once considered a taboo, studying the healing powers of faith is now taken seriously in scientific circles. Regardless of its results, the very existence of this effort promises to expand the possibilities of cooperation between science and faith, and lead to a better understanding of human nature. *Fight or Flight Response: Stress has been defined as the perception of threat or danger that requires behavioral change. Stress results in various bodily changes, including increased metabolism, and increases in heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, and blood flow to the muscles. These internal physiological changes prepare us to fight or run away, and thus stress reaction has been named the "fight or flight" response. The fight or flight response was first described by Harvard physiologist Dr. Walter B. Cannon. It is mediated by the increased release of adrenaline and noradrenalin (epinephrine and norepinephrine) into the blood stream.


  1. Herbert Benson, Timeless Healing: The Power and Biology of Belief (Fireside: 1997).
  2. "Mindful Healing, Technology Review," Edited by Massachusetts Institute of Technology, October 1996.
  3. Jessica Cohen, "The Greatest Story Never Told," Utne Reader, No. 80, April 1997.
  4. "Doctors Report: Faith Can Heal You," Reader's Digest, October 1998.
  5. Dale A. Matthews, The Faith Factor: Proof of the Healing Power of Prayer, Penguin USA, 1999.
  6. L. Miller, et al. "Religiosity and Depression: Ten-year Follow-up of Depressed Mothers and Offspring." J. Am. Acad. Child Adolescent Psychiatry 1997; 36:10:1416-1425.
  7. Ibid.
  8. K. S. Kendler, et al. "Religion, Psychopathology, and Substance Use and Abuse: A Multi-measure, Genetic-Epidemiologic Study." Am. J Psychiatry 1997; 154(3):322-329.
  9. "Doctors Report: Faith Can Heal You," Reader's Digest, October 1998.
  10. "Why Doctors Believe Faith is Powerful Medicine," Reader's Digest, October 1999.