The Biology of Faith and Faith-Based Healing

Adam Rice and Eric Weaver

This material was originally posted from WCP Junior Seminar MU Ohio
Author’s Email:
Date: Updated May 7, 2014


In recent years many researchers have embarked upon projects to study the relationship between one’s faith and health. These studies have consistently shown that people with faith heal quickly and can cope with stress more successfully. In this research study, we set out to validate this correlation.

Student poll: 18-25 years old

To do this we created a survey and conducted the campaign on Miami University’s Oxford campus. We polled students in an 18-25 age bracket. After analyzing the data we were surprised to find an insufficiently strong correlation between the student’s health and faith to draw a conclusion.

I. Introduction

Cultures throughout time and across the globe have in some way incorporated faith, the belief in something beyond mortal existence without a quantifiable reason for doing so. Why is it that faith is so pervasive? How and why is a part of human nature? In particular, we wish to explore the physical effects of faith, especially in terms of health. Health can be considered in physiological terms (from aches and colds to cancer and AIDs) and or psychological (stress levels, mental disorders, etc.).

Numerous studies have been performed that indicate faith can aide an individual’s health in both regards, helping the body to recover from trauma, disease, and surgery. This faith can be present in a number of different forms, from personally held beliefs and meditation to social interactions in faith-based organizations.

The relationship between faith and health has been a growing field of interest for many researches as attempts to bridge the gaps between science and religion become more numerous. Much of the research into the correlation between faith and health has been performed in a medical field known as epidemiology, defined by Christoph Benn as the examination of “… the causes and effects of several factors of the health of populations and groups of persons” (140).

The purpose of our project is to test the validity of claims of a correlation between faith in a higher power(s) and an individual’s overall health. We are interested in the interactions between faith and science and the potential of science proving/disproving a potential consequence of faith, something traditionally thought to be completely independent of the realm of science.

We have chosen not to look at differences between particular religions or sects, but instead at faith in general. We are looking at faith both in terms of how faith-based a person identifies themselves as and how this person expresses his / her faith. Based on the research we uncovered, we hypothesized that we would find correlations between improved health and faith. However, we believed this improved health would be based mostly on the strong communal support network and improved health habits that often come with faith.

II. Literature Review

A fair starting point for the examination of faith and human nature may be to ask the question, why do so many of us have it? Faith seems counterintuitive from an evolutionary perspective. “What makes this [faith] so strange is that we human beings have survived, multiplied, and come to dominate the earth by virtue of our innate tendency to solve problems by taking note of cause-and-effect relationships and making use of them…” (Hunt 30).

Hunt, summing up the sociobiologist perspective on the origins of religion, wrote “… genetically built into early human beings was a set of mental, emotional, and social needs that caused the culture to develop in certain ways including the development of various religionsÐand caused culture, reciprocally, to favor and select for evolution those human traits that provided sociocultural advantages to individuals possessing them” (Hunt 33).

Meditation of one form or another is a common trait among the world’s major religions, which leaves one with the question of why. The answer may lie in the physical alterations an individual goes through while in meditation. “… Everything registers as emotionally significant, perhaps responsible for the sense of awe and quiet that many feels. The body becomes more relaxed, and physiological activity becomes more evenly regulated” (Davis 14).

This is the gray area of our biology where the physical brain meets the intangible mind through interaction. It is a process that shifts control of the body’s unconscious functions to the conscious mind. This is when the mind takes a dominant role over the brains functions and prepares the body for rest, healing, and Òcommunication with a higher being” (Davis 14).

Benn indicates five factors through which faith may influence health. Faith provides social networks that care for the sick,” “avoidance of risk behavior because of moral principles, worship and rituals (which lead to feelings of remembered wellbeing and of familiarity and relaxation that can reduce stress”), “prayer and meditation,” (which can cause a reduction of blood pressure and heart rate, less excretion of the stress hormone adrenalin, and relaxation of the sympathetic nervous system), and also help people find “meaning in life,” (making it not only Òeasier to bear life’s suffering but also find it easier to have the courage and the will that is required for life and sometimes even for survival”) (Benn 145).

Claudia Wallis adds Since churchgoers are apter than non-attendees to respect religious injunctions against drinking, drug abuse, smoking, and other excesses, it’s possible that their better health merely reflects these healthier habitsÓ (58).

In a study of over 91,000 individuals, epidemiologist George Comstock found that
“… Men who attended their church at least once a week had a mortality rate for coronary heart disease that was 40% less than men who did not attend any religious services. He discovered an even more pronounced correlation among women. Those who rarely attended church were twice as likely to die from coronary heart disease than those who attended church regularly” (Benn 140).

In another study by Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center of 232 open-heart surgery patients, researchers looked at both church attendance and at how faith was expressed. Patients not participating in any social groups were four times more likely to die after heart surgery, and patients receiving no strength and comfort from religion were over three times more likely to die. The independence of these two phenomena indicates that faith was not simply important because it led to a stronger social connection (Benn 140).

In study 30 hip fracture patients, those who regarded God as a source of strength and comfort and who attended religious services were able to walk farther upon discharge and had lower rates of depression than those who had little faith (Wallis 58). Other studies have focused on psychiatric diseases, though according to Benn, the results are conflicting as to the role of faith (145). A study on faith and stress found that… people with a religious orientation were not experiencing less stress than others but were less affected by this stressÓ (Benn 145). According to Jeanie Davis, studies performed at Duke, Dartmouth, and Yale have found the following statistics.

“Hospitalized people who never attended church have an average stay of three times longer than people who attended regularly do. Heart patients were 14 times more likely to die following surgery if they did not participate in a religion. Elderly people who never or rarely attended church had a stroke rate double that of people who attended regularly. In Israel, religious people had a 40 percent lower death rate from cardiovascular disease and cancer” (Davis 14).

Dr. Harold Koening went so far as to say, “Lack of religious involvement has an effect on mortality that is equivalent to 40 years of smoking 1 pack of cigarettes per day” (qtd. in Newberg 129). These figures certainly seem to indicate that some strong correlation is occurring between faith and health.

Findings such as these seem to bolster the claims of groups that have sworn off modern medical treatment. The most famous of such groups are the Christian Scientists, though there are 16 other religions which have some objections to medical intervention, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, who protest to blood transfusions (Swan 15). While some feel this is protected under freedom of religion, others object. Rita Swan, who was for many years a Christian Scientist until 1977 when her son died because of their refusal to seek medical attention.

Now she is an activist for children’s rights. She writes, “Children aren’t property. Their right to life and health should take precedence over their parents right to practice religion” (Swan16). It is in the light of such cases like these that critical evaluations of the proposed connections between faith and health be performed.

III. Materials and Methods

Our materials included our survey sheet (see Appendix I) and the computer statistics program StatView with which we explored possible correlations. We used this analyzed data to compare our results to that of the other studies on the topic. 
Our target sample was college students at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, with an expected age range of about 18 to 25. This kept such variables as age and geographic location at a constant.

The variables of gender and ethnicity were not considered. Also, we have chosen not to look at the variable of particular belief systems. Though there may be interesting comparisons between the health of different religions and between different branches of each religion, we felt this was outside the scope of our research. Instead, we have chosen to not look at faith in a specific context but as a general concept shared by all religions.

Our survey was designed to focus on five different key concepts related to faith and health. First, we asked whether or not the subject considered herself/himself to be a person of faith, and to rate themselves on a scale from 0 (having no faith) to 5 (having very strong faith). The meaning of the word “faith” was intentionally left ambiguous as we felt that faith was something that was personally defined and if one believes that one has it, then one does. We then asked how this faith was expressed, through attending social events, prayer and/or meditation.

Although prayer and meditation can be considered very different phenomenon, we decided to follow the tradition set forth by the earlier experiments we studied and treat the two as interchangeable. The question of attendance to social events also helped us determine what role the faith-based community has on health as opposed to private faith. We then asked about the subject’s appraisal of their health and their recovery time.

Though this data was subjective, we believed that helped us determine general trends. Within the realm of health, we looked at the possible effects of unhealthy habits such as smoking and drinking. We asked about personal habits to determine if a) being a person of faith makes these unhealthy habits less likely and b) to factor these habits out of our analysis of faith and health. Lastly, we asked about stress levels and recovery times.

Again, this is subjective data but should be useful. We were interested in seeing if faith’s predominate effects on health are through reduction of stress. While the survey is relatively simple, it offers a plethora of data to be analyzed and compared.

We randomly distributed 63 surveys at five locations; our NS seminar, Erikson Dining Hall, Peabody Hall, outside of Shriver Center, and outside Ovations Dining Hall. Erikson was the single largest surveying site. We asked passersby to assist us by filling out a brief survey and found most people very willing.

Using StatView, we created a descriptive statistics table and a Spearman Rank Correlation table to analyze the quality of the data we collected. We created a series of scatter plots with a line of best fit showing the correlation. A correlation matrix puts this in numerical terms. We made pie charts to show the percentages of certain trends.

We used box plots to create a visual representation of trends without corresponding numbers. Histograms showed the counts for particular survey answers. Together these tables and graphs create a complex representation of our results.
Please see our timeline, Appendix II.

IV. Results

In our descriptive statistics (Fig. 1), you can see that the average faith was about 3 and health was about a 4 on the 0 to 5 scale, 0 being the lowest and 5 being the highest.

Figure 1

The Spearman Rank Correlation (Fig. 2) measures the consistency between the faith and health data sets. Our null hypothesis was that variations between faith and health were not due to chance. Our alternate hypothesis, then, was that variations between faith and health were random. To accept the null hypothesis we needed a statistically significant p-value. A p-value needs to be less than 0.05 to be significant. Our p-value (0.8261) was not statistically significant hypothesis so we accept the alternate hypothesis.

Figure 2

Based on our literature review, we expected to find a strong positive correlation between faith and health. This was, however, not what we found. As shown in Fig. 3, there is a slight negative correlation between faith and health. The correlation matrix identifies this as a -0.161 correlation. That is, we found a trend that the more faith a person claimed they had, the less healthy they were. However, this is a weak correlation and most likely due to random variation.
Figure 3 – Faith Vs. Health, All Populations

Figure 3

Following this, we searched for correlations after factoring out different portions of the populations. We began with smokers and nonsmokers, as we felt a person of faith who smoked would skew the data. As show in Fig. 4, there is still a negative correlation between faith and health for the smoking population, even a little stronger than when all population is considered. This indicates that smokers with less faith are healthier than smokers with faith.

Figure 4 – Faith Vs. Health, Smoking Population

We duplicated this analysis with the nonsmoking population (Figure 5) and found a weak negative correlation, similar to that found with the entire population considered.

Figure 5 – Faith Vs. Health, Nonsmoking Population

Next, we decide to examine the role of drinking in health and faith. We took the total population and separated it into a drinking (Figure 6) and a nondrinking group (Figure 7). In the drinking group, there was an insufficient negative correlation between health and faith, again showing those with more faith are slightly less healthy.

Figure 6 – Faith Vs. Health, Drinking Population

Surprisingly we found a greater negative correlation in the nondrinking population. Again this correlation is insufficient and most likely due to randomness.

Figure 7 – Faith Vs. Health, Non-drinking Population

The research from other studies suggests that people with faith heal faster than those without faith. We took our data and analyzed it to examine how long the survey population feels they take to heal from colds and other ailments. For this, we divided them into a faith group (Figure 8) and a no faith group (Figure 9). For the faith group, we found the most common answer was 2-3 days. This group ranged from the minimum 1-2 days to the two weeks or 14 days.

Figure 8 – Health Recovery, Faith Population

For the no faith population the most common response was again 2-3 days but 4-5 days was a close second. In this group, the longest response given was only one week or 7 days. This data indicates that people of faith take longer to recover from ailments than those without, contrary to what we expected.

Figure 9 – Health Recovery, No Faith Population

We also asked the people surveyed if they heal faster than their peers. This is a subjective question, but it is a starting point in examining the role of faith and recovery time. When analyzing the data we looked at the sample population in two groups: those who recover slower (Figure 10) and those who recover faster (Figure 11) than their peers. We then used box plots to assess the strength of the personÕs faith and recovery time relative to their peers. For those who said they recover slower, half of them had a faith between 3 and 4.

Figure 10 – Strength of Faith, Health Recovery Slower Than Peers Population

For those who recover quicker, half were between 2 and 4 on the faith scale.

Figure 11 – Strength of Faith, Health Recovery Quicker Than Peers Population

In our analysis, it was important to identify the nature of a personÕs faith and how the expressions of faith affected health. For this, we looked at participation in faith-based groups and time spent in prayer or meditation. First, we created two pie charts identifying the ways in which people who identified themselves as people of faith (Figures 12 & 13). This shows that even though many people identified themselves as having faith did not necessarily regularly participate in acts that would improve health.

Figure 12 – Participation in Faith Groups, Faith Population

Figure 13 – Time Spent in Prayer / Meditation, Faith Group

We’ve also included Figure 14 which displays the time spent in prayer and meditation by those who claimed they did not have faith. This is interesting as it shows that prayer and meditation, which we expected to be an expression of faith alone, was found to cross this barrier. This could help explain the lack of correlation between faith and health. The beneficial actions are taking place in both categories.

Figure 14 – Time Spent in Prayer / Meditation, No Faith Population

In comparing health with time spent in meditation (Figure 15 & 16) we found that those who spent more than 1/2 hour in meditation rated themselves healthier than those who did not.

Figure 15 – Health, Less than 1/2 Hour of Meditation Population

Figure 16 – Health, More than 1/2 Hour of Meditation Population

Finally, we looked at faith and stress. In Figure 17, we see there is almost no correlation. The slight positive correlation indicates higher stress with greater faith, again contrary to our expectations, but the line of best fit is almost completely flat.

Fig. 17 – Faith Vs. Stress, All Populations

In Figure 18 we see that, as expected, lower stress tends to mean better health. While an interesting finding, the lack of correlation between faith and stress means that the faith/health correlation cannot be made.
Figure 18 – Stress Vs. Health, All Populations

We then looked at stress recovery times for people of faith and those without. Recovery time ranged from less than 1 day to up to 4 days for the no faith population and from less than 1 day to 2 weeks for the faith population. Figures 19 and 20 display that both groups are very similar in this regard, with the faith population tending to recover more slowly.

Figure 19 – Stress Recovery Time, No Faith Population

Figure 20 – Stress Recovery Time, Faith Population

V. Discussion and Conclusion

We were surprised by the extreme lack of correlation between faith and health. We expected to identify a trend one way or another but by and large, there were only very weak correlations between faith and health. A few of the causes for this may include the sample size, the sample type (young, affluent Americans) and the wording of the survey itself.

A few people wrote additional comments on their surveys. Some wanted to clarify their answers, such as adding that they attended a faith-based group once a week during the summer. Others questioned or defined the ambiguous term “faith.” These did not add much insight into why we received the results we did, though it does indicate the extent of the confusion as to what exactly ÒfaithÓ is, and how difficult it is to identify it and study it.

If and when this survey is conducted again there are issues that need to be resolved. Some of these issues are minor fine-tuning to the questions of the survey. In addition, the methods of how it was conducted should be addressed. While the survey was done in a random fashion it took place in a small segment of the population.

The sample population was unrepresentative of American society. Originally we were hoping to limit variables as much as possible, but this may have inadvertently limited the possibility for finding a correlation. The sample was made up of college students from similar middle-class backgrounds. Based on this group it is difficult to observe the correlation between health and faith.

The group was made up of young people who in general have healthier bodies than middle-age people and senior citizens. Also, it is more common for younger people to engage in unhealthy activities such as heavy drinking. If the sample group took in a wider cross-section of persons than the results would be more representative of the American population. The sample size for the survey also needs to be increased to give a more accurate portrayal.

Within the survey, there was confusion about question number 3. How often do you attend meetings of faith-based groups? (More than once a week) (Once a week) (Twice a month) (Less than twice a month) (Never). The possible responses to the question should be revised. There was confusion as to which response was the maximum / highest / most frequent value and what was the order from less frequent to most frequent. Because of this, this question was left out of our analysis.

It may be a good idea to reconsider the way faith is analyzed. It would be interesting to leave a blank space on the survey for people to define what they believe faith is. We could then categorize these definitions and compare them to health. This would allow for more subtle and complete analysis of faith as it allows for more variation in its definition and expression recorded by the survey.

It would be interesting to see what kind of results we would have gotten if we had performed this survey with a larger, more diverse population. Would the correlation have been stronger?

Would it have supported the data we found in our literature review?

How accurate were those studies?

Were they biased?

Some people would be willing to distort the numbers to discover the fabled link between science and faith. It’s difficult to say. Though we’re left with few answers, it was interesting to delve into the question.

VI. Bibliography

Benn, Christoph. “Does faith contribute to healing? Scientific evidence for a correlation between spirituality and health.” International Review of Mission. Jan/Apr 2001: 140-148.

Davis, Jeanie. “Can prayer heal?Ó The Saturday Evening Post Nov./Dec. 2001: 14-16

Hunt, Morton. “The biological roots of religion: Is faith in our genes?” Free Inquiry Summer 1999: 30-33.

Newberg, Andrew, Eugene dÕAquili, Vince Rause. Why God WonÕt Go Away. NY: Ballantine Books, 2001.

Swan, Rita. “When faith fails children: Religion-based neglect: Pervasive, deadly … and legal?” The Humanist Nov./Dec. 2000: 11-16.

Wallis, Claudia. “Faith & healing.” Time 24 June 1996: 58

Appendix I – Sample Survey Sheet

1. Would you consider yourself to be a person of faith? [Yes] [No]

2. Please rate the strength of your faith on a scale of 0 to 5, 0 being little to no faith and 5 being absolute faith: [0 1 2 3 4 5]

3. How often do you attend meetings of faith-based groups? (More than once a week) (Once a week) (Twice a month) (Less than twice a month) (Never)

4. How many hours a week do you spend in prayer and/or meditation?
(More than 2 hours) (2 hours) (1 hour) (1/2 hour) (Less than 1/2 hour) (None)

5. Please rate your overall health on a scale of 0 to 5, 0 being almost always sick and 5 being almost never sick: [0 1 2 3 4 5]

6. How quickly do you usually recover from sickness/colds/flu: (More than 2 weeks) (2 weeks) (1 week) (4-5 days) (2-3 days) (1-2 days)

7. Would you say you recover from sickness/colds/flu faster than your peers: Yes No

8. Please circle the most accurate statement: (I never drink alcohol) (I drink occasionally) (I drink often)

9. Please circle the most accurate statement: (I never smoke) (I smoke occasionally) (I smoke often)

10. Please rate your overall stress level on a scale of 0 to 5, 0 being almost never feeling stressed and 5 being almost always feeling stressed: [0 1 2 3 4 5]

11. Please rate how quickly you usually stop feeling stressed: (More than 3-4 weeks) (2 weeks) (1 week) (3-4 days) (1-2 days) (less than 1 day)

Appendix II – Timeline

Week 2 Chose the topic product
Week 4 One paragraph topic proposal
Week 5 Began topic research
Week 7 Wrote proposal and developed a survey
Week 10 Poster presentation; began survey distribution
Week 13 Continued survey distribution
Week 15 Data analysis

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