Off the cuff: Science of the spirit

[ Winter 2013 ]

You are an epidemiologist who focuses on quantitative methods. Yet you study an area that seems almost unquantifiable: the intersection of religion and health. Can public health researchers, objectively study spirituality? If so, how might their findings be applied?

“Over the last couple of decades, there have been hundreds of studies showing that religious participation has a protective effect on a variety of disease outcomes, including, all-cause mortality, depression, cancer survival, and heart disease. These associations can be studied and have been studied quantitatively, but other questions, remain open. It’s not yet clear what mechanisms govern, this protective effect. Is it social support? Is it lifestyle, and behavior? Is it prayer and meditation? Is it hope or, belief or optimism? Is it self-discipline and self-regulation? What exactly is going on? These questions are also fascinating from a methodological perspective—because of the “soft” nature of religion and spirituality, and, because it’s difficult to parse the effects of religious participation from those of community support and private, spiritual practices.

I feel little tension between my own religious life and my work as a scientist. I grew up in a Christian home, began as Protestant, shifted toward Anglicanism, and am now Roman Catholic. I go to church weekly, pray regularly, and read the lectionary readings each day. In fact, I think that my participation in religious communities has given me insight into what our measures of religious participation really mean. It’s also been exciting to study these questions from a quantitative perspective, using a set of tools that I work with every day. Scientists often caricature religion. They treat it as a purely emotional or irrational phenomenon. But we need to critically reflect on why people believe what they do and how it changes their health-related behaviors and thoughts.”

Madeline Drexler