Spirituality and Faith Healing

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Spirituality and Faith Healing

Seen from a cross-cultural perspective, diverse traditions of healing, which respond to different conceptions of illness itself, fall under the heading of what may be called faith healing. This entry surveys faith healing activity according to seven categories: (1) intercessory prayer; (2) mind-body research; (3) laying on of hands; (4) complementary and alternative medicine; (5) Asian healing practices; (6) shamanistic practices; and (7) African and other tribal practices. Although these categories by no means represent the entire range of practices that could be construed as faith healing, they do epitomize a spiritual approach to healing. They are also areas in which important scientific and other scholarly research has been conducted.

Western approaches

Evidencing increasing respect for spirituality within the healthcare community, scientific research in the domain of modern Western medicine has examined the impact of spirituality on healing in the areas of intercessory prayer, mind-body connectivity, laying on of hands, and complementary and alternative medicine.

Intercessory prayer. In attempting to determine the impact of faith on health, some researchers have looked to prayer to determine its impact on the health and well being of patients. For example, in 2000, D. A. Matthews and colleagues published a study on the impact of intercessory prayer on patients suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. The study showed that patients receiving in-person prayer "showed significant overall improvement during 1-year follow-up," causing the study's authors to conclude that "in-person intercessory prayer may be a useful adjunct to standard medical care for certain patients with rheumatoid arthritis." In 2001, W. J. Matthews and colleagues published a discussion of the impact of intercessory prayer and other behavioral interventions for kidney dialysis patients.

In another example, noting, "intercessory prayer (praying for others) has been a common response to sickness for millennia," W. S. Harris and colleagues examine whether or not remote (as opposed to nonremote) intercessory prayer reduces "overall adverse events and length of stay" for hospitalized cardiac patients. Employing a controlled, double-blind, parallel-group trial in a private university-associated hospital, Harris and colleagues examined 990 consecutive patients admitted for coronary care. Researchers randomized patients, who received either remote intercessory prayer (the "prayer group") or no prayer (the "usual care group"). Outside intercessors, who did not know and did not meet the patients, prayed for patients in the prayer group daily for four weeks. The patients themselves did not know that people were praying for them. At the conclusion of the study, the researchers reported that, although the two groups did not evidence any differences in the lengths of their coronary care unit and hospital stays, the group that was prayed for displayed lower coronary care unit scores, suggesting "that prayer may be an effective adjunct to standard medical care." Despite this optimistic conclusion, peers have questioned the potential increase in clinical outcome of patients receiving intercessory prayer. For example, R. M. Hamm's article "No Effect of Intercessory Prayer Has Been Proven" (2000) claims that the study described above may have attributed too much importance to results of minimal statistical significance, while another 2000 article by D. R. Hoover and J. B. Margolick in the Archives of Internal Medicine questions the appropriateness of the study's statistical methods in relationship to the type of data collected.

In "The Healing Power of Intercessory Prayer" (2001), O. G. Harding provides an interesting treatment of the more metaphysical implications of efficacious, remote, intercessory prayer. Harding states that "arising from an emerging world view in philosophy, it is argued that the mind can function beyond the individual and is not constrained by time and distance; it is in fact non-local. Prayer is cited as an example of non-local manifestation of consciousness." Harding presents two case studies providing evidence for non-local healing and asks "whether there is no place in medicine for a multiple approach to healing," and, further, if "reported studies of [efficacious] prayer therapies are meaningful, are physicians not using these additional treatments withholding something curative from their patients?" In general, if, despite methodological criticisms of existing research, one emerges convinced that prayer successfully improves health outcomes in some circumstances, one still must answer the question of what mechanisms support healing, both in cases when patients are aware they are being prayed for, but also when they are unaware that others engage in prayers on their behalf. While some may adopt a theological interpretation of such results by claiming that God answers prayers on behalf of the sick and dying, others may prefer to believe that either the patient's own response to the knowledge that they are being prayed for (in the case of nonremote intercessory prayer) or the force of positive, non-localized human intentionality (in the case of remote intercessory prayer) may exert some influence on actual events, such as whether or not a patient recovers from an illness.

Mind/body research. In addition to researching the impact of intercessory prayer, the Western medical community has also examined the impact of spirituality on health in the context of research on the connection between mind and body. Initiatives emanating out of the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, lead research in this area and focus primarily on the positive therapeutic effects of quieting, meditative practice (called "the relaxation response" by Dr. Herbert Benson and his colleagues) on general health outcomes in a range of areas. Benson and his colleagues define the relaxation response "as a series of coordinated physiologic changes elicited when a person engages in a repetitive word, sound or phrase or prayer, and passively disregards intrusive thoughts. Relaxation response practice results in decreased metabolism, heart rate, rate of breathing, and distinctive slower brain waves. These changes are the exact opposite of those induced by the fight or flight response" (Mind/body, 2002). Benson and his colleagues claim that, when combined with exercise, stress management, and proper nutrition, the relaxation response functions as an effective therapeutic intervention for "cardiac disease, many forms of chronic pain, infertility, insomnia, premenstrual syndrome, the symptoms of cancer and HIV/AIDS, anxiety, and mild and moderate depression" -i.e., any condition "caused or made worse by stress" (Mind/body, 2002). By far the most high-profile provider of spirituality and health research and treatment, the Mind/Body Medical Clinic and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Massachusetts and affiliate sites throughout the United States enjoy over nine thousand patient visits per year. The Mind/Body Medical Institute offers training in the relaxation response to teachers and students, business people, health care professionals, and members of the public.

Laying on of hands. Western medical attention has also focused on the "laying on of hands," which although viewed by some as more of a supplemental, palliative nursing treatment, also serves as a topic for rigorous research. In one interesting study, researchers examined physician attitudes toward the laying on of hands in the context of the AIDS epidemic and concern about HIV infection. The researchers concluded that physicians believed touch facilitated healing and strengthened rapport, though younger physicians, those working in primary care, and those who did not prefer to wear gloves were more likely to express such attitudes.

Complementary and alternative medicine. Although scientific investigation in faith-based healing has increased significantly, M. R. Tonelli and T. C. Callahan ask in their article "Why Alternative Medicine Cannot Be Evidence-Based" (2001) whether the scientific method adequately assesses many "alternative" approaches to healing. They note that "the concept of evidence-based medicine (EBM) has been widely adopted by orthodox Western medicine. Proponents of EBM have argued that complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) modalities ought to be subjected to rigorous, controlled clinical trials in order to assess their efficacy. However, this does not represent a scientific necessity, but rather is a philosophical demand: promoters of EBM seek to establish their particular epistemology as the primary arbiter of all medical knowledge." Tonelli and Callahan believe instead that "methods for obtaining knowledge in a healing art must be coherent with that art's underlying understanding and theory of illness. Thus, the method of EBM and the knowledge gained from population-based studies may not be the best way to assess certain CAM practices, which view illness and healing within the context of a particular individual only." Since many alternative approaches to healing admit the existence of "non-measurable but perceptible aspects of illness and health (e.g., Qi)," controlled clinical trials may not offer appropriate methods of assessment. The authors conclude that "orthodox medicine should consider abandoning demands that CAM become evidence-based, at least as 'evidence' is currently narrowly defined, but insist instead upon a more complete and coherent description and defense of the alternative epistemic methods and tools of these disciplines."

Some studies (e.g., Eisenberg et al, 2001; Parkman, 2002) demonstrate that a growing number of people consider the combination of orthodox treatments and complementary and alternative therapies to be more effective than either kind of treatment alone. Patients with higher anxiety approach faith healers more often, though not to reject more conventional scientific approaches, but as a continuation of them (Conroy et al, 2000). In his article "'Physician, Heal Thyself': How Teaching Holistic Medicine Differs from Teaching CAM" (2001), J. Graham-Pole differentiates CAM ("a system of health care not generally recognized as part of mainstream medical practice") and holistic medicine ("the art and science of healing the whole person-body, mind, and spirit-in relation to that person's community and environment"). Although at least two-thirds of medical schools in the United States offer coursework in CAM, and while an increasing number of courses in the medical humanities focus on spirituality and health, courses on holistic medicine remain rare. According to Graham-Pole, "offering physicians-to-be more course-work in holistic medicine could lay the groundwork for future physicians' adopting and modeling healthy lifestyles."

Non-Western approaches

Moving from Western approaches to non-Western ones, studies on Asian, shamanistic, and African tribal healing practices have contributed to the overall discussion of faith healing. Cross-cultural forms of faith-related healing have also achieved prominent medical investigation, both by Western researchers and by professionals from within particular cultural contexts. For example, V. Griffiths in "Eastern and Western Paradigms" (1999) comments on the holistic nature of Chinese medicine and its attention to observation, subjectivity, and feeling. Chinese medicine revolves around the notion of qi, "an alleged vital force that underlies functioning of body, mind, and spirit" (Raso, 2000) According to a 2002 article by W. Yao and colleagues, "cardiac deficiency of qi (vital energy)" is "one of the main syndromes in terms of TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine)." Furthermore, based upon a study of forty-four Wistar female rats, B. W. Fang and colleagues contend that "the mixture of reinforcing qi and promoting blood circulation has the function of alleviating pathological changes of liver, reducing the content of liver collagen, improving erythrocytic function of clearing away immune complexes and regulating humoral immune response."

Specialists in Chinese medicine channel qi as part of qigong therapy, which aims "to 'stimulate' and 'balance' the flow of qi . . . through meridians ('energy pathways')." Qigong is a Chinese form of self-healing somewhat similar to some forms of meditative or prayer-based healing. "It involves contemplation, visualization (imagery), assumption of postures, and stylized breathing and body movements" (Raso, 2000). Somewhat similar to qigong, a Japanese form of healing, shinkiko, also relies on interaction with a spiritual realm of energy for healing. Although researchers have not yet studied this form of healing extensively, its popularity is growing in the West in conjunction with the increasingly high profile enjoyed by energy-based healing arts.

Some aspects of faith healing in cross-cultural perspective, such as shamanism and tribal practices, involve belief in spiritual realms accessible by healers on behalf of their patients. Shamanic healing practices often include "sensing and removing 'localized spiritual illness and pain'" in addition to techniques such as soul retrieval and the integration of parts of the soul (Raso, 2000). In the article "Clown Doctors: Shaman Healers of Western Medicine" (1995), L. M. van Blerkom observes similarities between shamanic healing and various palliative treatments in the West, specifically the Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit, which works with children in New York City hospitals. According to van Blerkom, "there is not only superficial resemblance-weird costumes, music, sleight of hand, puppet/spirit helpers, and ventriloquism-but also similarity in the meanings and functions of their performances. Both clown and shaman violate natural and cultural rules in their performances. Both help patient and family deal with illness. Both use suggestion and manipulation of medical symbols in attempting to alleviate their patients' distress."

As Western medicine continues to gain acceptance in other parts of the world, it increasingly will face the task of integrating itself gracefully with traditional healing systems such that the different traditions can work together in a complementary fashion. For example, in Israel, Bedouin-Arabs (especially women) approach traditional healers before they seek biomedical health care. "The traditional system struck a stronger therapeutic alliance, tended to diagnose more comprehensibly, and was perceived by many patients as being more clinically beneficial." Furthermore, traditional healers can help biomedical practitioners "incorporate the family/community in treatment, and communicate in the patient's cultural idiom" (Al-Krenawi and Graham).

In the context of Africa, traditional tribal healing practices can work together with Western methods effectively, as, for example, in the case of treatment and education for diabetes in South Africa (Peltzer et al). Additionally, V. G. Chipfakacha argues in "STD/HIV/AIDS Knowledge, Beliefs, and Practices of Traditional Healers in Botswana" (1997) that "rapport between traditional healers and scientific medical personnel is essential for an effective and successful HIV/AIDS prevention and control programme" in the context of Africa because approximately seventy percent of African patients see traditional healers. Traditional healers experience increasing risk of contact with HIV/AIDS, which makes it imperative that they receive correct information about the virus and the disease.

See also Prayer and Meditation; Spirituality and Health


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jensine andresen