Three experts--the Rev. George Handzo, a chaplain with the HealthCare Chaplaincy of New York City; Dr. Andrew Newberg, a radiologist and psychiatrist at the University of Pennsylvania; and Dr. Richard Sloan, a psychiatrist at Columbia University--discuss the role that belief should play in science
What role does religion play in health, and health in religion?
Dr. Richard Sloan: Spirituality and religion play a substantial role in helping patients overcome discomfort. But I don't think that it's any business of medicine, and I think it's extremely difficult for science to study. I am greatly supportive of the role of health-care chaplains for patients who have spiritual or religious concerns. But I don't think it's the doctor's job to be involved in that, other than to refer to a professional.
So doctors should not be taking spiritual histories?
Sloan: I don't think they should be taking spiritual histories.
The Rev. George Handzo: Dr. Sloan and I are pretty much in agreement, but it's important how one defines spiritual history and what actually goes into that. There's been a lot of fuzzy talk about what's screening, what's history, what's assessment. I would like to differentiate a history, and call that screening, and say that's the doctor's job. The physician's job, as Dr. Sloan pointed out correctly, is to discover where the problem is and get it pointed in the right direction. An assessment, a full [spiritual] assessment, would be the chaplain's job.
Dr. Andrew Newberg: My primary area of research has been looking at the neurobiology of different religious and spiritual practices, and one of the things I try to advocate is that we need to learn more about the best ways of enabling doctors to find out the questions that they need to ask. We need to learn how best to ask those questions, when to ask those questions and how often to ask those questions.
A lot of people have concerns about physicians playing too much of a role in the religious and spiritual beliefs of patients, so we need to understand what both the doctor's and the patient's motivations are and try to understand when it shouldn't be done and why it shouldn't be done.
I felt woefully unprepared to deal with those kinds of issues when I found myself having to tell a patient that they now had cancer or that they were going to die soon, or talking about a family member who's going to die soon when the family brought up religious and spiritual issues. I didn't even know who to refer to. And I think there's been some movement to at least help with that education, but I think we need to learn more about it.
Dr. Newberg, you are careful not to talk about humans as being hardwired for religion, because hardwiring implies a hardwirer, and science hasn't yet established that.
Newberg: The real issue for us is to try to look at data and to interpret it carefully. If you're doing a brain scan of somebody who experiences being in God's presence, we have to know what that means. Basically, the scan is showing you what is happening in the brain when they have the experience. It doesn't necessarily reduce it to just what is going on in the brain, and it also doesn't necessarily prove that the person was actually in God's presence.