A group of leading scientists has concluded that sincerely held religious or spiritual beliefs and practices can have a positive impact on physical and mental health.
The scientists said faith has the power to help ward off serious physical or mental illness, provides better coping skills once illness sets in, and enhances recovery. They also said religious faith is an advantage in overcoming alcohol or drug abuse.
The scientists urged academic researchers and health care providers to pay greater attention to faith's health benefits, saying that's what Americans want.
Dr. David Larson, president of the National Institute for Human Research (NIHR), said studies show 80 percent of Americans want religious or spiritual concepts included in the care they receive from doctors and other health care providers.
"Yet only one of ten doctors addresses spiritual or religious issues," Larson said at a Washington news conference.
Larson spoke at the conclusion of a three-day conference on "Scientific Progress in Spiritual Research," which drew more than seventy leading medical and social science researchers from across the nation.
The researchers included atheists and religious believers, individuals who subscribe to traditional medical models, and others who also favor non-traditional methods. Together, they attempted to review available research and apply rigorous scientific standards in determining whether religious beliefs promote physiological or neurological changes that promote health.
The scientists said research shows that sincerity is more important than form in determining the impact religious beliefs can have on human health.
Everett Worthington, a psychology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, said religious faith based on "extrinsic," or social reasons, appears not to provide the same health benefits derived from "intrinsic" faith, or faith based solely on deeply held beliefs.
Whether religious faith's health benefits are just another manifestation of the placebo effect is unclear and needs more study, said Frank Gawin, scientific director of the UCLA Veterans Administration Medical Center in Los Angeles.
But Dr. Dale Matthews, an associate professor of medicine at Georgetown University's School of Medicine, noted that the world's first health care providers were tribal religious leaders.
"What we're seeing is a return to the origins of medicine … before the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries separated" religion and science, he said.