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Living Faithfully: Is Faith an “Alternative Treatment” or Complementary to Medicine?

Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen on February 6, 2023

Science and faith have been at odds for nearly as long as they have coexisted. Medicine sees more of this conflict than nearly any other profession; the most ancient of religions discuss the place of humans in a patient’s recovery at length. Few, if any, have reached a clear conclusion on the topic, and many continue the debates until this day. 


When there is a question of recovery, it becomes relatively easy to attribute recovery to faith; only a few faiths forbid medical treatment. Even so, few faiths accept a patient rejecting their faith altogether while bedridden; far more faiths advise the patient to pray for recovery or engage in repentance for a sin potentially causing the injury or illness.

This addition of faith to medicine has been repeatedly demonstrated to have certain positive effects. Even in patients in life-threatening conditions, a placebo effect of improved health can often be observed in those who follow a faith. These patients may have increased motivation to eat, do necessary therapy, and adhere to a schedule of medications and treatments. While these are rarely a substitute for actual treatment, they have definite advantages over a recovery for a person who does not engage in faith-based practices. 


Like all good things, though, there are limits to how much one should trust in faith for their recovery, and like many limits, it is too often remembered in hindsight. Many people of faith will actively avoid medical care by telling themselves that “faith will supply for free what my medical professionals and insurance do not cover.” Although this is doubtless an admirable degree of faith to have, it can and has proven tragically insufficient in the past. 

Of course, this is hardly limited to cases of extreme illness or injury. If anything, being willing to venture into the many commonplace perils of the road outside takes no small amount of faith of its own. Nevertheless, religious leaders do not tell their followers to go uninsured; many will insist that they find insurance. Small prayers of thanks throughout the day are commonplace for several faiths, but none of them are intended to take over the role of covering someone’s medical expenses should any be incurred.


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Other fields of life face this dilemma as well–in personal economics, one often seems forced to choose between faith that one’s checkbook will balance and actual efforts to maintain financial stability. Sports of nearly any level see almost continual supplications for victory, yet the players do not attempt to pray instead of playing. 


Faith’s inclusion as part of the natural cycle of recovering from a medical incident is an ancient and venerable practice and carries with it some of the most stirring and inspirational stories about the good it does for patients. These stories don’t come to show the need for faith exclusively nor to focus on its inclusion altogether. That faith can serve instead of treatment is the stuff of con schemes from decades ago; that faith has no place in treatment is the word of someone unfamiliar with the considerable mental boost that genuine faith can bring to a patient.

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