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Do Religious Beliefs Negatively Impact The Health Of Individuals In Present Times?

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Belief systems are an ideology or set of principles that help us to interpret our everyday reality. In other words, it forms how we view the world around us and strongly help many of our communities interpret: our views and perceptions, habits, attitudes, and the choices we make. Religious beliefs are beliefs that are usually structured around the concept of God(s) and moral codes. It also sets clear parameters of rules and practises that a community must adhere to. Although at times, it may be at odds with the health of an individual. For the purpose of this report, I will be examining some religious beliefs and studying whether it has a negative impact on an individual’s health.

Malaysia is a multiracial country with people from different ethnicities and belief systems. The different ethnicities show a different approach to healthcare, more prominently seen during the recent Coronavirus pandemic, which inspired me to expand my research into the impact of other religious approaches/beliefs on healthcare. Traditional medicines The pathway to modern medicine was introduced from our ancestors’ past discoveries in medicinal properties of plants, where the Egyptian Ebers Papyrus was written 1550BC, one of our oldest records on it to date though it has been used since 3500BC in Egypt and other parts of the world. The plants were seen to have spirits under Shamanism practises (religious), that contributed to its healing properties until much later in the 1800s, where German scientist Friedrich Sertürner separated morphine from opium to show that medicinal properties came from compounds inside plants, rather than the whole plant itself. Approximately 40% of pharmaceuticals contain compounds from plants in the western world.1 Without the original religious belief, the theory of plants holding medicinal properties may not have risen until much later periods of time, delaying our advancements in medicine.

Traditional medicines are still used now. Globally, approximately 80% of people still use them due to religious belief that modern pharmaceuticals are unnatural and do more harm than good. Modern pharmaceuticals are developed specifically to target diseases using high amounts of compounds found in plants.4 Although traditional medicine has these compounds, their efficacy has not been tested as compositions of these compounds vary in each plant.4 At times traditional medicines are administered alongside modern pharmaceuticals. Unfortunately, the interaction between the two medicines could produce adverse effects and worsen your health.4 To cope with this, many herbalists are taught about the different drugs to equip them with the necessary knowledge on the reactivity of the compounds.4 Recently, similar training is provided at both medical and pharmacy courses in order to allow them to prescribe non-modern pharmaceuticals if the need arises.

Traditional Methods of Treatment Praying is believed to be a good form of treatment for many religious communities over the course of history. While it seems easier to grasp that praying will help a patient through divine intervention or the placebo effect (medication working better if believed in or used with a positive mindset), there has been no conclusive evidence to confirm this as many studies have shown different and contradictory results. This shows there is no direct correlation between praying and recovery. This may not directly impact many who use prayers alongside medical treatments and can even help people be more at ease during procedures. However, this poses many health risks to those who reject medical treatment and rely solely on prayers to heal. One clear example is the Christian Scientists.

They believe sicknesses are of the physical and material world which do not actually exist and are only perpetuated as such if any doubts are associated to it, such as medical treatment. Although documented and alleged in the Christian Science Journal that their prayers have worked in the past, to date they have not proffered any evidence to the fact. Such blind faith in the religion has led to the death of believers. Unfortunately, official data or statistics are unavailable. However, there are several cases where the effects of this are seen. In an example of a Christian Scientist case, though a man suffered gangrene on his left foot, he left it unattended for seven months due to his religious beliefs. Had he sought medical treatment, his death could have been avoided.8 Jehovah’s Witness, who have a following worldwide, are particularly known for their rejection of blood transfusions as they believe blood is where the soul lies.9 According to the bible, Leviticus 17:14, “You must not eat the blood of any sort of flesh, because the soul of every sort of flesh is its blood.

Anyone eating it will be cut off”. Although Jehovah’s Witnesses aim to seek the best medical care possible (which includes vaccinations and organ transplants), they are opposed to blood transfusions. This has a detrimental effect on its followers as its essential in many medical procedures. Over the years, it’s estimated 36000 to 56000 have lost their lives due to rejection of blood products. In Canada, Mirlande Cadet and Éloïse Dupuis died due to childbirth complications.12 Both these women were Jehovah’s Witnesses, who repeatedly refused blood transfusions despite being advised to, especially given they had pre-existing medical conditions.12 Dupuis went through organ failures within a week of childbirth and Cadet’s vitals began to drop after birth. This clearly shows the incompatibility of this religious belief and medical treatment. In the above cases of both Jehovah’s Witness and Christian Science believers, these deaths were avoidable. Medical professionals have their hands tied as patients stringently adhere to religious beliefs even if it costs their lives. To combat such cases in the USA, Child USA organisation and Open Minds Foundation11 fight for evidence-based solutions and laws to be implemented in which will reduce the likelihoods of similar instances reoccurring.13 They file court appeals to protect the rights of children, to allow them medical treatment as necessary.

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However, the repercussions are that the children may end up being ostracized by their communities. However, all is not lost as religions do encourage organ donation. In Christianity, it’s encouraged as seen as acts of charity and love. In Islam, either the deceased can give prior permission or their family members can consent to it. Each day 17 people die from waiting for a transplant so the encouragement of these organ donations allows there to be higher chances of finding a donor match and to save lives. National Perspective Some religious beliefs view ill health as part of God’s will (in the form of paying for sins) and preventive measures are not in alignment with God’s will.19 When coping with outbreaks or easily transmissible diseases, the attitudes of some to view preventive measures as interfering with God’s will that could lead to disastrous effects. Malaysia, for example, was originally successful in managing Covid-19 cases, however, due to the attitudes of some, the cases started to spike.18 The Tablighi Jama’at event (Islamic missionary movement) held in Malaysia was attended by 16,000 people despite government rules encouraging social distancing and smaller groups.18 Over 3000 of the total Malaysian cases (not inclusive of foreigners) came from this cluster.

This is a clear example of where religious beliefs at times causes people to ignore public health warnings by trusting in God to protect instead of taking steps to mitigate the risks. Prominent Islamic jurist and scholar Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin, criticized the irresponsible act as it was against the teachings of Islam that promotes wellbeing.18 To avoid future repeats, communities should be properly educated on why rules are imposed and how they may prevent diseases spreading. Leaders of religious groups and organizers must do their part and should carefully adhere and facilitate the implementations of these regulations set by governments during outbreaks. In the face of conflict, some religions are more flexible in their approach. Vaishnavism in Hinduism and Sikh communities discourage the killing and/or consumption of cows as they are revered.19 So medical products cannot contain bovine or sometimes even pig parts. Similarly, in Islam, pig parts in medical products like dressings, skin grafts, implants and drugs are not allowed as they are believed to be sinful. However, in cases of emergency practising Hindu’s and Muslims put aside their religious beliefs and accept these products if it means saving a life.

Traditional Religious Practises Many religious practises do provide benefits and are in line with modern healthcare such as creating better coping mechanisms and greater longevity.21 A few studies also show the positive correlations of mortality and attendance of religious events. Religious institutions promote health and wellbeing, and frequently participate in health campaigns to encourage healthy practises.21 Not to forget that the first hospitals were built and run by religious organizations in the western world,21 where other countries in the world also had their first true healers as herbalists, who often held strong religious beliefs about traditional medicine as previously explored in the report. Apart from encouraging healthy practises, world-wide religious organizations also provide strong support groups amongst people with the promotion of peace and respect to others. This helps especially during difficult times by improving coping mechanisms and peer support. Around 80% of studies show that those who hold religious beliefs have better mental health as compared to those who don’t.22 This is attributable to the religious belief, that our sacred bodies and minds should be protected as they are a gift from God.

On the other hand, older religious beliefs may promote practises that negatively impact the physical health of people. Religiously masochistic behaviours are promoted by certain religions to honour and fully give yourself to God, to repay for your sins. This is practised by Catholics, Hindu’s and Muslims, and are seen in many different scenarios. A study done shows the possible effects of self-flagellation. Ten men in the United Kingdom (Shia Muslims) had contracted the Human T-cell lymphotropic virus type 1 (HTLV-1) infection when they knives were sterilized in the same disinfectant bath and then used on themselves directly after.27 This caused the virus to spread amongst them. Although there are no official data, it’s safe to conclude that any form of self-inflicted injuries, be it for religious beliefs or not, is not advisable by medical science as it can cause serious harm. Further, it is dangerous if the equipment used to flagellate is shared and not sterilized properly. As such they must be handled with care or conducted by someone experienced to protect the safety of those who wish to continue this practice.

Initially, I had minimal knowledge on this matter and could only rely on my parents’ perspectives on the relationship between religious beliefs and health. I was aware that it had impacted individuals’ health in some cases but failed to understand when, how and why it occurred. I never realised there were so many different religions and their beliefs, and would never have considered the extent of their contribution in modern medicine through traditional medicine and their services such as the setting up and running of hospitals. A new discovery to me is religious masochism and the reasons behind it.

To conclude this report, religious beliefs can have a negative impact on the health of individuals, but not for all. I have discovered that the negative impacts are heavily prevalent in the Christian Science communities and to a certain extent, the Jehovah’s Witness communities as not all their teachings are in line with modern healthcare. However, in other instances, religious beliefs and practices do not actually have a negative impact on many but only do on those who are ignorant when carrying out the practices. It’s only detrimental when done incorrectly and carelessly, and will not inflict harm otherwise. It has taught me that before I practise my own religious beliefs, I must research and evaluate it thoroughly even if it’s been practised and passed down by my ancestors. “Skeptical scrutiny is the means, in both science and religion, by which deep thoughts can be winnowed from deep nonsense.” – Carl Sagan

References

  1. Department of Agriculture, U., 2020. Medicinal Botany. [online] Fs.fed.us. Available at: [Accessed 30 July 2020].
  2. Mckenna, D., 2020. How Long Have Humans Used Botanicals? | Taking Charge Of Your Health & Wellbeing. [online] Taking Charge of Your Health & Wellbeing. Available at: [Accessed 29 July 2020].
  3. Who.int. 2020. WHO GLOBAL REPORT ON TRADITIONAL AND COMPLEMENTARY MEDICINE 2019. [online] Available at: [Accessed 30 July 2020].
  4. Abdel Aziz, S., Aeron, A. and Kahil, T., 2020. (PDF) Health Benefits And Possible Risks Of Herbal Medicine. [online] ResearchGate. Available at: [Accessed 30 July 2020].
  5. Andrade, C. and Radhakrishnan, R., 2009. Prayer And Healing: A Medical And Scientific Perspective On Randomized Controlled Trials. [online] Indian Journal of Psychiatry. Available at: [Accessed 1 August 2020].
  6. Answers, C., 2020. Why Don’t Christian Scientists Allow Doctors To Treat Them?. [online] Catholic Answers. Available at: [Accessed 14 September 2020]
  7. Robinson, B., 2018. Two Large Christian Groups That Reject Medical Treatment In Favor Of Prayer. [online] Religioustolerance.org. Available at: [Accessed 30 July 2020].
  8. Fraser, C., 2019. Dying The Christian Science Way: The Horror Of My Father’s Last Days. [online] The Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 30 July 2020].
  9. Witness, J., 2020. What Does The Bible Say About Blood Transfusions? | Bible Questions. [online] JW.ORG. Available at: [Accessed 25 August 2020].
  10. Witness, J., 2020. Do Jehovah’s Witnesses Accept Medical Treatment? | FAQ. [online] JW.ORG. Available at: [Accessed 30 July 2020].
  11. Atack, J. and Elder, L., 2019. Jehovah’s Witnesses Archives • Open Minds Foundation. [online] Open Minds Foundation. Available at: [Accessed 1 October 2020].
  12. Hinkson, K., 2017. Refusal Of Blood Transfusions Key To Deaths Of 2 Jehovah’s Witnesses, Coroner Finds | CBC News. [online] CBC. Available at: [Accessed 25 August 2020].
  13. USA, C., 2020. About Us. [online] Childusa.org. Available at: [Accessed 16 September 2020].
  14. Roat, A., 2019. What Does The Bible Say About Organ Donation?. [online] Christianity.com. Available at: [Accessed 4 August 2020].
  15. 15. Abdul-Wāhid Alam, A., 2020. Organ Donation: A Fatwa And Explanatory Notes In Light Of The Islamic Shariah. [online] Abu Khadeejah : أبو خديجة. Available at: [Accessed 4 August 2020].
  16. Health and Human Resources, U., 2020. Organ Donation Statistics | Organ Donor. [online] Organdonor.gov. Available at: [Accessed 18 September 2020].

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