Mike has cleared away some of the shrubbery here. I won’t repeat what he said, though I generally agree with his perspective. A few responses to Mark’s rejoinder….
First, Mark—and Barbara Bradley Hagerty, too—are right that religious faith might bring real health benefits for some patients. Battling chronic illness is an arduous long-distance run. For many people, religious faith is a valued companion on this journey. It is reasonable to explore whether and how faith provides patients with hope, serenity, and consolation, and whether these translate into concrete health effects. This has nothing to do with the truth-claims of any religion, let alone the dubious title of Thursday’s report: Can positive thoughts heal another person?
I must say that I am skeptical of the actual research. Many of the people doing this work have a strong stake in affirming the value of religious commitments in human life. To say the least, this is not a field or a domain of social discourse that brims with findings that spirituality can harm patients’ physical or mental health, although one can readily hypothesize plausible pathways that would produce such harmful effects. It’s just too easy to identify confounding factors or poorly-measured variables that would bias the results in a direction congenial to the researchers.
When someone asserts an unlikely but psychologically appealing hypothesis linking spirituality and health, when someone posits implausible causal mechanisms that supposedly underlie these research findings, I generally presume that she believes what she is saying because she fervently wants to believe it, not because she is dragged kicking and screaming by the scientific evidence to believe the hypothesis is true.
There are two final matters.
I do detect something repellent in those who would argue that “turning away from God” is bad for your health. There are no atheists in the fox holes or the cancer ward.
Worse, there is something terribly tangential about this entire question. There are so many ways we could provide greater love, support, hope, and consolation to people dealing with serious illness, injury, or disability. Ironing out the real or alleged healing powers of prayer distracts us from the hard work we must do in providing compassionate and effective care–care that might even require less-intensive divine help..
As a de facto atheist, Mark bluntly argues that faith is misguided, but may still bring hope and consolation and thus improve health. Well ok, I guess. But is that really the best we can do?