*This Week in God

THIS WEEK IN GOD…. This week, the God Machine turns its attention to Time magazine’s cover story, titled, “The Biology of Belief: How Faith Can Heal.”

The notion of spirituality having medicinal benefits has been studied for quite some time, but the results are always discouraging for the religious. Praying for good health falls comfortably in the realm of faith, not double-blind, peer-reviewed academic research.

It was odd, then, to see Time‘s Jeffrey Kluger present some unusual arguments in a major mainstream publication.

Here’s what’s surprising: a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that faith may indeed bring us health. People who attend religious services do have a lower risk of dying in any one year than people who don’t attend. People who believe in a loving God fare better after a diagnosis of illness than people who believe in a punitive God. No less a killer than AIDS will back off at least a bit when it’s hit with a double-barreled blast of belief. “Even accounting for medications,” says Dr. Gail Ironson, a professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Miami who studies HIV and religious belief, “spirituality predicts for better disease control.” It’s hard not to be impressed by findings like that….

That’s a strikingly bold claim — AIDS will “back off” when “hit” with supernatural beliefs? — which Time fails to back up.

Kluger briefly touches on reality, and makes note of real-world explanations. He quotes Richard Sloan, professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, an expert on the issue, saying, “Science doesn’t deal in supernatural explanations. Religion and science address different concerns.”

But the article nevertheless discounts this altogether. As Isaac Chotiner noted, “As best as I can tell, the point of the story is that while there is no existing scientific evidence showing the power of prayer, a certain placebo effect can occur; if you want to delude yourself, you may indeed become happier and healthier. In other news, people who convince themselves that they are dating Salma Hayek are also happier.”

The Time article’s conclusion was especially troubling:

Few people think of religion as an alternative to medicine. The frontline tools of an emergency room will always be splints and sutures, not prayers — and well-applied medicine along with smart prevention will always be the best ways to stay well. Still, if the U.S.’s expanding health-care emergency has taught us anything, it’s that we can’t afford to be choosy about where we look for answers.

My general concerns here go beyond bizarre journalism. First, it’s simply irresponsible to suggest to anyone that supernatural beliefs can protect against illness. When a person has a health problem, they should seek medical attention, and “seek answers” from medical professionals. Anything else is dangerous.

Second, it’s articles like these that reinforce destructive spiritual beliefs — when someone gets sick and prayer doesn’t help, loved ones are led to believe their faith wasn’t “strong enough” to make them better. After all, if religious belief makes you healthier, skepticism about the supernatural necessarily puts you at risk.

And third, there is an “expanding health-care emergency,” but counting on spirituality to address it is bound to lead to disappointment.

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