Largest Study Yet to Explore the Links Between Spirituality and Health

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Advances in contemporary medicine are tremendous. Yet, alongside almost daily, welcome improvements, there has developed a sense that technology alone cannot deliver the physical wellbeing for which we hope. This is presumably why the interest in so-called “alternative medicine” grows. There is also the concern that high-tech healthcare costs are escalating unsustainably.

A suggestive body of research supports the claim that church-going, and other forms of spiritual practice, are good for the body as well as the soul. However, the studies carried out to date have tended to be small-scale. There is a serious need to deepen the research and discover just what might be beneficial in religion, to understand more fully what works and why, as well as to uncover what aspects might have detrimental effects.

Meeting that need is the aim of a new landmark study to be carried out in the United States, which may ultimately last many years and incorporate thousands of extensive face-to-face interviews that will be correlated with objectively measurable indicators of health, known as biomarkers. “The difficulty we face is that the literature on the links between religion, spirituality, and health are unsystematic,” explains Neal Krause, professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health who is directing the study. “It has led to a bewildering array of explanations for what may or may not be going on. We want to gather not just a body of evidence, but to build a sustainable research infrastructure that can steadily and thoroughly foster firm foundations for the field.” The John Templeton Foundation is funding the first wave of the project with an $8 million grant.

A common thought is that participating in religious social networks is linked to better immune functioning. The new study will assess individuals’ social connections to churches as well as social connections outside of religious institutions to show how this relates to the immunity biomarker IL-6, which serves a variety of functions in response to acute illness or injury. “In addition to asking whether there is something unique about religious communities, we will press the issue of just what might cause any effects,” Krause continues. “At the moment, all manner of explanations are offered. Some say that religion offers helpful coping mechanisms or a sense of meaning when dealing with the difficulties of life. Others suggest health benefits arise from the quality of relationships that are formed. Others again point to the cultivation of virtues such as gratitude or forgiveness. Or maybe it is just that religious people tend to live more healthily. The truth is that, as yet, we just don’t know.”

Krause expects to gain valuable results after the first series of investigations, though more rigorous results will emerge the longer the surveying can continue. To that end, the project is structured to last for at least three waves and will encourage other investigators to participate and pool all the data. “We will also post our questionnaire on a website and ask new researchers to tell us what they would do with it,” Krause “We will select and support the most innovative proposals. I’m particularly pleased with this dimension of the project because it is doing something novel and different.”

The work has already attracted a lot of media interest with news items across dozens of local and national media outlets. “Everyone is interested in health and in religion, and this puts them together,” Krause says. “This can be provocative because of the separation between church and state, and also because individuals on different sides of the debate fear that faith might be being used manipulatively, though I have no delusions that religion could possibly be some kind of silver bullet.”

The project touches on the big questions too, such as what is it to live a good life, what rewards can be expected from doing so, and what is it to be human? Are we spiritual as well as material entities and do both dimensions need attending to? Krause and his colleagues hope to take us some steps nearer to addressing such fundamental and fascinating issues.