Feature Archive

Our Search for Religion and Spirituality

New Agers are returning to church -- but keeping meditation and yoga classes on their schedules.

By Jeanie Lerche Davis
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

God is everywhere, literally.

In America's coffee shops and train stops, people are talking about topics once reserved for Sunday school or Sunday dinner. In fact, if you haven't seen The Passion of the Christ or read The Da Vinci Code -- if you haven't at least tried meditation yet -- you're in the minority.

Religion and spirituality have gone mainstream. People are hotly debating Jesus' lineage and Judeo-Christian, Buddhist, or Islamic issues -- and they're doing it in public. All this outspoken talk of religion is not typical (except for a few TV evangelists). Americans seem to be changing.

A Need for Answers

The Sept. 11 tragedy shook us to our core almost three years ago, that's unmistakable. Many of the fallen-away faithful went scrambling back to church or temple. But even before that tragedy, another process was unfolding.

As we practiced yoga, took up tai chi, and energized our chakras, we just have not felt satisfied. We felt that something essential was missing, says Krista Tippett, host of Minnesota Public Radio's Speaking of Faith program.

"The big spiritual questions -- the 'why' questions -- had not gone away," she tells WebMD. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why does God take a loved one so young? What is the meaning of our existence? These questions still haunted us, Tippett says.

"What I'm reading, what I'm sensing, is the trend is changing," Tippett says. "It almost goes against our American mindset -- our independence, our self-sufficiency -- but people are looking for something bigger, better, to be part of. They have an essential need for that. And when they experience it, whether it's during a crisis, an illness, or a death, they want more of it."

For this -- and more -- people are returning to traditional religion and spirituality, she says. "Sometimes when we put traditional religion down, it's their dogma that we rebel against. But at their core, these traditions are where our impulses, our need for something bigger, have been honored, named."

A Need to Help Others

Indeed, the "feel-good, me-centered spirituality" of recent decades seems to be evaporating, says Harold Koenig, MD, associate professor of psychiatry and director of the Center for the Study of Religion/Spirituality and Health at Duke University Medical Center.

"When we are in charge of our own ships, we fool ourselves," Koenig tells WebMD. "There's no responsibility to care for one another. You only care for yourself. There's no 'thou shalt not' -- it's all 'do what thou wishes.'"

However, "self-focused, self-satisfying behavior is bad for human nature," he explains. "It is not good for us to be greedy, to overeat. It doesn't make us happy. It just increases our appetite for more. And it leaves us feeling unfulfilled. That's why religious people are healthier. They're not under so much stress. The focus is off themselves. There is accountability outside of themselves."

Until you direct your attention outside yourself, life does not have meaning, says Koenig.

"Poets throughout the ages have written about this," he explains. "Every religion and spiritual tradition emphasizes the need to love thy neighbor. The 'higher way' of Buddhism says that compassion is the ultimate road to Nirvana. Gandhi emphasized peace and love rather than hatred. The Koran says that the hereafter is based on good deeds here and now. The Golden Rule is all about doing good."

A Need for Purpose

Religion and spirituality were indeed the most common coping mechanisms after Sept. 11, says Koenig. Nine out of 10 Americans turned to religion in those dark days.

For many others, cynicism launched their trek to traditional religion -- as science and medicine failed to live up to their expectations.

"People are seeing the limits of medical care," Koenig tells WebMD. "People do get sick, they do die, and sometimes there's nothing medicine can do about it. Insurance costs are going up. People are worried about their jobs, the economy, whether they can pay for insurance. There is no way to make sense of it all, to derive sense and meaning from it."

When you feel you're fighting these battles alone, that's when you feel great stress, he says. "But if you are part of a faith tradition, a church, if you feel like other people are supporting you, you feel that you're not in it alone. You begin to feel that God can use this crisis to create some good -- that you can turn this crisis into something good."

We've become a generation of seekers -- looking for purpose and meaning in life's tragic events, says Koenig. We're also heeding advice from science itself. "Research has made an impact on people. We have data that shows that religious people do seem to cope better, do have more purpose and meaning in life, do take better care of themselves."

A Need for Healing

The mind-body connection has been well documented, Koenig says. "Certainly our brains are wired to be connected to health, healing. Our central nervous system and hormone system are tightly regulated by our emotions. Those two systems directly connect to our central healing systems -- the immune and cardiovascular systems."

Our brain, therefore, is healing our body constantly, he explains. "It would seem that having faith is directly wired to the healing process. That is very scientifically acceptable. Is the brain connected to God? We have to be able perceive God in some way, so it has to be through the brain. It has to be some part of the brain that does that."

Indeed, our lives are also enriched by the New Age movement, says Tippett. Whereas we once dabbled in many religious and spiritual practices, "the new movement is moving beyond dabbling, bringing some pieces of traditions together -- but in way that's not so casual."

Numerous studies show that meditation lowers measurable markers of stress, like cortisol (a stress hormone) and blood pressure levels. "A lot of people who are profoundly Christian, or Jewish, are doing yoga and meditation. There's now something called 'Torah yoga,'" Tippett tells WebMD.

"These studies reflect the intention to connect body, mind, spirit," she says. "Meditation is one piece of 'spirit technology' that Buddhism has taken seriously, really refined over a long, long time. What's happening now is people with other traditions are looking at how Buddhism works -- rediscovering it, and adding it to their own practice."

A Need for Hope

But when should religion and spirituality enter into patient care?

Some 80% of patients want their doctors to talk to them about spiritual issues, says Jerome Groopman, MD, chief of experimental medicine at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, chairman of medicine at Harvard Medical School, and author of the book The Anatomy of Hope.

"Patients ask me to pray with them," Groopman tells WebMD. "On one hand, I want to reach out to them. But should a patient be exposed to a doctor's religious beliefs? It's not a simple question. The doctor's beliefs may or may not coincide with the patient's. If they come from different faiths, they have different attitudes. Even if they're from the same faith, they may have a different interpretation of the role of prayer."

In his book, he recalls one of his first patients -- a young woman with breast cancer. "She had a breast mass the size of a walnut. I come from a traditional Jewish background; I thought would befriend her, find out how a smart young woman could allow a tumor grow to this size without seeking medical attention."

Her story was more complicated than Groopman expected. "She was in an unhappy arranged marriage, having an affair with her boss -- who she had no illusion loved her -- but it was the only way to escape this marriage. Her interpretation of her breast cancer was that it was a punishment from God.

"I was completely in over my head," he says. "With a mixture of guilt and shame, I retreated from her. The senior surgeon convinced her to be treated. But so much was her shame, ultimately, her breast cancer led to her death."

When such lack of hope is explored, other feelings surface. "She felt she had no control over her world, none of her actions would make a difference," Groopman explains. "It was a profound lesson about hope and lack of hope, about having hope you can reach a better future, that the choices you make, the path you take can make a difference."

"Crisis raises complex questions," he tells WebMD. He remembers another patient, a young boy with cancer, who then got HIV from a blood transfusion and died of AIDS. "His parents kept asking, 'How could God allow this?' I don't think there is an answer to that."

By making a commitment to helping children who were ill, that family found their own way to cope, says Groopman. It's more evidence that helping others is the root of religion and spirituality.

Published April 8, 2004.