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Exploring the Connection of Spirit, Body

Times Staff Writer

Many scientists are trying to quantify what religious traditions have long preached: that strong spiritual convictions can mean a healthy body.

Some recent findings are far from conclusive, but they raise intriguing questions and suggest that more research is needed. Indeed, a sense of possibility and exploration infused an international symposium this month at UC Berkeley, where researchers presented studies exploring connections between body and spirit.

One study suggested that people with HIV remain healthier longer when they believe God loves them. Conversely, when people see God as punishing them for their transgressions, they do poorly, researchers reported at “Spiritual Transformation: New Frontiers in Scientific Research.”

“One’s view of God is associated with disease progression,” said Gail Ironson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Miami.

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The symposium came a week after a study reported that prayers by strangers had been of no help in the recovery of patients who had undergone cardiac bypass surgery. That study, believed to be the largest of its kind on the therapeutic power of prayer by strangers, involved more than 1,800 patients.

The papers presented at the Berkeley conference focused not on intercessory prayers, but the spiritual outlook of patients with HIV and cancer. Also, the samplings were smaller -- the HIV project involved 100 patients -- and not all of the studies had been subjected to peer review.

Ironson’s HIV research was among the 22 studies presented at the conference, which brought together more than 50 scientists, medical researchers, social scientists and theologians.

The symposium was sponsored by the Philadelphia-based Metanexus Institute on Religion and Science, in partnership with UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health. The studies made public were fully or partly funded by the institute as part of its five-year Spiritual Transformation Scientific Research Program.

Founded in 1998 and initially funded by the John Templeton Foundation, the institute identifies itself as a nonsectarian, nonpartisan group that encourages “the constructive engagement of religion and science.”

The foundation also helped underwrite the recently released study on prayer.

Two studies on cancer, also presented at the conference, mirrored the conclusion of the HIV study that spiritual resources often play an important role in the adjustment process for people facing a life-threatening illness.

“That makes perfect sense to me,” said Donald E. Miller, a professor of religion at USC.

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“Whether or not there is external divine intervention, the very fact of having a positive attitude could boost the immune system and could have a healing effect,” said Miller, also executive director of USC’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture.

At the symposium, Miller presented his own research on the role of spirituality in nongovernmental organizations in Africa.

In his study of Solace Ministries, which aids survivors of the 1994 Rwanda genocide, he found that religion and spirituality play an important role in social, as well as personal, transformation.

Many survivors who attend weekly meetings at Solace consider the meetings the most important thing in their lives, Miller said. The meetings open with Bible readings and singing, and continue for hours as attendees talk about their struggles.

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Creating a supportive community of survivors, in which “one can return and hear in different variations one’s own story told afresh, is healing and reinforcing,” he said. It’s the same sense of community that brings people to Alcoholics Anonymous, he said.

“Solace has a quality that supersedes the therapeutic dimension,” said Miller, a specialist on the sociology of religion. “There is an element of faith that anchors the convictions that all human beings have worth, that everyone is of value, that we all exist for a purpose. It is this spiritual dimension that gives depth to the healing process.”

The researchers at the symposium came from many academic disciplines and belief traditions, including Buddhism, Judaism, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. During the conference, speakers frequently used the term “sacred” instead of “God” or “higher authority,” intending to be inclusive.

Ironson told the symposium that the positive effects of an individual’s personal relationship with the sacred were “over and above” church attendance.

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“What also makes a big difference is whether a person turns toward or away from spirituality at the time of diagnosis,” said Ironson, former president of the Academy of Behavioral Medicine Research. “People who increase in spirituality after receiving their diagnosis have slower disease progression. The effects of a positive spiritual orientation are very strong.”

In her study, 100 people with HIV were followed for disease progression every six months for four years.

Solomon H. Katz, a professor of physical anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania and principal investigator for the Spiritual Transformation Scientific Research Program, said that for too long, people have viewed science and religion as the opposite ends of a spectrum.

“As a result, scholars have often avoided studying spirituality and transforming experiences the way they study other phenomena,” he said.

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That researchers are now using contemporary scientific methodologies to study beliefs and behaviors “is itself transformation,” Katz said.

Clinical psychologist Brenda L. Cole, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, was another researcher who explored how faith and illness intersect.

She found that cancer can elicit changes in people’s worldview, sense of self, relationship with others and goals and priorities.

At the symposium, Cole said profound spiritual changes or transformations are evident in the stories of cancer survivors. But little is known about the nature of those shifts and how they affect patients in coping with their illnesses.

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What is known, Cole said, is that “even in the deepest and darkest, there is possibility of growth and enlightenment.”

“Perhaps,” she ventured, “the world religions have got it right that in the midst of suffering, we are shaken out of our complacency, and that actually is an initiation into more devotedly seeking the sacred.”


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