Link Sought Between Religion and Health Link Sought Between Religion and Health
Adventist News Network

When Dr. Harold G. Koenig began researching the link between
spirituality and health in the mid 1980s, like others in the field, he
was going it alone with little backing. Only in the last 10 years, he
says, have well-funded studies explored a connection between religious
observance and physical well-being.

Koenig, co-founder of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health
at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, United
States, is considered by many as the world’s leading researcher on the
subject. Last month he encouraged and offered advice to similar
researchers as the keynote speaker for the Australian National
Conference on Spirituality and Health in Adelaide. The conference was
sponsored mainly by Seventh-day Adventist Church entities.

A prolific author and pundit, Koenig is a professor of psychiatry &
behavioral sciences and associate professor of medicine at Duke. He
cautions that some people take health principles too far — the first
commandment of having no other gods should include health, he says.

He recently spoke with Adventist News Network about the increased
popularity of linking spirituality and health, how science can measure
spirituality, and why he likes what Seventh-day Adventists have to say
about health. Excerpts follow:

Adventist News Network: You’ve debated your critics on live national
television. Do you have supporters?

Dr. Harold G. Koenig: “When I started out in the mid 80s there weren’t
too many supporters and you just had to blaze through this. The people
who are suffering and in pain and sick and disabled, they’re the
supporters. They’re the ones who are going to tell you their faith
makes a difference in their lives and they’re alive because of it. And
when you got patients telling you that, it’s tough to intellectually
argue with them.”

ANN: In 2005, Duke hosted a panel discussion on spirituality and health
with top medical school deans, including Harvard, Johns Hopkins and
Stanford. You’ve said just having that discussion was progress. Are
there any other factors that indicate the link between spirituality and
health is gaining popularity?

Koenig: “The sheer number of research studies and articles that are now
appearing in the medical, nursing and public health journals. A 25-page
feature in the Southern Medical Journal is devoted to religion,
spirituality and medicine every three or four months. For that to
happen is really unheard of. Other journals are devoting an entire
issue to the subject. Other places are discussing this — it’s coming
from all over the country, all over the world.”

ANN: Are there enough studies to support the connection of spirituality
and health?

Koenig: “I acknowledge that the many studies — there may be almost
2,000 by now — of those there are probably at least 1,800 that are
poorly done. But if you’ve got 200 good studies, you know, where
there’s lots of smoke, there’s usually fire. If you had this much
evidence for other factors, it would probably be a normal part of
medicine by now.”

ANN: Can science measure spirituality?

Koenig: “We can measure religious practices. We can ask people how
often they go to church or synagogue or mosque, we can ask them how
often they pray, we can ask them how often they read religious
scriptures, we can assess their intrinsic religiosity — the extent to
which their lives and their decision-making is based on their religious
faith. We can measure all those things, not perfectly, but we can
assess them, at least generally. And we can certainly assess mental,
physical and social health. So because of that, there’s good reason to
study these things.”

ANN: Two years ago you said “We’re close to proving [that religious
involvement results in better health].” If it hasn’t been proven, how
can you say you’re closer to proving it?

Koenig: “You can never say anything proves something. When you’re doing
observational research you can show they’re connected, and that one
appears to lead to, or predict another characteristic. Now with regard
to mental health, there have been a series of about a half dozen
randomized clinical trials in which religious persons with depression
or anxiety or bereavement, were randomized to either get traditional
psychotherapy or psychotherapy that took into account the religious
beliefs and the faith of the person and used those as part of the
therapy. The majority of those studies do show that the group that got
the religious intervention as part of their psychotherapy got better
faster. That would suggest, given that these were randomized, clinical
trials, that the religious intervention actually caused the difference
between the groups.”

ANN: How do you respond to your critics?

Koenig: “Up until 10 years ago, there was no funding for research in
this area and people did it on their own. And sure, there were plenty
of weaknesses in some of those studies because there were no resources.
But nowadays many of those criticisms have been addressed, in terms of
being very careful in controlling for other factors. It’s not just one
place that’s finding this, it’s many reputable research groups. I think
the criticism is sometimes taken a little too far.”

ANN: Why are scientists generally less religious than the rest of the

Koenig: “About seven percent of members of the U.S. National Academy of
Sciences believe in God compared to 96 percent of the U.S. population.
This difference in religious belief and involvement dates back to when
science kind of departed from religion. For a long time, theology was
known as the queen of the sciences. That changed with the French
Revolution and then with science becoming the dominant mode for actual
research. Then the science of psychology and sociology, and medicine in
many respects, began to emerge in contrast to religion. ‘We are not
religious, we are hard science; anything you can’t observe doesn’t
exist.’ And that became the model for the sciences. There remains this
strong divide, particularly because of the tremendous gains science has
given us. Religion is seen as un-objective, or un-verifiable. So it’s
not surprising, that among the best scientists in the world, they’re
part of a cliquish kind of a group that has a world view in which
religion plays no part.”

ANN: What are your thoughts on the Adventist Health Study that’s being
funded in part by the National Institutes of Health?

Koenig: “I’m a consultant on that for the sub-study on spirituality. I
think it’s very exciting. I think that there are few samples of this
size that are so well selected, that have such depth of biological
measures. The only concern I have is that many Adventists are people of
such strong faith, that I’m worried that you don’t have enough
non-religious people on this. Many Adventists will participate in this
study because they want to do well, and part of that is a reflection of
their faith. I do think it’s an exciting study because of the size and
because it has a history of 30 to 40 years.”

ANN: What interests you about what Seventh-day Adventists have to say
about health?

Koenig: “They’re one of the few faith groups that are saying anything
about health. That’s exciting to me. The Brethren and the Mennonites,
they see this also as important factor, and to some extent my church,
the Catholics. But there’s no question that Adventists have gone the
furthest, actually involving the [church executives] in their medical
system. I was able to sit with [Adventist Health CEO Don] Jernigan and
his crew. I’ve never sat with senior executives in a health system and
talked about religion and health. I was able to show them research and
talk about clinical applications and have them really be excited.”

ANN: Why have you chosen to make this your life’s work?

Koenig: “Probably a series of coincidences. I was fortunate enough to
have gone through enough trauma in my own life to be able to recognize
it in other people’s lives. That’s nothing compared to what many people
have gone through. Maybe I’ve just got a louder voice, or maybe I’m
positioned in a way that I can speak for others who have been through
more in their life but don’t have a voice.”