Physician Harold G. Koenig, an international authority on religion, health and ethical issues in medicine, has dedicated his career to understanding the relationship between faith and health. Koenig, who has surveyed the scientific literature, shares the mounting evidence linking the power of faith to better health and well-being.
Koenig struggled for three decades to determine his life’s purpose before a spiritual transformation in 1984 set him on a Christian path. “As I’m able to surrender my will and follow God’s lead, I’ve found an increasing flow of blessings. Even in those times when I’m self-centered, the blessings continue. I can only attribute it to the incredible undeserved grace and mercy of one who understands and forgives,” he says.
He’s the director of Duke University’s Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health, an associate professor of medicine at the Duke University Medical Center, in Durham, North Carolina, and author of nearly 50 books. Titles include The Healing Power of Faith, The Handbook of Religion and Health, and the recent You Are My Beloved. Really?, musings on the nature of divine love.
What maintains people’s faith in the face of worldly adversity?
Adversity can increase people’s faith; when things are going well, people don’t feel the same urgent need for religion.
Why do hurricanes happen? Why do people experience chronic pain? When someone is in the midst of challenges, there is no easy explanation, even though there can be many answers. Sometimes all you can do is to have faith that a good God reigns, despite appearances. That can lead to a sense of well-being and spiritual purpose, even in the midst of bad material experiences.
How you’ve dealt with life prior to a challenge matters. If you follow a spiritual path and practice, when bad things happen, you can lean on your foundation of faith; you’re better prepared. Once you’re in the middle of it, all you may feel is the pain and a desperate desire to get rid of it.
One of the most precious gifts we have as humans is the freedom to choose. We can be selfish and strictly pleasure-seeking, or we can be kind and altruistic. We can turn toward or away from our divine source.
What have you concluded from decades of studying the relationship between faith, prayer and health?
Our research and that of many other major academic institutions, including Harvard and Columbia universities, shows that people of strong faith enjoy better social, physical and mental health, all else being equal. It drives healthy behaviors and attitudes, which leads to better health.
A person’s religious beliefs and spiritual practices affect them across their lifespan. It begins in utero, based on parental behavior and care, and shows in the sense of trust we have as infants. In this way, parents’ faith-based moral values also can favorably affect their children’s levels of stress, depression and drug use later on.
Is there a tension between the yearning for scientific certainty and the intuitive nature of faith?
I feel that tension constantly as a scientist and a believer. I’m always challenging myself; you have to be objective as a scientist, to observe without reading into things. But the wisdom of the scriptures has endured through thousands of years, applied by believers through the ages in many different groups and cultures. About 80 percent of Americans today believe in God, nearly 90 percent in a higher power, and 84 percent of the world’s people have religious faith. Such faith must serve some kind of function for it to have persisted throughout the millennia.
There is much that is still unknown, and may not be knowable from a scientific perspective. You need to use common sense and intuition. It requires a leap of faith, but once you do it, everything falls into line—though I admit as a scientist I keep trying to understand things from a rational perspective.
What are the pathways by which spirituality contributes to health?
Science supports firsthand experience; that the virtues instilled by a religious path ultimately lead to better decision making, relationships and greater well-being. They help to neutralize negative emotions. These benefits accrue through adulthood and yield fruit into old age. The coping mechanism that spiritual practices provide is also important. It helps us to tolerate and navigate difficult situations and integrate meaning and purpose into daily life.
I don’t think science can prove to us that faith leads to divine healing. But through natural mechanisms alone, ones that we can understand and study, tremendous evidence exists to show that it benefits health and maybe even longevity.
Connect with freelancer April Thompson, in Washington, D.C., at AprilWrites.com.