Religion and Health

Somehow, every December, I start thinking about religion and its role in our life.

As a physician, I am always looking for ways to inform my patients that certain type of life style is good for them. But I never talk about religion. I believe it is a personal and private matter. But I have written on this subject in the past. These columns can be read on my website – nbharwani.com.

What is interesting is that a Newsweek poll shows 72 percent of Americans would welcome a conversation with their physician about faith. The same number say they believe that praying to God can cure someone, even if science says the person doesn’t stand a chance.

My question is: Do we need religion to stay healthy and happy? Does religion make us a good person?

Let us look at the second question first. Peter Alliss, TV commentator, author and golfer says in a Golf Digest interview:

“I am a humanist. I am not an agnostic or an atheist, really, though I don’t believe there is a higher power in the form of an old man with a white beard, controlling events from the heavens. I believe you go through life learning by observing good and bad in other people, and putting those lessons into practice. I believe you do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and it doesn’t take a Bible to convince me of that.”

Alliss is not the only one who believes that being religious is not always synonymous with being a good person. One can be a good spiritual person without being a religious person.

Although religion is a strong positive factor for many people, others find that it puts constraint on their freedom to be a broad minded good individual. Then there are those who use religion in a very negative way. Perhaps more than anything negative application of religion gives it a bad name.

For most people religion is a very personal and private thing. We cannot impose our beliefs on others. If people want to change then they have to search for the truth and pursue it. That desire has to come from within. It cannot be imposed from outside.

As we renew our resolutions for the New Year, our desire to change ourselves has to come from within us. Most of us have a desire to be a better, kinder, gentler person who can make a difference in the world we live. Whether religion can help fulfill our desire to be a good person depends on one’s belief and how it is applied in life.

Does religion make us healthy and happy? Should religion be part of our health care system?

The Newsweek poll says that 84 percent of Americans think that praying for the sick improves their chances of recovery; 28 percent think religion and medicine should be separate.

What does science say?

Again there are differing opinions. The difficulty is – how do you measure the power of prayer? It would be impossible to do a double blind prospective trial on the power of prayer.

The Newsweek article says that Dr. Lynda H. Powell, an epidemiologist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, reviewed about 150 papers on this subject. Her findings? While faith provides comfort in times of illness, it does not significantly slow cancer growth or improve recovery from acute illness.

There was one positive finding. People who regularly attend church have a 25 percent reduction in mortality. They live longer than people who are not church goers.

The Newsweek poll also shows that 84 percent of Americans said praying for others can have a positive effect on their recovery, and 74 percent said that would be true even if they didn’t know the patient. But this is not confirmed by scientific studies.

But whatever science says, every individual has his or her spiritual relationship with God. How we use that relationship to stay healthy depends on us. If we believe in something then it usually works.

I feel December is good time of the year to reflect on such matters. And remember, do unto others as you would have them do unto you! It does not matter whether you are agnostic, atheist or religious.

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