Religion, spirituality, and medicine share a long and eventful history. For millennia, virtually all cultures have turned to spiritual leaders to heal the sick and comfort people who are suffering. Since health, illness, and death were often viewed as the workings of gods and other spirits, it was natural to seek out the ministrations of those in the community with access to these mysterious forces. For vast stretches of human history, it was the priests, shamans, and mystics who were the practitioners of "medicine." In fact, it was not until 17th-century Europe when the Church formally relinquished its intellectual hold over the human body, that medicine became the subject of science. It then took another 200 years or more for biological principles to advance enough for the concept of disease to even exist. And it was not until well into the 20th century that the scientific medicine started to show convincing results.
A RELIGIOUS NATION
Despite the enormous and undeniable successes of modern medicine since then, the majority of Americans steadfastly cling to the notion that their religious convictions have a serious role to play in their own health. Medicine's rational explanations, devoid of any need for spiritual influences, are well known and widely respected, particularly in a country with the most technologically advanced health care in the world. Nevertheless, research indicates that most Americans turn to their religious faith or spiritual sensibilities when they or their loved ones fall ill. What accounts for this apparent contradiction? And, how do doctors and other health professionals-who have replaced the priests and shamans as the healers of society-cope with their patients' persistent faith in the healing powers of religion?
It is important to emphasize that most Americans do not choose medicine over religion or vice versa. To be sure, there are small minorities who completely reject the conventional sciences and embrace an exclusively spiritual resolution to all their problems, medical and otherwise. Conversely, there are those who subscribe to no religious faith or spiritual aspirations, and take a purely scientific approach to all their affairs. Most, however, choose both paths, sometimes simultaneously and sometimes in succession, often beginning with their faith in science before turning to their faith in God.
TAKING BOTH PATHS
When faced with an illness, usually a serious one, most people are drawn to both medicine and religion for a variety of reasons. First, despite medicine's numerous accomplishments there remain many conditions for which doctors have little or nothing to offer. Mortality from cardiovascular diseases like heart attacks and strokes, for example, has been steadily declining for the past 40 years or so. Even though there are many explanations for this trend, there is little doubt that steady advancements in modern medicine have saved many of these lives. Success in this area, however, has led to new challenges elsewhere. As fewer people die from heart disease, they are living long enough to develop other conditions associated with old age.
Alzheimer's disease is a prime example. As the population ages, increasing numbers of older adults must face this devastating illness, which robs its victims of their thoughts, memories, and personalities. While physicians have a few medications that they can try, none have proven to be very effective. Patients, and especially their families, are left to deal with an inevitable downhill course with little help from the "miracle" of medicine. It is no wonder that many turn to other more spiritual sources of support, particularly for a condition like Alzheimer's, which strikes at the very end of life.
Second, despite its scientific power, biomedicine has only begun to explain many of life's observable phenomena. Returning to the example of Alzheimer's, researchers have made great strides in discovering what goes wrong in the brains of patients with this disease. The hope is that this understanding will one day lead to a cure. Many people, however, suffer from illnesses that doctors cannot explain, let alone treat. This is because the scientific method favored by physicians, which reduces complex systems like the human body into its smallest components, is not well suited to the task. Doctors often have a difficult time with patients who suffer from chronic headaches, backaches, exhaustion, mood swings, insomnia, and other ailments that go undiagnosed and inadequately treated because their pattern of suffering is inconsistent with the reductionist approach. Under the circumstances, many patients suffering like this would naturally turn to methods offering a more holistic, and perhaps spiritual, perspective on the problem. Finally, medicine and religion can actually be viewed as two ways of achieving the same goal. A uniquely human attribute is the capacity to appreciate the concept of destiny. We are not satisfied simply living for today, but spend a great deal of time and effort thinking about our future and attempting to control it. One attraction of a religious life is that it provides a sort of roadmap to guide us toward what otherwise could be a terrifying journey into the unknown. Rather than a series of chance events tumbling along without direction, our spiritual lives give us a sense of purpose and meaning through which we gain a handle on our future. In many respects, medicine accomplishes the same end, but through very different means. One of the main reasons we seek the services of doctors is to allay our fears of the future. Using the scientific method, doctors collect information about our lives and use it to predict future risks. Moreover, if the future looks less than bright, they will intervene in an effort to improve our prospects. Put simply, both medicine and religion have the capacity to instill within us that quintessentially human necessity: hope.