Does religious faith improve health? That's certainly what you'd conclude by reading the media these days. Recent cover stories in Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, and Parade report that religion is good for you. The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times have featured front-page articles on the impact of distant prayer on health. In Prevention, an article explored "how religious faith can make you almost invulnerable to disease."

These stories are based on burgeoning scientific literature examining links between religion, spirituality, and health. Some report there are more than 1,400 scientific papers on the topic, with a substantial number of these papers showing that religious involvement is associated with better health.

Such studies are the basis for attempts by physicians to introduce religion into clinical medicine. Physicians recommend asking some patients—those who report that religion or faith is "helpful" in dealing with their illnesses—what they can do to support their patients' faith or religious commitment. Some studies declare that excluding God from a medical consultation is a form of malpractice. They recommend conducting a spiritual history during the initial visit and annually thereafter.

Discussions on this topic almost always focus on the quality of the evidence and the presumed benefit to patients. Less frequently, they address ethical or practical issues associated with bringing religious practices into clinical medicine. But the impact on religion itself has been ignored almost completely. That's a big mistake, because satisfying the demands of medical science inevitably requires the kind of reductionism that strips from religion the transcendence that distinguishes ...

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