In recent years debate about the interrelationship between medical science and spirituality has been flourishing. Modern medicine, despite its unprecedented discoveries and progress in identifying the cause and treatment of disease, has been viewed as overly “scientific”, and consequently “the healing bond between patient and physician” has been weakened (David Rosen, “Modern Medicine and the Healing Process”, Humane Medicine, 1989).
The world-renowned Canadian physician William Osler, over a century ago wrote,
“Nothing in life is more wonderful than faith – the one great moving force which we can neither weigh in the balance nor test in the crucible…Faith has always been an essential factor in the practice of medicine.” (Osler W, The Faith that Heals, BMJ, 1910)
Medicine and spirituality/religion are complementary and not mutually exclusive or contradictory. Human consciousness, the expression of which is mediated through neurophysiological processes, is basically a spiritual phenomenon.
Through medical science patients are treated and some are successfully cured. But are a successful treatment and effective healing the same? If this is the case, then why do some patients, after being cured feel that they have not been healed or are not whole? The sense of “wholeness” may not depend on a cure. For example, a woman who has lost her breast as a result of a cancer may acknowledge that her tumor was successfully removed but she may not feel “healed”. This reflects her inability to perceive herself as a “whole” person as a result of the loss of part of her femininity. To feel “whole” and healed requires a sense of inner contentment which often comes from a spiritual perspective of self, faith and a sense of higher fulfillment.
Patients seeking treatment for their medical problems may also have spiritual needs such as the need to understand the meaning of suffering and death, the role of prayer in healing, whether illness is a punishment by God, and the issue of guilt. In some medical centers, spiritual care is provided to help these patients. It is believed that, as one researcher puts it,
… the essence of spiritual care is founded on the assumption that all people are spiritual beings. It recognizes the relationship between illness and the spiritual domain and acknowledges the possibility of a search for meaning in the big questions of life and death. It responds to religious and humanistic needs … (Wright, MC, Palliative Medicine, 2002)
Are our hospitals becoming increasingly dehumanized institutions and are physicians being turned into technocrats who interact with machines more than with persons? Why do so many people feel empty and unhappy in spite of having everything and having access to the most advanced treatments? In a materialistic society this feeling of emptiness is rampant and medicine should be aware of this. (For more on this topic, see A. M. Ghadirian, Materialism: Moral and Social Consequences, 2010.)
The following case may help to make a point about the role of spirituality in health. A 65-year-old man is brought to a palliative care unit with a diagnosis of advanced cancer. The metastasis of his cancer is too extensive to allow for surgical intervention and it is too late for chemotherapy. He is anxious, worried and has been unable to sleep since this diagnosis was made a week before. In the hospital he finds himself in a ward where most of the patients are in their final stage of life. His oncologist walks into the room and the first question the patient asks is “Doctor, how long am I going to live?” For him this is the most critical question of his life! The answer he gets is more painful than his question – that his stay will be very short. His next question is: “What happens to me after I die, will I have any memory of my wife, children, and other loved ones? Will there be another world or does death come like a dark and gloomy black hole and that will be the end? What is the meaning of my life and suffering?”
Science has no answer for these questions. Recording of heart rate, blood pressure, respiration and brain waves ceases, and death indeed occurs. Is this the final word?
Taking this phenomenon in a broader context and with spiritual perspective on the meaning of death, it is not just an end but a new beginning. Death is a gateway to a new world, a spiritual world. This is what Elizabeth Kübler-Ross calls “the final stage of growth” and states that death is “an integral part of human existence”. (Kübler-Ross, E: Death – The Final Stage of Growth, 1975) In a palliative care unit, although almost all patients are in their final phase of life, not all are frightened and disturbed in anticipation of death. Surprisingly, some of the patients in a near-the-end of life condition appear serene and surrender their will to the will of God, accepting death with faith as a new reality. They believe that in death, as in birth, there is a transformation of self to embrace in the realm of eternity.
In this article the words spirituality and religion are used interchangeably. Although the concept of spirituality is generally acknowledged, its definition remains far from clear. Here, I view spirituality as a process which implies development and progress of the human soul or spirit.
Religion and science are intertwined with each other and cannot be separated. These are two wings with which humanity must fly. (`Abdu’l-Baha, `Abdu’l-Baha in London, 1982)
Both science and religion search for truth – science through observation, verification, and methodological analysis; religion through knowledge of divine revelation and sacred writings. The World Health Organization (WHO) in its definition of palliative medicine emphasizes the biopsychosocial as well as the spiritual aspects of patient care.
In the ancient world religion and medicine were intimately connected. The temple was a venue for treatment and healing as well as for prayer and worship. People were treated for their physical wounds and spiritual anguish. In the West, during the middle ages, a separation between the Church and medical science developed which lasted for centuries due to contention and mistrust. In the East, however, this division was avoided because of a positive relationship and solidarity between scientists, physicians, and spiritual leaders. Religion provides a moral compass for society with reference to ethical values and rules for the betterment of people. Moral values are not in the purview of scientific endeavours, just as the study of genetics and molecular biology are not the domain of religion.
Neuropsychological research shows the body translates positive behavioural attitudes, faith, and spiritual contentment and peaceful attitude, into positive biological responses: a decrease in the release of stress hormones like norepinephrine and corticosteroids. The result of this is a decrease in heart rate, blood pressure and an increase in theta brain waves reflecting serenity. (Benson H, Timeless Healing, 2007)
Integrating science and religion will allow us to extend our knowledge of the mysteries of the universe and the life beyond. (“Is spirituality relevant to the practice of medicine?” A. M. Ghadirian, Medicine and Law Journal, 2008, also see www.medicineandspirituality.com.) The spiritual dimension of medicine can contribute to the improvement of a patient’s quality of life. In our time, medicine needs to go beyond technological procedures, important as those are, and reach out to the sick and suffering with compassion, empathy, and spiritual care.
This is the first of several posts on Science, Medicine, and Spirituality by Abdu’l-Missagh Ghadirian, a physician and professor at McGill University in Montreal, an author and researcher with numerous scientific articles and several books in the fields of psychiatry and social sciences. In recent years he has been exploring creative aspects of suffering and the role of faith and resilience. He also studies the impact of materialism and substance abuse on society. Currently, he teaches the interrelationship between medical science and spirituality in the healing process.