Saturday, January 29, 2011

Integration of Faith and Science

Dr. Christina Fosarelli, head of the George Washington University Institute for Spirituality and Health, says “… prayer is like a placebo. How can something we know is totally worthless work? Placebos [work] and we don't understand why. It is clear that to some people, faith matters a great deal and seems to be effective and we don't know why." Those of us who believe in God do, in fact, know how these interventions work.

In psychotherapy a placebo may be an inert medication such as a sugar pill or a therapeutic intervention that is known to have no research support. Despite this fact, many times placebo can actually cause the patient to get better. However, a placebo must be consistent with the patient’s beliefs, values and religious convictions to be effective. Alternatively, to suggest treatment that is contrary to a patient’s values can lead to a reverse placebo effect. When the client’s mind develops anxiety or fear, harmful results occur. In the same way that the Placebo Effect brings a positive influence on mental, emotional and physical life the Reverse Placebo Effect can cause the opposite to occur.

Prayer, worship or Holy Communion has a therapeutic placebo effect in a believer. We believe that these faith practices also provide supernatural interventions thereby doubling the impact on body and soul. Additionally, taking part in these activities also engages the patient’s family and church fellowship support system. Thus, acts of faith combine three of the four factors of healing. No wonder church attendance is so wonderfully therapeutic.

However, two ways of bringing religion and spirituality into treatment can be harmful to the client or patient. First, spiritual interventions that are inconsistent with the patient’s faith can cause a reverse placebo. Whereas the placebo effect brings peace and physical improvement its reverse can have the opposite effect for it brings anxiety, fear, condemnation and inner conflict along with all the accompanying negative physical ramifications.

For example, some health care programs suggest that Christian clients practice Yoga as part of an exercise and stress reliever regimen. However, Yoga with meditation on a Hindu god would cause non-Hindus to suffer a reverse placebo effect that could damage the client physically, mentally and emotionally. To Christians and Jews the worship of false gods is idolatry that our bodies and minds automatically reject.

Second, to refuse a client’s request for prayer, communion or a religious rite is malpractice. A person in need often turns to God and religion because the result is a Relaxation Response and a positive Placebo. Rejection of such a request may cause anxiety, guilt feelings, shame and fear. These acts are deleterious to the patient and his family.

A very important factor for recovery is the patient’s motivational level. Without a desire to get better we who minister can do little. Second, hope is also essential to recovery. To refuse a client’s request for religious and spiritual assistance can damage both motivation and hope. Most destructive, however, is the erosion of a third factor; trust between client and therapist.

As I posted above, Dr. Herbert Benson, a well-known researcher on whole person medicine and the Relaxation Response at Harvard University, has carefully researched stress and health. The Relaxation Response is his name for a physical response to deep breathing and calmness. After researching the effects of Eastern Meditation he was challenged to include research on the addition of religion and health.

As a result, he changed his mind about meditation. He writes, “I thought that the Relaxation Response (with its emphasis on secular practices alone) was enough but I have come to see that the effects of this simple technique combined with a person’s deepest beliefs can create internal environments to help the individual reach an enhanced state of health and well-being.” (Beyond The Relaxation Response, Berkley Health, 1985)

Prayer and other spiritual approaches can be particularly beneficial for people with stress-related disorders. Dr. Herbert Benson reports that meditative prayer can ease anxiety, mild depression, substance abuse, ulcers, pain, nausea, tension and migraine headaches, infertility, premenstrual syndrome (PMS), insomnia, and high blood pressure. Dr Benson’s entire approach to relaxation was changed to include religious practices that are consistent with the patient’s faith. A patient who asks for Christian prayer or Holy Communion is denied them at the risk of severe psychological and medical harm. This is, by definition malpractice.

Why would Christians practice Eastern Meditation when it is less effective than focused prayer? I think it is because we Christian leaders have failed miserably in teaching our people how to pray from the heart. We have also failed to tell the world how beneficial prayer is to the whole person and how to combine prayer, worship and physical exercise. In short, we have failed to make disciples and instead replace practical spiritual practices with talk.

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