Can Prayer Trump Pain?

Book cover
Medicine, Religion, and Healthby By Harold G. Koenig, M.D.Templeton Foundation Press. 240p $17.95

As a Jesuit priest who practices medicine, I must say that some of the more tiresome moments in my career have been encounters with reporters who want to do a “little story” on spirituality and medicine. Some go well, with insightful questions and good dialogue. Too often, however, the camera does a close-up on the reporter who, in a breathy voice and with way too much facial expression, asks: “And now, Dr. Sheehan, tell me: How many people have you cured by your prayer?” I have not been smart enough to answer: “More than you and I will know.”

For those people who, like the reporter, are hoping for something sensational and a bit weird, Harold Koenig’s book will be a disappointment. For those who are intrigued by the potential connections between religious faith, maintaining health and recovery from illness, Medicine, Religion, and Health provides a down-to-earth, matter-of-fact and carefully reasoned review of the topic. Koenig’s explicit goal “is to explore and make sense of some of the recent research on religion, spirituality, and health.” In focusing on this goal, he is not asking about the theological dimensions of the link between spirituality and health; that task will be covered in a volume on which he is currently working. Koenig is focusing on a review of research and looking at links between faith and health outcomes.


The author, as would be expected in a book that is meant as a popular review of the scientific literature, is methodical and careful in presenting his findings. He introduces the topic by defining spirituality and religion and considering how the definitions are important in research but perhaps a bit less important in day-to-day practice. In preparing to relate the results of research, Koenig stresses that in our current aging society, where health care costs are skyrocketing, carefully considering new approaches to health care interventions, like the impact of spirituality and religion, is not simply intrinsically interesting but could provide major savings and improvements in health care delivery. Having provided definitions and a compelling reason for interest in the results, he then reviews the topic of known and potential mechanisms by which the mind influences the body. Then comes a series of chapters that look at specific areas where research has been conducted on the links between religion and health.

Koenig gives evidence of beneficial outcomes where religion is a factor in general health, longevity, mental health, endocrine and immune function, cardiovascular disease and diseases related to stress and behavior. What I find attractive about Koenig’s review is that he is not making an argument on exactly how religion influences these health-related outcomes, but is looking at the evidence that health outcomes are influenced. Especially useful for those who might question the strength of the connections that Koenig presents is the careful explanation of confounding and explanatory variables in determining causality in scientific studies. If the good outcomes are simply the result of confounding variables, then it is not faith or religion that makes the difference. If, however, there is something associated with religious belief or faith that explains the result, then there is a causal link. Koenig argues well that much of the criticism of results that he highlights is based on a lack of attention to what may be an explanatory variable versus a confounding variable.

As might be expected, much of this book is fairly detailed. It is written at the level of an intelligent non-scientist reader: it makes some demands on the reader and provides good instruction in return. For a more casual reader, I would recommend the final chapter on clinical applications of the research that has been presented. Once again, Koenig continues his no-nonsense style in listing seven common-sense reasons why clinicians should pay attention to the links between religion and health. He then discusses appropriate ways to work with patients that engage their beliefs while not alienating individuals who do not believe or whose beliefs differ from the clinician. Especially important is his discussion for clinicians about the importance of engaging the faith community and recognizing the skills and talents that trained hospital chaplains can bring to bear. A physician referral for a patient to a chaplain can be a crucial move in facilitating the patient’s well-being.

As someone who has felt that religious faith and a person’s spirituality influence people’s approach to illness and health, but who has been underwhelmed by the research with which I was familiar, this book is of great value. It makes me understand that my personal experience has been confirmed in a number of studies, that the research is not explaining exactly what is happening, that there is plenty of not so good research, but that this area needs further attention. Keonig’s final word sums up what I felt on completing this book. “Thus, both a solid research base and common sense argue that the religious and spiritual beliefs of patients are linked in one way or another to their health and well-being. Learning to respect the power of these beliefs and utilize them to speed the patient’s healing and recovery of wholeness…should be a priority for modern medicine and health care.”

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10 years ago
Fine review. As a cancer survivor (so far!) and avid reader, I'll have to put this on my booklist.
Bruce Snowden
10 years ago
"Can Prayer Trump Pain?" a question Jesuit Priest-Doctor Myles N. Sheehan, S.J.,MD, asks in his review of the book, "Medicine, Religion And Health" by Harold G. Koenig, MD, having to do with the question of where science and spirituality can meet. One place is on a Bronx, NY sidewalk near midnight! Dr. Koenig says,there's "evidence of beneficial outcomes where religion is a factor" then he lists several including "behavior" disease. I can attest to the reality of religion playing a role in the healing of the behavioral disease of alcohol addiction as follows. Regarding that "Bronx NY sidewalk" mentioned above, one night around midnight on his way home from work, a man disgusted with himself due to alcohol addiction, hooked on, as he then was, of all things, Sherry Wine, prayed fervently to Padre Pio for deliverance from his addiction, having also just finished saying the rosary. Suddenly an indiscribable fragrance surrounded him, all encompassing but not oppressive. It was delightful!The enrapturing floral scent caused him to look around for a source, thinking there might be flowers nearby. But it was winter and everything was brittle. He then thought perhaps someone in the dark apartments above the sidewalk had used a commercial Air Freshener and some had wafted down to the sidewalk. But the fragrance being experienced was not artificial as in a canned deodorant but as fresh as a walk through a flowering rose garden! The experience ended as suddenly as it had begun and whereas the man had been troubled in mind and heart before it started, at its end he was experiencing calm, joy and peace. He was utterly amazed at what he had just experienced! To shorten this testimony let me say from the moment of that "night of fragrance" onward, to the present, forty years later, there has been no relapse into alcohol addiction, the substance once craved now abhorred, no compulsion, no addiction. The man learned later that often when Padre Pio grants a favor it is preceeded by a fragrance which our Church calls, "heavenly aroma." And who is this man? Me! Please allow the following generally connected addendum, relative to "Can Prayer Trump Pain?" In the Gospel Jesus makes it clear that, prayer can trump pain, a wonderful reality linked to the ability to "believe." Jesus often says, in effect offering a challenge, "Do you believe I can do this?" The best answer is, "I do believe Lord, help my unbelief!" Jesus knows that even if our belief is as tiny as the seed of a giant Sequoia which weighs only 1/5000 of an ounce, great towering things can happen! Also in the Gospel we discover that sometimes prayer trumps pain gradually as in the case of the blind man, who after being touched by Jesus said, " I see men as if they were trees but walking about!" Obviously his sight had been partially restored but a second touch by Jesus completely healed him! In another Gospel case prayer trumped pain with the use of what may be seen as a "medical intervention" Jesus applying spittle to the blind man's eyes after which sight returned - a "prescription" so to speak. Doctors help Jesus to heal and Jesus helps Doctors to heal. Yes, clearly, there are many ways that prayer trumps pain and science and spirituality meet. Thank you Father (Doctor) Sheehan for your faith-expanding review of what must surely be an equally faith-expanding book by Dr. Koenig, which I must read. Bruce Snowden
Bruce Snowden
10 years ago
Dear Online Editor, Once again my name remained behind on a posted comment and so in case you need to know so as to have ny submission considered, I send this note. It's a real pain in the neck to have to do this whenever I post something. Bruce Snowden


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