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Science and Spiritual Matters: Drawing the Appropriate Line

By Christina Powell

The view that science and spirituality belong to separate and mutually exclusive areas of thought is waning in prominence. Scientists are crossing the line between the natural and the supernatural by designing experiments to study the effectiveness of prayer in medical settings and the effect of church attendance on physical and emotional health. Neuroscientists debate the existence of the soul as they seek to better understand the implications of their research findings. Pastors, while sifting through potential sermon illustrations or seeking an adequate response to a challenging question from a nonbeliever, must determine appropriate boundaries between scientific studies and matters of faith. To better understand the issues involved in drawing an appropriate line between science and spiritual matters, I will examine the topics of prayer and medicine, church attendance and health, and science and the soul.

Prayer and Medicine

A Harvard Medical School research team conducted a survey on the prevalence of prayer for health concerns in the United States. The survey showed that one-third of adults used prayer for health concerns in 1998, with 69 percent finding prayer very helpful for a specific medical condition.1 In the last decade, researchers have conducted several studies to determine if intercessory prayer helps sick people heal quicker or have a better outcome from a medical procedure. These studies, published in legitimate, peer-reviewed medical journals, suggest that prayer is effective even when the sick person does not know someone is praying for him.2 One study on intercessory prayer demonstrated that women undergoing in vitro fertilization treatments were twice as likely to become pregnant when receiving prayers from strangers.3

While scientific studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of prayer in medical settings sound like confirmations of faith, we must be careful what conclusions we draw. such studies do, however, point to a spiritual hunger in our society. In finding that intercessory prayer can positively affect a patient’s recovery, prayer studies validate the importance of hospital chaplaincy programs and pastoral care. These studies also underscore the need for physicians to respect a patient’s faith. Such studies, however, do not prove the existence of God or whether God answers prayer.

James 5:15 says, “The prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well.” In Matthew 4:24, we learn that Jesus healed the people brought to Him, including “all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed.” These biblical accounts tell of restored health through supernatural intervention. Therefore, we might expect prayer for the sick to result in physical healing today. God, however, is not a mechanistic force subject to the rules of experimental design.

The theological problem arising from studies on intercessory prayer is that God’s answer may differ from the petitioner’s particular request. The sovereignty of God in a given circumstance does not disprove the effectiveness of prayer. We are not to put the Lord our God to the test (Deuteronomy 6:16; Matthew 4:7; Luke 4:12). Should we expect God to participate in a scientific study? Furthermore, patients in the control group not receiving prayers from intercessors involved in the scientific study may be praying themselves or receiving prayers from friends and relatives. God, who cares about people rather than control groups, may choose to answer prayers offered outside the scope of the experiment’s design.

Several studies of prayer in medical settings have included prayers from a variety of world religions and spiritual traditions. If these studies show prayer to be effective in those cases, the results would not confirm our understanding of biblical prayer. First Kings 18:19–39 gives a biblical example of a comparison study between the prayers of Elijah to the God of Israel and the prayers of the prophets of Baal to a false god. This study conducted on Mount Carmel is different from the prayer studies of today because God set the conditions of the experiment for the researchers, instead of the researchers setting the conditions for God.

What can studies on intercessory prayer teach us about the nature of the boundary between science and spiritual matters? If we believe prayer is more than a placebo, a relaxation response, or a wellspring of positive emotional feelings, and instead view prayer as a petition for supernatural intervention, then we can never describe prayer in full using a scientific theory. Understanding the supernatural is beyond the grasp of science.

Church Attendance and Health

While experiments that test the effectiveness of intercessory prayer may step beyond the appropriate boundaries for scientific research, studies on the relationship between church attendance and health are within the realm of science. Here scientists are not attempting to explain a supernatural phenomenon, but the natural effect spirituality has on physical health.

In surveying the literature on church attendance and health, I was amazed at the number of studies on the topic. While the primary purpose of church attendance is spiritual health, scientific literature establishes that what is good for the soul is also good for the body. Current scientific studies verify the truth taught in Proverbs 4:22 that words of wisdom “are life to those who find them and health to a man’s whole body.”

Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley and California state health officials conducted a study using data collected over a 31-year period. This study found that those who did not attend church were 21 percent more likely to live a shorter life than those who attended church at least once a week.4 Even after controlling for potentially confounding variables, such as social connections, smoking, and exercise, trends for categories of diseases emerged. For example, those who did not regularly attend church had a 66 percent greater risk of dying from respiratory diseases and a 99 percent greater risk of dying from digestives diseases than weekly attendees. This study suggests that psychological or spiritual factors are responsible for the longer, healthier lives churchgoers experience.

The National Center for Health Statistics in Maryland conducted a nationwide study of Americans who were predominantly Christian. This study demonstrated that those attending church at least weekly have a lower risk of death than those who do not attend religious services. This confirms the results of the California study.5 In the national study, regular church attendance correlated with behavioral choices resulted in reduced risk of disease. In addition to studies that relate frequency of church attendance to mortality, scientific literature contains studies that examine the relationship between specific measures of health, such as blood pressure and church attendance. For example, Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina conducted one study of adults age 65 years or older. This study found that those who regularly attend church, pray, and study the Bible are 40 percent less likely to have high blood pressure than those who infrequently attend church, pray, or study the Bible.6 Interestingly, older adults who frequently watch religious TV or listen to religious radio have higher blood pressures. Thus, in this study, lower blood pressure benefits only applied to those heeding the admonition in Hebrews 10:25, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another — and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

Another study shows that church attendance not only benefits a person’s own physical health, but also the mental and emotional health of a mother’s adolescent children. According to a survey conducted by researchers at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, “Youths whose mothers attended religious services at least once a week had greater overall satisfaction with their lives, more involvement with their families, and better skills at solving health-related problems and felt greater support from friends compared with youths whose mothers had lower levels of participation in religious services.”7 Thus, church attendance appears to improve mental health and social functioning as well as physical health.

All these studies point to a correlation between church attendance and health without fully uncovering the reason for this correlation. Researchers have proposed several possible theories to explain the influence of religion on health. One possibility is that church attendance provides people with improved social support and encouragement to make healthy choices. Another possibility is the positive effect of faith and inner peace on the body’s immune system. A final possibility is the positive effect that prayers for healing have on health. All of these factors may be at work.

For the pastor, the results of these studies provide great sermon illustrations when addressing the importance of church attendance from the pulpit. The exact reason for the correlation between church attendance and health is unimportant from a ministry standpoint. A pastor might wonder, What would it mean if attendance at non-Christian religious services brought the same positive benefits? Such a result might point to a social explanation for the positive health benefits as opposed to a spiritual explanation. Since these scientific studies address physical health benefits — not spiritual questions — they do not raise the theological concerns that studies on intercessory prayer do. While scientists are studying the physical implications of maintaining a healthy spiritual life, they have not crossed the line by attempting to study spiritual matters.

Science and the Soul

Scientists may not actively seek to address issues related to spiritual matters, but at times, they stumble on them in their research. Such is the case for many neuroscientists. As research concerning human brain function uncovers biological explanations for aspects of human experience once attributed to the existence of an immortal soul, scientists tread on the domain of theologians. Does this mean Christians must accept a materialistic view of the mind as the only rational explanation in the light of modern research?

The secret to knowing where to draw the appropriate line between science and spiritual matters lies in understanding the nature of scientific inquiry. Science concerns making predictions for the future based on theories constructed from past experiences. For example, according to Sir Isaac Newton’s theory of gravitation I can predict that an apple in a tree will fall to the ground, not ascend upward. He constructed this theory based on extensive experience with falling apples and by contemplating the orbits of the planets. In science, a theory is useful only if scientists can subject it to tests that might disprove it. Because Newton’s theory proved useful time and time again, it stood the test of time. The time came, however, when physicists found Newton’s equations could not completely explain the orbit of Mercury around the sun. Thus, another theory would supersede Newton’s theory. Einstein’s theory of general relativity explained the exceptions to Newton’s theory of gravitation.

While science can explain much about the biological aspects of the human mind, addressing the existence of an immortal soul is beyond the scope of scientific inquiry. Since spiritual matters are not repeatable events, scientists cannot form a falsifiable theory. Science can come only so far in understanding human life. Supernatural by definition means above or beyond what is natural. Thus, spiritual matters are above and beyond that which science can fully explain. In Isaiah 55:8,9, we find this concept described in eloquent words, “ ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’ ”

Conclusion

Armed with a little knowledge and a dose of discernment, a wise pastor can read the latest science news and know where to draw the appropriate line between science and spiritual matters. Tossing aside junk science, perhaps you will find a useful tidbit with which to enliven your Sunday morning’s message or a scientific anecdote for a counseling session. Most important, you will avoid using a weak argument from an imperfect scientific study to uphold a strong faith. Biblical Christianity is like a well-constructed, solid chair. A chair that sits firmly does not require an additional wobbly chair leg placed under it to make it sturdier. The wobbly chair leg would only detract from the grace and strength of the chair. Many times this is the case when pastors inadvertently use poor illustrations from the world of science as an apologetic.

As you minister, may the Lord bless you with a cheerful heart that is good medicine (Proverbs 17:22), and may every Sunday bring you the same health benefits your flock experiences as they sit in the pews.

Christina M.H. Powell

CHRISTINA M. H. POWELL, an ordained minister, author, medical writer, research scientist trained at Harvard Medical School and Harvard University, and the author of "Questioning Your Doubts: A Harvard Ph.D. Explores Challenges to Faith" (InterVarsity Press, 2014).She speaks in churches and conferences nationwide and addresses faith and science issues at www.questioningyourdoubts.com.

Notes

1. A.M. McCaffrey et al., “Prayer for health concerns: results of a national survey on prevalence and patterns of use,” Arch Intern Med. 164, No. 8 (2004): 858–62.

2. W.S. Harris et al., “A randomized, controlled trial of the effects of remote, intercessory prayer outcomes in patients admitted to the coronary care unit,” Arch Intern Med. 159, No. 19 (1999): 2273–2278.

3. K.Y. Cha and D.P. Wirth, “Does prayer influence the success of in vitro fertilization-embryo transfer? Report of a masked, randomized trial.” J Reprod Med. 46 (2001): 781–787.

4. D. Oman et al., “Religious attendance and cause of death over 31 years,” Int. J. Psychiatry Med. 32, No. 1 (2002): 69–89.

5. R.F. Gillum et al., “Frequency of attendance at religious services and mortality in a U.S. national cohort,” Ann Epidemiol. 18, No. 2 (2008): 124–129.

6. H.G. Koenig et al., “The relationship between religious activities and blood pressure in older adults,” Int. J. Psychiatry Med. 28, No. 2 (1998): 189–213.

7. S.R. Varon and A.W. Riley, “Relationship between maternal church attendance and adolescent mental health and social functioning,” Psychiatr Serv. 50 (1999): 799–805.

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