“Do you believe in God?” is not the sort of thing you normally expect to hear in a hospital clinic. But for a group women quietly waiting in a breast health clinic, their wait to see the doctor was interrupted by this question. However, this wasn’t an enthusiastic evangelist trying to win a new convert; it was all in the name of science…
The science vs. religion debate has been raging for centuries. Even though God and spirituality are by their very definition unprovable, ardent atheists and zealous believers continue to bicker. I wonder just how civil and controlled a dinner party attended by Richard Dawkins and Pope Benedict would be!
Even if a spiritual dimension cannot be measured, some things can: For example, does a religious belief help people deal with hardship, illness or strife? Many of the faithful would say yes – and that would seem to make sense. A belief in a higher is often presumed to help people cope in times of difficulty – but is this a real effect or just an act of self-delusion? Researchers from Canada have been on the case to try to find out…
Putting Religion on Trial
Nearly 100 women undergoing tests for suspected breast cancer at an oncology centre were intensively quizzed on religious values and psychological well-being. Over a period of two years, as these women underwent surgery and cancer treatments their progress was followed. At regular intervals their coping ability, emotional well-being, and spiritual beliefs were retested. And these researchers from Ottawa didn’t want to do anything by halves: They went to great lengths using a ‘God Image Scale’ and ‘God Image Descriptors’ to quantify exactly how these women saw their ‘God’. Was it possible that women who believed in a caring and benevolent God would fare any better than those who saw life as Godless?
The Healing Power of Religion (or not)
After statistical analysis, the data yielded interesting and some unexpected results:
- Those who professed a religious direction in life coped much better with adversity
- The women who were the most committed to church attendance found it most difficult to cope throughout their ordeal
- Those who viewed God as loving and benevolent tended to cope better
- Religious people who changed their opinion of God over the two years to a being loving and caring had significantly better psychological health
- Viewing God as distant and demanding was strongly linked with unhappiness and spiritual dissatisfaction
Casting a Critical Eye
These types of investigation are often beset with subjectiveness and bias – many times because of the unspoken motives of the researchers. For every piece of research which shows that faith in God helps, there is another that shows no effect. This new study is by no means bullet-proof, but it does make some valid findings in the mysterious interplay between health and spirituality:
This researchers confirmed what many of us already suspected: Religious belief can have either a positive or negative effect in our ability to make sense of adversity. Misfortune and hardship is something that touches every life, but here is a piece of evidence to show that it is more important to pay heed to the nature of a belief rather than a simple claim of having or not having one.
So, Mr Dawkins, what do you think…?
Thanks for reading – comments and feedback are warmly welcomed!
Explore the debate:
Find out more about Richard Dawkins and what he stands for at his official homepage.
Contribute what you think the meaning of life is at the Alpha course website
A fairly thorough historical explanation of the Science vs Religion debate
Does Evolution Contradict Religion? on About.com
Quotes about religion by Albert Einstein
Gall TL, Charbonneau C, & Florack P (2011). The relationship between religious/spiritual factors and perceived growth following a diagnosis of breast cancer. Psychology & health, 26 (3), 287-305 PMID: 20309779