The cover story for the February 23, 2009 issue of Time Magazine is titled “How Faith Can Heal”. The main article is:
This is the article’s premise:
Here’s what’s surprising: a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that faith may indeed bring us health. People who attend religious services do have a lower risk of dying in any one year than people who don’t attend. People who believe in a loving God fare better after a diagnosis of illness than people who believe in a punitive God. No less a killer than AIDS will back off at least a bit when it’s hit with a double-barreled blast of belief. “Even accounting for medications,” says Dr. Gail Ironson, a professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Miami who studies HIV and religious belief, “spirituality predicts for better disease control.”
But then the article goes on to unravel that thesis. For example:
Pray and meditate enough and some changes in the brain become permanent. Long-term meditators — those with 15 years of practice or more — appear to have thicker frontal lobes than nonmeditators.
Meditation does not require faith. Meditation is meditation and anyone can meditate. Sam Harris meditates.
Faith and health overlap in other ways too. Take fasting…
Fasting does not require faith. Fasting is fasting. Anyone can fast.
The article asks the obvious question in a bold section header: How powerful is prayer?
It then goes on to provide the obvious answer – prayer has no effect:
A larger study in 2005 by cardiologist Herbert Benson at Harvard University challenged that finding, reporting that complications occurred in 52% of heart-bypass patients who received intercessory prayer and 51% of those who didn’t.
Finally the article states that people who go to church live longer:
Social demographer Robert Hummer of the University of Texas has been following a population of subjects since 1992, and his results are hard to argue with. Those who never attend religious services have twice the risk of dying over the next eight years as people who attend once a week. People who fall somewhere between no churchgoing and weekly churchgoing also fall somewhere between in terms of mortality.
A similar analysis by Daniel Hall, an Episcopal priest and a surgeon at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, found that church attendance accounts for two to three additional years of life. To be sure, he also found that exercise accounts for three to five extra years and statin therapy for 2.5 to 3.5. Still, joining a flock and living longer do appear to be linked.
They appear to be linked. But they are not. The problem with these studies is that, if they compared apples to apples, they would not show any effect. And the article states as much just a few paragraphs later:
In the 1990s, Marci Campbell, a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina, helped launch a four-year trial called North Carolina Black Churches United for Better Health. The project signed up 50 churches with a goal of helping the 2,500 parishioners eat better, exercise more and generally improve their fitness. The measures taken included having pastors preach health in their sermons and getting churches to serve healthier foods at community events.
The program was so successful that it has been renamed the Body and Soul project and rolled out nationally — complete with literature, DVDs and cookbooks — in collaboration with the National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society.
Obviously, if you create health programs that specifically target churches, people who attend churches will live longer. OBVIOUSLY. It is not church-going that improves health – it is the fact that “parishioners eat better, exercise more and generally improve their fitness” because of the programs.
The cover story should have been titled, “How Faith Doesn’t Heal”. But that wouldn’t be pandering, and Time would sell less magazines with an honest article.
[More on pandering: Using St. Joseph to sell a house]