Friday, December 29, 2006

#2. Spirituality Research Symposium

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I e-mailed this UPenn Symposium report to friends back in April 2006.


Because of my long-term interest in the links between science and religion, I was aware for some time of research being done at the University of Pennsylvania by Andrew Newberg and others in the area of health and spirituality. They are leaders in the field and have been at it since the early 1990s.

This was their 9th Annual Symposium, but the first I was able to attend. Its theme was "Beliefs In Health," with the word "beliefs" referring both to beliefs about health as well as to religious beliefs. It was free and open to the public: "chaplains, nurses, social workers, physicians, students and members of the community."

There were about 200 people present, slightly more woman than men, and many young people. While the speakers sometimes referred to the work of female colleagues, and one woman was scheduled to take part in the final hour's panel discussion, the speakers were all male.

It was a delight to listen to intelligent people speaking intelligently about important issues. Most of them had too much to offer in the time-frame available. They often skipped over more of their power-point slides than they discussed. It was a delight, too, to see how they voluntarily and consciously adhered to their time limits. (Quite different from speakers at religious gatherings!)

Most of the science-religion discussions I've been exposed to have a theological starting point; they explore how scientific findings support the basic intuitive perceptions and feelings of religious perspectives. Teilhard himself is a good example, as well as "geologian" Thomas Berry and the New Cosmology "evangelist" Michael Dowd. They begin with a basically religious-spiritual point of view open to findings from the contemporary scientific worldview which they see as providing a dynamic new context for understanding the world, ourselves and God. A special characteristic of this evolutionary starting point seems to be a sense of human responsibility for the health of the Earth.

Work in "spirituality research" starts from the opposite direction. These are not people with a theologically-oriented perspective taking science seriously, but scientists-- specifically medical science practitioners and researchers-- taking religion seriously. It's a very different perspective.

There was no talk at the symposium of astrophysics or quantum mechanics or complexity theory, for example. This was a symposium of medical practitioners and researchers concerned with the impact of spirituality and religious beliefs on the mental and physical health of ordinary people.

As an acceptable area of scientific research, spirituality research is only about 15 years old; and the overriding view seemed to be "we've only just begun." The emphasis from these medical practitioners was that we don't yet have good definitions of what we're dealing with and so hardly know what the right questions are to ask and what the right research tools might be to get answers to our questions.

The basic issue is: How does being religious or being spiritual or having beliefs-- even those basic terms aren't yet clearly defined-- help people stay physically and emotionally healthy... and recover from major illnesses... or deal with a non-recoverable illness.

The speakers had a wide understanding of religion-spirituality and its practice. While it was emphasized that they intended to exclude nothing-- from native or tribal religions to New Age practices and the "spiritual-but-not-religious" perspectives from the 60's-- most of the research mentioned seemed to focus on the conventional institutional forms usually expressed by attendance at "worship services." And while the word "God" was used often, there was no attempt to define or describe what was meant by "God." And "God" was always a "he" or "him."

I have to assume a more sophisticated understanding is operative, but it was not evidenced in the short time the speakers had. I also picked up a lack of a sense of the current movement beyond conventional religious understanding to less institutional and less patriarchal forms of religious practice. It may be that the current movement toward a post-institutional understanding of religion and spirituality is something that's more obvious from the theological side of the science-religion focus; or, again, it may be simply that the speakers' time was quite limited.

I was especially interested in looking for sensitivity to the fact that we're currently in a major transition to a more dynamic understanding of the world and our place in it: to those evolutionary perspectives known as the "New Cosmology." I picked up no evidence of it, nor of any awareness of the religion-ecology link that seems so central to it. It may be that this was simply not the focus of the research, of course, and I also need to note that my comments here are only impressions from three hours of speakers.

There was a fourth hour scheduled: a panel of the six speakers, with audience discussion. But I left as it was about to start; my head simply couldn't hold any more thoughts. It was a beautiful day. The Penn campus was glorious with dogwoods and azaleas and young bright-eyed students; many actually reading books. (There was even a drumming group!) I walked the 20 blocks from UPenn down to 16th and Locust to get the train back to Jersey. On the way, I sat in Rittenhouse Square for a while, which was also at its springtime peak, to make some additional notes.

While the symposium was heavily academic, the orientation was always in terms of research rather than theory, and on research as applied to the real world of the illness and health of real people. Jargon was minimal. (Delightful!) It was a privilege to be present to hear such a renowned group.


A few words about the four primary speakers. David Hufford (Penn State) spoke of the fact that a major study in 2005 of the literature in the field reflects a lack of awareness and understanding regarding American cultural diversity in spirituality, religion and health.

Stephen Post (Case Western Reserve ) focused on the scientific study of phenomena such as altruism, compassion, and service (referred to as "love" for short). His emphasis was that while "love" has a major impact on human health and behavior, and is a fundamental motivator of human beings, influencing everything from family dynamics and health to inner peace and global politics, it has been virtually ignored by modern science as a valid source of practical and useful knowledge.

George Fitchett (Rush University Medical Center, Chicago) spoke about what he called "religious struggle" or "anger at God" (or church or clergy). Negative beliefs about themselves and about the meaning and purpose of their lives can have serious negative impact on the health of patients.

Andrew Newberg (UPenn), organizer of the symposium and Program Director of the University of Pennsylvania's newly inaugurated Center for Spirituality and the Mind, uses nuclear medicine and radiology to study the underlying neurophysiology of the brain's functions to get at questions about how beliefs form and how they affect mental and physical health. It was Newberg's work that I was especially interested in.

Here are some things I learned which I found especially interesting...

1. I was impressed by these scholars and doctors being able to acknowledge that theirs is a new field in terms of research. Especially impressive is their willingness to acknowledge that they have no clear definitions yet about the nature of, or distinctions between, religion, spirituality and beliefs. They said quite explicitly, "we don't know yet what the right questions are to ask." (This, too is quite different from what's often experienced at religious conferences!)

2. One of the speakers noted that attempting to understand the workings of the mind and brain in terms of religion is a major scientific issue of the 21st century. (This reminded me of the comment of British theologian and Orthodox bishop, Timothy Ware, at Princeton a few years ago that the major task of the 21st century is to understand what we mean by "person." Whether we're talking religion, health or science, we are just beginning to understand ourselves. And that perspective is itself more clear from the evolutionary worldview.)

3. One speaker noted that while understanding the science-religion connections isn't easy, it is somewhat easier when dealt with in terms of health and spirituality. As he put it, we're are just now "on the brink" of understanding the links between religion and health. Research has a great need for developing good measuring instruments, as well as for coming up with good definitions and asking the right questions.

4. One example of this kind of research is a fascinating study relating HIV virus blood components to patients' primary sense of God. The presence of certain blood factors (I didn't get the specific terms) of HIV patients was compared with HIV patients' perspectives about the nature of God in relation to human persons. Is God essentially good and loving with regard to us? Or basically punishing and vindictive? Patients with no view about God in this regard were twice as likely to have positive anti-HIV factors as those who thought of God as especially punishing. And those who thought of God as essentially good had positive anti-HIV factors six times as much as those with no view. That is: if you believe in a God who is basically loving rather than as basically punishing, you have a 12-times better chance of having anti-HIV factors. Fascinating!

5. I don't get all the terms right, but these findings were presented in typical scientific fashion in terms of percentages, probability, etc. They are objective measurable data which other researchers can attempt to duplicate. Duplication of research findings by others is perhaps the very essence of the methods used by science to know about the world.

6. Much of the interesting data concerned what was called "religious struggle." About 15% of patients with major illnesses struggle with anger at God (or church or clergy).

7. One study compared the religious struggle of patients with various illnesses (grouped into patients with cancers, heart problems, and a third area which I didn't get to record). Their "struggle" was measured in terms of both recovery rate (how long it took) and mortality (i.e., non-recovery). The resulting data offers a especially good example of how complex science research is.

8. The example: the data is that the older patients show less "religious struggle" about serious illnesses. That's a reproducible bit of data. But it doesn't necessarily mean, as might seem obvious, that older people are more resigned to having a major illness. It was pointed out that it may be, instead, that the data reflects social views: the conventional perspectives of a half century ago were quite different from those of today, so that younger people may be much less inhibited in expressing their negative views about God and religion than older people. This is a really good example of the kinds of distinctions researchers need to make. Obtaining objective data is one thing; interpreting it is another!

9. Another interesting bit of data regarding anger at God: The lowest level of religious struggle was found in seriously ill people who attended worship services weekly. But the second lowest level occurs in people who never attend church services.

10. A personal observation: while church attendance may be a measurement of religiousness, it needs to be noted that church attendance is not, in itself, the conventional indicator of being religious it was in previous generations. I didn't hear that mentioned, however, by the researchers.

11. While age made a significant difference in terms of seriously ill people expressing anger at God, there was no indication that race, education and marital status made any difference at all.

12. Many people expressed their religious struggle with phrases such as "I am no longer talking to God." The speaker pointed out that this is perhaps the most common expression of the religious struggle. He also noted that it seems to be quite similar to a breakdown of communication in a marriage; i.e., while the couple may be "no longer speaking," in fact "there is still a relationship."

13. Many struggling with "anger at God" attributed their religious perspectives to parents and religion teachers in childhood. A bit of data with vast implications for authoritarian religion.

14. An interesting tidbit: Who would have guessed that the contemporary concern for health foods originated among Seventh Day Adventists.

15. The lecture on altruism, ethics, morality in terms of health was summed up by the speaker as "It's good to be good." Or "It's better to give than receive." (Isn't it fascinating that scientific data is being accumulated-- even that it needs to be accumulated-- about the fact that the primary recipient of the effects of our actions is ourselves!)

16. From my personal perspective, I was most interested in Andrew Newberg's talk. I'd been wanting to hear him for several years. He is a practicing MD, with patient calls coming in, as one speaker pointed out, even during the symposium. In his work using nuclear medicine to study brain activity, he has done neurophysiology studies of the meditation states of Tibetan monks, Transcendental Meditation practitioners, Franciscan nuns doing centering prayer, and persons who have had near-death experiences. He, too, emphasized that we've only just begun to get some clear ideas about how brain-functions and religious-spiritual attitudes are connected. One very important idea from those studies is that profound religious experience is always colored by previous beliefs: what we understand and experience depends on where we started and where we're coming from.

Newberg is author (with Eugene D'Aquili) of The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience (Augsburg Fortress, 1999), (with Vince Rause) of Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief (Ballantine, 2001), and of Why We Believe What We Believe: Uncovering Our Biological Need for Meaning, Spirituality, and Truth (due out soon).

17. In a wonderful affirmation of my long-time interest (from Jungian personality types and the Native American medicine wheel, for example) in the mandalic (or quaternary) nature of the psyche, Newberg described the workings of the brain in terms of a four-fold activity, too. He says we experience the world through our senses, try to understand it via cognition, react to it via feeling-emotion, and we turn to others to hear what they think is going on via social consensus. While we start with a perception of the cosmos ("the whole of reality," as he called it), we can only be conscious of a small part of it at any one time; he had a drawing of a large brain with a very small dot to indicate the limited extent of its conscious contents. Fascinating stuff!

1 comment:

Sam said...

While trying to eliminate numerous spam comments, I inadvertently deleted all comments at the END of the posts up until #90. BUT... they are still preserved in the collections of comments found in posts #32, #67 and #83.

One set of comments, however-- for posts #84 to #89-- has been completely lost. If you happen to have copied any of them, I'd much appreciate your sending a copy to me so I can restore them. Thanks.