Term Paper: Psychological Benefits of Faith and Religion

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Spirituality and religious faith have been challenged almost continually since cultures of differing religions have come into contact with one another, a point on the proverbial human timeline that is actually impossible to locate. In other words the debate regarding the specifics of faith is eternal.

The relationship between religion and health care has cycled between cooperation and antagonism throughout history. Some of the most advanced civilizations of ancient times (Assyrian, Chinese, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Persian) equated physical illnesses with evil spirits and demonic possessions, and treatment was aimed at banishing these spirits. Since then, physicians and other health-care providers have been viewed by religious groups as everything from evil sorcerers to conduits of God's healing powers. Similarly, physicians', scientists', and health-care providers' views of religion have ranged from interest to disinterest to disdain. (Lee & Newburg, June 2005, p. 443)

The debate of the existence of God on the other hand reaches back into antiquity with a rhetorical slant, while secularism in the modern era has begun to challenge existence belief structures not from a rhetorical slant but from a sincere questioning slant. Webster in fact claims that it is only within the last century or so that human nature has begun to be defined with secular theories.

Our culturally orthodox lack of familiarity with our own culture has not only brought about the virtual destruction of our historical consciousness, but it has also profoundly affected every area of contemporary intellectual life. Above all it has determined our reaction to modern theories of human nature. In considering such theories what must always be borne in mind is that it is only in the last century or so that secular theories of human nature have become at all common. (Webster, 1995, p. 6)

Webster's reasoning for such historical lack of interest in secular theories of human nature is that almost without exception intellectuals shared (among a variety of faiths) an almost universal acceptance of creationist thought.

Before that time intellectuals generally felt little need of such theories. They felt no need of them for the simple reason that they subscribed, almost without exception, to the creationist theory of human nature which is contained in Judaism, in Christianity and in Islam. It was only in the early part of the nineteenth century, as the 'truths' of revealed religion were increasingly discredited, that an acute need for secular theories of human nature began to emerge. (Webster, 1995, p. 6)

It is also clear, from voluminous anecdotal evidence and valid scientific research that genuine faith, or the belief in a creator and a schematic system of divine human nature nearly always has benefits to the individual and therefore the community.

Statement of Problem

According to a recent comprehensive review of the benefits of faith, conducted by a prominent U.S. physician who had noticed a strong correlation between recovery and genuine faith with his own patients; "Whatever life challenges we face, research shows that we will face them better if we have authentic religious belief and practice as cornerstones of our lives." (Matthews & Clark, 1999, p. 34) According to this work there is a clear sense, from scientific and self report research that religious faith can reduce anxiety, help patients heal from physical and metal illness and even help the individual combat or prevent addictive behavior. As is noted by a commentator in the Washington Times regarding the benefits of faith; "reduces anxiety, decreases postoperative recovery time, helps patients cope with cancer and mitigates against frequent illness" ("The Power of Faith," 2003, p. A18) This commentator also stresses that the existence of faith and religious practice in the lives of young people is significantly effective in preventing risk-taking behaviors such as the use and abuse of alcohol or drugs as well as other behaviors that have far reaching though often ignored consequences for young people. Matthews & Clark mirror this result, stressing that many studies indicate that adolescents who are involved in belief networks are, "markedly less likely to use tobacco, alcohol and illegal drugs..." (1999, p. 27) as well as stressing that adults who are religious are much more likely to engage in healthy habits, "...observant people are more likely than the nonobservant to embrace and maintain positive health habits." Matthew & Clark reference a 1991 study conducted at Northern Illinois University among 1,077 people,* support the idea that students who claimed to be highly religious, "had better overall health, less sickness, fewer doctor visits, and fewer injuries than their less religious or nonreligious cohorts. These students also had significantly lower rates of alcohol, tobacco, and drug use, and they exercised and used automobile seatbelts more regularly." (p. 21) (*Oleckno, W.A., & Blacconiere, M.J. (1991). The authors then go on to reiterate with many additional studies regarding lower incidence of disease and risk behaviors in other religious populations. (p. 21) According to Matthew & Clark, "...studies have illuminated this important reality: religious belief and practice, particularly when accompanied by a profound personal spirituality, ease the life-shattering effects of grief and help bereaved people face and adjust to their losses." (p. 26) This overwhelming evidence that religious faith is a mostly positive human condition is then compared to the secular emphasis of psychology and other disciplines, who have for decades been trying to eliminate faith and religion from the public and private spheres of medical care, biology, health and any number of other disciplines. Religious faith, to some degree has become the pink elephant in the room, as care providers are expected to respect the individuals faith, while not asking or fundamentally knowing anything about it, or relying on it as an aspect of guidance and efficacy.

The simultaneous development of the secular movement with the overabundance of evidence that supports the idea that faith is in general one of the most positive aspects of the human condition is a modern phenomena that elicits as many questions as the research answers. This work will act as a review of literature with regard to what research has been done, and has yet to be done regarding the benefits of religion. In addition the work will address issues that are specific to the Christian faith as it would seem that the development of secularism and the questioning of creationism has become an aspect that has been limited in scope to the particular brand of Christian creationism. For this reason Christianity has become the most researched religion in the world. Research regarding Christianity has been both affirmative and negative, in the sense that there are many people and research intentions that go forward attempting to discredit Christianity while there is a whole other somewhat smaller group that does the opposite. For this reason the work will focus on the main aspect of the questions; What developmental purpose has faith served/can serve? Regarding grief for the dead, does faith help and how? What relevant studies have been done to show Christianity in a good light (an example would be Justin Barrett). What major works have been done against religion / Christianity (an example here could be Freud). Mostly aiming for the benefits of faith, this will be a thesis on the material that's already been done, but (obviously) what has yet to be done. Examples of reasons for faith: grief, identity, purpose, community, magical thinking perhaps

Christianity vs. Secularism

It is safe to say that the conflict between faith, but more specifically Christianity and Science is a relatively new one that in many ways stems from the developmental history of psychology. Though many aspects of Freud's research have been discredited, as unscientific and opinion based, many of his assumptions have lived on through the evolution of psychology and one of those assumptions is his professional beliefs about faith being a lazy man's way of confronting conflict and avoiding personal responsibility.

Whatever judgement may be passed on particular theories, it is at least generally assumed that modern thinkers have succeeded in freeing themselves from the superstitious and theological modes of thought which dominated those intellectuals who belonged to an era of faith. It is, however, just this assumption which needs to be questioned. For although such secular theories as psychoanalysis and structural anthropology have evidently shed the theism of Christianity, it is not at all clear that they have repudiated the view of human nature which was once associated with creationist theology, and with JudaeoChristian doctrines of sin and redemption. Modern theorists of human nature, indeed, trapped as they are within a culture which has systematically mystified its own strongest traditions, are rather in the position of the mariner who sets out to sea without a chart. When he lands at a different point on the same continent from which he originally set sail, there is always the danger that he may fail to recognise this, and announce instead that he has discovered a new world. (Webster, 1995, p. 7)

The ambivalence then of psychology to practice without the acknowledgement of faith as a major aspect of the… [END OF PREVIEW]

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