Research on spirituality and ethics focuses on patients’ rights when they receive care, particularly on patients’ spiritual needs
The topic of spirituality and health concerns the ways in which spirituality broadly understood is intertwined with concrete health status, both positive and negative. For example, in both indigenous and world religions, beliefs that demons or other malevolent spirits inhabit one’s body may be taken as an explanation for mental or physical illness. Native healers and priests appropriately prescribe exorcisms in such cases, with “appropriateness” determined by the mythopoetic and narrative frameworks of the cultural context. Similarly, some religious communities view spirituality itself as an indicator of good health, understood as one’s degree of meaningful integration with the fabric of the cosmos. Since about 1980, such traditional portrayals of the relationship between spirituality and health have given way to a burgeoning literature bridging empirical and impressionistic domains that seeks to demonstrate linkages between one’s type and level of spiritual and religious involvement on the one hand, and one’s health status on the other.
A comprehensive survey of this literature reveals many articles on the relationship between spirituality and coping that examine, for example, how spirituality assists in coping with major health challenges such as cancer, AIDS, stress, and abuse; how spirituality assists in coping with mortality and death; and how spirituality and aging relate to one another . Another interesting category of research focuses on the long-term and therapeutic dimensions of religiosity and spirituality as they relate to mental health and therapy. One prominent researcher in the field of spirituality and health, Harold G. Koenig, has worked with colleagues to examine religion as a coping strategy and how cultural diversity impacts care at the end of life. Harold Koenig also explores the relationship between spirituality, health, and aging specifically focusing on mental health.
Additionally, some researchers have posited that spirituality helps alleviate tendencies toward substance abuse. This last category of research raises interesting possibilities concerning a potential underside to the relationship between spirituality and health, since literature on religious addiction may imply that spiritual practices themselves have the potential to activate the same neurocognitive pathways that support addictive behaviors in general.
Investigators also have examined the role of forgiveness, empathy, and altruism in contributing to positive health outcomes. Future research in this area, which will continue to be complemented by research in evolutionary biology on altruism among nonhuman primates and on the evolution of altruism itself, promises to expand the picture of what “health” itself may mean for human beings, for other sentient creatures, for ecosystems, and for the Earth’s biosphere as a whole. Because health and its maintenance necessarily employ the services of caregivers, another strand of research in the area of spirituality and health focuses on caregivers’ own spiritual resources as they experience the ongoing, potentially exhausting exigencies of caring for others.
Research on spirituality and ethics focuses on patients’ rights when they receive care, particularly on patients’ spiritual needs, and on arguments calling upon health care workers to provide spiritual resources to their patients. Researchers have also addressed the cultural dimensions of spirituality and healthcare, including immigrants’ and minorities’ experiences in the healthcare system of developed countries. Finally, not all studies support the conclusion that spirituality functions favorably in supporting positive health outcomes. For example, a study published in 2001 by Kenneth Pargament, Harold Koenig, Nalini Tarakeshwar, and June Hahn demonstrates that patients who experience “religious struggle” (e.g., feelings that God has abandoned or punished them) experience a higher mortality rate than other patients. As research at the interface of spirituality and health continues to gain acceptance within the medical community, patients’ experience in the healthcare system may reflect improved sensitivity regarding their spiritual needs and concerns. Particularly at the end of life, or when confronted with traumatic or chronic conditions, patients may be expected to feel the need to understand their own experiences in the context of their religious or spiritual worldviews.
Indeed, doing so may prove crucial to patients’ recovery or their experience of peace at the time of death. Patients’ families, too, may experience increased comfort when health care providers and medical institutions permit the incorporation of culturally appropriate religious or spiritual practices and explanations alongside the delivery of medical care in an effort to address their loved ones’ suffering and existential questioning in an integrated and holistic manner. At the same time, some religious worldviews that blame the sick for their own conditions are best avoided, not only because they have been demonstrated to increase mortality, but also because justifying such interpretations theologically presents itself as a dubious endeavor, at best