Hello everyone! I am back with my thought-provoking health series for the Asian Sunday. My columns are designed to explore topics, start a conversation and touch on real life issues that affect every community. The series is not designed to take the place of medical advice and if you do have any concerns of that nature then you should, as always seek advice from your doctor.
So this week it’s a tough one: medicine and religion. Quite a broad, and some would say sensitive, topic. Perhaps there is not enough space in this column to talk about this completely; however I’ll try my best to start the conversation. Many of us follow a faith whether it is Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism, etc. But how does our faith influence our views on medicine and vice versa? Should faith have a role to play in the quest to better our health?
Historically, we have seen medicine clearly influenced by religion. Back in Ancient Egypt, people learnt about body organs through spiritual processes such as mummification. This was designed to aid the preservation of the body for the afterlife, rather than conduct scientific research. Looking onwards to the Middle Ages, many medical care facilities were run by monasteries. In Medieval times it was believed by many in England that God sent illness, and the Church encouraged repenting as the cure. Monk’s historic ideas at the time were unquestioned as they were believed to be from the Church and were therefore the word of God.
Doctors may not be clerics or spiritual advisors, but the diverse community in which we live undeniably has spiritual needs. So do we tap into them as we should and how does this affect the patient experience? A doctor would not be in safe territory prescribing religion, but many would say that (although there is little clear-cut evidence) there is a link between undertaking spiritual activities and improved health. Undoubtedly, spirituality and faith come as part and parcel of many people lives, and their beliefs may encourage their thinking. This is where I must clearly differentiate religion from culture. In an article I wrote a couple of editions ago, I spoke about the use of herbal remedies and how they are influenced by cultural beliefs. Faith is very different however.
Let me give you an example. If a Muslim is travelling to Hajj, which is a holy pilgrimage in Makkah in Saudi Arabia – are there any health risks? Well of course there are, and that is why people are vaccinated and given robust advice by their doctors. People travel from all over the world en masse and collect, and we have seen the emergence of a respiratory virus in recent years. So if someone of faith or let’s say a ‘spiritual’ person falls ill, how would their faith affect them? Well that is the question I am posing to you. I would argue that if a person’s belief system helps them feel better and improves their ‘spirit’, then that can only be a positive thing.
Many Western laws have derived from Christianity, and we know what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’ – which is clearly reflected in law. For example, stealing is a crime in religion as it is in reality. That is religion and law, so does the same relationship hold true for religion and health? I think that here the relationship is far more complex and extends to well beyond whether a Jehovah’s Witness can accept a blood transfusion or not.
Somebody once said to me that religion and science don’t mix. Let me pause there and reflect on that statement, as I believe it is grossly incorrect. I would argue that religion, spirituality and science mix very well. They should be given their own merits, and acted upon appropriately. For example, it would not be correct for a doctor to prescribe a patient The Lord’s Prayer once a day for a toe infection – but it may comfort the patient to pray if he or she feels that helps their condition. Doctors are medical practitioners, but patients may be spiritual practitioners, meaning that medicine and spirituality may inevitably combine in order to have a positive effect on that person’s health. This includes their physical and importantly, their psychological well-being.
Historically medicine has stood hand-in-hand with religion and been heavily influenced by large institutions such as the Church. As science has advanced however, and evidence-based medicine has emerged – the human race has not changed drastically regarding how we meet our spiritual needs. But is there more than we can do? Can you think of anything?
One size does not fit all, and if you are uncertain about any health needs that you have – talk to your doctor.
I hope that leaves you with some questions, and some of which only you may have the answers. Reflect and enjoy the journey! You can follow my Twitter feed on @Faraaz_Bhatti and let’s talk about important health issues. If you would like me to discuss any specific issue or get a conversation going then feel free to let me know.