Religion and medicine

Throughout the history of human health, religion has had both beneficial anddetrimental effects.

Consider, for example, the state of medicine during the Middle Ages. Then, asin much of history, the Church played a major role in providing health care.Priests were the principal caregivers. However, illness was viewed in thosedays as punishment from God, so treatment often involved tormenting the bodyto expel evil `spirits.' Some Church teachings actively discouraged the advancement of medical science. For instance, priests were prohibited by papal decree from shedding blood, barring them from performing surgery. Also, the Church forbade dissections of human or animal cadavers, preventing any comprehensive knowledge of anatomy or physiology.

Religion and medicine are both concerned with making people whole. In fact, the words `healing' and `holiness' are both linguistically derived from the concept of wholeness.

Many health-care and teaching/research institutions have sprung from religious roots. The first hospitals were created by Christian and Islamic founders.Inspired by Christ's injunction to his followers to "heal the sick" and "cleanse the lepers," Christian hospitals began appearing in Rome after Constantine declared Christianity as the state religion. This trend continued through the Medieval and Renaissance centuries, and was resurrected during the 19th century, when thousands of denominational hospitals, lunatic asylums and nursing homes were established throughout North America and Europe. Similar traditions of religious involvement in medical caregiving can be found in the histories of China and Hindu nations.

Just as there exists a wide range of religious traditions, there is also considerable difference of opinion on the overall health effects of religion. Sigmund Freud, the Austrian founder of psychoanalysis, considered religion to bea form of mental illness, needing to be replaced by "rational operation of the intellect." (Oddly, Freud was himself deeply superstitious, especially about the number 17.) Others have argued that religious indoctrination is abusive and a cause of illness, intolerance and intellectual inflexibility.

Conversely, there are those who cite a large body of literature linking public and private religious activity with improved health. They cite benefits including reduced risk of cancer, stroke, heart attack, depression, and anxietydisorder; lower death rate from coronary artery disease; fewer cases of substance abuse; lower blood pressure; even faster recovery from a hip fracture. Numerous Christian traditions believe healing may result from intercessory prayer or a touch by a faith healer. In one telephone survey of almost 600 randomly selected adults, 14% reported they had experienced divine healing of a serious disease or condition. Another study associated intercessory prayer witha reduction in cardiovascular complications in patients in a coronary care unit.

On the other hand, some traditions have controversial beliefs that limit themedical interventions they are willing to accept. Christian Scientists, for example, reject use of medicine, trusting instead in prayer and counsel to invoke healing mental processes in the patient. Jehovah's Witnesses will not accept blood transfusions or blood products. Physicians sometimes seek court orders allowing treatment in such cases, especially if the life of a child is atrisk because of the beliefs of the parents.

As to whether any particular religion has an overall positive or negative effect on human health, it is difficult to argue with the ancient advice: "By their fruits ye shall know them."

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