Weaver: Credible Evidence is Available
By Andrew J. Weaver
I would again recommend
the recent review of more than 1,200 studies on religion and health in
the Handbook of Religion and Health published by Oxford University
Press (Koenig, McCullough & Larson, 2001) to Stenger. This massive
review with more than 2000 references reports that at least two-thirds
of the studies show significant associations between religious activity
and better mental health, better physical health or lower use of health
Stenger will find that
many of these studies are of very high quality, by any measure of scientific
scholarship. This research gives credible evidence that large numbers of
individuals and their families derive meaningful benefits from their religious
beliefs and practices.
Hundreds of the well-designed
studies included in the Handbook have found faith to be a widely
used coping strategy for individuals and their families suffering from
acute, chronic and terminal illnesses. For example, fathers and mothers
who were members of the Spina Bifida Association all indicated that “having
a belief in God” was the most important family coping strategy among 13
choices presented and that attending religious services was among the most
helpful activities (Samuelson, Foltz & Foxall, 1992).
In a separate study, fathers
of children being treated for cancer in a hematology hospital clinic were
asked about the frequency and effectiveness of various methods of coping
with their child’s suffering. Among 29 separate coping strategies used,
prayer was both the most common and most helpful for the fathers (Cayse,
In a long-term study of
124 parents who lost a child to sudden infant death syndrome, McIntosh,
Silver and Wortman (1993) found that greater religious participation was
related to increased emotional support from others and meaning found in
the loss of the child. Religion offered for these parents an effective
means to make sense of the death, one that enhances well-being, lowers
distress and facilitates recovery.
Quality of life is becoming
more important for cancer patients as treatment advances extend the length
of survival. Researchers studying a random sample of 296 breast cancer
survivors in Southern California found that spiritual care was more important
to the patients’ quality of life than counseling sessions, support groups,
peer support and even spousal support (Ferrell et al., 1998).
A second study of cancer
patients found that an individual’s focus on religious issues increased
as their illnesses advanced. When 231 patients with end-stage cancer were
asked what maintained their quality of life, their “relationship with God”
was the most common response among 28 choices that included “how well I
eat,” “physical contact with those I care about” and “pain relief.” (McMIllian
& Weitzner, 2000). According to these findings, terminal cancer patients
maintained their relationship with God in spite of severe functional difficulties
and serious physical symptoms.
Clearly, large numbers
of suffering people use their faith in difficult times (Pargament, 1997).
Consider that a recent issue of the New England Journal of Medicine
that 90 percent of Americans turned to religion as a coping response to
the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 (Schuster et al., 2001).
Given the widespread use
of religion in America by persons who are coping with stress — whether
it be stress related to medical illness or stress related to the anxieties
of the terrorism — research on the possible health benefits or harmful
effects of religious involvement is a worthwhile scientific enterprise
that deserves the support of the intellectual community.
Andrew J. Weaver, Ph.D., is a United Methodist minister,
licensed psychologist and director of research at The HealthCare Chaplaincy
in New York City.