Religion and spirituality mean different things to different people – and it’s not uncommon for many of us to ponder the role they play in our lives.
Does prayer make us better people? Does prayer heal us? What role does spirituality play in our emotional and physical lives?
These are the kinds of questions that Harold Koenig has spent a lifetime exploring. He’s the author of books such as “Spirituality in Patient Care,” “The Healing Power of Faith,” and most recently, “Health and Well-Being in Islamic Societies.”
Dr. Koenig traces his interest this subject to the time, about 30 years ago, when he was a family physician. He noticed that religious beliefs were important to many of his patients.
“I became intrigued by that,” Dr. Koenig told KNPR's State of Nevada.
“When I asked them how they were coping with their illness, with their health condition – with their stroke or heart attack or cancer – they would a lot of times talk about their religious faith, and how prayer was so important to them, and their faith community and reading holy scripture.”
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It led to a lifetime of research on this subject on how prayer affects our health and well-being.
“I thought: Why not just do some systematic research. Because it’s my impression as a doctor that patients are doing better if they have religious beliefs that help them to cope with their illness,” Koenig said.
Here in Nevada, Michael Feder has been thinking about many of the same issues surrounding prayer and its ability to affect well-being.
Feder is the founder of a three month old start-up called, PrayerSpark.com. Those who sign up at the website can receive or send prayers and affirmations, from a selection of religious and spiritual leaders.
“I had been a student of the movement toward 'spiritual but not religious' for many many years," said Feder. "It turns out that a substantial number of those folks – as many as 90 percent of those folks – according to some of the latest studies, who say they’re ‘spiritual but not religious,’ still believe in a higher power. And a good 80 to 90 percent of those believe in the power of prayer. They’re not actually ‘spiritual but not religious.’ The are religious but it’s a different kind of religious.”
Feder says it’s not the kind of religious where you draw a 10 mile circle around your house and you found whatever house of worship are within that circle and that’s where you went.
“These are folks who believe they have direct connections with their spirituality,” Feder said. “They don’t need to go to the bricks and mortar congregation any more. And also they might have been quite alienated by some of the tradition ways that religion was manifested. There were judgments, there were civil right issues that people felt, there were scandals that made people feel that maybe it was better for them to feel that it was better for them to find their spirituality in a more direct way.”
Michael Feder says that part of what he wants PrayerSpark to do is help people in recovery and in rehab facilities.
“We find that if we can go where the pain is and provide the support there, that’s really where the key is. When you look at something like addiction and recovery, there’s a 92 percent relapse rate.” PraySpark wants to make a dent in that relapse rate, says Feder.
And, Feder says, many of the people in recovery don’t have a connection to a higher power or an affiliation that will help them. “Being able to bring all kinds of alternative modalities for this sort of support is one of the areas that PrayerSpark is going.”
Does spirituality and prayer heal us? Dr. Koenig of Duke University’s Center for Spirituality, Theology, and Health says yes.
“There’s no question that there’s a lot of research that now shows that there’s a connection between a person’s religious faith and their health,” says Dr. Koenig. “Most of that research would back that people are involved within a religious community – are part of a faith community – they seem to do the best as far as their health. Their social health, their health behaviors, and their physical health.”
What about those who are spiritual, but not religious? “There is some evidence,” says Dr. Koenig, “that those who are spiritual but not religious have worse - worse - health outcomes. They have more depression, they have more substance abuse.”
Dr. Koenig says that people shouldn’t close the door on religion. “Certainly many people will find meaning and purpose and hope outside of an organized religion.”
Dr. Koenig says it’s the religious doctrines that help keep people healthy. “There are reasons for the Ten Commandments, and why the Ten Commandments have lasted for close to 3,000 years. It’s because they work. Those who isolate themselves from others and aren’t involved in a community – they just don’t do as well. Being spiritual on your own, and kind of picking and choosing what aspect of spirituality you want to follow – that just doesn’t work for most people.”
Dr. Harold Koenig, Director of Duke University’s Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health, which is based in Durham, North Carolina; Michael Feder, Founder and CEO of PrayerSpark.com