Medical careers may influence Christians’ sense of faith and health

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Christians who are comparatively well represented in the medical field, such as those who are Korean-American, understand the relationship between faith and health differently than those who are not, such as African-Americans and Latinos, a new study suggests.

Researchers found that 80 percent of black and Latino Americans interviewed in the study said they believe in the potential healing power of religious faith, while nearly two-thirds of Korean-Americans interviewed said that a religious environment mainly provides support for individuals with regard to health decisions, but made few mentions of prayer or divine healing.

“Every time that I’m sick, I believe that God can heal my sickness…”

In the study, the researchers examined views on the relationship between faith and health for two groups that are overrepresented in American Christianity and underrepresented in medical careers—African-Americans and Latinos as well as the views of a group that is similarly religious but comparatively well represented in medical professions—Korean-Americans.

The researchers say they were motivated to pursue this research by the growing number of studies on collaborations between churches and health care providers. Such partnerships are often established without consideration of how racial representation in medical professions might shape distrust of medicine in religious communities.

“Each of the groups emphasized the prevalence of health initiatives already taking place in their congregations, ranging from exercise classes to informational seminars,” says coauthor Elaine Howard Ecklund, founding director of the Rice University’s Religion and Public Life Program. “But while each group expressed optimism about potential partnerships between churches and medical providers, the groups differed in their views on the relationship between faith and health.”

While the majority of blacks and Latinos interviewed expressed confidence in the potential healing power of Christianity, most Koreans interviewed said that a religious environment can provide support for individuals with regard to making health decisions (such as which doctor to visit for a specific condition), but they did not often mention prayer or divine healing.

Excerpts from interviews with each group are included in the paper.

“Every time that I’m sick, I believe that God can heal my sickness,” said one member of a Latino church. Another member said, “I trust medicine a lot. But I think my first choice is God.”

Ecklund says that the view of God as the creator of science helped congregants substantiate trust in medicine. One African-American church member said, “I think that God gives us access to certain things to help us to be better, to serve him more.”

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This did not preclude mistrust on the part of the interview respondents, however, coauthor Cleve Tinsley notes.

“Narratives regarding distrust of the medical community arose almost exclusively among African-American respondents. The Tuskegee syphilis experiment seemed to have a notable legacy within this community’s cultural memory, as the experiment came up unsolicited,” says Tinsley, a PhD student at Rice.

Korean-American respondents often saw the benefits of religion as practical, as they often downplayed the efficacy of prayer while highlighting the support of the religious community, support that often came from medical professionals within the church.

One Korean-American surveyed said about the relationship between faith and health: “I think mostly in terms of just realizing that (congregation members are) not alone, that there is a community out there that will go through it with you type of thing. More of a support, I suppose.”

Another respondent said that while faith “plays a tremendous role” in coping with the stress that is related to health issues, it should not necessarily be the “primary way to deal with an actual ailment.”

The paper includes interviews with 19 church leaders representing 18 different organizations and 28 congregation members as well as observations from three different Christian congregations. Researchers selected the respondents from the Religion, Inequality, and Science Education project, a larger study exploring how minority Christian congregations view science and medicine.

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The researchers hope the study will encourage more research on how religion affects the health of individuals in the US and the rest of the world.

The researchers will report their findings in the journal Review of Religious Research.

Rice University’s Faculty Initiatives Fund supported the research.

Source: Rice University