Science In Support of Religion: From The Perspective of a Behavioral Scientist
By Alfred A. Barrios, Ph.D.
There are many who believe that science and religion are antithetical, at opposite ends; that one contradicts the other. This paper is presented to show not only that this need not be so but that in fact science can actually be used to support many religious beliefs and phenomena that have heretofore been scoffed at by many. As a result, it is hoped not only that many former atheists and agnostics will now also be able to derive the benefits of religion but that religion too will as a result learn additional ways of being more effective.
I feel that a major cause of the rift between science and religion has been that in the past religion has relied heavily on super-natural (beyond the laws of nature) explanations for religious phenomena. But it is the contention of this paper that it is no longer necessary to do so; that there is now more than sufficient logical and scientific support for these phenomena so that we no longer need to rely on the super-natural explanations; that we no longer need to simply accept things on faith alone. Yes, many of these phenomena can be considered super-normal or extra-ordinary in the sense that they are definitely not your average everyday occurrences, but this does not mean that they have to thus be considered super-natural. In support of this contention, this paper will attempt to present the logical, rational or scientific support for a number of key religious concepts and phenomena one by one. This will be done by logically and rationally answering a number of questions that have heretofore been thought by many to be impossible to answer in this way. This includes the following questions:
Is There A God?
To begin with, before any such question of whether there is a God can be answered, it would be helpful if we first provide a definition of what we mean by God. I feel the following definition is one most people would accept: God can be defined as a concept made up of three major components. Or to put it another way, God is a concept made up of three subconcepts:
(1) The first subconcept is The lawfulness of nature; that is that there are universal laws of nature throughout the universe. Knowing that there are such laws will help to rationally explain and predict many phenomena and allow us to more readily use these laws to our benefit. One such major benefit would be a peace of mind that comes from knowing that things can be explained and predicted thus providing a harmonious or ordered and non-chaotic view of the universe - a way of lessening the fear of the unknown so to speak.
A second major benefit is that certain gains can be derived from following and using these laws as opposed to the pain and suffering that occur if one goes against them. An example of the former would be learning how to harness the power of explosions for the benefit (rather than the destruction) of mankind - as in harnessing the explosion of gasoline for moving vehicles or the explosion of dynamite for “moving mountains”. An example of the latter would be the consequences of defying the law of gravity by jumping out of a tall building. It can also be used to support such religious contentions as “the wages of sin are death”. For example, we know that lifestyle sins of excessive drinking, excessive eating (gluttony), excessive smoking, excessive drug taking, or promiscuity can lead to serious health problems (such as cirrhosis of the liver, heart disease, lung cancer and AIDS) and eventual death - by defying the laws of physiology and pathology.
It could even help to support the contention that God (through His laws of nature) created the universe. Although we don’t currently know the exact laws of nature explaining the start of the universe, it does not mean that such laws do not exist or that we won’t someday know what these laws are.
This first subconcept of God can be looked upon as where the all-knowing or omniscient aspect of God Comes from.
(2) The second subconcept of God would be that if you follow a particular way or ideal guidance in life, you will be more likely to achieve optimum peace of mind, fulfillment and happiness (heaven) and a minimum of suffering (hell) in life.
When we have incorporated this way of life into our innermost being, we can say we have God within us; and when we personify Him and ask for His help and guidance, we are using a general approach to tapping into this wisdom, this built-in way of life to find the appropriate aspect of these teachings to help us with the need at hand. This points out an important point for insuring that God is with you and will help you to the fullest - namely, that you should make sure you are fully aware of all His teachings. To merely pray to God for His help and guidance without fully knowing or following what God stands for is not going to help you as much.
This second subconcept of God fits in with that part in the bible - the 14th chapter, 6th verse of the gospel of John, where Christ is quoted as saying, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
(3) The third subconcept of God would be that through our strong belief in God we can have greater control over our destiny. This has to do with the “higher power” aspect of God. It is through the power of belief that we can tap into the higher power aspect of God that will in turn allow us to fully incorporate the guidance aspect of God (“...the way...”). For most people it is normally very hard to change. The power of belief facilitates change. The scientific basis of this belief factor and how it can give us the will or power to control and redirect (if necessary) our lives so as to achieve optimum happiness and fulfillment is discussed below in the section on belief.
This third subconcept of God can be looked upon as support for the omnipotent aspect that is often ascribed to God.
If one accepts the above three-component definition of God, then when you say you believe in God, you are essentially saying: that you believe in the lawfulness of nature; that there is ideal way of life that can lead to optimum peace of mind and happiness; and that through the power of belief you can have greater control over your destiny. You are also saying that if you go against God (i.e., if you go against the laws of nature, do not try to lead a more ideal way of life, and do not believe that you can have control over your life), you will suffer the consequences.
The latter also helps to answer a question often posed by skeptics: If God is an all-loving God, a benevolent God, then how do you account for all the pain and suffering in the world? The answer, simply stated, is that much of the misery in the world is caused when people go against God (as defined above).
Is Christ God?
The answer to this question again depends on how you define God. According to the definition given above, we can say that to the extent that Christ is “...the way...” (John 14:6), that Christ’s teachings epitomize the ideal way of leading one’s life, to the extent that Christ personifies or embodies this concept of God (subconcept 2), Christ then is God.
Even most non-Christians would agree that Christ's basic teachings are right in line with a philosophy of life for helping one achieve self-actualization - the highest levels one is capable of. His concepts of "Ask and ye shall receive"; "Seek and ye shall find"; and "Believe and all things are possible" are a truly powerful means for helping one break free of negative programming and producing positive changes. And His focus on looking for the good in others, looking for the good in ourselves, looking for the good after a tragic situation, learning from our mistakes, being able to admit our faults, etc. are part of a set of positive attitudes towards oneself, others and life aimed at helping people achieve optimum peace of mind, fulfillment and happiness. To the extent that these teachings are ideal, Christ would then personify God.
Obviously, the same approach could be used to determine if Mohammed or Moses or Buddha or... were God or personified God. The obvious question is how would one determine which of the above mentioned great beings’ teachings was closest to being the ideal; i.e. which one of the above beings was closest to personifying the true God? This question can best be answered by following the suggestions given in the section below entitled “Can Some Religions Be More Effective Than Others and How Can We Measure This?”
What is Religion and What Are The Main Functions of Religion?
I feel that religion is made up of three basic components: an anti-chaos or order-to-the-universe factor; a guidance factor; and a belief factor. And the three main functions of religion are to provide: (1) answers to allay fears of the unknown; (2) guidance or a way of achieving optimum peace of mind and happiness; and (3) ways of building belief.
What Is Belief and What Is Its Purpose In Religion?
I would define belief as a state of mind, usually evoked by words, whereby there is concentration on a thought to the exclusion of any thoughts or sensory stimuli that would contradict that thought. This definition of belief allows you to more readily see the reality of belief in terms of: how it can affect behavior; how it can directly affect the body; and why and how this effect can be so powerful.
The two major components of belief are: (a) the thought focused on along with the response connected to the thought; and (b) the inhibitory set inhibiting any stimuli (both cognitive and sensory) capable of interfering with the response to the thought. The stronger one believes, the stronger will be the inhibitory set blocking any interference and thus the stronger the response to that thought. In support of this contention see the sections on belief in B.F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior (1957, pp. 159, 160 & 366) and suggestion in Pavlov’s Conditioned Reflexes (1927, p. 407).
To verify the reality of belief, then, we would first have to confirm that thoughts can automatically evoke actual responses. Pavlov was perhaps the first to shed light on this area when he spoke of the potential of words and thoughts to evoke responses as a result of previous conditioning or association:
“Speech on account of the whole preceding life of an adult is connected up with [through association or conditioning] all the internal and external stimuli which can reach the cortex signaling all of them and replacing them and, therefore, can call forth all those reactions of the organism which are normally determined by the actual stimuli themselves” (Pavlov, 1927 p.407).
An obvious example of this is the effect a word or thought like “lemon” can have. If someone were to suggest to you thoughts of biting into a sour, tart and tangy lemon, you might find yourself quickly starting to salivate. This, because the word or thought “lemon” through previous association with the natural salivary response to biting into a lemon becomes a conditioned stimulus able to evoke the same salivary response. And the stronger you believed you were actually biting into a lemon, the more focused you would be on the thought and the more likely you would be to start salivating. (See also the chapter “Belief becomes biology in Cousin’s book Head First: The Biology of Hope, 1989.)
The second component of belief that needs to be verified is the inhibitory set aspect. Since belief can be looked upon as one way of focusing attention on a particular thought, one area that can provide such support is the area of the neurophysiology of attention and the work of such pioneers as Hernandez-Peon (1959). The latter has shown that when an organism is attentive to one stimulus (thoughts can be looked upon as cognitive stimuli), other stimuli impinging on it tend to be inhibited. And the more focused the attention, the stronger the inhibitory set. The converse would of course also be true – the stronger the inhibitory set, the more focused the attention (and reaction) to the stimulus.
Work in the area of hypnosis and suggestion can also be used to support the concept of an inhibitory set aspect to belief. The concepts of hypnosis, suggestion and belief are all closely related:
Suggestion can be defined as a verbal means of evoking a belief in a person. Lindzey (1954, p. 27), in summarizing a number of definitions of suggestion, states:
“In these and in similar definitions, attention is called to some arbitrary restriction in the determinates of behavior…Granted that suggestion proceeds according to the laws of association (conditioning), still we must allow for the blocking of normal associations so that the end result in behavior is due to a selected field of determinants.”
Barrios (2001) defines hypnosis as a heightened state of suggestibility (or belief) resulting from a heightened inhibitory set produced by the hypnotic induction. To get some idea of how strong this inhibitory set can be, one need only look at studies summarizing the effectiveness of the use of hypnosis in surgery. Under hypnosis, suggestions of anesthesia lead to such strong inhibition of pain stimuli that even amputations can be conducted without a pain response (Kroger, 1977. p.212).
As Pavlov puts it, in the state of heightened belief produced by hypnosis, a suggestion
“in correspondence with the general law concentrates the excitation in the cortex of the subject (which is in a condition of partial inhibition) in some definite narrow region, at the same time intensifying (by negative induction) the inhibition of the rest of the cortex and so abolishing all competing effects of contemporary stimuli and traces left by previously received ones. This accounts for the large and practically insurmountable influences of suggestion as a stimulus during hypnosis”. (Pavlov, 1927 p. 407, italics added).
To fully appreciate how much stronger the response to verbal stimuli can be in a heightened state of belief as a result of the strong inhibitory set, perhaps it might be useful to use an analogy or two:
“The result of this elimination of competing negative thoughts is analogous to a tug of war where the other side suddenly lets go. An even better analogy to illustrate the power of [heightened belief] is that of the laser beam. We all know how powerful a laser beam can be; it can cut through thick steel. But how many know that a laser beam is ordinary light that has been treated so as to concentrate all its rays and bring them into harmony. Ordinary light emits light rays in all directions and at different phases. In the laser beam all rays are emitted in one direction and all at the same phase. This concentration and lack of conflict is what produces the tremendous power of the laser beam.” (Barrios, 1985 pp. 16-17).
Studies on the placebo response (which is based on the power of belief or expectation) also support a strong inhibitory set component. Take for instance the study of Dr. Stewart Wolf (1950) of women who endured persistent nausea and vomiting during pregnancy:
“These women swallowed small, balloon tipped tubes that once positioned in the stomachs, allowed researchers to record the contractions associated with waves of nausea and vomiting. Then the women were given a drug they were told would cure their problem. In fact, they were given the opposite – syrup of ipecac – a substance that causes vomiting. Remarkably, the patient’s nausea and vomiting ceased entirely and their stomach contractions, as measured through the balloons, returned to normal. Because they believed they received antinausea medicine, the women reversed the action of a powerful drug.” (Benson 1996, p. 32).
There are actually two ways that belief can play a part in affecting behavior. In addition to intensifying the response to a particular thought at any given point in time it can also play a key role in facilitating the programming in (conditioning in) of a new positive behavior that will now automatically occur in all future relevant situations. It facilitates such reprogramming by blocking out, at the time of the new imprinting, any interference from previously programmed contradictory negative behavior (thanks to the inhibitory set component of belief). In support of this see Pavlov (1927, p. 407):
“The command retains its effect after termination of hypnosis [of the heightened state of belief], remaining independent of other stimuli, being impermeable to them, since at the time of primary introduction of the stimulus into the cortex it was prevented from establishing connection with the rest of the cortex.” (italics added)
We know that it is possible to condition in new behavior by means of words. As pointed out by Barrios (2001), Mowrer’s theoretical formulations on the sentence as a conditioning device (1960, pp. 141, 147-150) tend to support this contention. However, what often keeps us from programming in the new behavior is the ever presence of the old behavior (the old programming). In order to condition in the new behavior effectively we must be able to block out the old long enough to establish a strong new connection. Thus we can see how the inhibitory set component of belief can play a key role here.
Looking at belief in this new light can also help us to better understand the concept of exorcising (blocking out) of the demons or the devil (negative programming) within us and the role that belief can play.
Another way to appreciate the key part belief can play in affecting our lives is to realize how difficult it usually is for most people to change their negative ways. How often don’t we see good advice simply go in one ear and out the other. Most people do not seem to have the will to change. It seems that although we have learned a great deal about how to program and re-program computers, when it comes to reprogramming the main computer - the human mind - most people are still in the dark. Seeing the mechanisms whereby belief facilitates reprogramming can now show us the way out of the dark. (See next section for how belief plays a key role in giving one greater free will.)
This also helps us to more fully understand the far-reaching and in-depth changes that can often be produced (almost instantaneously) by “a religious experience”; how it can indeed be possible to be reborn or born again as a result of such an intense heightened-belief experience.
Now we come to the question of the purpose of the belief factor in religion or faith. It is felt that the purpose of belief here is as a means of giving us greater control over our destiny, in facilitating the programming in of the guidance factor by blocking interference from any previous negative programming. (Faith can thus be defined as “guided” belief). The guidance factor, as pointed out above would include a set of thoughts and beliefs aimed at helping you achieve optimum peace of mind, happiness and fulfillment in life. The more strongly you believe in this way of life, the more focused your mind will be on, and therefore the more likely you are to bring about, the fulfillment (the programming in) of these guiding thoughts.
Is There Free Will and Are Some Religions Fatalistic?
Free will implies that we have control over our own destiny. The question of whether there is free will or not has been posed by the great philosophers down through the centuries. But to my knowledge this question has never been fully answered. Many of the religious tell us that of course we have free will; God has given us the choice between good and evil, between misery and happiness. But then the realists point to all the miserable people in the world and say: "Are we to believe that these people have freely chosen to be miserable?" Is there free will or not? In order to answer this question, again we need to first define our terms.
From this definition of free will we can see that the answer to the question of whether there is free will or not is that all humans have the potential for free will (because all humans have the potential to respond to words and thoughts) but not everyone has fully developed this potential.]
This is why the belief factor is so important in helping to effectively program in the positive guidance factor. Belief is the key to allowing an individual to more fully tap into his free will potential. Remember, the definition of belief used herein is: concentration on a thought to the exclusion of anything that would contradict that thought. Thus, the stronger we believe that something will happen, the more focused we are on that thought to the exclusion of any contradictory thoughts and therefore the stronger our will to bring about this happening - even in the face of negative programming (negative contradictory thoughts).
Those among you who are adherents of Determinism need not feel that this approach to free will contradicts your beliefs - if you define determinism as the lawfulness of nature rather than the opposite of free will as some mistakenly do.
What is the opposite of free will is the concept of fatalism. If you believe that your life in preordained or predestined and that you cannot change it from that, you are a fatalist and do not believe in free will. The question we wish to answer now is are some aspects of religion fatalistic?
One example that comes to mind is the use of the following thoughts when something tragic has happened: "It is (or was) God's will" or "We must learn to accept God's will, that no matter how tragic a situation is, it fits into God's overall plan for you." Some people may interpret this as being fatalistic but it does not have to be so. I feel that what people could be saying here is that no matter how tragic a situation is, you can always find something good that may come from it if you follow God's way - a sort of "always look for the silver lining" philosophy.
The bottom line here is that any religion that believes in the concept of free will is by definition non-fatalistic. They can be deterministic in the sense of believing in the lawfulness of nature but at the same time believing that we can to a considerable extent control our own destiny.
Is Religion Needed?
Based on the above, we can now answer the question of whether religion is needed. We can see that people can definitely benefit from religion in that we can all benefit from (a) allaying our fears of the unknown as well as getting (b) positive guidance and (c) ways of increasing the belief factor so as to better absorb into our lives this positive guidance and thus be able to achieve optimum peace of mind, fulfillment and happiness.
It should be made clear here that when we refer to achieving happiness, we do not mean simply satisfaction of immediate desires without regard to the possible negative consequences for yourself and others. For example, constant play and no work could deny us the satisfaction of long range goals, and of course stealing and killing to achieve our ends can definitely be detrimental to others. This type of behavior would of course be considered negative and the programming in those of us who are prone to such purely self-centered behavior could be described as the devil in us. Also, such purely self-centered behavior would deny us the vast sources of satisfaction that can come from doing things for others, from being brotherly (from being altruistic).
What Is The Basis of Altruism?
It would seem that a major part of the guidance factor in many religions is the concept of altruism. “Love thy neighbor.” “Love thine enemies”. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. These are all examples of this concept of altruism as part of religion. The question is, is there any rational basis for this type of behavior?
I feel that the basis of altruism (as well as the concept of oneness) is the fact that all humans (and perhaps to a limited extent some other living creatures as well) have the ability to imagine and thus have the ability to place themselves in another person’s (or other living creature’s) shoes. Consequently, when we do something for another living creature, we know how we would feel if someone did the same for us, and we can vicariously share the relief of pain, the satisfaction or the happiness this creature experiences as a result. And the more others we can help, the more vicarious pleasures we can derive. Also, we can see from this definition of altruism that the motivation to help others does not have to come from the quid pro quo rewards from such behaviors (such as getting something in return; or being praised for being good; or even increasing one’s chances of going to heaven, etc., which of course could be icing on the cake) but because of the direct vicarious satisfaction derived therefrom. As put by S.D. Luzzato, a rabbinical scholar over a century ago, the quality of compassion “is the root of love and kindness and righteousness; and it alone brings us to the doing of good deeds without ulterior motives.” (Donin, 1991, p. 43, italics added.) All this can also help us to understand the concept of unconditional love.
To verify the concept that altruistic behavior is directly satisfying, one could conceivably use brain imaging techniques (e.g. Nash, 1997) to measure dopamine activity (a direct measure of pleasure derived) during altruistic behavior. Amount of dopamine activity could then also be compared to self-report measures of direct satisfaction.
What Is The Purpose Of Life?
Many feel that the purpose of life is to serve or devote oneself to God. If this can be interpreted as meaning to follow God’s way through life, I couldn’t agree more, since following God’s way according to the definition given above will result in optimum fulfillment and happiness.
This certainly seems to follow from Christ’s own words: “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full” (The Bible, John 10:10). And I wouldn’t be surprised if it would also be compatible with the teachings of other great religions.
One can thus say that the purpose of life is to live life in such a way that you live life to the fullest; that you bring out all your God-given potential to the fullest so as to get the most out of life, including and especially the vicarious satisfaction that comes from giving to others.
Unfortunately, there are some who feel that the purpose of life is to lead an entirely selfless, self-denying life completely dedicated to doing things for others, never thinking of one’s own needs or desires. The ideal, however, I feel is to establish a nice balance between the satisfaction that comes from doing things for others with the filling of one’s own needs and desires. (See the chapter on happiness in Towards Greater Freedom and Happiness, Barrios, 1985.)
To carry the idea of doing things for others to the point of being totally self-denying would, I feel, be actually going against God’s way, not only denying ourselves additional sources of fulfillment and happiness but also in the long run lessening the amount we can give to others. [As an extreme example, it would obviously be self-defeating if you were so all-giving that you gave all your food to the hungry. In so doing, by eventually starving yourself to death or by being so hungry all the time as to be in a poor state of health and mind, you obviously would not be able to give as much to others in the long run. There are some who feel that being too selfless can even lead to suppression of the immune system and predispose one to cancer (e.g., see Temoshok, 1993, pp. 76, 77, & 361)] On the other hand, if you also spend some time on yourself, on developing your full potential while satisfying your own needs and desires, you will have that much more to give to others, to share with others in the long run. The happier and more fulfilled you are, the happier and more fulfilled you can help make others.
Can There Be False or Dangerous Religions?
To the extent that the guidance factor could be "mis-guided", some (false) religions could actually be harmful. Certain recent dangerous cults could be looked upon in this way (e.g., the Jim Jones cult in British Guiana or Marshal Applewhite's Heavensgate cult in San Diego, which led to the untimely death of many of their followers).
The Aryan supremacy cult of Hitler would of course be the most obvious example of how much damage can be done by such cults. Hitler's ideology certainly had a very powerful belief factor empowering it but it was obviously guided in the wrong direction teaching for instance that Aryans were the superior race and other “inferior” races, such as the Jews, should be eliminated. This shows that a strong belief factor alone does not make for a good religion.
It also makes it clear that helping people develop mind-power alone is not enough. The recent New Age movement has focused heavily on developing the power of the mind - to achieve health, wealth and happiness - and there are many in the religious community who have voiced their fears of such a movement. And understandably so, for to the extent that this mind power may not have sufficient positive guidance coupled with it, it could produce negative results.
Can Some Religions Be More Effective Than Others & How Can We Measure This?
If the ultimate goal of religion is to help us achieve greater peace of mind and happiness in life, then whatever means can be used to measure these results either directly or indirectly can be used to determine the relative effectiveness of each religion. Towards the end of directly measuring these results we could, for example, use certain measures of peace of mind and happiness, perhaps in the form of certain questionnaire-type tests and/or certain physiological measures of anxiety and depression.
One major indirect measure of the effectiveness of a religion would be the overall health and length of life of the individuals in the religious group since it has now been scientifically shown that a person's state of mind and lifestyle (level of stress, depression, bad habits) can play a major factor in health and disease. (See for instance Head First: The Biology of Hope by Norman Cousins, 1989.)
Another factor to be considered in determining overall effectiveness of the religion would of course be the number of people that can be reached and benefited by it. This could be influenced greatly by its methods of building the belief factor as well as the scope and depth of its guidance factor. For instance, if the religion relies too heavily on super-natural explanations for building the belief factor, it could turn off and consequently not be able to reach individuals who strongly believe in the lawfulness of nature aspect of God.
Also, a religion is more likely to be effective if it is also open to systematic scientific or rational ways of (a) increasing and using the belief factor (e.g. see the SPC techniques in Chapter III of Towards Greater Freedom and Happiness, Barrios, 1985) as well as (b) further elucidating and expanding the guidance factor.
Is Faith Healing Real?
Many studies in recent years have shown that a person’s state of mind and lifestyle can definitely play a key role in determining his or her state of health. We know that excess stress (or more correctly, one’s inability to deal with excess stress) can eventually lead to such diseases as stroke and heart disease by causing high blood pressure and cholesterol buildup in the arteries. (See book Type A Behavior and Your Heart by Meyer Friedman, 1974 pp 75-83 & 120-121.) And as mentioned above, certain negative lifestyle habits such as excessive drinking, eating, smoking, etc. can eventually lead to disease and death. We also know that certain negative mental factors (such as hopelessness and inability to express one’s feelings and needs) can suppress the immune system sufficiently to make a person more susceptible to such diseases as cancer. Evidence in support of this can be found in the book The Type C Connection: The Mind Body Link to Cancer and Your Health by Temoshok, 1993, pp. 136-138 and pp 202-209. See also the studies of Glaser & Glaser, et al; Levy & Heberman; and Stein, Schleifer & Keller regarding the direct suppressive effects on the immune system by mental states of depression and hopelessness as reported in Norman Cousins’ book Head First: the Biology of Hope, 1989, pp. 39 & 85. Two other studies by the Glasers, also reported in Cousins’ book - pp. 39 & 40, indicated the enhancement of positive emotions can have the effect of boosting immunity.
If we accept the fact that a person’s state of mind and lifestyle can play a significant role in affecting the body, then it should be obvious that anything that can play a major role in affecting the mind, such as belief and faith, could be a major factor in affecting health and well being.
Evidence of the power of belief to affect the body healthwise can be found in many studies on the power of the placebo (see for instance the book Timeless Healing: The Power and Biology of Belief, 1996, by Herbert Benson and the section on placebos in Cousins book Head First, pp. 229-232.) Dramatic effects of the power of the placebo on the body were presented above in the section on belief. One classic study showing how the placebo can affect the body was the study reported in Levine (1978) where an expectation or belief that a certain injection would relieve pain led to a release of endorphins (natural pain killers produced by the body) into the bloodstream. This even though unbeknownst to the patient, the injection was merely saline solution.
However, there is something that needs to be made clear. Although strong belief of being healed can be very effective in producing at least temporary improvement in one's health (by allowing for a stronger immune response and creating greater peace of mind at least for the moment), in order for this temporary improvement to remain permanent, the belief factor must also be used to help fully absorb the guidance factor so that the immuno-suppressive psychological factors can be more likely to be permanently removed (see Barrios, 1985, pp. 124 & 125). Thus we can see that one way of differentiating between the concept of belief and the concept of faith is to point out that faith usually means “guided” belief or belief in a certain way of life. When we say that a person's faith healed him, we are saying more than just that the belief he would get well was what got and kept him well. It was his belief plus the positive permanent changes in his state of mind and lifestyle produced by following the new guidelines for living which he incorporated through his new found or re-strengthened faith.
One way of determining how much more effective faith is than belief alone in affecting permanent healing would be to do a thorough search of the placebo literature or to do further studies on the placebo to determine whether the positive effects of the placebo (or belief alone) are long lasting if there were no significant lifestyle changes also taking place.
This basic idea that belief alone is not as effective for insuring permanent healing to take place as when the belief is also used to bring about positive lifestyle changes is illustrated when the case of Jolee Marshall is contrasted with some of the other cancer patients I have worked with:
After a very strong emotional upheaval, Jolee had developed an inoperable cancerous tumor of the intestines and had been given two weeks to live. I worked with her for a period of four hours [with the hypnotic belief-building and imaging techniques section of the self-programmed control-psychoneurourimmunological (SPC-PNI) approach presented in the chapter on cancer in Towards Greater Freedom & Happiness (Barrios, 1985)] and left her with a very strong belief that her body's natural defenses would clear away the tumor. The tumor did disappear (in fact overnight) much to the astonishment of her doctor and Jolee did live cancer-free for one more year. However, upon experiencing another similar emotional upheaval one year after my first and only session with Jolee, the cancer returned and this time Jolee soon succumbed to it.
The strong belief that she would be cured was apparently sufficient to heal her for one year. However, in the case of Jolee, the complete SPC-PNI approach (which now also includes helping the patient make certain necessary lifestyle changes) had not been followed. (Unfortunately, at this point in time I had not fully realized that belief alone was not enough.) Because of this, there had been no real follow-through for making the necessary changes in her way of life that could have helped her more effectively prevent the second, and this time fatal, emotional upheaval that occurred a year later.
This is in stark contrast to other cancer patients I have worked with where the more complete SPC-PNI approach was followed. The following synopses of the approach taken and results achieved with a number of these patients will give you some idea of the different outcomes that can be expected when a more complete “faith healing” approach is taken towards eliminating the contributing psychological factors (hopelessness, etc.):
As opposed to just one session with Jolee, I saw Adele once a week for eight weeks. At the time I first saw her, Adele, age 45, was suffering from a fast moving cancer of the spine, lymph glands, the rib cage and the base of the brain - a metastasis from an original cancer of the breast. (At this point in time the only treatment she was undergoing was a very low dosage chemotherapy, as she had had a strong negative reaction to the standard dosage.)
Because of the extended amount of time with Adele, I was not only able to build up a strong belief in her body's ability to cure itself of the cancers but through this heightened state of belief I was also able to bring about some major changes in her way of life. In particular, she was able to develop a more assertive personality. This allowed her to break out of the hopeless life situation that had most likely played a key role in making her more susceptible to cancer in the first place. She was now able to stand up to her very dominating and controlling husband. Six months later the cancer had disappeared in all four areas and three years after that, when last contacted, Adele was still very much alive.
John had been given radiation treatment for cancer of the tongue. However, he refused the recommended follow up radical surgery. At this point he discovered SPC. The following letter was written in August of 1985 upon my request for him to summarize for me what had happened:
When I first started working on Pam’s case, she had just gone through chemotherapy and radiation for metastatic breast cancer. She was also having great difficulty breaking free of a 30 year two pack a day cigarette habit. The following letter (which she wrote on my behalf when I was nominated in 1996 for the Norman Cousins Award in mind-body health) tells her story:
It should be pointed out that I am not the only one to report such long lasting recoveries from cancer when a more complete “faith healing” approach is taken. In her book, Temoshok cites numerous cases of successful cancer cures brought about by her and other researchers in the field using the more complete healing approach. Take for instance the story of:
Diagnosed initially with testicular cancer, the cancer had eventually spread to his lymph nodes, chest and lungs. One tumor on his neck had grown so large he was forced to keep his head at an odd tilt. His doctors told him that even with the best treatment at the time (a combination of surgery, radiation, cobalt and nitrogen mustard, which he did undergo) he had only three to four months to live and that he had zero chance of survival. At this point he sought the help of a psychotherapist who used hypnosis along with traditional psychoanalysis. Under hypnosis he was much more open to healing suggestions aimed at opening up blocks in his capacity to love and be loved and to work on achieving his long term life goals. Within six months, he had resolved his love problems and gotten married and was ordained as an Episcopal priest - a lifelong goal. On the very day he was ordained “he got the news that his follow-up x-rays showed no more evidence of cancer. His lymph nodes and lungs were completely clear. This seeming miracle occurred six months after his original diagnosis...Today, thirty three hears later, Irwin is alive, well and cancer-free.” (Temoshok, 1993, p. 320, italics added).
It should be pointed out that my presentation of the above anecdotal evidence of cancer cures through a form of faith healing is done more as support for, rather than definitive proof of the ability to cure cancer by using a mental/spiritual, “faith healing”, approach. For this definitive proof we will need larger, controlled studies. In such studies, among other things, all the important variables can be studied systematically and under scientifically controlled conditions. For instance, such studies would include accurate and more complete measurements of how strong the belief factor was and how complete were the necessary lifestyle changes for each individual case. The latter would I feel help throw light on the question often posed: “How do you explain counter anecdotal cases whereby terminally ill patients have tried to pray for their recovery substantially but to no avail?” One answer to such a question might be that the degree and length of healing would be directly correlated to strength of belief and depth of relevant life changes that took place.
How Does Prayer Work?
One other concept related to belief and faith is prayer. Prayer can be defined as a verbal means of delineating the goal you wish to attain with God's help. For example, the prayer "I pray to God that He will heal me (or you) of this affliction or illness" clearly sets out the goal one wishes to attain. Whether this prayer is answered depends on three things: (1) the strength of the person's belief (both the person being prayed for and the person doing the praying); (2) the degree to which the individual subsequently incorporates God into his life (i.e., incorporates the guidance factor); and (3) the lawfulness of nature. The latter is important too because prayer should not go against this aspect of God. It would be wiser for someone who has lost a limb, rather than praying for another limb, to pray for the ability to quickly learn how to use an appropriate prosthesis and for the proper state of mind to not feel inferior for having a missing limb, etc.
However, one should not be too quick to limit prayer for fear that one may be asking too much in the sense of thinking that such a prayer would go against the lawfulness of nature factor. At this point in time we are not yet fully aware of all the laws of nature. It could be that on the surface a prayer may be defying the laws of nature; but it could also be that in the future a law could be discovered to explain the miracle brought about by such a prayer.
Now, assuming that the goal of the prayer does not go counter to the laws of nature, how do the belief and guidance factors play a role in determining whether a prayer will be answered? As pointed out above in the sections headed "What Is Belief?" and "Is Faith Healing Real?", belief itself can produce direct effects by amplifying (focusing) the power of thought to affect the body or influence behavior. But as was emphasized in these two sections, in order to sustain the physiological or behavioral changes there has to also be a permanent change in one's way of life - one's attitudes, beliefs and life style. In other words, the guidance factor also has to be incorporated.
There is still the question of whether and how prayer can affect external factors - factors that we do not have contiguous contact with. For example in the case of praying for someone else, contiguous contact would include praying within earshot of that person, or the person listening to you pray over the phone or radio, or hearing that you had prayed for him or her. Non-contiguous contact would mean that the person being prayed for did not consciously know he or she was being prayed for.
Thus, can praying for someone else's healing have any effect if the person does not know he/she is being prayed for? Or can praying for rain actually bring about rain? Well, there are two possible ways prayer could affect such external factors - the direct and indirect way. In the case of praying for someone unbeknownst to them, the direct way could involve some form of mental telepathy as a way of reaching the prayed-for-person's mind. Or in the case of praying for rain, the direct way could invoke some variation of psychokenesis where the mind in a highly focused state could cause droplets of rain to form from the existing moisture in the air - a psychical seeding of rain clouds so to speak. One can see that the lawfulness of nature aspect would be a major factor here. (e.g., are mental telepathy and psychokinesis in tune with the laws of nature?)
It would seem that the more feasible way of prayer affecting external factors would be the indirect way. For instance, in the case of rain, the prayer could help come up with new ideas for producing rain such as the use of iodine particles for actual seeding of rain clouds or for coming up with the necessary money for seeding, etc. In the case of the possibility of prayer affecting someone who does not know he/she is being prayed for, the prayer could help indirectly by helping the person doing the praying to change in such a way that would have a positive affect on the person being prayed for.
Is There Life Everlasting?
Adhering to the lawfulness of nature, we know that all living creatures must die some day even when following a true religion. So does this mean that when we die we can no longer have life?
There are many who believe in the existence of a soul that continues on after corporal death. Here again, although we may not currently know of any laws of nature to completely support such a contention, it does not mean that such laws do not exist and won't someday be uncovered. As a for instance: perhaps the soul could continue to exist in the form of a unique pattern of energy that is emitted from the body at the time of death and continues to exist in the universe indefinitely. We know that the live brain does emit electrical waves that can be picked up by EEG machines and we know that at least certain energy waves can exist long after their original source has died (e.g. light, radio and gamma waves existing for billions of years long after an exploding distant sun has died). Could it be then that the soul continues to exist after death in the form of some unique pattern of (electrical or some other type of) energy?
But even if the above hypothesis is off, there are currently at least three ways that we know for sure one can live on after death: For one, we know that the molecules that make up our bodies continue to exist after we die. They continue to be active and, if allowed to, will reformulate eventually with other living things. I say "if allowed to" because there are some forms of burial that can interfere with the reintegration with other living matter - such as entombment in a mausoleum.
A second way of living on would be through our progeny - our genes being passed on from generation to generation.
And finally, we can live on in the thoughts of others. The more people we have affected and the more deeply, the longer this form of immortality will last. This, by the way, is one way of interpreting the resurrection of Christ, one that would not be in conflict with the lawfulness of nature. He most certainly influenced and continues to influence deeply a great many people to where, 2000 years later, He is still very much alive in the thoughts of many.
This question of whether there is an afterlife is particularly important for those who look forward to an afterlife in heaven, especially those who seem to be struggling miserably through life. The problem is that the latter group might decide to put all their hope in this heavenly afterlife and give up too soon as far as getting anything out of this life. It seems to me that it would be much wiser to work as hard as possible at following God’s way in this life so as to be more likely to achieve both heaven on earth as well as after. It seems logical that if heaven after corporal death does exist, you are more likely to enter it if you have followed God’s way while still on earth - by living life to the fullest.
Barrios, A. A. (1985). Towards Greater Freedom and Happiness.
Los Angeles: SPC Press.
Barrios, A. A. (2001) Theory of hypnosis Based on Principles of Conditioning
and Inhibition, Contemporary Hypnosis, Fall, 2001.
Benson, H. Timeless Healing: The Power and Biology of Belief. Simon
and Schuster, 1996.