I started going to Sunday school and church when I was 5. I stopped when I was 6. That’s when my older brother was diagnosed with a rare and incurable immune disorder that necessitated his living in a sterile “bubble” room at a hospital near our house. My mother proclaimed that no god would have allowed that to happen. Even a 6-year-old could read between those lines. Either God didn’t exist, or He was an astral bully. My parents and I stopped attending church, and I dropped out of Sunday school. And that was the end of anything approaching sanctioned religion or prayer in my life.
Secretly, though, I remained fascinated by the rituals surrounding religion and the fact that many of my friends appeared to be sure that God did exist and that the world was operating according to His plan. The kids in my mostly Catholic neighborhood griped about the Christian education classes their parents forced them to attend, but surreptitiously, I envied them. Partly, I felt deprived of the camaraderie bred by the torture of their mutual obligation, but mostly I yearned for the certainty with which my friends believed, their seeming lack of doubt.
I was a doubter. Not just of God but of my parents. I felt continually torn between a desire to emulate their biting disdain of all things religious and my fear that we were missing out on something important. After all, my religious friends and their parents didn’t strike me as stupid. What if my parents were wrong? Someone had to be in error, and I very much didn’t want it to be us. Because if it was us, what magic, what advantage, what peace of mind were we potentially giving up? And what further retribution were we risking from a god who had already picked on my older brother?
So I went with friends and their families to church or synagogue if I happened to be staying over when they were going. Later, I’d sneak off to various churches in the neighborhood by myself. Once, I actually went up and took Communion. (When I told a Catholic friend about this, she was sure lightning would strike me.) Occasionally, I’d pray. Sometimes, it was a mundane request: Please make it a snow day. Other times, when I was caught in a dire spot — trying to buy beer with a fake ID, for instance — my prayers might be a little more urgent. But my brother’s death, when I was 14, ended my religious dabblings. Even if there was a god, I decided, I didn’t think much of Him or His plan. So I snubbed Him. As I grew older, my see-if-I-care position evolved into a more rueful atheism: I continued to envy people who believed in God, who thought that their prayers had a chance of being answered. These, it seemed to me, were happy delusions that could make the world feel a little safer. But I had never shared their steadfast faith, and it was too late to talk myself into it now.
And that’s pretty much where I’ve stood, until recently, when I started hearing about research suggesting that faith, religion and prayer confer a variety of health benefits, from an increased life span to better odds of conceiving to a reduced risk for depression. Once again, I found myself questioning my beliefs, or lack thereof, and envying those whose faith seemed to come so easily, like a summer cottage handed down from one generation to the next. I wanted something spiritual in my life. But how do you “get” faith, with a family history like mine? You can’t magically muster it up out of nowhere. The closest I came to anything resembling ritual and spirituality in my life, I realized, was yoga. I go to class often. I meditate and chant, which I enjoy, though I generally have no idea what I’m saying. The whole process makes me feel calm and serene, and I like being part of a community of people who also get pleasure out of these things. I appreciate that part of yoga is to learn to accept where you are rather than judging yourself or others.
What yoga doesn’t do is give me faith that there is order in the world, or a sense that there is a god in control of things, who listens and might address my complaints if I bothered to ask. Since 59 percent of Americans say they pray at least once a day and 22 percent say they do it at least once a week, it’s tough not to wonder — still — what I’m missing. And so I decided to investigate faith’s perks, much as I did as a child, except I didn’t take Communion this time.
The power of prayer
For the last 15 years, more and more scientists have been exploring whether there are concrete health benefits associated with faith and prayer, a challenging (if not impossible) course of study under the best of circumstances. Most difficult: Trying to quantify whether praying for someone — an act the experts refer to as “intercessory prayer” — actually helps the person being prayed for. One major problem is that it’s tough to control the “dose” of prayer that someone is getting (i.e., even if a person is not assigned to a prayed-for group, her family, friends and church congregations could be slipping in a few prayers on the side). Then there is the question of how many prayers constitute a single dose, not to mention how to define a prayer — does anyone really pray the same way? Does it matter if the person praying for someone else isn’t of the same religion? What if the person praying is faking or doesn’t truly have her heart in it — will that affect the outcome? And that’s merely a short list of the potential hurdles.
Which is why only a few of the many intercessory prayer investigations done over the years are considered scientifically sound. One that is, a 2005 study done at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, compared heart patients who were being prayed for to a similar group that wasn’t being prayed for. The end result: no difference in their recovery or survival. A second 2006 study of cardiac bypass patients not only found no benefits for the people being prayed for, but also revealed that folks who knew prayers were being directed their way experienced more health complications than people who weren’t getting prayers. “It simply hasn’t been a very fruitful area of research,” says Harold G. Koenig, M.D., codirector of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University Medical Center. “Then again, the scientific method wasn’t developed to study supernatural phenomena.”
One intercessory prayer study did show positive — and remarkable — effects: In 2001, The Journal of Reproductive Medicine reported that when people prayed for a group of Korean women undergoing fertility treatments (who didn’t know they were being prayed for), the women conceived at twice the rate as those who weren’t receiving any prayers. The findings immediately caused a sensation — and drew criticism. Skeptics questioned the study’s methodology as well as the credentials of one of the study authors, whose degrees were in law and parapsychology. Then the lead author said he’d only consulted on the project months after the study had been done, rather than head it up, which fomented more controversy.
Yet all this doesn’t mean that praying is useless — far from it. Receiving someone else’s prayers may not have tangible benefits, at least in the scientifically quantifiable realm, but a person’s own faith and religious habits can have a profound impact on her own health and emotional well-being. A nine-year study of more than 21,000 adults published in Demography in 1999 found that people who went to religious services more than once a week lived an average of seven years longer than folks who didn’t, results that held up after factors such as smoking and income level were taken out of the equation. In a 28-year study of 5,000-plus people, those who attended some form of religious services at least once a week were about 25 percent less likely to have died than those who didn’t. Research also suggests that regular church attendance is linked with lower blood pressure, less chronic pain, slower cognitive decline in older adults and fewer symptoms of depression, among other benefits. One study even found a link between weekly church attendance and low blood levels of interleukin 6, a protein that, when present in high amounts, can indicate a weakened immune system.
The question is: What causes those salubrious effects? Is God responsible? Or something else? With all due respect to God (assuming He exists), the explanation may be less than supernatural. Dr. Koenig says he believes that people who are part of a religious community are more likely to experience the psychological windfalls of hope and purpose that come from hearing sermons and singing and praying with others. They are also the beneficiaries of added social support — say, having friends who bring groceries or check in during trying times. Those are all clearly life-extending ingredients. “We know that the mind and emotions have an impact on the immune and cardiovascular systems,” Dr. Koenig says. “So it stands to reason that religion and prayer would alter physiology as well. It makes more sense to study those benefits than to try to prove whether (intercessory prayer) works or God exists.”
Getting and staying connected
Wendy Lieber, 40, a lawyer and a mother of two in New York City, learned just how key community can be when, a year ago, her husband was in a biking accident that left him in a coma for five weeks. She and her husband are Jewish and send their older son, who is 10, to a Jewish day school. “We’re not religious, but we really wanted him to have that identity, and we didn’t feel we could give it to him,” she explains. Still, she never expected the flood of support she experienced after the accident. As soon as the school heard her husband was in the hospital, parents organized and took turns providing the family with dinner every night for the entire five weeks. “Basically, anything we needed, we got,” Lieber says. “When my older son needed help with his homework, the school sent — and paid for — a tutor to come to our home. Another time, a mother showed up and took my son, along with her own child, to the zoo.
“I never considered myself someone who leans heavily on others,” Lieber says. “But we’ve never been part of this kind of community before. And we never had a tragedy like that before.” The story has a happy ending: Lieber’s spouse fully recovered, and her family, she says, now fully appreciates the benefit of being part of a community. “It was an amazing gift.”
Another leg up enjoyed by the faithful: People who are religious and regularly attend some kind of services also tend to refrain from unhealthy behaviors such as smoking and heavy drinking, Dr. Koenig says. And, perhaps because they are more prone to being influenced by religious doctrine and the mores of their community, observant folks are less likely to be promiscuous and have extramarital affairs — which helps protect them against sexually transmitted diseases.
Being spiritually minded also appears to alleviate stress — which could explain why people with faith report having an easier time coping with life’s trials. “Repetitive prayer, in and of itself, can be a potent stress reliever,” says cardiologist Herbert Benson, M.D., director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. His research shows that meditation — which can be similar to prayer — elicits something he calls the relaxation response, the physiological counterpart to the fight-or-flight response (the telltale nervous system frenzy meant to help us respond to immediate threats in our environment).
Meditating or praying can be a good way of calming ourselves down, Dr. Benson explains, because they cause the reverse of the heart-pumping fight-or-flight reaction. “The relaxation response is akin to a whole-body exhale. That release translates into a lower risk for all kinds of stress-related ailments, including heart disease, high blood pressure, insomnia and infertility,” he says. “Many people pray when they’re stressed, but yoga, tai chi, breathing exercises … all of these approaches can bring forth the same soothing result.”
Dr. Benson gives patients a choice of techniques to elicit the relaxation response — “the crucial thing is for them to feel comfortable.” He asks patients to pick a word, sound or phrase they find meaningful, such as “peace on earth,” and to repeat and reflect on it while meditating. “I don’t care what they choose, as long as they stick with it and it works for them. What’s most important is that they find a technique they believe in and select words that conform to their individual belief system.”
I’ve often wondered whether I would have had an easier time coping with my brother’s illness and death if I had thought there was a reason to pray, a heaven waiting for him, where I might see him again someday. The studies, it seems, indicate that I might at least have felt a measure of comfort, or been calmer, had I been part of a religious community. But I wasn’t, and as an adult, I have to admit that I’ve done things like going to a medium, who assured me that my brother was still around and very much a part of my life. And, honestly, hearing that helped.
Talking with Dr. Benson also helped. OK, so I don’t pray. I can’t pray. In my worldview, there isn’t anyone for me to pray to. But if there’s one thing that yoga provides for me, it’s the chance to meditate. The chanting is a meditative act. And I find yoga itself to be a kind of meditation, simply because I’m generally so occupied with breathing and holding a pose correctly that I can’t think about all the other worrying things that are on my mind. No wonder I generally feel so relaxed and happy after I leave class.
Of course, I’ve been to yoga studios where people wouldn’t move their mat an inch to accommodate a latecomer, competitive places that left me feeling frazzled and out of sorts. But a few years ago, my husband, who is also a yoga buff, and I discovered a place where the teachers know your name. Tea and cookies are served in the foyer, so people stop and chat with their fellow yogis. The school hosts teacher/student dinners at various restaurants around the city to foster community spirit. It’s kind of fun knowing all those kindred souls — people of all religious persuasions, I’m sure, who share the love of turning themselves inside out for kicks. Where else in life do adults get to compliment one another on their headstands?
“Spirituality means different things to different people,” affirms Daniel Dennett, Ph.D., codirector of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. “For some, it’s World Cup soccer. But it’s possible for practically any intense human endeavor or cultural preoccupation to be the focus of your spirituality.”
If soccer can count, so can yoga. And, in truth, at this stage in my life, I’m probably happier doing yoga than with the idea of taking up religion. Yoga works for me. I go to class four or five times a week — more often than most people go to church. I know many of the teachers by name, and they know me. And while I don’t know all the people who line up on mats alongside me, I know their faces, and they know mine. In fact, the entire community watched over my first pregnancy with the delight and concern of an extended family. When I missed a class or two, people I knew and people I didn’t approached my husband to ask if we’d had the baby yet, and they sent their good wishes. That may not feel like church or a community to some people, but it sure feels like it to me.