Review by Benjamin L. Thompson, 2009
God, Faith, and Health: Exploring the Spirituality-Healing Connection. By Jeff Levin. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2001. 223 pages. $15.95.
Over much of the past 20 years, much of the research conducted on the religion-health connection has tended to lack the empirical support or rational persuasiveness necessary to make much headway within the Western biomedical community. When Jeff Levin first pointed out the link between spiritual faith and healing in Essentials of Complementary and Alternative Medicine, his theories were met with skepticism. Since then, more and more physicians and patients have come to accept this mysterious link, mostly because of the convincing studies and data that have since been released. Levin’s pioneering work has carved out a niche, a new field of inquiry that he calls the “epidemiology of religion.”
Levin’s aim in God, Faith, and Health: Exploring The Spirituality-Healing Connection, as it has been throughout his career as an epidemiologist, is to examine the ways in which religion and spirituality can promote health and prevent illness among various groups of people, and, thus, why “religious involvement deserves to be recognized as one of the significant factors that promote health and well-being among many groups of people” (8). To accomplish this end, he limits his scope, first, to the epidemiological relevance of religious and spiritual practices in general and, second, to the “active ingredients” of religion and spirituality, or how and why different religions and spiritualities in particular are connected with health and well-being. According to Levin, “Each aspect or expression of spirituality described in this book benefits health through activating certain mental, emotional, or behavioral processes that we know promote health or prevent illness . . . these factors are the ‘active ingredients’ in our spiritual life.” (11). He says, “God, Faith, and Health asks these questions: What is it about religion and spirituality that is good for our health, and why is it so?” (11).
Seeking to provide answers to these questions, Levin orients the contents of the book around the seven principles of what he has called “theosomatic” medicine. Each chapter focuses on one principle, and one corresponding dimension of the spirituality-health nexus, surveying evidence showing that “on average, it does appear that religious and spiritual involvement are associated with lower rates of illness and higher levels of well-being” (8). He also attempts to explain how religious and spiritual involvement mediates these positive health effects (11). Levine begins with religious affiliation and moves on to address active religious fellowship, worship and prayer, affirmation of religious beliefs, profession of faith, experience of mystical states of consciousness, and finally, transcendent connection or union with God or the divine (12). These chapters are also sensibly divided into three parts. “Part 1,” he says, “explores the health benefits of the behavioral and social functions of religious experience. . . . Part 2 explores the psychological functions of spirituality. . . . Part 3 investigates concepts at the cutting edge of both spirituality and medical science” (12-14).
In Part 1, Levin begins his “journey” through the principles of “theosomatic” medicine by exploring the health benefits of public religious participation, in light of its behavioral and social functions. Levin concludes here that part of what makes religious involvement efficacious is the behaviorally prescriptive and proscriptive nature of religious commitment as well as the social support that such involvement offers. In Part 2, he explores the health benefits of private spiritual expression, focusing on the psychological functions of spirituality. He says, “Through engendering wholesome and salutary emotions, beliefs, and thoughts, this private dimension of spirituality alleviates physical and psychological distress and promotes good health” (71). Thus, in Parts 1 and 2, the primary focus was on the public and private dynamics of religious participation and spiritual expressions. In Part 3, Levin moves from considering the “active ingredients,” which medical science generally accepts, and into the “other pathways” through which he proposes that religion produces well-being. “Part 3,” he says, “explores the impact on health and healing of mystical and transpersonal means of connection with God” (152).
After examining these seven guiding principles, Levin explains their relevance for the future of Western biomedicine. Chapter 8, he says, “envisions a future in which the scientific evidence presented here will be inextricably woven into both biomedical research and the practice of medicine” (14).
God, Faith, and Health is a treasure trove of information confirming the notion that the medical community should be doing even more to investigate and incorporate religious dynamics into health care. One of the book’s greatest strengths is that it remains aware of the health promoting benefits of many of the world’s religions, without endorsing any one in particular, despite his obvious personal commitment to a passionate form of Jewish faith. In fact, in terms of health benefits, it really does not seem to matter which religious path is followed. The important thing just seems to be that people connect with whatever they conceive God to be. Levin describes health benefits documented in many groups, including Yogis and Buddhists, Catholics, Protestants, and Jews. In general, God seems to be good for us, no matter what we perceive God to be.
What makes Levin so credible is his detached way of interpreting research and the fact that he never blames people for their illnesses. “Further, the illness, suffering, or death of a particular person in no way should be—or can be—attributed to a lack of faith or not enough spirituality,” writes Levin. “Epidemiology is incapable of addressing such issues. What it can tell us—and does very clearly—is that religious involvement deserves to be recognized as one of the significant factors that promotes health and well-being among groups of people.” Even in raising the possibility of things that many scientists might consider unproven or impossible even to discuss (subtle energies, nonlocality, psi, the supernatural, etc.), he is careful with his tone and citations. In this way, Levin stands to make the most sense of what religion and spirituality in general may offer in terms of physical and psychological health benefits.
Levin synthesizes his research with that of others in a strikingly accessible way. The book is beautifully written. He also piques the reader’s interest by speaking to the personal relevance of the issues he discusses. At the beginning of each chapter he shares personal stories of people who have seen changes in their lives and health that are linked to prayer and other spiritual practices. At the end of each chapter he offers “Questions to Reflect on.” He explains: “In each chapter, I offer some personal reflections. I also ask readers to consider the role of religion and spirituality in their own lives, and to reflect on how their beliefs or practices have influenced their health. An opportunity is given to see these links in action, and to reflect on how they operate in one’s life” (12).
It may have been helpful if Levin had included some discussion of how science might actually end up explaining the phenomena that he relates to the reader here. Although Levin does a good job, throughout the book, of providing the various “links in the chain,” that is, proposing what about religious involvement may induce the health-related benefits, he leaves some important links missing as well. For instance, he says that “Each chapter looks thoroughly at a particular set of links among factors related to body, mind, and spirit” (12). However, this subtle attack on materialism and methodological reductionism, which have both proved so useful in modern biomedicine, is a serious problem in Levin’s argument. For instance, in Chapter 1, he observes that religious affiliation sanctions and reinforces healthy behaviors that protect against disease and death. Similarly, in Chapter 2, he suggests that it is the social support provided by organized religious participation that lessens the disease-making impact of life stress. He provides related accounts throughout the rest of the book, and so, in short, he provides somewhat cogent accounts of what it is about religion that engenders the salubrious qualities he observes. Yet he does not provide any biological or biochemical account of how these benefits are conveyed. For example, saying that positive emotions or certain beliefs can have beneficial effects on the body still leaves unaddressed just how they work, that is, how nonphysical events, occurring in the mind, can affect the physical body, one way or the other.
The accessibility of the book leads to another problem. Despite the wealth of research studies he mentions, Levin does not discuss any study in much detail. We don’t find out enough to assess the significance of results of whether there might have been flaws in the study designs. He does provide a list of references to research studies at the end of the book, which allows the reader to track them down. Presumably he left out the details in order to keep the book accessible for readers not interested in them. But the price paid for this decision is that, in what is obviously a controversial field of research, the reader is never exposed to the critiques of the studies Levin mentions, thereby slanting the entire presentation.
In spite of these caveats, God, Faith, and Health is a tremendous resource for those interested in the religion-health connection. It pulls together and smartly organizes some of the large amount of scientific research that shows a strong connection between spiritual practices and beliefs and having better health. Why would religion or faith in God be good for health? The book describes all kinds of reasons—from religious people not smoking and drinking to benefits from being in a supportive social group. But the most thought-provoking aspects of the book’s argument is that these “expected” kinds of explanations for why religious involvement and personal spirituality is good for you seem not to explain the whole picture. Even after these “normal” explanations are taken into account, Levin says that additional benefits of spirituality may come from something beyond what can be interpreted in the terms of current science. That is, some of the health benefits of connecting to a higher power may require explanation in super-empirical terms (that is, explanations beyond current science), and perhaps even in supernatural terms. Whatever you believe about the subject, the book makes a powerful case for the importance of spirituality in health.