God, Faith and Health: What Have We Learned?

A Reflection on Dr. Jeff Levin’s book, “God, Faith and Health:  Exploring the Spirituality-Healing Connection” 

We recently passed the tenth anniversary of the release of one of the most important and controversial books ever published, linking religious belief and behavior with human health.  The author, Dr. Jeff Levin, who holds a distinguished chair at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, as “University Professor of Epidemiology,”  has justly deserved the description as a pioneering scientist in his field of religious epidemiology.  This new and fast-growing field researches the existence and the nature of cause/effect linkages between two classes of phenomena which have been often considered utterly unconnected in medical science previously:  faith and health

Literally hundreds of medical and epidemiological studies have been published over the past century, and the accumulated evidence is now truly overwhelming, showing the connection between these two groups of phenomena: (1) God-belief, various other religious beliefs, and religious practices and (2) measures of human health, including prevalence and mortality from dozens of different diseases, such as coronary diseases, cancers of over twenty types,  hypertension and asthma.

A Rhetorical Bonus

What was equally significant and even exciting to me as a rhetorical scientist was the story (really, a fascinating series of stories) that Jeff Levin wove in to his book, alongside his summarizing of seven different areas of study (see below for a list of these seven principles) and the evidence from medical studies that showed these links.   I was grabbed especially by Levin’s account of the kinds of opposition he faced--sometimes grumpy and skeptical, sometimes even hostile and panicky—as he moved into the uncharted territory of the positive effect of religious belief/practice on health.  It reminded me over and over of the debate between the consensus view in biology (neo-Darwinism) and the new proto-paradigm of intelligent design.

As an aside, I find that in my own academic work in the rhetoric of science, I never cease to be astounded by what rhetorical scholar Kenneth Burke called the “flurries and flareups in the human [scientific] barnyard.” These flurries and flareups tend to appear suddenly and unexpectedly, like two cymbals smashing together in an orchestral performance.  They explode to life with greater frequency whenever one focuses on the bumpy roads of communication as science progresses through controversies and Kuhnian paradigm shifts (or at least paradigm crises).  I am struck by the various ways that older, cherished paradigms are protected by such eruptions of strong (sometimes angry and indignant) rhetoric. 

In this Kuhnian vein, Levin describes his attempt to publish, with the distinguished British scholar Dr. Harold Vanderpool, an article summarizing their survey of extant research findings in the medical literature.  The article, when submitted for consideration to the (unnamed) peer-reviewed journal of epidemiology, was entitled “Is Frequent Religious Attendance Really Conducive to Better Health?”  The paper did receive its due peer review, and the authors received the feedback, including both praise (green light approval) from some, while there was criticism from others.

Levin’s account of the response is too rich not to quote in full:

The editor’s cover letter to us went on for nearly two single-spaced pages, specifying in painstaking detail how unacceptable, even misguided, our paper was, and urging us to give up the idea altogether and not pursue it any further.  Unless you are a scientist, it is hard to comprehend how downright bizarre it was to receive such a letter from the editor of a peer-reviewed scientific journal.  Most rejection letters contain a couple of paragraphs of boilerplate, signed by the editor or by his or her secretary, usually but not always including reviewers’ comments.  For this editor to take the time to go on and on about a paper that he was not even inviting to be revised and resubmitted, and to be somewhat unfriendly about it, seemed unprecedented.  But that was not all. In his letter, he made sure to let us know that not only was our paper unacceptable, but the very idea of an epidemiology of religion was, in his words, “execrable.”

I had to look up the word in a dictionary.  For several years after, I believed it derived from the same root as “excretion” or “excrement,” and concluded that the editor was telling us that not only our work, but our very ideas, were full of you-know-what.  A few year later, as I related this story to a group of [hospital] chaplains…a Catholic priest …assured me that the word derived not from excretion but “execration.”  Before I could grab a dictionary, he told me that it meant “worthy of being detested, abominated, or abhorred.”  “Ah, that’s a whole lot better,” I said, and we all laughed.

As promised above, we have placed the seven principles of Levin in the Appendix, at the end of this reflection.  I will simply say that I was thoroughly and permanently educated on the field of religious epidemiology, and would be in fairly consistent harmony with six of the seven principles, as plausible understandings of the now-manifest reality of faith/health connections. 

The one principle which I am unable to embrace, at least in its form of presentation that Levin seems to endorse, is principle six:  “Mystical experiences benefit health by activating a healing bioenergy or life force or altered sate of consciousness.”   While the chapter covering this principle—“Energy, Consciousness, and Mysticism”—will be enlightening to any reader, those of us who are persuaded of the truths of biblical revelation, along the lines of classic, historical, creedal Christianity, will not readily go down Levin’s road as he seems to embrace the reality of a “superempirical” type of healing force (see p. 163).  He describes this as a “pantheistic force [that] is tapped by or inherent in religious practices, beliefs, and rituals.  This accessible, although presently unmeasurable and ineffable, healing force or energy is attributed many names across various religious and mystical traditions.”  This notion that a mindless, pantheistic “force” can be tapped into, for healing purposes, by mental techniques or altered states of consciousness, is about as alien as one can imagine, compared to classic Judeo-Christian understandings of physical reality and God’s utter control of nature as volitional, personal being, not a force.  I am not saying that Levin denies such an understanding of deity, but it seems as if he wants to “syncretize” his understanding of reality to somehow combine Judeo-Christian conceptions, with Eastern or even “New Age” concepts.

This is not to denigrate the overall importance and value of this crucial book. In sum, Jeff Levin’s introduction to religious epidemiology, even if read now, ten years after its release, is still a timely scientific-religious bombshell, that simultaneous updates us on a new and exploding field of inquiry, while treating us to a narrative of courageous scientific exploration.  The book is truly an eye-opener, especially when one encounters what happened as the “powers that be” tried to decry or derail Levin’s progress in developing a controversial field of study.  Read it, and enjoy the education!

Appendix:  Seven Principles of God, Faith and Health…

First:  Religious affiliation and membership benefit health by promoting healthy behavior and lifestyles.

Second:  Regular religious fellowship benefits health by offering support that buffers the effects of stress and isolation.

Third:  Participation in worship and prayer benefits health through the physiological effects of positive emotions.

Fourth:  Religious beliefs benefit health by their similarity to health-promoting beliefs and personality styles.

Fifth:  Simple faith benefits health by leading to thoughts of hope, optimism and positive expectations.

Sixth:  Mystical experiences benefit health by activating a healing bioenergy or life force or altered state of consciousness.

Seventh:  Absent prayer for other is capable of healing by paranormal means of by divine intervention. 

 

By Dr. Tom Woodward, Executive Director of the C. S. Lewis Society