An interesting study out of Carnegie Mellon found that hugs can “help ease the negative impact of personal setbacks like a disagreement with a friend, or being turned down for a promotion at work.” It’s also well-known that skin-to-skin contact is developmentally beneficial for infants as part of a birth plan.
It seems to me that these relatively recent findings could be abstracted to support the general hypothesis that physical touch, when desired, is capable of healing. It seems particularly capable of psychological healing and stress reduction, although those in turn may create physiological improvements. This is consistent with the notion in scripture that a practice called laying on hands can result in healing. I have previously called this evidence-based hermeneutic an interpretive proof.
Here is actual scripture related to the act of laying on hands, and here is information on dogmatic implementation by denomination. Notice that in many cases the denominational process becomes ritualized. It seems to me the ritualization of scripture greatly reduces its empirical alignment, and I suspect it also greatly reduces the alignment of the practitioner to proper theology.
A separate spiritual practice which is also often lambasted as ineffective is simple prayer. I don’t want to give too much credit to the power of prayer, but I think it is significantly more potent than having an effect of 0. First of all, the placebo effect has been shown to have very potent healing power in some use cases. The magnitude of the placebo effect is directly related to the degree to which the placebo recipient expects the placebo to perform. It’s hard to imagine a more clear-cut case of effective faith-based healing.
Why, then, is there such a mixed bag of academic research on prayer? Some studies discount the placebo effect and/or effects attributable to the same processes underpinning meditation. Once all those discounts are evaluated, it’s not clear there is a significant amount of additional gain attributable to prayer. An apropos quote from Harvard medical:
For years, a placebo effect was considered a sign of failure…More recently, however, experts have concluded that reacting to a placebo is not proof that a certain treatment doesn’t work, but rather that another, non-pharmacological mechanism may be present.
What often happens is that prayer, meditation, and secular meditation all yield similar, and empirically positive, results, but the credit is all attributed to whatever practice the scholar defines as the baseline, and often scholars elect the secular version as the baseline. Benson, a pioneer of the Relaxation Response, even suggests using religious rituals like a Hail Mary prayer in order to achieve the sometimes-called secular relaxation response. Religion has also been shown to improve happiness, at least for many people. If one can achieve the secular result plus additional happiness, why prefer the secular practice?
The scholarly approach here is questionable. It’s questionable to consider prayer as secular meditation plus something else. For one, as I earlier mentioned, the placebo effect increases with genuine faith. Why would secular meditation inspire greater faith than an established religion?
It’s not as if I’m the first to have had these thoughts. Thomas Gale Moore at Stanford states, referencing Johns Hopkins and others:
Since belief systems are so powerful, belief in a religion can provide real physical and health benefits (Johns Hopkins Medical Newsletter, Nov 1998). As Blakslee reported, a strong belief has physiological effects.
- June 2013, CAE Interpretive Proof – Traditional Marriage (1/2, Right-Handed Proof)
- June 2013, CAE Interpretive Proof – Traditional Marriage (2/2, Left-Handed Proof)