Reasons to Believe

Not All Bad

Various atheists have felt confident in the past year or so, expressing themselves through a number of best-selling books authored by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Victor Stenger, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett. A commonly articulated view among such skeptics insists that religion is irrational, harmful, dangerous, and, in some cases, evil. Whether their case is against religion itself or against people who practice religion can be debated; but recent articles, describing studies of the effect of religion on people and their health, paints a different picture.

In its April 10, 2007, issue, ScienceDaily reported on a survey done at the University of Chicago that addressed this topic. Through random selection, the researchers interviewed over one thousand practicing physicians, asking questions about the physicians’ religious views and their observations about what role religion and spirituality played in the lives of their patients. While the findings were somewhat biased by the personal religious outlook of the physician, the physicians’ views included that religion and spirituality:

  • awareness is often or always increased in times of illness (67%)
  • has much or very much influence on health (56%)
  • leads to intervention, at times, by a supernatural being (54%)
  • influences the patient in a generally positive way (85%)
  • changes the medical outcomes (6%)
  • helps the patient cope (76%)
  • gives the patient a positive state of mind (74%)
  • provides emotional and practical support through a religious community (55%)
  • causes negative emotions such as guilt and anxiety (7%)
  • leads the patients to decline medical treatment (2%)
  • causes patients to avoid taking responsibility for their health (4%)
  • sometimes has one of the above harmful influences (33%)

These results largely support the idea that religion plays a positive role in patients’ lives. However, a conclusion on the part of those carrying out the survey states that, “Future studies should examine the ways physicians’ own religions (and secular) commitments shape their clinical engagements in these and other domains.”

Later, in its October 24 issue, ScienceDaily outlined a study done at the University of Missouri-Columbia that goes beyond the previous study, showing that religion helps many who live with disabilities. Some of the results suggest that religion:

  • helps those facing impending death to accept their condition and prepare for death;
  • helps those with chronic disabilities, such as brain or spinal injury, stroke, etc. to cope with their loss.

In light of these results, the researchers performing the study recommend that, “Health care providers should encourage religious practices important to individuals,” and “students should be taught about various religious beliefs and how they might be used to the patients’ advantage in a rehabilitation setting.”

While the Christian faith in particular is not in view, both of these studies add to a growing body of evidence that supports the credibility of the case for religion.

Subjects: Ethics

Dr. David Rogstad

Dr. Dave Rogstad received his PhD in physics from Caltech and worked over 30 years for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Though now retired, Dave continues to serve as an RTB board member and participates regularly in several RTB podcasts.