Religion, Spirituality and Health

Religion, spirituality and health – oh my! In this day and age, one might be inclined to ask if these three words, when combined, can contribute anything resembling a ‘positive health outcome’. However, Much of the current literature on psychology of religion and its relationship to coping may indicate that belief can contribute positively in the process of coping and meaning making for religious individuals (Park, 2013).

In The Future of an Illusion (1927/1961), Freud viewed religion as “comparable to a childhood neurosis” (p. 53). However, he also noted it as “the most precious possession of civilization” and “the most precious thing it has to offer its participants” (p. 20). While Freud was certainly critical of ‘religion’, he nevertheless understood what Williams James (1975) called its “cash value”. That is, regardless of the truthiness or falsity of religion as an ontological fact, religion can have value for those who practice and believe. According to Dr. Harold Koenig, a leading psychiatrist in the field of religion, spirituality and health, and the Director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University Medical Center, one way that religion and spirituality may explicate its cash value is in the realm of physical and mental health.

In his interview with Thomas Coleman conducted at the 2013 Duke University Summer Research Course on Religion, Spirituality and Health, Dr. Koenig broadly discusses the field of religion, spirituality (R/S) and health. He notes that all things being equal people who measure higher on R/S variables typically have improved mental and physical health – carefully relaying that all things being equal is a key component to the relationship. Koenig states that it is not mere identification as R/S that influences health, but sincerity and commitment of belief and action that matters.  He mentions the need for ‘secular sources’ in the R/S and health field in order to draw comparisons between the relationship of R/S variables with other variables that may function in a similar manner. In discussing how he operationalizes the variables of ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’ for research purposes, Koenig emphasizes that importance of definitions of R/S are always in reference to the Transcendent (i.e. defined substantively). In closing,  it is clear that the relationship between religion, spirituality and health is complex and multifaceted. If you are interested in learning more about R/S and health research Dr. Koenig invites you check out the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health website at: Religion may not be a cure for the common cold, but it seemingly can provide one possible source of wellbeing for its adherents in the world today.

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  • Freud, S., Strachey, J., Freud, A., Strachey, A. & Tyson, A. (1961). The Standard edition      of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth Press.
  • James, W. (1975). Pragmatism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
  • Park, C. (2013). Religion and Meaning. In: Paloutzian, R. & Park, C. eds. (2014).    Handbook of The Psychology of Religion and Spirituality. 2nd ed. New York:   The Guilford Press, pp. 357-379.



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  1. […] Coleman, T. J. III, (interviewer), Harold Koenig (interviewee) (2014, March), ‘Religion, Spirituality and Health’ – An interview with Dr. Harold Koenig, The Religious Studies Project Podcast Series,… […]

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