Earlier this week, NBC News considered the pressing problem of physicians relying on medical knowledge alone rather than also incorporating pleas for supernatural intercession into their treatment plans.
You see, doctors don’t get everything right all the time; therefore, we need God in the mix.
This was essentially the gist of the piece. Cynthia McFadden interviewed Father John Murray, a Catholic priest who broke his neck in a fall. Despite predictions from doctors that he wouldn’t walk again, Murray is able to do so, and regards the recovery as nothing short of miraculous.
“‘You should expect no voluntary movement,'” said Murray. “That’s a quote. ‘No voluntary movement for the rest of your life.'”
But within a year and a half after he tripped on a Jersey Shore boardwalk, the priest was able to rise from his wheelchair and walk.
“I think it’s a result of prayer,” said Murray. “Other people’s prayers and my prayers, without a doubt.”
Such an anecdote really illustrates only two things, though. Firstly, medical predictions are not 100% accurate (since nobody claims they are, this is a pretty minor point). And, secondly, Father Murray believes prayer cured him. It is, of course, his prerogative to believe whatever he likes about his recovery; but without evidence to back it up, his belief about the cause of his recovery is just that: a belief.
That’s the objection that Dr. Harold Koenig, head of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University, tries to anticipate. Dr. Koenig is an advocate for physicians and the medical care team participating in and facilitating a patient’s religious practice.
“People who are more religious just live longer; that’s kind of the bottom line,” said Dr. Harold Koenig.
Koenig said more than 4,000 studies have examined the connection between spirituality and health, with the number of studies tripling, by his estimate, in the past decade.
According to Koenig, most studies show religious people have better mental health, are less likely to experience depression, and cope better when they do. His own research shows that people who pray daily are 40 percent less likely to have high blood pressure.
“They have greater well-being, in general,” he said. “Religious people who are part of a faith community and have a relationship with God, so to speak, just have higher levels of well-being. They’re happier. And that’s been shown — hundreds of studies have now shown that.”
It’s important to note that, while the piece implies it, Dr. Koenig isn’t actually stating that prayer leads to supernatural intercession (the evidence can indeed point in the opposite direction and show prayer doesn’t yield any health bonus). He’s saying that people with a faith community and a spiritual side are happier, have lower blood pressure, etc. than those lacking spirituality and strong community.
Okay, fair enough.
But are Koenig’s supposed benefits a product of prayer or a byproduct of having a strong support network and a sense of belonging? Isn’t there also the possibility of a placebo effect at play — that a patient’s mental health and overall happiness can improve because he believes he is being guided to recovery? While these are certainly questions that should be asked before deciding that it simply must be God after all, NBC doesn’t spend much time considering reasons beyond the supernatural. (Well, not until the next night, anyway, when NBC gave skeptics a chance to negate the previous report’s theories.)
The fact is, you can demonstrate the effect that the presence of friendship and a supportive community has on people’s mental health; you can demonstrate the effect that mental well-being has on physical well-being; you can demonstrate the placebo effect. Those, then, are topics that belong in a discussion of medicine.
But supernatural intervention has never been demonstrated. It is merely claimed, though there exist far better explanations for the same scenarios. Until and unless the efficacy of prayer is demonstrated, it has no more place in medical treatments than ritual sacrifice or magic spells. The patient, his friends, churchgoers, etc., are and should be free to summon the protection of whatever spirits, deities, or forces they desire. But the medical team is there to provide scientifically valid medical treatment, not to appeal to supposed spiritual remedies or divine the capricious whims of gods.
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