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 services.
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, 1994).
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 reported 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.

For more information and a complete list of references, visit the website: www.healthcarechaplaincy.com/research_weaverrebuttal.html.