The Role of Faith and Religion in Surviving the Pandemic

I am interrupting the series on September 11, 2001 to share a summary of some new information on staying healthy during the pandemic. You may remember that some time ago I reported that employees of Loma Linda University Health seemed to be contracting the illness in roughly the same percentages as the wider community (although high proximity to Covid patients would suggest it should be higher), but that the virus at that time had caused only two deaths in the employee population whereas the numbers would have suggested 20-30. So there seemed to me there might be some correlation between the Loma Linda lifestyle and some protection both from contracting the disease and from severe consequences when one does contract it.

I consider Harold Koenig of Duke University the world’s leading authority on the interaction of faith and health. I have just been made aware of an article he wrote in the Journal of Religion and Health which aggregates years of research (more than 50 articles) on faith, infectious diseases and the human immunce system. Koenig is a medical doctor who is also recognize as a player in the field of religion. The title of his article is “Maintaining Health and Well-Being by Putting Faith into Action During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” I will summarize the main points of the article here. From here on the words are mine but the ideas are Koenig’s, as well as I could understand them.

Throughout the world many people are experiencing fear and anxiety in relation to the novel coronavirus which produces the deadly illness called COVID-19. Yet these very emotions actually increase people’s susceptibility to the dreaded virus through an adverse effect on the body’s immune system. On the other hand, positive emotions like love, joy and peace have been shown to boost immune functioning, and thus minimize both the likelihood of contracting the disease and the severity of symptoms when one does upon contract it. A large and growing body of objective scientific research underline the benefits to the immune system of prayer and meditation, attendance at religious services, and engagement in other religious activities.

Koenig lists a number of suggestions for those who wish to remain healthy and resilient—mentally, spiritually, and physically—during the anxious time of the pandemic. I will discuss them very briefly here. 1) Deepen Your Religious Faith. Use lockdowns and other measure to create time for personal religious activities that lead to a stronger relationship with God. Multiple studies document the benefits of a genuine religious faith on immune functioning and vulnerability to infection, particularly viral infection. When life was normal most people felt too busy to spend much time in devotional exercises. Abnormal times provide opportunity for building spiritual health.

2) Love your neighbor and put that love into action. Koenig notes the historical reality that Christians have often been at the forefront of caring for people during times of pandemic. Research supports the health benefits to the one doing acts of compassion for others. It not only gives a sense of meaning and purpose to life, but it enhances one’s own sense of health and well-being.

3) Use technology to reach out. Through tools like Zoom and Marco Polo provide virtual “hugs and handshakes” to people you are otherwise isolated from. It seems like a gift from God that at this very time when social isolation is at its peak, there are so many new tools for enhancing relationships without physical contact. Research supports the immune benefits of social interactions, making them worth pursuing by any available means.

4) Love yourself. As the pandemic drags on, and one has not been infected, it is increasingly tempting to develop a cavalier attitude toward the virus and feel somewhat invulnerable. But no faith tradition condones recklessness. People should not expose themselves unnecessarily. Now is not the time to relax such good health measures as frequent hand washing, and applying measures like masking and social distancing whenever one is indoors with a lot of people, such as in church.

5) Pay attention to physical health. While Koenig is not a Seventh-day Adventist, he is a big fan of the Blue Zone lifestyle practiced by many at Loma Linda. Staying physically healthy correlates with resistance to infection. So Koenig recommends regular exercise (30-45 minutes a day), 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night, weight control, hydration (minimum of 2 quarts a day of water), and appropriate quantities of supplements like Vitamins D, C and E, especially Vitamin D, which has been shown to directly improve immune function. Three-quarters of Americans are Vitamin D deficient.

6) Be actively involved in a religious community. Many systematic scientific studies report a positive association between religious involvement and indicators of healthy immune function. Religious involvement reduces inflammation and increases the immune functions that are needed to resist infection. Even those with compromised immune systems function better if they engage in communal religious activities.

If one follows the above six suggestions, Koenig concludes, one is less likely to contract the virus and if one does, the course of the illness will likely be less severe, and recovery is likely to be sooner because of increased emotional, social, physical and spiritual resilience.

2 thoughts on “The Role of Faith and Religion in Surviving the Pandemic

  1. Courtney Edwards

    Whereas it’s true that one’s attitude does speak to building a strong immune system; yet though “positively” being against being vaccinated; and with being, “positive”; efficacious to building the “:strong” immune system, the unknown, is still how strong is “strong”. And should strong not be strong enough to fight the virus; no help will be available to the immune system that has not been boosted; and boosted via an available treatment. This makes not taking the opportunity afforded by a proven treatment; and even with all the positives that provide confidence in having a strong immune system; that by becoming infected and succumbing to the virus; will bring recriminations of untold regret on acknowledging “faith” went unrewarded.

    1. Jon Paulien Post author

      Granted. My point was that all other things being equal, you are better off doing the things that strengthen the immune system rather than that which weakens it.


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