Prayer, Faith, and Mental Health
Dr. Jeff Levin is a leader in studying how prayer and religious belief influences health and well-being. Being a devout member of a conservative Jewish congregation, Levin is said to be “the first scientist to make a systematic study of the literature on the effect of religion on physical and mental health, particularly the effect of Judaism on health.” He explain the increasing interest in the connection between faith and health, stating, “The weight of evidence, on average and across studies, suggests that religion, however, assessed, is a generally protective factor for mental illness.”1
With degrees in religion and sociology, medicine, and preventative medicine and community health, this expert has been lending his findings to the discussion among other things, of mental health, as far back as 1988. However, as a university professor in Baylor’s medical humanities program and director of the Program on Religion and Population Health in Baylor’s Institute for the Studies of Religion, he has distinguished himself on the subject of religious faith and its effect on human health.2
In April 2016, on CNN he explained that in one of his recent studies, ninety percent of Americans use prayer for healing. He said that prayer is not a “fringe activity,” but one of the “most widely used forms of medical treatment” and nearly always in “conjunction with regular medical care.” The study shows that eighty percent of the nation prays for their own health, but when it comes to others, it climbs to ninety percent. He also reported that nearly a quarter of those survey had used “laying on hands,” to relay blessings from God. “I think these findings cause us to re-evaluate what is normative and what is marginal. Maybe these practices are as normative as it gets, and to not participate, maybe, is marginal.”3
In his study, he examined eight religious variables, both public and private religious practices associated with healing prayer to measure physical and mental health. Factors included: claiming strong faith, attending religious services, reading scriptures, private prayer beyond congregational prayer, belief in God and a loving relationship with him, accepting others who act as intermediaries of divine healing, the need for improved physical health personally, and those who feel they need comfort for a mental condition. The study also accounted for religious belief and practice and took into account demographics, including socioeconomic factors, religiousness and health. However, among all factors and all faiths, the most common factor was prayer.
Years before this study, writing for the International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies, he stated, “…empirical evidence supports a generally protective effect of religious involvement for mental illness and psychological distress. Like all epidemiologic findings, there are exceptions: e.g. individuals whose religious ideations and practices contribute to, or reflect, pathology. But, on average, this finding is statistically significant.”4
In his review of the literature on the subject of mental health and religion, he wrote: “Scholarship on religion and psychiatric disorders dates to the nineteenth century, most famously in the writings of Freud. Less known are earlier discussions within the nascent pastoral care movement, exemplified by Observations on the Influence of Religion upon the Health and Physical Welfare of Mankind (Brigham, 1835)… The British Medical Journal (Review, 1905) noted, with an optimistic tone reflecting the place of religion in medical discourse of the time, ‘The interdependence of religion and health, which may both be regarded as inherent birthrights of mankind, is a broad fact which is generally accepted and which is capable of easy demonstration.’ (p. 1047).”5
Continuing, Levin wrote, “For many clinicians and scientists of the day, religion was highly relevant—for better or worse—as an etiologic, therapeutic, or palliative agent in psychotherapy. Whether thought to be a malign or salutary influence on mental and emotional well-being, the sphere of religiousness, faith, and sacred beliefs and experiences had been a source of exploration for decades. Whatever one’s beliefs or preferences about faith or God, it at least was agreed that these things mattered.”6
In his a review of literature in religion in psychiatry and mental health he leaves us his bibliography at the end of the article, which offers more than twenty-five other scholars’ works as he describes their “models of religion and of mental health.” He also lists published, real-life research from the field, “including findings from epidemiologic, clinical, and social and behavioral investigations.” Finally, in the paper, he offers perspectives for understanding commonly believed religious viewpoints.
For closing his article, he wrote: “Perhaps someday we will look back and wonder how we ever presumed that well-being is unrelated to the workings of the spirit. Just as the relation of mind and body was rejected by biomedicine until the weight of evidence made such a connection tacit, so, too, may the role of spirit become acknowledged fact. If so, not just our research stands to benefit. Our clients and patients will benefit from more directed attention to dimensions of the self that may be sources of both distress and adjustment but that which, until recently, have been overlooked in our professional discourse.”7
If you want to learn more about religious faith and mental health, join us at the Eternal Core Conference, March 29–30. 2019 at Salt Lake City’s Little America. Register Today!
1 Jeff Levin, Religion and Mental Health: Theory and Research, International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies (2010), published online in Wiley InterScience
2 Dr. Jeff Levin is a Baylor University Professor of Epidemiology and Population Health, a Professor of Medical Humanities and the Director of the Program on Religion and Population Health, and is an adjunct professorship of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University School of Medicine. He also became the first scientist funded by the National Institutes of Health to research religion and health.
3 Morgan Manella, 90% of Americans have prayed for healing, study finds, CNN, April 25, 2016
4 Levin, ibid.