Nursing is focused on Evidenced Based Practice. More so now than in any other time in our history, we look to research and the scientific method. You may think these methods fail us when we study spirituality. Can you imagine being a peer reviewer and being assigned an article entitled “God and Cholesterol: An underused intervention” I can just see the description of the research protocol. “A group of volunteers were randomly assigned to two groups–God and Not-God. The God group was exposed to God twice a day for 15 minutes with the Not-God group receiving general counseling only with all contact with God blocked. In a 6 week follow up the God group had a 15.7% lowering of LDL (p <0.013) and a rising of HDL 4.5% (p < 0.01) than control.” Nah, I don’t think so.
It would be a big error to think that religion and spirituality are completely separate from research. There are research methods that can be used to examine religion and spirituality and guide its use in health care. Harold Koenig, MD from Duke University, has done some excellent work in this area. In a 2012 review article in Psychiatry he searched databases for articles researching the connection between religion/spirituality and health. In the 128 years between 1872 and 2000 he found 1200 articles. In the next 10 years he found 2100 studies–almost double the number of articles. He grouped these articles together according to their effects on mental health, health behaviors and physical health.
A majority of articles showed that religion and spirituality had positive influences on mental health including positive influences on depression, stress reduction, coping with adversity, sense of purpose, and happiness. Religion and spirituality also had positive influences not only on health behaviors such as cigarette smoking, exercise and healthy diet but also on physical health such coronary disease, cerebral vascular functioning, cancer and mortality.
I would encourage you to read this article (Koenig HG. (2012) Religion, spirituality, and health: the research and clinical implications. Psychiatry Dec 16;2012:278730. doi: 10.5402/2012/278730) though his other work is well worth reading. In this article, in his conclusion section, Koenig acts only as an objective scientist. He states that the effects of spirituality and religion can be measured using normal scientific methods and explained using normal psychological and physiological processes WITHOUT resorting to supernatural explanations. In other words, the effects of religion and spirituality do not rely on the existence of a supreme being.
Depending on your own personal beliefs, this may confirm to you that belief in a supreme being is superfluous or you may see this as an attack on your beliefs. I have neither reaction. Rather, the effects of spirituality and religion are independent of my own beliefs and will continue long after I have shed this mortal coil but until that time, it is important for health care professionals to look at spirituality and religion as a way to help our patients. In the next column, I will discuss how my clinic integrates spirituality into its weight loss program.