In Theory: Meshing medicine and religion

According to a news report this week on National Public Radio, many inhabitants of the world's second most populous country, India, who are afflicted with depression, psychosis and other mental health problems rely on faith healers and doctors at their local temples, instead of traditional medicine, to treat their problems. NPR reported that only 37 mental health institutions operate in that country of 1.2 billion people, where there is only one psychiatrist per 400,000 people.

In your view, can religion be a substitute for medicine in the treatment of mental health problems, or would you advocate medicine over religion, or a combination of the two?


Faith can provide meaning and courage when we are in extremis, but I do not believe that prayer is a causal factor in recovery and healing.

Yes, countless patients have prayed for health, or been prayed for, and then recovered, but countless prayers have not yielded the hoped-for results.

As a philosophy professor wrote: "The fact that a person feels that a prayer was heard by a spirit is not proof that there was an intervention. A baseball fan may cross his fingers and hope a batter gets a hit, but if the batter does or doesn't get a hit, the fan's feelings are not relevant to whether the superstitious action had any effect on the batter's performance."

Faith will not treat schizophrenia, prayer will not alleviate bipolar disorder, belief will not ameliorate Alzheimers, spirituality will not conquer clinical depression. Relying on religion without resorting to medical intervention is lunacy.

Rabbi Mark S. Miller

Temple Bat Yahm

Newport Beach


It depends on the nature of the mental health problem, the qualifications of the clergy, the availability of other resources, and the client's motivation to develop or apply spiritual values. I have a private practice as a psychotherapist and pastoral counselor, one of the few professions which offer specialization in the integration of spirituality and psychology.

Pastoral counseling programs are often interfaith, and certification requires at least a master's in psychology, a master's in theology, and clinical supervision. However, most clergy do receive basic training in seminary to respond to common concerns such as marital problems, parenting issues, depression and grief, and they can provide brief therapy as well as make good referrals where ongoing professional help is needed.

In situations where psychiatrists are overseeing care, for example, for bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, clergy and a religious community may be an important adjunct in treatment.

Rev. Dr. Deborah Barrett

Zen Center of Orange County

Costa Mesa


Episcopalians are inclusive, "both/and" people. So I advocate "both" religion "and" medicine for treatment of health problems. Since Dr. Randolph Byrd's famous 1986 study of cardiology patients at San Francisco General Hospital, considerable research has shown that people who are religious and understand that others are praying for them renew their health more rapidly and thoroughly than others. Blood pressure has been lowered, anxiety reduced, tumors shrunk, headaches relieved, and healing of wounds facilitated.

Religious prayer affirms what God is already doing in our lives: God is forgiving our sinfulness, restoring us to wholeness, and giving gifts of wisdom and skill and sympathy and patience to physicians and nurses and all who minister with the unwell. We all have the same sorts of fears and stresses, don't we?

Let's be grateful and thankful for health-care resources available to us and use them all!

(The Very Rev'd Canon) Peter D. Haynes

Saint Michael & All Angels Episcopal Church

Corona del Mar


No one knows the extreme harm that religion plays in other countries. Most Americans are insulated from negative news from Third World countries, especially if it is associated with religion. The obvious answer is more medical treatment and better public education that promotes the ostracizing of superstitious shaman who mostly take advantage of innocent unknowing people. Religion has no place in the healing of serious mental disorders.

Bruce Gleason (The Good Atheist on YouTube)

Director, Freethought Alliance


In developed countries, we are fortunate enough to have both our faith and medicine to rely on when we experience health issues of any type. Other countries are not so fortunate. Relying solely on what ones religion has to offer becomes the only solution in such situations. I do believe the Lord does more healing in poor countries where no alternatives exist. God cannot be limited in his mercy and kindness. When viable medical solutions are readily available, one would be foolish to ignore them, and people of faith should avail themselves of both prayer and legitimate healing ministry (with fervent faith that miracles do happen) and the best bona fide medical treatment available.

Fr. Stephen Doktorczyk

St. Joachim Church

Costa Mesa


The efficacy of treatment between traditional medicine and non-traditional healing has a great deal to do with the faith, attitudes and expectations of those seeking to be healed. There are many studies that have shown that often faith can accomplish more than traditional medicine in the healing process — especially in the area of mental health. In many ways, modern psychiatrists are simply secular equivalents of spiritual leaders who, through counseling, prayer and meditation seek to provide guidance in the healing process. In the Latter-day Saint tradition, we follow the admonition found in James 5:14-15, while, at the same time, seeking the care of trained professionals where deemed necessary and appropriate.

Here is the admonition: "Is any sick among you?  Let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord:  And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up;…" 

Tom Thorkelson

Director of Interfaith Relations

Orange County Council

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

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