I Belong, Therefore I Am
by Jim Burklow
Religion can do a body good.
And that’s not just a promise of good-pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die. There’s science behind the assertion that religion can benefit your physical and emotional health on this side of the Pearly Gates.
I teach about this at the USC Keck School of Medicine. As one would expect, there’s no point in teaching anything there that does not pass rigorous scientific testing. According to the “bible” on the subject, Harold Koenig’s Handbook of Religion and Health, there is no compelling evidence for the efficacy of intercessory prayer on health outcomes. If I pray for you to get better, that is a good end in itself. But there’s no science to support the conclusion that it will help you get better. However, Koenig reports strong evidence that actively belonging to a faith community affects human health for the better.
In the Little Chapel of Silence on our USC campus, we place a blank book where students and staff can write their prayers and reflections. We also have a box in the chapel where they can write prayers on slips of paper. I maintain the space and collect these writings and store them in my office. They range from laments about lost love to prayers to get better grades to suicide notes to expressions of thanksgiving, written in many languages and from the perspectives of many faiths or no faith at all. In the prayer book recently, I discovered a drawing of a young woman with a beatific smile and closed eyes, with a thought bubble over her head: “I belong, therefore I am.” She has science behind her in saying so!
Another way that religion can do a body good is through the mindfulness practices that are embedded in it. It’s no news that it’s part of Buddhism. But for most Christians, it may come as a surprise to find that it has always been integral to contemplative prayer. You can’t confess the truth of your heart unless you know what’s in it. That requires clearing the eye of the soul to be able to look unblinkingly at the truth of what we feel, think, and experience. Doing so calms the mind and the body.
This practice is embedded in mystical Islam, in many Hindu disciplines, and in the Sikh faith as well. Having isolated mindfulness into a practice defined without reference to specific religious content, researchers have been able to document its very many general health and specific behavioral benefits. Dr. David Black, a preventive medicine professor and researcher at USC, heads up the American Mindfulness Research Association, which keeps track of these investigations. We may safely say that to the degree that a religion includes mindfulness practice, it is good for one’s health.
Much of religion centers on story-telling, another demonstrably salubrious practice. Many of the stories, to say the least, are far-fetched. But whether mythical or factual, they have helped us in the struggle for survival of the fittest. In his book, On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction (2009), Brian Boyd, an English professor in New Zealand, argues that the human propensity for storytelling is a cause and a consequence of our evolution.
He invented a new field, “evocriticism,” which analyses literature on the basis of its biological origins and functions. Creative story-telling trains us to anticipate many possible futures, making us good problem-solvers. “The appeal of the cognitive play in art makes art as compulsive for us as play, enticing us to forgo mental rest for mental stimulation that helps us to learn and overlearn key cognitive skills, especially our capacity to produce and process information patterns.” (p. 381) Story-telling helped us survive the rigors of natural selection, as it trained us to imagine the consequences of different possible scenarios for our actions.
When my wife and I moved to Los Angeles eight years ago, after a somewhat traumatic period of unemployment, I made my way to Mt. Hollywood Congregational Church for worship one Sunday morning. I took it in: the sweetness of the people, the diversity of ethnic identities and sexual orientations they displayed, the relaxed style of the worship and the community, the progressive message and mission, the love in the air. Ten minutes into worship, I found myself weeping with gratitude. I felt better, body and soul. I had found a home. Los Angeles no longer seemed so monstrous and strange. I belonged, therefore I was, and it did my body good!