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What We Can Learn From Solitude

Contemporary hermits are reaching out to people struggling with isolation. Their message: Go inward, and get outside.

Paul Fredette (left) and Karen Karper Fredette on their property in Hot Springs, N.C. Credit... Clark Hodgin for The New York Times

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By Kelsey Osgood

  • Published Nov. 28, 2020 Updated Dec. 18, 2020

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Paul Fredette and Karen Karper Fredette have made some changes to their lives: Ms. Fredette stopped attending her local exercise class, and the couple whittled their interactions with their neighbors down to waves.

But in many ways, seclusion comes naturally to them. From a house they call Still Wood, nestled in the slope of a mountain surrounded by hundreds of acres of wild woodlands, the Fredettes live their lives “oriented towards solitude,” which is their preferred way of saying that they’re hermits: devoted to simplicity, silence and prayer. The nearest town, Hot Springs, N.C., is 18 miles away and has a population just under 600.

Mr. Fredette, 71, is a former Catholic priest, while Ms. Fredette, 78, spent 30 years in a monastery after high school before leaving to live as a hermit in a cabin in West Virginia. Since 1996, the couple has overseen a social network for hermits and the hermit-curious called Raven’s Bread Ministries . They provide spiritual counseling to seekers of solitude, write books on the topic, run a website and deliver a quarterly newsletter, Raven’s Bread, which includes contributions from the greater hermit community.

The original idea for Raven’s Bread Ministries was to validate hermits’ attraction to solitude. But this summer the Fredettes felt called to minister to a different demographic: those struggling with the isolation of the coronavirus pandemic . After noticing their average daily website hits went from around 800 pre-pandemic to up to 2,000 in August, the Fredettes began creating YouTube videos . Listening to them feels a bit like getting a very quiet pep talk from your grandparents, or watching an unusually spiritual A.S.M.R. video.

“A lot of people are going to be in pain, and if you know there’s something you can do to alleviate some of that pain, do it,” Ms. Fredette said.

research on religious hermits and pioneers suggests that voluntary isolation

In addition to “affirming and supporting” hermits, the Fredettes serve as unofficial spokespeople on their behalf, dispelling the Unabomber stereotype that looms large in the public imagination. Like everything these days, hermits exist on a wide spectrum and prefer a variety of identifiers: lovers of solitude, solitaries, contemplatives. (Ms. Fredette likes to add “contemporary” as a qualifier, to make the lifestyle sound less antiquated.)

Although some version of the solitary exists in nearly every religious tradition, eremitism is most commonly associated with the early Christian Desert Fathers and Mothers of the third and fourth centuries. Academics have found interest in eremitical life to be tied to the strength of centralized ecclesiastical institutions at the time, as well as increasing industrialization and urbanization.

Today, there are hermits who have been officially professed by their respective religious institutions — in Catholicism they are called “canonical hermits” — and rogue hermits who answer to no spiritual authority. There are hermits who live in caves, like the Himalayan Hermit , who spends his summers in a mountain crevice 10,000 feet above Gangotri, India. But many more hide in plain sight, in suburbs and cities.

The Real Life of a Hermit

Hermits have never been quite as isolated as many assume: They have often attracted devotees and have always had to earn their own living, which means allowing for some contact with the outside world.

Contemporary hermits might take jobs that require little human interaction, like cleaning houses. They try to fill what extra time they have with spiritual practice, rather than social interaction, in person or online, and make choices that support that end: They’ll meditate on their commute rather than read the news, or only answer their phone during designated hours.

They can live anywhere, but tend to reside in modest dwellings and avoid moving around unnecessarily. Nevertheless, a hermit should also not be confused with a recluse. The difference, Ms. Fredette said, is that hermits do not exit society because of misanthropy. “I would define a hermit or a person who chooses solitude as one who chooses solitude for spiritual reasons,” Ms. Fredette said, “and we do accent the spiritual, but it can be any form of spiritual.”

Despite the hermit’s religious origin, a surprising number of subscribers to Raven’s Bread describe themselves as “formerly” religious and say they don’t affiliate with a particular church or faith group.

The topics of the Fredettes’s videos are wide-ranging: Sometimes the couple encourages viewers to journal their worries, sometimes they mirror back feelings of despair and anger, and sometimes they relay comparable experiences from their own lives, such as when Ms. Fredette had to miss family gatherings while cloistered at the monastery.

They lead mini-guided meditations and quote solitary luminaries like Thomas Merton and Julian of Norwich, a medieval mystic who lived through the Black Death and civil unrest. The Fredettes also touch upon the events of our day, like racial injustice and climate change. “We’re not separated from what’s going on around us,” Ms. Fredette said.

Can Anyone Embrace Solitude?

Hermits themselves are torn on the issue.

“Solitude is not like protein,” said Heidi Haverkamp, a Raven’s Bread subscriber and the author of “Holy Solitude: Lenten Reflections With Saints, Hermits, Prophets, and Rebels,” who describes herself as a part-time solitary. “Some people find what I get from solitude in music or in exercise, just different ways that they access the transcendent.”

Several people pointed out that solitude for them is more a tool than simply a comfortable loneliness. “Solitude is a means,” said John Backman, a writer and “quasi-hermit” who affiliates with both Zen Buddhism and Christianity. “It is a means to draw closer to, immerse oneself in, that or who which is larger than we are, to immerse ourselves in Spirit, as it were.”

But the Fredettes and other hermits believe that anyone could benefit from incorporating some eremitic fundamentals — such as being rooted in place, practicing austerity and committing to a daily schedule that prioritizes prayer or meditation — to help them make sense of their isolation into their lives, regardless of personality type, religiosity, or life circumstances.

For people with little to no background in hermit spirituality, the pandemic has proved the ideal entryway. Karthik Kotturu, 27, of Gurugram, India, who described himself as spiritual but not religious, said that after an initial rocky adjustment to lockdown life, he found solace in the teachings of Zen Buddhism.

“The pandemic made me realize how afraid I was of being alone,” he wrote in an email. Discovering the Zen idea of detaching from the world — in the words of the Tao, eliminating both “longing and aversion” — helped him to shift his perspective. “Once I started seeing what I already had, my desires to seek something from outside started decreasing.”

Others have found that the situation has allowed them to tap into a love of solitude that was always present but neglected because of life obligations. Hannah Sheldon-Dean, 32, a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, said her morning chores have become a slow, calming routine, and she always ends her days by listening “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text,” a podcast in which the hosts do a deep read of the Rowling series, sometimes utilizing Lectio Divina principles, a Christian style of reading which involves approaching a text in four unhurried stages: read, meditate, pray, contemplate.

“I’ve always had ritualistic and contemplative tendencies like the ones the hermits describe, but the pandemic has just given them more space to flourish,” Ms. Sheldon-Dean said.

Some contemporary hermits say prayer and meditation can be done while simultaneously engaging in other activities. And all the hermits interviewed described experiencing a psychological dredging process in the early days of their solitude (they described the emotions that came up as “junk” or “sludge”) and emerging as evangelists for self-love.

“When we’re alone, all the fears and worries and anxieties come up, because we can’t distract ourselves,” said Sister Elizabeth Wagner, a canonical hermit who lives in her own “cell” on the grounds of a communal hermitage in Central Maine. “The great way to be with ourselves, to embrace who we are, warts, bumps, lumps and all, is to breathe.”

Ms. Fredette said that the understanding that your own “deeper self” is always beside you is the key to transforming anxiety-ridden isolation into nurturing solitude. “Once you begin to talk to yourself, know yourself, then you realize you’re not alone.”

Nature’s Divinity

The most potent grounding force of all, many hermits said, is nature. Hermitic life and environmentalism are natural bedfellows: Hermits generally travel infrequently — the term “anchorite” refers specifically to a religious solitary who takes a vow to remain in one place, though even non-anchorite hermits tend to be homebodies — and eschew rabid consumerism.

Awe in the face of the natural world runs like a thread through the history of eremitism, from the pastoral poems of the Yuan dynasty hermit Stonehouse right up to the work of the Charles Brandt , the Vancouver Island priest-hermit who fought tirelessly for the preservation of the streams and forests around the cabin he called Merton House.

Today, some hermits just walk around in a patch of grass, something Sister Rachel Denton, a canonical hermit in Sheffield, England, called “prayer walking.” She also picks up litter in the public park across the street from her home, a community service she calls her “penance.”

“I suppose there’s a therapy in there as well,” said Sister Denton. “Your body doing the walking, doing the pacing, it’s like a mantra.”

Alternatively, some hermits make friends with nature, like the Fredettes have.

“We have a rock, a huge rock, that’s sticking out of the mountains,” Ms. Fredette said. “Her name is Petra. And we have a path that leads right out to Petra. And when things are difficult I go out and I lean on Petra, and I say, ‘Give me some guidance.’”

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What the joyous solitude of early hermits can teach us about being alone

research on religious hermits and pioneers suggests that voluntary isolation

Professor of Early Christianity, Cornell University

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Kim Haines-Eitzen does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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research on religious hermits and pioneers suggests that voluntary isolation

In today’s world, loneliness seems to have reached epidemic proportions. Countless studies have highlighted the serious and negative impact that loneliness has on our health , our sense of well-being, and our ability to thrive in an increasingly chaotic world. Most recently, the urgency of the problem led the U.K. to appoint a minister for loneliness . Here in the U.S., winter is a particularly lonely time for elderly Americans .

But loneliness (feeling alone) and solitude (being alone) are not the same thing. And lessons can be learned from those who have found solitude essential for inspiration.

In praise of solitude

Solitude – being alone – has long been praised as a necessary condition for creativity . Author Virginia Woolf, in her book “A Room of One’s Own,” offered an extended meditation on the writer’s need for solitude. So did many poets. In their writings, May Sarton (“alone one is never lonely”) and William Wordsworth (“the bliss of solitude”) were especially eloquent in their praise of solitude . Poet Marianne Moore has even argued that “the cure for loneliness is solitude.”

My research on the history of religious hermits shows that there have long been individuals who seek solitude in remote and silent places, and there are many lessons to be learned from them. The etymological history of the word “hermit” is itself telling: “Hermit” comes from an ancient Greek word, “eremos,” that means both a desolate and lonely place and a state of being alone.

research on religious hermits and pioneers suggests that voluntary isolation

Hermits exist in many of the world’s major religious traditions : They are individuals who choose temporary or permanent solitude in remote and isolated locations, such as mountains, caves and deserts . These locations are frequently depicted as sites for revelation and transformation.

Romantic longing of solitude

The emergence of hermits in early Christianity is particularly striking.

When early Christians read their Bible, they found the word eremos referring to places for important events: the stories of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness for forty years, how Jesus went to a “lonely place” to pray, or how he was tempted by the devil in the desert. These stories evoked images of remote landscapes that most Christians never visited.

research on religious hermits and pioneers suggests that voluntary isolation

In the fourth century, however, a monastic movement emerged in Egypt, as some Christians began to withdraw permanently into “the desert.” The harshness of a dry and barren landscape suited Christians eager to pursue an ascetic life.

A common theme in stories about early Christian desert hermits is a desire to leave the distractions of urban life and live a precarious existence in isolation in order to achieve holiness.

The most famous Christian hermit was Antony, whose story was told by Athanasius , the fourth-century bishop of Alexandria. As Athanasius tells it, Antony one day heard a passage from the Gospel of Matthew in his church:

“If you want to be perfect, go, sell all your possessions and give to the poor, and come follow me, and you will have treasure in heaven.” (Matthew 19:21)

He felt the passage had spoken to him directly.

Antony sold his property and departed for the desert. The story of Antony’s withdrawal into the desert became an example for later Christians eager to pursue solitude and contemplation. Athanasius says that, in spite of his quest for solitude, the desert “was made a city” by visitors to Antony’s hermitage and by monks who wished to emulate him. Antony needed to move into more and more remote areas to find the isolation he was seeking.

research on religious hermits and pioneers suggests that voluntary isolation

The joy of loneliness

Eventually, forms of monasticism developed that embraced both the solitary and the communal: Monasteries developed around communities of monks in the mountains and canyons of Egypt, Sinai and Palestine. Nearby caves served as hermitages .

research on religious hermits and pioneers suggests that voluntary isolation

This way of life was in keeping with what many Christians believed – that suffering was necessary for salvation. They praised the hermits who rejected the comforts of city and adopted the communal life. To them, the hermits were models of holiness and, paradoxically, happiness.

Loneliness was transformed into joy. Athansius describes Antony’s face as “radiant” after a long period of isolation.

The lives of hermits may seem distant from our busy contemporary lives. But the romantic appeal of an unencumbered and undistracted life has not disappeared. Hermits in the 21st century come from all walks of life, religious and secular , but share with those from the past a longing for quiet solitude and simplicity.

Could the wisdom of artists, poets, and religious hermits offer comfort in a time of loneliness today?

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Alone Need Not Be Lonely: What Joyous Solitude of Early Hermits Can Teach Us

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Kim Haines-Eitzen / The Conversation

In today’s world, loneliness seems to have reached   epidemic proportions. Countless studies have highlighted the serious and negative impact that loneliness has on our health , our sense of well-being, and our ability to thrive in an increasingly chaotic world. Most recently, the urgency of the problem led the U.K. to appoint a minister for loneliness . Here in the U.S., winter is a particularly lonely time for elderly Americans .

But loneliness (feeling alone) and solitude (being alone) are not the same thing. And lessons can be learned from those who have found solitude essential for inspiration.

In Praise of Solitude

Solitude – being alone – has long been praised as a necessary condition for creativity . Author Virginia Woolf, in her book “A Room of One’s Own,” offered an extended meditation on the writer’s need for solitude. So did many poets. In their writings, May Sarton (“alone one is never lonely”) and William Wordsworth (“the bliss of solitude”) were especially eloquent in their praise of solitude . Poet Marianne Moore has even argued that “the cure for loneliness is solitude.”

  • The Pennsylvania Hermit: The Woeful Tale of a Grieving Brother’s Broken-hearted Hermitage
  • Revealing the Recluse: The Sad and Secret Lives of Hermits
  • 15th Century Monk Built This Stone House to Find Solitude

Portraits of Virginia Woolf (Public Domain) and William Wordsworth (Public Domain) – two historical figures who praised solitude.

Portraits of Virginia Woolf ( Public Domain ) and William Wordsworth ( Public Domain ) – two historical figures who praised solitude.

My research on the history of religious hermits shows that there have long been individuals who seek solitude in remote and silent places, and there are many lessons to be learned from them. The etymological history of the word “hermit” is itself telling: “Hermit” comes from an ancient Greek word, “eremos,” that means both a desolate and lonely place and a state of being alone.

Hermits exist in many of the world’s major religious traditions : They are individuals who choose temporary or permanent solitude in remote and isolated locations, such as mountains, caves and deserts . These locations are frequently depicted as sites for revelation and transformation.

Rock-carved Buddhas at Chilbulam hermitage, Namsan Mountain in Gyeongju, Korea.

Rock-carved Buddhas at Chilbulam hermitage, Namsan Mountain in Gyeongju, Korea. (Eggmoon/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

Romantic Longing of Solitude

The emergence of hermits in early Christianity is particularly striking.

When early Christians read their Bible, they found the word eremos referring to places for important events: the stories of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness for forty years, how Jesus went to a “lonely place” to pray, or how he was tempted by the devil in the desert. These stories evoked images of remote landscapes that most Christians never visited.

In the fourth century, however, a monastic movement emerged in Egypt, as some Christians began to withdraw permanently into “the desert.” The harshness of a dry and barren landscape suited Christians eager to pursue an ascetic life.

Scenes from the Lives of the Desert Fathers (Thebaid), 1420.

Scenes from the Lives of the Desert Fathers (Thebaid), 1420. ( Public Domain )

A common theme in stories about early Christian desert hermits is a desire to leave the distractions of urban life and live a precarious existence in isolation in order to achieve holiness.

The most famous Christian hermit was Antony, whose story was told by Athanasius , the fourth-century bishop of Alexandria. As Athanasius tells it, Antony one day heard a passage from the Gospel of Matthew in his church:

“If you want to be perfect, go, sell all your possessions and give to the poor, and come follow me, and you will have treasure in heaven.” (Matthew 19:21)

Painting of Saint Anthony by Piero di Cosimo, c. 1480.

Painting of Saint Anthony by Piero di Cosimo, c. 1480. ( Public Domain )

He felt the passage had spoken to him directly.

Antony sold his property and departed for the desert. The story of Antony’s withdrawal into the desert became an example for later Christians eager to pursue solitude and contemplation. Athanasius says that, in spite of his quest for solitude, the desert “was made a city” by visitors to Antony’s hermitage and by monks who wished to emulate him. Antony needed to move into more and more remote areas to find the isolation he was seeking.

St. Anthony visits St. Paul in the wilderness. Albrecht Dürer (Germany, Nuremberg), 1471-1528.

St. Anthony visits St. Paul in the wilderness. Albrecht Dürer (Germany, Nuremberg), 1471-1528. ( Public Domain )

The Joy of Loneliness

Eventually, forms of monasticism developed that embraced both the solitary and the communal: Monasteries developed around communities of monks in the mountains and canyons of Egypt, Sinai and Palestine. Nearby caves served as hermitages .

This way of life was in keeping with what many Christians believed – that suffering was necessary for salvation. They praised the hermits who rejected the comforts of city and adopted the communal life. To them, the hermits were models of holiness and, paradoxically, happiness.

  • Monks, Hermits and Ascetics: The Little-Known History of Women in Desert Asceticism
  • A day in the life of an ancient Russian hermit
  • Monk Lives Life of Solitude on This 131-Foot-Tall Rock with a 2,000 Year History

Two hermits in a cave. Some chose to be alone together.

Two hermits in a cave. Some chose to be alone together. ( Public Domain )

Loneliness was transformed into joy. Athansius describes Antony’s face as “radiant” after a long period of isolation.

The lives of hermits may seem distant from our busy contemporary lives. But the romantic appeal of an unencumbered and undistracted life has not disappeared. Hermits in the 21st century come from all walks of life, religious and secular , but share with those from the past a longing for quiet solitude and simplicity.

Could the wisdom of artists, poets, and religious hermits offer comfort in a time of loneliness today?

Solitude, watching the horizon at sun set, in the hope of seeing a vessel, Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic (1824) by Augustus Earle.

Solitude, watching the horizon at sun set, in the hope of seeing a vessel, Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic (1824) by Augustus Earle. ( Public Domain )

Top Image: Detail of ‘Solitude’ (circa 1890) by Frederic Leighton, 1 st Baron Leighton. Source: Public Domain

The article, originally titled ‘ What the joyous solitude of early hermits can teach us about being alone ’ by Kim Haines-Eitzen was originally published on The Conversation and has republished under a Creative Commons license.

It seems to be a condition of the lack of melanin=life genes... from the recessive gene taxon of persons who has a problem of a plethora of unnecessary fears, and apprehensions of simply nothing, things like it may not be enough space, or food, and water to share; especially for the things that are considered 'normal' as communication, and connecting with others cordially is basically how most people live.. Also, adding the fact that as long as the Sun comes out each day, it is a guarantee that enough resources, and space will always be provided to sustain us all...And yet many hermits fear the worse... What is to be feared are those who hog from others, the basic needs of necessities, and limits, to disrupting the lives of different people, when it is not caused for at all, is what should be feared, in making the world into a complete "mayhem" ..Oh wait! it's TOO LATE.. I guess the hermits in this case are right...stay very afraid, and alone..and find a place in that of peace for much has been forced on chaos today.. I can't blame a hermit...

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What hermits can teach us about isolation

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Long stretches of time spent entirely alone? Elaborate stratagems dreamt up to maximise self-sufficiency? Straggly hair in need of some serious salon time? Anyone currently on lockdown or self-isolating will likely be able to relate to these features of a hermit’s life and more. Thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, even with screens permitting all manner of virtual connection, our homes can still feel as isolated as a recluse’s mountaintop eyrie. There’s one crucial difference, of course: unlike most of us, those legends of old chose their solitude.

Evolutionary biology tells us that we’re social animals, genetically programmed to build relationships and communities in order to survive and to thrive. Yet throughout history, there is evidence of a counter desire, a largely unsung and often mistrusted need for isolation. Nothing illustrates this better than our enduring fascination with hermits both real and fictional, from poet Emily Dickinson to billionaire Howard Hughes and Dr Seuss’ Grinch . In 18th Century Britain, landowners even built miniature classical temples in which to house men hired to play the part of so-called ornamental hermits.

Monks, in the desert

The word itself dates back to the 12th Century, and comes from the Greek word erēmia, meaning desert, a big clue to its religious roots. Paul of Thebes is widely regarded as the first hermit, fleeing anti-Christian persecution and a scheming relative to exist alone in the Egyptian desert from the age of 13 to his death in the year 314, aged 113. He lived in a cave, dining on bread delivered by a raven and dates from a palm in whose leaves he clothed himself. At the end of his life, he was visited by Anthony the Great, a monk who founded the Desert Fathers movement, drawing thousands to austere lives in the spartan landscape.

Other religions have their own hermits. Hindu philosophers, Taoist poets, Jewish mystics – all have been known to retreat from society in order to devote themselves more wholly to their faith. There were women, too, among them Mary of Egypt, the patron saint of penitents, who isolated herself in order to atone for her insatiable carnal appetites. On the whole, though, holy women of the 4th and 5th Centuries lived in fledgling monasteries, and there is no escaping the gendered notions inherent in our images of hermits.

Various religious faiths have had followers that retreated from the world to devote themselves more completely to their practice (Credit: Robert Wallis)

Various religious faiths have had followers that retreated from the world to devote themselves more completely to their practice (Credit: Robert Wallis)

Look to other cultures, and you’ll find that even early Buddhism’s chaste female wanderers, for example, were exceptions to the rule. Like the Hermit card in Tarot decks, we picture them male. In literature, the woman who opts for isolation tends to be at best a figure of pity, at worst, something more malevolent. Just contrast Charles Dickens’ wretched Miss Havisham or Charlotte Bronte’s original madwoman in the attic with Daniel Defoe’s iconic castaway, Robinson Crusoe .

No time to be lonely

Crusoe didn’t choose solitude, but he has nevertheless become its secular icon. It’s worth noting that he did find faith while stranded on his Caribbean island, ensuring that, heart-breaking laments notwithstanding, he never felt entirely alone. More pertinently to our contemporary plight, he kept himself really busy. You wouldn’t have caught him binge-streaming box sets; instead, he set about building his own home, growing food and taming wild goats.

Defoe’s legendary loner also had another advantage: he was written into being before the concept of loneliness as we understand it today took off. Indeed, “loneliness” is a word that rarely appears at all in English before about 1800. That’s in part due to the cramped intergenerational lifestyles that people were forced to lead. Living alone, as so many of us now do, would have been almost unheard of.

As anyone who’s ever walked into a sea of unfamiliar faces at a crowded party knows, there is a difference between feeling alone and being alone.

Not that being alone is synonymous with loneliness. If we confuse the two, it’s probably because we live in a society in which being on your own continues to be used as a punishment, from toddler time-outs to solitary confinement. Yet as anyone who’s ever walked into a sea of unfamiliar faces at a crowded party knows, there is a difference between feeling alone and being alone.

Daniel Defoe's fictional iconic castaway Robinson Crusoe was thrown into solitude after being shipwrecked on an island (Credit: MPI)

Daniel Defoe's fictional iconic castaway Robinson Crusoe was thrown into solitude after being shipwrecked on an island (Credit: MPI)

Being on your own can in fact be calming and restorative. Even teens, one study has found, are less self-conscious when they’re alone. Time spent with yourself gives you a clearer sense of who you are, and however discontented hermits are with the societies from which they walk, on some deep, peaceable level, they’re quite contented with themselves. As American philosopher Henry David Thoreau confided: “I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”

Modern hermits

Thoreau’s isolation has been greatly overstated. As it turns out, he hosted dinner parties at his pond-side Connecticut retreat and mum did his laundry, but he fuses multiple strands of hermit motivation: holing up for two years, two months and two days was at once a back-to-nature bid, striving for a life of monastic simplicity and also a means of focusing on his work.

In his 1935 essay ‘The Case for Hermits’, English writer GK Chesterton said “If men do not have Solitude, they go mad”

The creative benefits to be had from time spent alone are ample. Greek philosopher Plato , who’s known as the first poet of solitude, insisted that he needed it to think. Making ‘The Case for Hermits’ in his 1935 essay, English writer GK Chesterton was blunter: “If men do not have Solitude, they go mad,” he declared. Not for nothing did Virginia Woolf fantasise about that room of her own and poet William Wordsworth declare solitude “bliss” .

But it’s our own 21st Century era that has seen the most pronounced moves to collectively retreat into our solitary cells. Even before the current pandemic hushed our cities, there was an emerging cultural vogue for celebrating the joy of missing out by simply staying in. Japan has taken this to extremes with a growing population of hikikomori , individuals who withdraw entirely from physical social interaction.

Apps like Netflix and Deliveroo have given us less and less reason to leave our sanctuaries (Credit: Sean Gallup)

Apps like Netflix and Deliveroo have given us less and less reason to leave our sanctuaries (Credit: Sean Gallup)

Of course, technology now brings the world to our sofas. Thanks to the likes of Deliveroo and Netflix, we have less and less cause to leave our own sanctuaries. This has also meant that the life of even the most committed hermit isn’t what it once was. Consider Mauro Morandi , who’s earnt himself a reputation as Italy’s Robinson Crusoe. The octogenarian remains the sole inhabitant of the island of Budelli, off the coast of Sardinia, where he spends a lot of time reading and thinking and collecting wood. One feature of his routine that’s changed in the 30-plus years he’s been there is Instagram, to which he uploads images for his 47,000 followers.

Tame your goat

The Greek word erēmia is in turn rooted in erēmos, meaning desolate. While a certain bleak emptiness can accompany unsought solitude, there is solace to be found even so. As Chesterton observed in that same essay of his: “It is in society that men quarrel with their friends; it is in solitude that they forgive them.” Nurture those replenished feelings of goodwill. In today’s terms, maybe pick up the phone and have a chat. Remember, too, that being alone doesn’t mean you need feel lonely, especially not when staying apart is a course of action collectively undertaken.

Hermits meditate on life’s deeper meaning but they’ve traditionally also chosen habitats in which keeping body and soul together is a daily challenge – and perhaps a welcome respite from the heavier intellectual work of answering the questions that tend to fill a silent void. Crusoe was particularly diligent when it came to the daily business of self-care. No wild goats to tame? Try sowing some seeds on your windowsill instead.

If you’ve ever wondered what echoes of long-forgotten longings and ambitions you might hear within yourself were life only quiet enough, then now is the time to find out

Belief is what’s sustained many hermits over time – faith in the muse if not a religious deity. If you’ve ever wondered what echoes of long-forgotten longings and ambitions you might hear within yourself were life only quiet enough, then now is the time to find out – especially if you’re brave enough to switch off your internet connection.

Finally, one of history’s rarer female hermit voices, the Christian mystic Julian of Norwich – who lived through the Black Death as a child and survived serious illness in adulthood – provides words to which we all, believers, agnostics and atheists alike, might cling: “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

research on religious hermits and pioneers suggests that voluntary isolation

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The hermit life from medieval to modern.

Solitude can feel like a prison to those who don’t want it, while others deliberately seek to be alone in the hope of liberating themselves from noise and busyness. Many hermits across the ages can be seen to have chosen their isolation. However, as history tells us, the question of choice hasn’t always been so clear-cut.

Words by Kate Wilkinson 20 December 2018

  • In pictures

Image of sepia engraving of an old man kneeling and wearing a loin cloth

The hermit life has long been a tradition associated with seclusion and (religious) contemplation, away from the distractions of a flawed society. In Christianity, figures such as St Paul the First Hermit embody the idea of a simple, solitary life and imbue a sense of tradition to the religious solitaries that come throughout history. For believers, no one is ever really alone, as they are always with God.

Photo of statue of bearded man holding a book

Noble families in Medieval Europe used to offer a child up to the church as a hermit. The child would live in a specially built bricked-up room in the wall of a church with an opening allowing them to receive food and send out waste. Though an honourable position at the time, now we tend to see this sort of solitary confinement as a punishment.

Image of colour painting with a woman and a monk inside a church

One of the most famous women of her time, Hildegard von Bingen was offered by her parents to be enclosed at the remote Benedictine monastery of Disibodenberg when she was still a child. Like the English anchoress, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard experienced visions and became an influential religious figure.

Photograph of a young woman sitting at a wooden table in a hermitage. On the other side the table is an empty chair carved from a tree trunk. behind her are three small arched windows which show the trees and mist outside.

The 18th century saw the emergence of a trend among wealthy landowners to build a hermitage in their grounds and either use it themselves or employ a permanent ornamental hermit. The historian Gordon Campbell describes the trend: “At its core lies a notion of contemplative solitude and pleasurable melancholy, but it was also a fashion.”

Photograph of a young woman sitting looking out of the window of a hermit's hut, set in woodland.

In the mid 18th century Charles Hamilton advertised for a hermit at his 200-acre estate in Surrey. Hamilton set out many conditions, including banning the successful candidate from cutting his hair, beard or nails, or speaking with anyone. Despite the fact the post was well paid and meant to last seven years, the applicant was evidently not cut out for the solitary life. He was found in a local pub and dismissed from his role within weeks of starting.

Sepia sketch of a man with a beard wearing strange patchwork clothes and holding a pitchfork

Hamilton’s demands also stated that his hermit must wear a ‘camlet robe’ – a robe made from woven camel or goat’s hair. John Bigg, a legendary hermit of the 17th century, wore a peculiar outfit made from the scraps of leather he nailed into his clothes.

Colour drawing of a sailor with a coat, bear feet carrying baskets

Modern hermits take many forms, not all of them bearded and wearing strange clothes. In ‘A Book of Silence’, published in 2008, Sara Maitland looks at the lives of people today who occupy solitary states, such as solo sailors and polar explorers, as she reflects on her own pursuit of solitude and silence on the Isle of Skye.

Painting of bald man, woman and camel under a tree

Society has often looked to hermits for the insight they are presumed to have gained through solitude. While in some cultures hermits have embraced the role of wise man or healer, others would rather be left alone. The journalist Michael Finkel interviewed the notorious ‘North Pond hermit’ , from Maine in the US, when he was captured after over 20 years of solitude, but struggled to glean the profound insights he was hoping for.

Photo of Austrian valley with blue sky

The past century has seen rises in both disconnection and interconnection: single-occupancy households are on the increase, while the internet and communication systems have brought us closer together than ever. The desire to get away from it all remains strong, as evidenced by the competition to occupy a cliff-side hermitage in Austria in 2017.

Image of monochrome engraving featuring a dancing skeleton and a bearded man wearing long robes

Though hermits throughout the ages have adopted different roles in the public imagination, they all face the question of how to live completely and radically alone. For many, this state has had huge mental challenges, and in some cases the dangers of being alone have proved deadly. But for those who genuinely seek it, the solitude of the hermit life can have its rewards.

About the author

Head and shoulders photograph of a woman on a train, with neck-length hair, falling forward over her right cheek

Kate Wilkinson

  • @KAWilko on Twitter

Kate works at Pushkin Press. When not submerged in a book, she can be found walking or practising Spanish. Sometimes both at once.

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The life of a hermit: A glimpse inside the little-known state of life

research on religious hermits and pioneers suggests that voluntary isolation

The word ‘hermit’ might conjure up some strange images, a la John the Baptist living reclusively in the desert, wearing a hair shirt and eating locusts and honey.

The word itself comes from the Greek ‘eremos’, meaning wilderness or an isolated place. The vocation of a hermit became most popular among early Christians, who, inspired by Old Testament saints such as Elijah and John the Baptist, desired to live a life set apart and therefore withdrew into the desert in order to live lives of prayer and penance.

But the vocation is still a recognized calling in the Church today, and is about so much more than seemingly-odd ascetic practices and isolation.

In the interview below, Brother Rex, a hermit at Little Portion Hermitage in the Diocese of Portland, told Catholic News Agency what it is like to live the eremitic life in the 21st century.

What does it mean to be a hermit?

According to the Church’s latest Code of Canon Law the canonical definition of a hermit is as follows:

Can. 603 §1. In addition to institutes of consecrated life, the Church recognizes the eremitic or anchoritic life by which the Christian faithful devote their life to the praise of God and the salvation of the world through a stricter withdrawal from the world, the silence of solitude, and assiduous prayer and penance.

§2. A hermit is recognized by law as one dedicated to God in consecrated life if he or she publicly professes in the hands of the diocesan bishop the three evangelical counsels, confirmed by vow or other sacred bond, and observes a proper program of living under his direction.

A shorthand and non-canonical definition that I use is to say that a hermit is a woman or man who lives alone expressly for the glory of God, the good of the Church and the salvation of souls. Some hermits are consecrated by the Church per Canon 603 above and live their vocation in the name of the Church; some hermits live out their calling without publicly professing their commitment in the hands of the diocesan bishop. I am hermit of the former kind, i.e. according to Canon 603.

How did you find out about this way of life, and what drew you to it?

Grace drew me to this life. The example of the Desert Fathers and Mothers drew me to this life. The example of many of the great saints throughout history – Francis of Assisi, just to name one well-known saint who lived as hermit for a time before he was called to found a religious fraternity of Brother – drew me to this life. Through all and with all and in all of this it was God’s grace calling me to this particular way of discipleship.

How does one become a hermit? Was there someone you followed or learned from? How is the formation process different than that of a religious in community?

If a person wishes to discern a vocation to the eremitic life according to Canon 603, that person will want to contact the chancery of the diocese in which they live to determine whether or not the Ordinary of the diocese is open to the possibility of having a hermit under his canonical jurisdiction. If he is, the Ordinary or his representative in conversation with the would-be hermit will determine how the discernment process is to proceed.

What does a day in the life of a hermit look like?

Each hermit has his or her own schedule. My schedule looks like this:

My day begins around 4:00 a.m. I make a daily Holy Hour from 5:00-6:00 a.m. during which I pray the Morning Office. I attend daily Mass at a local parish at 7:00 a.m. After returning from Mass I have breakfast and spend the rest of the morning engaged in spiritual reading, Lectio Divina, and meeting occasionally with any person who has made an appointment to see me for spiritual direction. After Noonday Prayer and lunch, the afternoon (approximately 1-5 p.m.) consists of a work period during which I respond to email, and take prayer requests via email or regular mail. I pray the Evening Office at 5:00 p.m., my evening meal is at 5:30pm, Night Prayer is at 7 p.m., and lights out by 8 p.m. most nights.

This schedule is rigid enough to provide stability for my vocation in the silence of solitude, yet flexible enough to accommodate running errands, doctor’s appointments, accomplishing tasks around the hermitage and so forth.

How isolated are hermits, in practice? How often or in what context do you encounter other people?

It varies. Some hermits rarely venture out of their hermitage. Some hermits venture out a couple of days a week to some form of work to provide financial support. The amount of time a hermit spends outside the hermitage or otherwise encounters other people is determined to a large degree by the interpretation of Canon 603 in dialogue with their Ordinary or his representative, and the hermit’s Rule or Plan of Life.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about this way of life that you have encountered?

The biggest misconception I have encountered is that people seem to think that hermits are misanthropes who dislike other people and so hide away from them; that our life is not so because we love God, but because we can’t get along with other people (at best) or dislike humans altogether (at worst).

I remember one person telling me I couldn’t possibly be a hermit because I am too outgoing and friendly toward others! That being said, I would argue that eremitic life and misanthropy are two very different things. Eremitic life is a calling from God and includes a love of others. Misanthropy on the other hand is a psychologically maladaptive response to the world. This is not to say that all hermits are friendly and outgoing – being friendly and outgoing are a matter of temperament – but it is to say that hermits in a healthy and Christian sense do not, indeed cannot, “dislike humankind” which is the very definition of misanthropy.

What are some of the most joyful aspects of the life of a hermit?

One of the most joyful aspect of my life as a hermit is the opportunity God has given me to spend long periods in the silence of solitude to practice being present to God and to my neighbor through prayer. Paradoxically perhaps, another joyful aspect of my vocation is the part I am blessed to play in the lives of other people as they invite me to join them on their life journey through the ministry of intercessory prayer. Thus, in a particular way i am able to fulfill Our Lord’s command to love God and neighbor.

Are there other hermits in the U.S. that you know of, or have met? Is there a hermit network of sorts?

I’m sure someone somewhere keeps an official tally of the total number of consecrated hermits in the Church throughout world, but I don’t know who or where. In the diocese where I live there are five or six other hermits listed in the official Diocesan Directory. I am also aware of hermits, both male and female, in other dioceses in the U.S. and abroad. As for a ‘hermit network,’ I know of nothing official, but some of us do keep in touch via an occasional email, or letter or phone call. As I said, we not misanthropes. Not most of us, anyway!

Is there anything that you wish other Catholics, Christians or society at large knew about being a hermit?

What I pray for other Catholics, non-Catholic Christians and society at large is that they, like me, come to experience the freedom, happiness and joy that comes from submitting one’s will and life to the loving lordship of Jesus Christ in whatever state of life they find themselves.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Assure your readers that I live my vocation as a prayer for them. Ask them to please pray for me, a sinner.

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research on religious hermits and pioneers suggests that voluntary isolation

The Friendly Recluse

Medieval hermits were the agony aunts of their day. 

research on religious hermits and pioneers suggests that voluntary isolation

The small Austrian town of Saalfelden is recruiting, but the advert on the town’s website is not for a town clerk or street cleaner. They are looking for a hermit. The 350-year-old hermitage built into the cliffside above the town is one of the last still in use in Europe. It has no electricity or running water. That a 21st-century central European town should be seeking someone to take up such a position may be surprising, but this is a very modern hermit. The job description asks that the candidates should have ‘soft skills’: talkative and personable, they must be ready to deal with the visitors who ‘come to the hermit and tell him what moves and oppresses them’. However, this is not necessarily a jarring attempt to modernise the ancient role of the recluse. The Saalfelden hermit may have more in common with his medieval forbears than first appears. The qualifications for these figures who stood outside mainstream society were little different historically and their advisory role has been prized for centuries.

Hermits, anchorites and anchoresses (men or women who lived enclosed in a small cell in a church) were holy figures with looser ties to ecclesiastical authorities and more autonomy than those who lived in formal religious communities. Hermits could move from place to place and were often given jobs overseeing bridges, gates and ferry terminals, but the Rule of St Benedict still held: their nature was one of isolation and ‘the solitary combat of the desert’. Guides written for them cautioned against any social contact. Aelred, Abbot of Rievaulx, wrote in his letter of advice to his anchoress sister in around 1160, De Institutione Inclusarum , that she should live ‘as a body dead to this world … buried in a cave with Christ’, consistent with the fact that the deathbed office of Extreme Unction was often performed at the ceremony of enclosure. While anchoresses’ cells would commonly have two small windows, one onto the church and one onto the street, the early 13th-century guide, the Ancrene Wisse , advised ‘love your windows as little as ever you can’, and 200 years later the Speculum Inclusorum (‘A Mirror for Recluses’) warned of the dangers of unbridled conversation with visitors. There was, however, a considerable gulf between theory and practice.

While the degree of social contact medieval recluses had differed, there is evidence to suggest that they were the agony aunts of their day, often flying in the face of the recommendations of religious authorities. That many of these supposed recluses were in fact living in the heart of Europe’s bustling medieval cities begins to give us a clue that they fulfilled a social function that the official guides barely hint at. The scholar of medieval devotional literature, Michelle M. Sauer, has said that while ‘The anchorite, in theory, was utterly alone in the cell … the reality of this lifestyle was quite different’ and ‘anchoresses were sought out by devout Christians and courted by towns, becoming a visible sign of holiness and protection’. No one typifies this role more than Julian of Norwich, who was anchoress of the church of Saint Julian the Hospitaller from around 1390 and author of the first book in English by a woman: The Shewings or Revelations of Divine Love .

research on religious hermits and pioneers suggests that voluntary isolation

Julian of Norwich was surrounded by the traffic of trade in one of the most important cities of late medieval England. She was attached to a church dedicated to the patron saint of boatmen and travellers, close to the River Wensum and within earshot of the quay where wool and cloth were exported to continental Europe and artworks and new forms of religious devotion came in from the Low Countries. Scholars have suggested that this location influenced the imagery of her visions: Christ’s body at the Crucifixion was ‘hung in the air, as a cloth is hung to dry’, just as the local weavers dried their cloth in the churchyard of St Julian’s, having washed it in the river, while the bleeding beneath the crown of thorns was compared to ‘herring scales as it spread on the forehead’, like those of fish landed nearby. Such cells were often located in places of thoroughfare and many in Norwich sought the counsel of these accessible ‘solitaries’. One in five testators of surviving wills in Norwich between 1370 and 1532 left bequests to local recluses, of whom there was a peak of around ten in Julian’s lifetime. Such recluses were of most importance to the marginalised, women in particular. 

The author of the first autobiography in English, Margery Kempe, travelled from her native King’s Lynn around 1414 to Norwich to see Julian, urgently seeking guidance on whether her mystical experiences were demonically inspired. Her visit came after years of being dismissed and humiliated by neighbours, priests and holy men. Her almost constant weeping and habit of criticising others’ moral laxity had won her few friends. Julian, who Margery says in her book ‘could give good advice’, was all reassurance. She told her:

‘Holy Writ says that the soul of a righteous man is the seat of God, and so I trust, sister, that you are’ and ‘do not fear the talk of the world, for the more contempt, shame and reproof that you have in this world, the more is your merit in the sight of God’. This must have been a considerable relief to a woman who was accused of heresy at a time when the Lollards were being burnt in England. Although she later reported that an anchoress in York refused to see her, having heard of her reputation, Margery adds that her confessor, a Dominican anchorite in King’s Lynn, was also a believer in the authenticity of her experiences. The anchorite offered the kind of no strings attached advice that the Saalfelden hermit will be looked to to dispense. 

While the former post-holder at Saalfelden, an ex-psychotherapist, reported that some visitors were disappointed because he lacked a cowl or a beard, his medieval precursors served a need that continues today. Modern counselling is built on the psychologist Carl Rogers’ principle of ‘unconditional positive regard’ – complete acceptance of and support for the client. Julian of Norwich seems to have displayed just that in her meeting with Margery Kempe, which constituted a kind of talking therapy. That hermits are still needed today suggests a continuing search for people who can guide us impartially. Those divorced from our own experiences of life may be most able to throw those experiences into relief.

Sophia L. Deboick is a historian of religion and popular culture and a freelance writer.

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By Andreas Matthias

Thank you! Thanks for your kind words. The Hermitary website is entirely my effort, since its inception in 2002. From the outset I used a pseudonym, and only use my real name now that I am launching a book, The Book of Hermits . I was born in the United States. My ancestry is partly Caribbean (Puerto Rico and Cuba) and partly Spain (specifically Asturias). I pursued history and philosophy at university and became a librarian in universities and colleges for some forty years until retiring. I identify with the Spanish writer Azorín’s self-description of being a pequeño filósofo, a minor, or insignificant, philosopher.

My wife and I married nearly fifty years ago. As the poet Rilke said, “Love consists of this: two solitudes that meet, protect and greet each other.” I also like the story of the ancient Chinese couple Meng Guang and Li Hong, who reclused to the mountains together. Meng Guang was an exemplary woman who prodded her husband to reclusion, and the Tang poet Po Chū-i praised his own wife as “my Meng Guang.” We live in a tiny house among mountains and forests in Vermont. We have two adult sons.

The psychologist Jung first identified introversion and extraversion and described psychological types in great detail. The interior life — which draws a person to the hermit life — is a complex but definite influence on me, fed by intellectual sources. As an adolescent, already something of a solitary, I suffered a brain tumor and surgery that resulted in a year out of school that convinced me to pursue a life of learning and reflection. I suppose my hermit interests began there, too.

I mention in the book that I am not trying to promote or popularize hermits.

Hermits seem to be a neglected social phenomenon. More importantly, the website and book arose because it occurred to me that just as historical hermits were more than eccentric recluses and solitaries but in fact could serve as models of ethics, aesthetics, and personality, so it seemed to me that others could benefit from learning of their history, their sayings, their wisdom.

Tweet!

At the outset of starting Hermitary I found old books and stray bits of information about hermits, especially from particular religious points of view. Bringing these bits of knowledge together convinced me to share what I learned, anonymously. I do think hermits would rather stay out of the limelight, while telling their stories nevertheless, if only as catharsis. Hermits reflect universal sentiments and emotions, and chronicling the universality of their history can tell us a lot about ourselves.

I am content with the guise of amateur historian, little philosopher, and frankly, old librarian, neither scholar nor journalist. I did not leave my dwelling place to discover all of the information in Hermitary and The Book of Hermits . So much is past history, so much has been documented. Yet there is always something new. I just wanted to put it together in one place.

The Hermit of Suwarrow

Tom Neale spent a total of fourteen years alone on a little island in the Suwarrow Atoll in the South Pacific, where he found peace and happiness in solitude. We have a look at this extraordinary life.

If we return to the original sense of what philosophy means, “love of wisdom,” then the historical hermits pursue this project, this search for wisdom, with their entire lives, not abstractly but entirely. As Kahlil Gibran put it, “A hermit is one who renounces the world of fragments that he may enjoy the world wholly and without interruption.” This is what we see in the historical hermits. At the same time many hermits were writers and poets, many were the subjects of biography or hagiography, so we actually have a good sense of how the hermits were lovers of wisdom.

Interestingly, while hermits did live in caves and forests, at the same time they interacted with others as they preferred. Hermits are not recluses fearing or distrusting others. Eccentric, perhaps, but not pathological! Potential hermits know that they must — as someone once wrote — check in their baggage before pursuing the hermit life.

What is fascinating about hermits is their universality. From ancient to modern India, China, Japan, to early Christian desert hermits, throughout Eastern and Western Europe from the Middle Ages to more recently. Hermits span history, geography, culture, and tradition. Their motives are psychological, ethical, aesthetic, from a love of nature to a pursuit of the spiritual to a desire for solitude and simplicity. It is a journey I enjoy chronicling in the book.

In short, the confrontation with modernity. In the West, hermits were always hounded by the institutional church, which wanted hermits carefully controlled and supervised in monasteries. The first desert hermits in ancient Christian Egypt were monks fleeing the urban monasteries. They were not heretics but objected to the rote formulaic rituals and practices of the church that stultified true spirituality, simplicity, asceticism, and authentic self-sufficiency — in short, pursuit of a life of wisdom. The hermits fled not only the world but the church in the world, as Thomas Merton put it.

My favorite model is Paul of Thebes, who asked a visitor to his desert cave, “How fares the world these days? What empire holds sway? Are the people still misled by demons?” Of course we can secularize and update the vocabulary, but it is still a valid sentiment, a quintessential hermit sentiment.

The same contention happens in the Middle Ages. When new religious orders emerge, based on the desert model of individual cells for hermits and a common area for Sunday ritual and socializing, the new orders are opposed by the institutional church. The archetypal theologian Thomas Aquinas expressed skepticism about eremitism, agreeing with Aristotle that a solitary is either godly (which is impossible) or a beast.

With modernity come economic and social changes, skepticism and religious wars. Hermits were suppressed. But a new form of expression emerged: solitude.

Yes. The hermits had designed the life and project, but with social, economic, and political changes, the lifestyle collapsed under overwhelming pressure. Solitude, a secular and individual phenomenon, emerges. Solitude reflects a condition, not a project. Nevertheless, solitude is itself a philosophical reflection on conditions of life as much as a response to life. The sense of solitude always lurked beneath the eremitic project. The Book of Hermits devotes a lot of space to solitude.

The ancient Greek thinkers Diogenes and Epicurus were trying to craft a way in which the individual could eschew corrupt society without overt confrontation. Thus Diogenes was considered mad because he was homeless, unconventional, but spoke truthfully, even to the face of Alexander the Great.

Epicureanism: The Basic Idea

Ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BC) believes that the way to ensure happiness throughout life is to reduce one’s desires so that they can be easily fulfilled.

Epicurus saw small private personal pursuits as the best course of life for the intelligent person, and this necessitated solitude. Seneca devised a Stoicism that bolstered an ethic for the solitary life. By the time of the Renaissance, with disparate figures such as the poet Petrarch, the essayist Montaigne, the philosophers Descartes and Pascal, culminating in the early modern period with Rousseau, solitude is the refuge of what in another era would have been eremitism. But then, what is the difference between them and the “hermit in the city” of the ancient Chinese Taoists?

Solitude as a theme in literature and art accelerates in interest among the well-read. By the nineteenth century, philosophers of solitude pick up on the implications of this project to make life meaningful, autonomous, and content. Here the list of thinkers is long and requires careful teasing-out of the solitude theme.

In the nineteenth century, Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Dostoyevsky, and Nietzsche (who expands wonderfully on the figure of Diogenes in his parable of the madman in The Gay Science ); in the arts are Romantic poets from Lamartine and Vigny to Hölderlin and Wordsworth, from Emily Dickinson, to tales about “isolatoes” in Melville and Conrad. More eclectic philosophers of solitude include Emerson and Thoreau. And, of course, by the twentieth century, we find solitude themes of alienation and existentialism in Kafka, Rilke, Hesse, Pessoa, Camus, Heidegger, Simone Weil, Gibran, and Ionesco, to mention just a few. I give all of these figures their due in the book. The rehabilitation of hermits in the twentieth century is a grand project: the reconstruction of lost values and the philosophical insights of the historical hermits.

DP: But then, we also have the modern phenomena of loneliness and social isolation, which can look similar to solitude and perhaps be confused with it. For example, in modern Japanese culture, we have the phenomenon of the hikikomori — young people who live socially reclusive lives by choice. Wikipedia sees them as a kind of hermit.

Would you agree that every kind of voluntary social isolation is an instance of eremitism, or do hermits need to have some “loftier” goal, for example to see their eremitism as a spiritual exercise, a means to achieve some particular mental state that is valuable in itself?

Many solitaries would be reduced by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) of the American Psychiatric Association to a “personality disorder.” The DSM even has a “cluster” labeled “odd and eccentric” behavior, with its behaviors labeled on a trajectory of psychopathy and deviance culminating in crime, violence, and remorselessness. To be sure, this is not the hikikomori.

Solitude as a psychologically oppressive phenomenon has characterized social alienation in modernity for at least the last two centuries. Social withdrawal such as hikikomori, what researchers recently call “a culture-bound syndrome of social withdrawal,” is the product of anxiety and dissociative disorders prompted in part by modernity — society, technology, culture, exactly what historical hermits consciously avoid.

research on religious hermits and pioneers suggests that voluntary isolation

Robert Rodriguez: The Book of Hermits. Here is a new, comprehensive book on Hermits by Robert Rodriguez, the creator of the hermitary.com website. This is a wonderful, sympathetic and informative book from a lifelong researcher of hermit life and lore. I loved reading it, and I cannot recommend it more. Get it right here on Amazon ! - Dr Andreas Matthias, Editor of Daily Philosophy. Amazon affiliate link. If you buy through this link, Daily Philosophy will get a small commission at no cost to you. Thanks!

Eremitism is, indeed, a voluntary social withdrawal, with emphasis on the volitional motive. One does look for some loftier goal, some conscious design or project, that distinguishes eremitism. In the historical hermits, this pursuit is marked by an application or discipline that is constructive, ethical, self-reliant, creative, and — as you rightly suggest — a spiritual exercise, a project of transcendence.

DP: I just read a Guardian article about “River Dave,” a hermit who is now, in old age, abandoning his hermit life.

It surprised me that he said in this interview that he might have been mistaken when he chose to live as a hermit: “Maybe the things I’ve been trying to avoid are the things that I really need in life … I grew up never being hugged or kissed, or any close contact.”

And in the video he adds: “Maybe I was a hermit for nothing.”

This is a sobering summary of a hermit’s life. Apart from that particular person, whose personal circumstances we don’t want to judge, what does this tell us, in your opinion, about the different kinds of hermits? Can someone who judges that his hermit life might have been “for nothing” be called a “genuine” (i.e. spiritual) hermit? Can we really imagine that a whole life lived as a hermit might have been “for nothing”? Is someone who judges their life like that mistaken in their judgement?

Isn’t it inevitable that a life lived in isolation and concentration will bestow some kind of gain on a person, in terms of valuable insights or a clarity of mind that they wouldn’t have had otherwise? And yet, this particular hermit does not seem to see it like that. And this leads us to a more general (and unsettling) question: how much of the hermit movement might just be people who leave society for the “wrong” reasons, because of some kind of trauma, rather than in a positive search for a better, more spiritual alternative? Or shouldn’t we talk of “wrong” and “right” reasons for being a hermit?

You are right that motive matters, especially among secular hermits, who fall back on personality as an eremitic motive. The rediscovery by Chinese youth of their nation’s historical hermits is a constructive and balanced view of eremitism and its reconfiguration today, getting beyond just personality.

In the case of “River Dave,” however, the psychology is not inexplicable. He squatted for years on another’s property and feared disclosure. Upon discovery comes shock, intense anger, resentment of others not suffering his fate, and denial of his motive, doubting and betraying his own long-held motives. He is jailed for trespass and vows he will die there, a deep despair. But he is let out, forced to redefine his life. Dave begins telling his story. Suddenly, acquaintances reach out to help him, and even strangers he may have once disdained contribute to a GoFundMe campaign, of all things. Out of despair and rejection of his past may yet emerge meaning, a new plan. Dave denied the worth of his hermit life in order to salvage his self-image, that life which had been taken from him. Notice that these are the classic — need I say inevitable — Kubler-Ross stages of grief. Secular hermits, cutting off spiritual resources, risk vulnerability deeper than their historical counterparts. By no means does the secular exclude spiritual, philosophical, aesthetic, or ethical resilience. I mention the various fates of several modern secular hermits in the book.

So little time and such an enormous topic!

Hermits are at the core of Asian cultures. India’s asramas or social stages, culminate with retirement to the life of a forest hermit as a householder’s highest aspiration, a further option being the wanderer or sadhu. A favorite Buddhist Pali text of this era is titled “Wander Alone Like the Rhinoceros.”

In ancient China, hermits represent the highest ethical standard. In the legend of the Boyi brothers, who reclused to the mountains rather than serve their father, lord of the province, in attacking and overthrowing a neighboring province, we have a strong moral decision that inspires the high ethics of a whole culture, beginning with Confucius, who spends his life trying (not very successfully) to inculcate ethics into the many provincial lords, along with a scheme of education, ritual, hierarchy, and the arts.

One anecdote describes a journey of Confucius to a province, with an attendant of Confucius alighting from the carriage to consult farmers in a field about directions. The attendant speaks of his master but the farmer replies that a true master would know the difference between one grain seed and another. The farmers continue: Why are you pursuing lords, vainly hoping to reform the world? Better to flee the world. The attendant returns to Confucius and reports the exchange. Confucius replies, “They are hermits.”

Confucius on Loyalty and Betrayal

For Confucius, one’s personal loyalties to family, friends, co-workers and superiors are more important than the rules of some abstract ethical theory.

Eventually, the Confucian doctrine became “Serve the lord when he is good; if he is evil, recluse.” This is the hermit guide for the later Taoists and Buddhists, for over a thousand years, with hundreds of officials at court reclusing to distant villages, farms, and mountains rather than remaining at court. Because they include many poets, from Tao Chien to Du Fu to Hanshan to Shiwu (Stonehouse), we have a significant corpus of eremitic literature and documentation. The same phenomenon applies to Japan, where Zen Buddhism and a tradition of reclusion generates hermit-poets from medieval to modern, such as Kamo no Chōmei, Saigyō, Bashō (the master of haiku poetry and aesthetic theory of wabi and sabi), and Ryōkan.

Solitude is a component of practice in modern India even if not the goal, as in the philosophical thought of Hindu figures including Ramakrishna, Aurobindo, and Ramana Maharshi. A formal philosopher who clearly discerns the core implications of solitude for the individual is J. Krishnamurti.

So we have lightly brushed some of the many sources of eremitic thought! If philosophy is both the love of wisdom and the pursuit of a life of wisdom, then the hermits are among history’s best models.

Being a hermit is essentially the same across cultures. All the hermits share the same disposition, tap the same sense of simplicity, share the same goal of harmony of self with nature, and pursue the love of wisdom in remarkably similar ways. Of course, we encounter the inevitable issue pointed out by Krishnamurti, that the hermit in solitary meditation is still a Hindu hermit or a Christian hermit, etc. So the hermit is transcending not culture as such but lack of self-consciousness. Pursuing the lives and sayings of the historical hermits reveals this path toward love of wisdom.

The book falls between scholarship and reportage. I delve into a lot of names, many familiar in philosophy, religion, or world literature, many perhaps not, ironically, to fields like history or biography. Nor have these many figures been approached in terms of solitude in their thought, and placed in this context. In many respects, the book’s approach is academic but I am not a scholar; the intended audience is the intelligent but especially the curious reader. I tried to be thorough, as we’ve been describing here, following up hermits, eremitism, and solitude themes. The book culminates with modern hermits and solitaries, both men and women, all the way up to today. I add an appendix on the intriguing role of the dwelling-place in the lives of the historical and modern hermits.

Huts, Homelessness and Heimat

For Heidegger, we let things be what they are. Chōmei, steeped in the Buddhist conception of the interdependence of everything, would concur.

As I mentioned, I started with the Hermitary website, back in 2002. That project has been ongoing, helping consolidate all I learned and found interesting along the way. The site complements the book. I run a blog that updates hermits today and another with my reflections on related topics. I am building web galleries featuring hermits in art, photos, film, video, and music. New insights? I enjoy discovering the presence and influence of eremitism, subtle or obvious, in every field of human expression: art, literature, society, psychology, and culture. The book is stuffed with everything hermit!

Robert Rodriguez: The Book of Hermits

Robert Rodriguez’ “The Book of Hermits” is a work of impressive scholarship, covering the global history and lore of eremitism from antiquity to the present.

The book is available for pre-sale from the usual vendors. I update a list of vendors on the hermitary website . An ebook version of the paperback is also available.

Oh, there are so many! Here is one. I like the sentiment of the early twentieth-century writer T. F. Powys, author of Soliloquies of a Hermit , who wrote that mystics should give up their metaphysical speculations and content themselves to “peacefully planting cabbages.” And I highly recommend the little animation of Jean Giono’s “The Man Who Planted Trees” for a portrait of what a modern hermit might look like.

Do you still have questions about hermits? Put them in the comments below and I will relay them to the author. Have you tried the hermit life or a life in solitude yourself? Tell us about your experiences in the comments!

Cover image on this page by Tengyart on Unsplash .

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  • ISRN Psychiatry
  • v.2012; 2012

Religion, Spirituality, and Health: The Research and Clinical Implications

Harold g. koenig.

1 Departments of Medicine and Psychiatry, Duke University Medical Center, P.O. Box 3400, Durham, NC 27705, USA

2 Department of Medicine, King Abdulaziz University, Jeddah 21413, Saudi Arabia

This paper provides a concise but comprehensive review of research on religion/spirituality (R/S) and both mental health and physical health. It is based on a systematic review of original data-based quantitative research published in peer-reviewed journals between 1872 and 2010, including a few seminal articles published since 2010. First, I provide a brief historical background to set the stage. Then I review research on R/S and mental health, examining relationships with both positive and negative mental health outcomes, where positive outcomes include well-being, happiness, hope, optimism, and gratefulness, and negative outcomes involve depression, suicide, anxiety, psychosis, substance abuse, delinquency/crime, marital instability, and personality traits (positive and negative). I then explain how and why R/S might influence mental health. Next, I review research on R/S and health behaviors such as physical activity, cigarette smoking, diet, and sexual practices, followed by a review of relationships between R/S and heart disease, hypertension, cerebrovascular disease, Alzheimer's disease and dementia, immune functions, endocrine functions, cancer, overall mortality, physical disability, pain, and somatic symptoms. I then present a theoretical model explaining how R/S might influence physical health. Finally, I discuss what health professionals should do in light of these research findings and make recommendations in this regard.

1. Historical Background and Introduction

Religion, medicine, and healthcare have been related in one way or another in all population groups since the beginning of recorded history [ 1 ]. Only in recent times have these systems of healing been separated, and this separation has occurred largely in highly developed nations; in many developing countries, there is little or no such separation. The history of religion, medicine, and healthcare in developed countries of the West, though, is a fascinating one. The first hospitals in the West for the care of the sick in the general population were built by religious organizations and staffed by religious orders. Throughout the Middle Ages and up through the French Revolution, physicians were often clergy. For hundreds of years, in fact, religious institutions were responsible for licensing physicians to practice medicine. In the American colonies, in particular, many of the clergy were also physicians—often as a second job that helped to supplement their meager income from church work.

Care for those with mental health problems in the West also had its roots within monasteries and religious communities [ 2 ]. In 1247, the Priory of St. Mary of Bethlehem was built in London on the Thames River [ 3 ]. Originally designed to house “distracted people,” this was Europe's (and perhaps the world's) first mental hospital. In 1547, however, St. Mary's was torn down and replaced by Bethlehem or Bethlem Hospital [ 4 ]. Over the years, as secular authorities took control over the institution, the hospital became famous for its inhumane treatment of the mentally ill, who were often chained [ 5 ], dunked in water, or beaten as necessary to control them. In later years, an admission fee (2 pence) was charged to the general public to observe the patients abusing themselves or other patients [ 4 ]. The hospital eventually became known as “bedlam” (from which comes the word used today to indicate a state of confusion and disarray).

In response to the abuses in mental hospitals, and precipitated by the death of a Quaker patient in New York asylum in England, an English merchant and devout Quaker named William Tuke began to promote a new form of treatment of the mentally ill called “moral treatment.” In 1796, he and the Quaker community in England established their own asylum known as the York Retreat [ 6 ]. Not long after this, the Quakers brought moral treatment to America, where it became the dominant form of psychiatric care in that country [ 6 ]. Established in Philadelphia by the Quakers in 1813, “Friends Hospital” (or Friends Asylum) became the first private institution in the United States dedicated solely to the care of those with mental illness [ 7 ]. Psychiatric hospitals that followed in the footsteps of Friends Asylum were the McLean Hospital (established in 1818 in Boston, and now associated with Harvard), the Bloomingdale Asylum (established in 1821 in New York), and the Hartford Retreat (established in 1824 in Connecticut)—all modeled after the York Retreat and implementing moral treatment as the dominant therapy.

It was not until modern times that religion and psychiatry began to part paths. This separation was encouraged by the psychiatrist Sigmund Freud. After being “introduced” to the neurotic and hysterical aspects of religion by the famous French neurologist Jean Charcot in the mid-1880s, Freud began to emphasize this in a widely read series of publications from 1907 through his death in 1939. Included among these were Religious Acts and Obsessive Practices [ 8 ], Psychoanalysis and Religion [ 9 ], Future of an Illusion [ 10 ], and Moses and Monotheism [ 11 ]. These writings left a legacy that would influence the practice of psychiatry—especially psychotherapy—for the rest of the century and lead to a true schism between religion and mental health care. That schism was illustrated in 1993 by a systematic review of the religious content of DSM-III-R, which found nearly one-quarter of all cases of mental illness being described using religious illustrations [ 12 ]. The conflict has continued to the present day. Consider recent e-letters in response to two articles published in The Psychiatrist  about this topic [ 13 , 14 ] and an even more recent debate about the role of prayer in psychiatric practice [ 15 ]. This conflict has manifested in the clinical work of many mental health professionals, who have generally ignored the religious resources of patients or viewed them as pathological. Consider that a recent national survey of US psychiatrists found that 56% said they never, rarely, or only sometimes inquire about religious/spiritual issues in patients with depression or anxiety [ 16 ]. Even more concerning, however, is that the conflict has caused psychiatrists to avoid conducting research on religion and mental health. This explains why so little is known about the relationship between religious involvement and severe mental disorders (see Handbook of Religion and Health ) [ 17 ].

Despite the negative views and opinions held by many mental health professionals, research examining religion, spirituality, and health has been rapidly expanding—and most of it is occurring outside the field of psychiatry. This research is being published in journals from a wide range of disciplines, including those in medicine, nursing, physical and occupational therapy, social work, public health, sociology, psychology, religion, spirituality, pastoral care, chaplain, population studies, and even in economics and law journals. Most of these disciplines do not readily communicate with each another, and their journal audiences seldom overlap. The result is a massive research literature that is scattered throughout the medical, social, and behavioral sciences.

To get a sense of how rapidly the research base is growing see Figure 1 . The graphs plot the number of studies published in peer-reviewed journals during every noncumulative 3-year period from 1971 to 2012. Note that about 50% of these articles are reports of original research with quantitative data, whereas the other 50% are qualitative reports, opinion pieces, reviews, or commentaries. Google Scholar presents a more comprehensive picture since it includes studies published in both Medline and non-Medline journals. These graphs suggest that the volume of research on R/S and health has literally exploded since the mid-1990s.

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Object name is ISRN.PSYCHIATRY2012-278730.001.jpg

Religion spirituality and health articles published per 3-year period (noncumulative) Search terms: religion, religious, religiosity, religiousness, and spirituality (conducted on 8/11/12; projected to end of 2012).

2. Definitions

Before summarizing the research findings, it is first necessary to provide definitions of the words religion and spirituality that I am using. There is much controversy and disagreement concerning definitions in this field, particularly over the term “spirituality,” and space here does not allow a full discussion of these complex issues. For an in depth discussion, including an exploration of contamination and confounding in the measurement of spirituality, I refer the reader to other sources [ 18 – 20 ]. Here are the definitions we provided in the Handbook .

“[Religion] Involves beliefs, practices, and rituals related to the transcendent , where the transcendent is God, Allah, HaShem, or a Higher Power in Western religious traditions, or to Brahman, manifestations of Brahman, Buddha, Dao, or ultimate truth/reality in Eastern traditions. This often involves the mystical or supernatural. Religions usually have specific beliefs about life after death and rules about conduct within a social group. Religion is a multidimensional construct that includes beliefs, behaviors, rituals, and ceremonies that may be held or practiced in private or public settings, but are in some way derived from established traditions that developed over time within a community. Religion is also an organized system of beliefs, practices, and symbols designed (a) to facilitate closeness to the transcendent, and (b) to foster an understanding of one's relationship and responsibility to others in living together in a community.” [ 21 ].

“Spirituality is distinguished from all other things—humanism, values, morals, and mental health—by its connection to that which is sacred, the transcendent . The transcendent is that which is outside of the self, and yet also within the self—and in Western traditions is called God, Allah, HaShem, or a Higher Power, and in Eastern traditions may be called Brahman, manifestations of Brahman, Buddha, Dao, or ultimate truth/reality. Spirituality is intimately connected to the supernatural, the mystical, and to organized religion, although also extends beyond organized religion (and begins before it). Spirituality includes both a search for the transcendent and the discovery of the transcendent and so involves traveling along the path that leads from nonconsideration to questioning to either staunch nonbelief or belief, and if belief, then ultimately to devotion and finally, surrender. Thus, our definition of spirituality is very similar to religion and there is clearly overlap.” [ 22 ].

For the research review presented here, given the similarity in my definition of these terms and the fact that spirituality in the research has either been measured using questions assessing religion or by items assessing mental health (thereby contaminating the construct and causing tautological results), I will be using religion and spirituality interchangeably (i.e., R/S).

3. Method of the Review

I summarize the research findings between R/S and health first in the area of mental health outcomes, then for health behaviors, and finally for physical health outcomes. The information presented here is based on a systematic review of peer-reviewed original data-based reports published though mid-2010 and summarized in two editions of the Handbook of Religion and Health [ 23 , 24 ]. How these systematic reviews were conducted, however, needs brief explanation. This is particularly true for ratings of study methodology that are used to summarize the findings below.

The systematic review to identify the studies presented in the Handbooks and summarized in this paper was conducted as follows. We utilized a combination of strategies to identify the studies (excluding most reviews or qualitative research). First, we systematically searched online databases (PsycINFO, MEDLINE, etc.) using the search words “religion,” “religiosity,” “religiousness,” and “spirituality” to identify studies on the R/S-health relationship. Second, we asked prominent researchers in the field to alert us to published research they knew about and to send us research that they themselves had conducted. Third, if there were studies cited in the reference lists of the studies located, we tracked down those as well. Using this method, we identified over 1,200 quantitative original data-based publications during the period 1872 to 2000 and 2,100 studies examining the R/S-health relationship from 2000 to 2010. All of these studies are described in the appendices of the two editions of the Handbook. Based on other reviews of the research conducted around this same time period (but more limited), we estimate that our review captured about 75% of the published research. Bear in mind that many, many more qualitative studies have been published on the topic that were not included in this review.

In order to assess the methodological quality of the studies, quality ratings were assigned as follows. Ratings of each of the more than 3,300 studies were made on a scale from 0 (low) to 10 (high) and were performed by a single examiner (HGK) to ensure rating consistency. Scores were determined according to the following eight criteria: study design (clinical trial, prospective cohort, cross-sectional, etc.), sampling method (random, systematic, or convenience), number of R/S measures, quality of measures, quality of mental health outcome measure, contamination between R/S measures and mental health outcomes, inclusion of control variables, and statistical method, based on a scheme adapted from Cooper [ 25 ]. Cooper emphasized the definition of variables, validity and reliability of measures, representativeness of the sample (sample size, sampling method, and response rates), research methods (quality of experimental manipulation and adequacy of control group for clinical trials), how well the execution of the study conformed to the design, appropriateness of statistical tests (power, control variables), and the interpretation of results.

To assess the reliability of the ratings, we compared HGK's ratings on 75 studies with the ratings made by an independent outside reviewer (Andrew Futterman, Ph.D., professor of psychology, College of the Holy Cross, a scientist familiar with the scoring criteria and active in the field of R/S-health research). When we examined correlations between HGK and Futterman's ratings, we found them moderately correlated (Pearson r = 0.57). Since scores of 7 or higher indicated higher quality studies, we also compared the scores between the two raters in terms of lower (0–6) versus higher (7–10) quality. This was done by dichotomizing scores into two categories (0–6 versus 7–10) and comparing the categories between the two examiners. The kappa of agreement ( κ ) between the two raters was 0.49 (where kappas of 0.40 to 0.75 indicate good agreement [ 26 ]). Overall, the raters agreed on whether quality was low or high in 56 of the 75 studies or 75%. I now summarize the results of the systematic review described above.

4. Religion, Spirituality, and Mental Health

Approximately 80% of research on R/S and health involves studies on mental health. One would expect stronger relationships between R/S and mental health since R/S involvement consists of psychological, social, and behavioral aspects that are more “proximally” related to mental health than to physical health. In fact, we would not expect any direct or immediate effects of R/S on physical health, other than indirectly through intermediary psychosocial and behavioral pathways. With regard to mental health, we would expect R/S to boost positive emotions and help neutralize negative emotions, hypothesizing that it serves as both a life-enhancing factor and as a coping resource. With regard to the latter, there is both qualitative and quantitative research suggesting that R/S helps people to deal better with adversity, either external adversity (difficult environmental circumstances) or internal adversity (genetic predisposition or vulnerability to mental disorders).

In the present paper, I have chosen to cite original reports as examples of the most rigorous studies in each area based on ratings in the Handbooks (i.e., 7 or higher on 0–10 scale). Cited here are both positive and negative studies reporting significant relationships. For some topics, such as well-being and depression, there are too many high-quality studies to cite, so only a few examples of the best studies are provided.

4.1. Coping with Adversity

In the first edition of the Handbook [ 27 ], we identified 110 studies published prior to the year 2000 and 344 studies published between 2000 and 2010 for a total of 454 studies. Among these reports are descriptions of how R/S helped people to cope with a wide range of illnesses or in a variety of stressful situations. These include people dealing with general medical illness [ 28 , 29 ], chronic pain [ 30 ], kidney disease [ 31 ], diabetes [ 32 , 33 ], pulmonary disease [ 34 ], cancer [ 35 , 36 ], blood disorders [ 37 ], heart/cardiovascular diseases [ 38 , 39 ], dental [ 40 ] or vision [ 41 ] problems, neurological disorders [ 42 ], HIV/AIDS [ 43 ], systemic lupus erythematosus [ 44 ], irritable bowel syndrome [ 45 ], musculoskeletal disease [ 46 ], caregiver burden [ 47 – 49 ],  psychiatric illness [ 50 , 51 ], bereavement [ 52 , 53 ], end-of-life issues [ 54 , 55 ], overall stress [ 56 – 58 ], natural disasters [ 59 , 60 ], war [ 61 , 62 ] or acts of terrorism [ 63 ], and miscellaneous adverse life situations [ 64 – 66 ]. In the overwhelming majority of studies, people reported that R/S was helpful.

4.2. Positive Emotions

Positive emotions include well-being, happiness, hope, optimism, meaning and purpose, high self-esteem, and a sense of control over life. Related to positive emotions are positive psychological traits such as altruism, being kind or compassionate, forgiving, and grateful.

4.2.1. Well-Being/Happiness

By mid-2010, at least 326 quantitative, peer-reviewed studies had examined relationships with R/S. Of those, 256 (79%) found only significant positive associations between R/S and well-being (including eight studies at a statistical trend level, that is, 0.05 < P < 0.10). Only three studies (<1%) reported a significant inverse relationship between R/S and well-being. Of the 120 studies with the highest methodological rigor (7 or higher in quality on the 0–10 scale), 98 (82%) reported positive relationships (including two at a trend level) [ 67 – 77 ] and one study reported a negative relationship (but only at a trend level) [ 78 ].

4.2.2. Hope

At least 40 studies have examined relationships with R/S, and of those, 29 (73%) reported only significant positive relationships with degree of hope; no studies found an inverse relationship. Of the six highest quality studies, half found a positive relationship [ 79 – 81 ].

4.2.3. Optimism

We located 32 studies examining relationships with R/S, and of those, 26 (81%) reported significant positive relationships. Of the 11 best studies, eight (73%) reported significant positive relationships [ 82 – 85 ]. Again, as with hope, no studies reported inverse relationships.

4.2.4. Meaning and Purpose

At least 45 studies have examined relationships with R/S, and 42 (93%) reported significant positive relationships. These studies were often in populations where there was a challenge to having meaning and purpose, such as in people with chronic disabling illness. Of the 10 studies with quality ratings of 7 or higher, all 10 reported significant positive associations [ 86 – 89 ].

4.2.5. Self-Esteem

Critics have claimed that R/S adversely affects self-esteem because it emphasizes humility rather than pride in the self [ 90 ]. Furthermore, R/S could exacerbate guilt in some for not living up to the high standards of conduct prescribed by religious traditions, resulting in low self-esteem. We found 69 studies that examined associations with R/S, and of those, 42 (61%) found greater self-esteem among those who were more R/S and two (3%) reported lower self-esteem. Of the 25 studies with the highest methodological rigor, 17 (68%) reported greater self-esteem [ 91 – 98 ] and two (8%) found worse self-esteem [ 99 , 100 ]. Not surprisingly, these findings are parallel to those of depression below (in the opposite direction, of course).

4.2.6. Sense of Control

Although one might expect R/S to correlate positively with an external locus of control (i.e., the Transcendent controlling events), and some studies confirm this, the majority of research finds a positive correlation with an internal not an external sense of control. Of 21 studies that have examined these relationships, 13 (61%) found that R/S was related to a greater sense of personal control in challenging life circumstances. Of the nine best studies, four reported significant positive relationships (44%) [ 101 – 104 ] and three report significant negative relationships (33%) [ 105 – 107 ], whereas the two remaining studies reported complex or mixed results (significant positive and negative associations, depending on R/S characteristic). R/S beliefs may provide an indirect sense of control over stressful situations; by believing that God is in control and that prayer to God can change things, the person feels a greater sense of internal control (rather than having to depend on external agents of control, such as powerful other people).

4.2.7. Positive Character Traits

With regard to character traits, the findings are similar to those with positive emotions. With regard to altruism or frequency of volunteering, 47 studies have examined relationships with R/S. Of those, 33 (70%) reported significant associations, whereas five (11%) found less altruism among the more R/S; of the 20 best studies, 15 (75%) reported positive relationships [ 108 – 113 ] and two (10%) found negative associations [ 114 , 115 ] (both concerning organ donations, which some religions prohibit). With regard to forgiveness, 40 studies have examined correlations with R/S, and 34 (85%) reported significant positive relationships and no studies found negative associations. Among the 10 highest quality studies, seven (70%) reported greater forgiveness among the more R/S [ 116 – 119 ], a finding that recent research has supported [ 120 ]. Regarding gratefulness, five of five studies found positive associations with R/S [ 121 , 122 ], and with regard to kindness/compassion, three of three studies reported significant positive relationship with R/S [ 123 ]. Admittedly, all of the studies measuring character traits above depend on self-report.

4.3. Depression

As with self-esteem, mental health professionals have argued that R/S might increase guilt by focusing on sin and could thus lead to depression. Again, however, this has not been found in the majority of studies. Given the importance of depression, its wide prevalence in the population, and the dysfunction that it causes (both mental and physical), I describe the research findings in a bit more detail. Overall, at least 444 studies have now examined relationships between R/S and depression, dating back to the early 1960s. Of those, 272 (61%) reported significant inverse relationships with depression (including nine studies at a trend level), and 28 (6%) found relationships between R/S and greater depression (including two studies at a trend level). Of the 178 studies with the highest methodological rigor, 119 (67%) reported inverse relationships [ 124 – 135 ] and 13 (7%) found positive relationships with depression [ 136 – 148 ].

Of 70 prospective cohort studies, 39 (56%) reported that greater R/S predicted lower levels of depression or faster remission of depression, whereas seven (10%) predicted worse future depression and seven (10%) reported mixed results (both significant positive and negative associations depending on R/S characteristic). Of 30 clinical trials, 19 (63%) found that R/S interventions produced better outcomes than either standard treatment or control groups. Two studies (7%) found standard treatments were superior to R/S interventions [ 149 , 150 ] and one study reported mixed results.

Note that an independent review of this literature published in 2003 found that of 147 studies involving 98,975 subjects, the average correlation between R/S and depression was −0.10. Although this is a small correlation, it translates into the same effect size that gender has on depressive symptoms (with the rate of depression being nearly twice as common in women compared to men). Also, the average correlation reported in the 2003 review was 50% stronger in stressed versus nonstressed populations [ 151 ].

A widely renowned psychiatric epidemiology group at Columbia University, led by Lisa Miller and Myrna Weissman, has come out with a series of recent reports on R/S and depression studying a cohort of low- and high-risk children born to parents with and without depressive disorder. The findings from this cohort support an inverse link between R/S and depression, particularly in high-risk individuals [ 152 – 154 ].

4.4. Suicide

Correlations between R/S and suicide attempt, completed suicide, and attitudes toward suicide are consistent with those found for depression, self-esteem, and hope. Those who are depressed, without hope, and with low self-esteem are at greater risk for committing suicide. At least 141 studies have now examined relationships between R/S and the suicide variables above. Of those, 106 (75%) reported inverse relationships and four (3%) found positive relationships. With regard to the 49 studies with the highest methodological rigor, 39 (80%) reported less suicide, fewer suicide attempts, or more negative attitudes toward suicide among the more R/S [ 155 – 170 ] and two (4%) found positive relationships (one study in Delhi, India [ 171 ], and one in college students distressed over R/S concerns [ 172 ]).

4.5. Anxiety

Anxiety and fear often drive people toward religion as a way to cope with the anxiety. Alternatively, R/S may increase anxiety/fear by its threats of punishment for evil deeds and damnation in the next life. There is an old saying that emphasizes this dual role: religion comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comforted. Sorting out cause and effect here is particularly difficult given the few prospective cohort studies that have examined this relationship over time. However, a number of clinical trials have also examined the effects of R/S interventions on anxiety levels. Overall, at least 299 studies have examined this relationship, and of those, 147 (49%) reported inverse association with R/S (three at a trend level), whereas 33 (11%) reported greater anxiety in those who were more R/S. Of the latter, however, only one was a prospective study, one was a randomized clinical trial, and 31 (94%) were cross-sectional studies (where it was not clear whether R/S caused anxiety or whether anxiety increased R/S as a coping response to the anxiety). Of the 67 studies with quality ratings of seven or higher, 38 (55%) reported inverse relationships [ 173 – 182 ] and seven (10%) found positive relationships (greater anxiety among the more R/S) [ 183 – 189 ].

Among these 299 studies were 239 cross-sectional studies, 19 prospective cohort studies, 9 single-group experimental studies, and 32 randomized clinical trials. Of the 19 longitudinal studies, 9 (47%) reported that R/S predicted a lower level of anxiety over time; one study (5%) found an increase in anxiety (among women undergoing abortion for fetal anomaly) [ 189 ], seven reported no association, and two reported mixed or complex results. Of the nine experimental studies, seven (78%) found a reduction in anxiety following an R/S intervention (before versus after comparison). Of the 32 randomized clinical trials, 22 (69%) reported that an R/S intervention reduced anxiety more than a standard intervention or control condition, whereas one study (3%) found an increase in anxiety following an R/S intervention in persons with severe alcohol dependence [ 190 ].

4.6. Psychotic Disorder/Schizophrenia

We identified 43 studies that have examined relationships between R/S and chronic psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia. Of the 43 studies examining psychosis, 14 (33%) reported inverse relationships between R/S and psychotic symptoms (one at a trend level), 10 (23%) found a positive relationship between R/S and psychotic symptoms (one at a trend level), eight reported mixed results (significant negative and positive associations, depending on the R/S characteristic measured), and one study reported complex results. Of these studies, seven had quality ratings of seven or higher; of those, two found inverse relationships, two found positive relationship, two reported mixed results (negative and positive), and one found no association. Note that the two studies finding inverse relationships between R/S and psychosis were both prospective studies [ 191 – 193 ], finding that R/S predicted better outcomes in subjects with psychotic disorders or symptoms. Of the two studies reporting positive relationships (both cross-sectional), one study found that importance of religion was significantly and positively associated with religious delusions [ 194 ] (not surprising), and the other study found that importance of religion was associated with “psychotic-like” symptoms in a national sample of Mexican Americans [ 195 ]; since the latter study involved participants who were not mentally ill, religion-related cultural factors may have influenced this finding. For a recent and more comprehensive discussion of R/S, schizophrenia, other chronic psychotic disorders, and the challenges distinguishing psychotic symptoms from religious beliefs, the reader is referred elsewhere [ 196 ].

4.7. Bipolar Disorder

Despite it's importance and wide prevalence, we could locate only four studies examining the relationship between R/S and bipolar (BP) disorder. Two found a positive association between R/S and bipolar disorder, and the remaining two reported mixed findings (both positive and negative correlations, depending on R/S characteristic). Of the two studies with high-quality ratings, one found a positive association and the other reported mixed findings. The first study of 334 US veterans with BP disorder found that a higher frequency of prayer or meditation was associated with mixed states and a lower likelihood of euthymia, although no association was found between any religious variable and depression or mania [ 197 ]. A second study examined a random national sample of 37,000 Canadians and found that those who attributed greater importance to higher spiritual values were more likely to have BP disorder, whereas higher frequency of religious attendance was associated with a lower risk of disorder [ 198 ]. In a qualitative study of 35 adults with bipolar disorder (not included in the review above), one of the six themes that participants emphasized when discussing their quality of life was the spiritual dimension. Over one-third of participants in that study talked about the relationship between BP disorder and R/S, emphasizing struggles to disentangle genuine spiritual experiences from the hyperreligiosity of the disorder. In another report, a case of mania precipitated by Eastern meditation was discussed; also included in this article was a review of nine other published cases of psychosis occurring in the setting of meditation [ 199 ].

4.8. Personality Traits

Personality traits most commonly measured today in psychology are the Big Five: extraversion, neuroticism, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and openness to experience. These are assessed by the NEO Personality Inventory [ 200 ]. Another personality inventory commonly used in the United Kingdom is the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire, which assesses extraversion, neuroticism, and psychoticism [ 201 ]. Relationships between personality traits and R/S using these measures have been examined in many studies [ 202 ]. With regard to psychoticism (a trait that assesses risk taking or lack of responsibility, rather than psychotic symptoms), 19 studies have examined its relationship to R/S, with 84% of those reporting significant inverse relationships (and no studies reporting a positive relationship). There have been at least 54 quantitative studies examined relationships between R/S and neuroticism, of which 24% found an inverse relationship and 9% reported a positive relationship (most of the remaining found no association). Concerning extraversion, there have been 50 studies, with 38% reporting a positive relationship with R/S and 6% reporting an inverse or negative relationship. With regard to conscientiousness, there have been 30 studies, of which the majority (63%) reported significant positive relationships with R/S and only 3% found significant inverse relationships. For agreeableness, 30 studies have examined relationships with R/S, and 87% of these studies reported positive relationships (no studies report inverse relationships). Finally, there have been 26 studies examining openness to experience, and of those, 42% found positive relationships with R/S and 12% reported negative relationships. Thus, R/S persons tend to score lower on psychoticism and neuroticism, and higher on extraversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and openness to experience. They score especially low on psychoticism and especially high on agreeableness and conscientiousness. These personality traits have physical health consequences that we are only beginning to recognize [ 203 – 205 ].

4.9. Substance Abuse

If R/S influences one domain of mental health, it is in the area of substance abuse. With regard to alcohol use, abuse, and dependence, at least 278 studies have now examined relationships with R/S. Of those, 240 (86%) reported inverse relationships and only 4 studies (1%) indicated a positive relationship. Of the 145 studies with the best methodology, 131 (90%) reported inverse relationships [ 206 – 221 ] and only one study found a positive relationship [ 222 ]. Findings are similar with regard to drug use or abuse. We located 185 studies, of which 84% reported inverse relationship with R/S and only two studies (1%) found positive relationships. Of the 112 best studies, 96 (86%) reported inverse relationships [ 223 – 238 ] and only one study found a positive relationship [ 239 ]. The vast majority of these studies are in young persons attending high school or college, a time when they are just starting to establish substance use habits (which for some will interfere with their education, future jobs, family life, and health). Thus, the protective effects of R/S on substance abuse may have influences on health across the lifespan.

4.10. Social Problems

Here I examine research in two areas of social instability (delinquency/crime and marital instability) and two areas of social stability (social support and social capital). Given the emphasis that most major world religions place on human relationships, love, and compassion, one might expect that some of the strongest relationships with R/S would be found here, and they are indeed.

4.10.1. Delinquency/Crime

At least 104 studies have examined relationships with R/S. Of those, 82 (79%) reported significant inverse relationships (five at a trend level), whereas three (3%) found positive relationships with more delinquency/crime. Of the 60 studies with quality ratings of 7 or higher, 49 (82%) reported inverse relationships [ 240 – 252 ] and only one study found a positive relationship [ 253 ]. Of particular interest are the 10 studies examining relationships between R/S and school grades/performance in adolescents and college students between 2000 and 2009, of which all 10 (100%) found that more R/S youth did better than less religious youth [ 254 ].

4.10.2. Marital Instability

We identified 79 studies that examined relationships with marital instability. Of those, 68 (86%) found R/S related to greater marital stability and no studies reported an association with greater marital instability. Of the 38 methodologically most rigorous studies, 35 (92%) reported significant relationships between R/S and greater marital stability [ 255 – 265 ]. An independent meta-analysis reviewing research conducted before the year 2000 likewise concluded that greater religiousness decreased the risk of divorce and facilitated marital functioning and parenting [ 266 ].

4.10.3. Social Support

There is substantial evidence indicating a relationship between R/S and social support. Of 74 quantitative peer-reviewed studies of R/S and social support, 61 (82%) found significant positive relationships, and none found inverse relationships. Of the 29 best studies, 27 (93%) reported significant positive relationships [ 82 , 267 – 274 ]. For older adults in particular, the most common source of social support outside of family members comes from members of religious organizations [ 275 , 276 ].

4.10.4. Social Capital

Social capital, an indirect measure of community health, is usually assessed by level of community participation, volunteerism, trust, reciprocity between people in the community, and membership in community-based, civic, political, or social justice organizations. Research has examined relationships between R/S and social capital. We located a total of 14 studies, with 11 (79%) finding significant positive relationships between R/S and level of social capital, and none reporting only inverse relationships. Almost all of these studies were of high quality, and of the 13 studies with ratings of seven or higher, 10 (77%) found that R/S was related to greater social capital [ 277 – 280 ].

5. Explaining the Relationship: R/S and Mental Health

R/S influences mental health through many different mechanisms, although the following are probably the predominant ones (see Figure 2 ). First, religion provides resources for coping with stress that may increase the frequency of positive emotions and reduce the likelihood that stress will result in emotional disorders such as depression, anxiety disorder, suicide, and substance abuse. Religious coping resources include powerful cognitions (strongly held beliefs) that give meaning to difficult life circumstances and provide a sense of purpose. Religions provide an optimistic worldview that may involve the existence of a personal transcendental force (God, Allah, Jehovah, etc.) that loves and cares about humans and is responsive to their needs. These cognitions also give a subjective sense of control over events (i.e., if God is in control, can influence circumstances, and be influenced by prayer, then prayer by the individual may positively influence the situation). Religious beliefs provide satisfying answers to existential questions, such as “where did we come from,” “why are we here,” and “where are we going,” and the answers apply to both this life and the next life, thus reducing existential angst. These beliefs also help to normalize loss and change and provide role models of persons suffering with the same or similar problems (often illustrated in religious scriptures). Thus, religious beliefs have the potential to influence the cognitive appraisal of negative life events in a way that makes them less distressing. For people with medical illness, these beliefs are particularly useful because they are not lost or impaired with physical disability—unlike many other coping resources that are dependent on health (hobbies, relationships, and jobs/finances).

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Theoretical model of causal pathways for mental health (MH), based on Western monotheistic religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam). (Permission to reprint obtained. Original source: Koenig et al. [ 17 ]). For models based on Eastern religious traditions and the Secular Humanist tradition, see elsewhere. (Koenig et al. [ 24 ]).

Second, most religions have rules and regulations (doctrines) about how to live life and how to treat others within a social group. When individuals abide by those rules and regulations, this reduces the likelihood of stressful life events that reduce positive emotions and increased negative ones. Examples of stressful life events that religion may help people avoid are divorce or separation, difficulties with children, financial stress resulting from unfair practices in the marketplace, incarceration for lawbreaking (cheating or crime), and venereal diseases from risky sexual practices. Religions also usually discourage the use of drugs and excessive amounts of alcohol that increases the risk of engaging in the behaviors above (crime, risky sex) that are associated with negative mental health consequences.

Third, most religions emphasize love of others, compassion, and altruistic acts as well as encourage meeting together during religious social events. These prosocial behaviors have many consequences that buffer stress and lead to human support when support is needed during difficult times. Because religion encourages the helping of others and emphasizes a focus outside of the self, engagement in other-helping activities may increase positive emotions and serve to distract from one's own problems. Religion also promotes human virtues such as honesty, forgiveness, gratefulness, patience, and dependability, which help to maintain and enhance social relationships. The practice of these human virtues may also directly increase positive emotions and neutralize negative ones.

Thus, there are many possible mechanisms by which R/S may enhance mental and social health. This is not to say that R/S always does so. Religion may also be used to justify hatred, aggression, prejudice, and the exclusion of others; gain power and control over vulnerable individuals (as seen in cults); foster rigid thinking and obsessive practices; lead to anxiety, fear, and excessive guilt over minor infractions (and even self-mutilation in some cases); produce psychosocial strains due to failure to live up to high religious standards; lead to escape from dealing with family problems (through excessive involvement in religious or spiritual activities); and delay diagnosis and effective mental health care (due to antagonistic relationships with mental health professionals). While R/S is not a panacea, on the balance, it is generally associated with greater well-being, improved coping with stress, and better mental health. This relationship with mental health has physical health consequences (see Section 7 below).

6. Religion, Spirituality, and Health Behaviors

Religious doctrines influence decisions about health and health behaviors. In the Judeo-Christian scriptures, for example, there is an emphasis on caring for the physical body as a “Temple of the Holy Spirit” (see 1 Corinthian 6:19-20) [ 281 ]. Religious scriptures in other faith traditions also emphasize the person's responsibility to care for and nourish their physical body [ 282 – 284 ]. Behaviors that have the potential to harm the body are usually discouraged. This is reflected in teachings from the pulpit and influences what is considered appropriate within religious social groups. In summarizing the research on R/S and health behaviors, I cite only a few of the studies with high-quality ratings since there are so many.

6.1. Cigarette Smoking

The influence of R/S is most evident in it's “effects” on cigarette smoking. At least 137 studies have examined relationship between R/S and smoking, and of those, 123 (90%) reported statistically significant inverse relationships (including three at a trend level) and no studies found either a significant or even a trend association in the other direction. Of the 83 methodologically most rigorous studies, 75 (90%) reported inverse relationships with R/S involvement [ 213 , 285 – 294 ]. Not surprisingly, the physical health consequences of not smoking are enormous. Decreased cigarette smoking will mean a reduction in chronic lung disease, lung cancer, all cancers (30% being related to smoking), coronary artery disease, hypertension, stroke, and other cardiovascular diseases.

6.2. Exercise

Level of exercise and physical activity also appears linked to R/S. We located 37 studies that examined this relationship. Of those, 25 (68%) reported significant positive relationships (two at a trend level) between R/S involvement and greater exercise or physical activity, whereas six (16%) found significant inverse relationships. Of 21 studies with the highest quality ratings, 16 (76%) reported positive associations [ 82 , 295 – 300 ] and two (10%) found negative associations [ 296 , 301 ].

Writers in the popular press have encouraged the combining of R/S activity and exercise through “prayer walking” [ 302 , 303 ] and “walking meditation.” [ 304 ].

At least 21 studies have examined relationships between R/S and a healthy diet. A healthy diet here involves increased intake of fiber, green vegetables, fruit, and fish; low intake of snacks, processed foods, and fat; regular vitamin intake; frequent eating of breakfast; overall better nutrition (following recommended nutritional guidelines). Of those studies, 13 (62%) found a significant positive association between R/S and a healthier diet (one at a trend level) and one found a worse diet [ 305 ]. Among the 10 studies with the highest quality ratings, seven (70%) reported a better diet among those who were more R/S [ 213 , 306 – 310 ]. In addition, we identified 23 studies that examined relationships between R/S and blood cholesterol levels. Of those, more than half (12 studies) found significantly lower cholesterol among those who were more R/S, whereas three studies (13%) reported significantly higher cholesterol levels. Of the nine best studies, five (56%) reported lower cholesterol [ 311 – 313 ] or a lowering of cholesterol in response to a R/S intervention [ 314 , 315 ], whereas one found higher cholesterol (but only in Mexican American men) [ 316 ].

6.4. Weight

Although R/S people tend to eat a healthier diet, they also eat more of it. This, then, is the one health behavior that places R/S individuals at greater risk for medical illness. At least 36 studies have examined the associations between weight (or body mass index) and R/S involvement. Of those, 14 (39%) found a positive relationship (R/S associated with greater weight), whereas only seven (19%) reported an inverse relationship. The situation does not improve when results from the most rigorously designed studies are examined. Among the 25 studies with the highest quality ratings, 11 (44%) reported greater weight among the more R/S [ 82 , 317 – 322 ] and five (20%) found lower weight (or less underweight [ 323 ]). Lower weight among the more R/S appears only in a few religious groups (Amish [ 324 ], Jews [ 325 ], and Buddhists [ 326 ]), in those with certain demographic characteristics (white, older, and high education) [ 327 ], and in response to a specific R/S intervention [ 328 ] or practice [ 314 , 329 ]. Faith-based weight-reduction programs in religious communities have been shown to be effective [ 328 , 330 , 331 ].

6.5. Sexual Behavior

We identified 95 studies that examined relationships between R/S and risky sexual activity (sex outside of marriage, multiple partners, etc.). Of those, 82 studies (86%) found significant inverse relationships with R/S (one at a trend level) and only one study (1%) found a significant relationship with more risky sexual activity [ 332 ]. Of the 50 highest quality studies, 42 (84%) reported inverse relationships [ 333 – 343 ] and none found a positive one. If those who are more R/S engage in less risky sexual behavior, this means they should have fewer venereal diseases, that is, less syphilis, gonorrhea, herpes, chancroid, chlamydia, viral hepatitis, and human papillomavirus and human immunodeficiency virus, many of which have serious physical health consequences.

7. Religion, Spirituality, and Physical Health

There is rapidly growing evidence that stress and negative emotions (depression, anxiety) have (1) adverse effects on physiological systems vital for maintenance of physical health and healing [ 344 – 346 ], (2) increase susceptibility to or worse outcomes from a wide range of physical illnesses [ 347 – 351 ], and (3) may shorten the lifespan prematurely [ 352 , 353 ]. Social support, in turn, has long been known to protect against disease and increase longevity [ 354 – 356 ]. By reducing stress and negative emotions, increasing social support, and positively affecting health behaviors, R/S involvement should have a favorable impact on a host of physical diseases and the response of those diseases to treatment. As in the earlier sections, I cite high-quality studies as examples. Since there are fewer high-quality studies for physical health than for mental health or for health behaviors, I cite all of the studies with ratings of seven or higher.

7.1. Coronary Heart Disease (CHD)

Given the strong connections between psychosocial stressors, health behaviors, and CHD, it is not surprising that there is a link with R/S. Our review uncovered 19 studies that examined associations between R/S and CHD. Of those, 12 (63%) reported a significant inverse relationship, and one study reported a positive relationship. Of the 13 studies with the most rigorous methodology, nine (69%) found inverse relationships with CHD [ 357 – 365 ] and one found a positive one [ 366 ]. In addition, there have been at least 16 studies examining relationships between R/S and cardiovascular reactivity, heart rate variability, outcomes following cardiac surgery, and other cardiovascular functions. Of those, 11 studies (69%) reported that R/S was significantly related to positive cardiovascular functions or outcomes [ 367 – 374 ] or to lower levels of inflammatory markers such as C-reactive protein [ 375 – 377 ] and fibrinogen [ 378 ] that place individuals at high risk for cardiovascular disease.

7.2. Hypertension

The word “hypertension” itself suggests a relationship with stress or tension, and high blood pressure has been linked to greater psychosocial stress [ 379 – 381 ]. At least 63 studies have examined the relationship between R/S and blood pressure (BP), of which 36 (57%) reported significantly lower BP in those who are more R/S (five at a trend level) and seven (11%) reported significantly higher BP (one at a trend level). Of the 39 highest quality studies, 24 (62%) report lower BP (including one at a trend level) among those who are more R/S [ 382 – 394 ] or in response to an R/S intervention [ 328 , 395 – 404 ] (including a study whose results were reported twice, once for the overall sample and once for the sample stratified by race).

Two lower quality studies [ 405 , 406 ] and five well-done studies [ 407 – 411 ] (13%, including one at a trend level), however, reported higher BP in the more R/S or with religious fasting. The reason for an association between R/S and higher BP is not entirely clear. Perhaps, in certain population subgroups, intrapsychic religious conflict between psychosexual drives and religious standards creates unconscious stress that elevates BP. However, there is another possibility. This may be related to confounding by ethnicity. Three of the five studies reporting increased BP with increased R/S included in their samples a large proportion of ethnic minorities (samples from large urban settings such as Detroit and Chicago, made up of 36% to 100% African Americans). Since African Americans are more likely to have high BP (40% with hypertension) [ 412 ] and because African Americans are also the most religious ethnic group in society [ 413 ], it may be that controlling for race in these analyses is simply not sufficient to overcome this powerful confound.

7.3. Cerebrovascular Disease

Relationships between R/S, hypertension and other cardiovascular diseases or disease risk factors ought to translate into a lower risk of stroke. We located nine studies that examined this relationship, of which four reported a lower risk of stroke, all having quality ratings of seven or higher [ 414 – 417 ].

One study, however, reported significantly more carotid artery thickening, placing R/S individuals at higher risk for stroke [ 418 ]. Again, however, 30% of that sample was African American an ethnic group, known to be both highly religious and at high risk for stroke.

7.4. Alzheimer's Disease and Dementia

Physiological changes that occur with stress and depression (elevated blood cortisol, in particular) are known to adversely affect the parts of the brain responsible for memory [ 419 – 421 ]. The experience of negative emotions may be like pouring hydrochloric acid on the brain's memory cells [ 422 ]. By reducing stress and depression through more effective coping, R/S may produce a physiological environment that has favorable effects on cognitive functioning. Furthermore, R/S involvement may also engage higher cortical functions involved in abstract thinking (concerning moral values or ideas about the transcendent) that serve to “exercise” brain areas necessary for retention of memories. Regardless of the mechanism, at least 21 studies have examined relationships between R/S involvement and cognitive function in both healthy persons and individuals with dementia. Of those, 10 (48%) reported significant positive relationships between R/S and better cognitive functioning and three (14%) found significant negative relationships. Of the 14 studies with the highest quality ratings, eight (57%) reported positive relationships [ 423 – 430 ] and three (21%) reported negative relationships with cognitive function [ 431 – 433 ]. Studies finding negative relationships between R/S and cognitive function may be due to the fact that R/S persons have longer lifespans (see below), increasing the likelihood that they will live to older ages when cognition tends to decline. More recent research supports a positive link between R/S and better cognitive function in both dementia and in old age [ 434 , 435 ].

7.5. Immune Function

Intact immune function is critical for health maintenance and disease prevention and is assessed by indicators of cellular immunity, humoral immunity, and levels of pro- and anti-inflammatory cytokines. We identified 27 studies on relationships between R/S and immune functions, of which 15 (56%) found positive relationships or positive effects in response to a R/S intervention, and one (4%) found a negative effect [ 436 ]. Of the 14 studies with the highest quality ratings, 10 (71%) reported significant positive associations [ 437 – 443 ] or increased immune functions in response to a R/S intervention [ 444 – 447 ]. No high-quality study found only an inverse association or negative effect, although one study reported mixed findings [ 448 ]. In that study, religious attendance was related to significantly poorer cutaneous response to antigens; however, it was also related (at a trend level) to higher total lymphocyte count, total T-cell count, and helper T-cell count. In addition, importance of religious or spiritual expression was related to significantly higher white blood cell count, total lymphocyte count, total T cells, and cytotoxic T cell activity.

There have also been a number of studies examining R/S and susceptibility to infection (or viral load in those with HIV), which could be considered an indirect measure of immune function. We identified 12 such studies, of which eight (67%) reported significantly lower infection rates or lower viral loads in those who were more R/S (including one at a trend level); none found greater susceptibility to infection or greater viral load. Ten of the 12 studies had quality ratings of 7 or higher; of those, seven (70%) reported significant inverse associations with infection/viral load [ 440 , 441 , 449 – 454 ].

7.6. Endocrine Function

Because stress hormones (cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine) have a known influence on immune (and cardiovascular) functions, they are important factors on the pathway between R/S involvement and health [ 455 , 456 ]. We identified 31 studies that examined R/S and associations with or effects on endocrine functions. Of those, 23 (74%) reported positive relationships or positive effects and no studies reported negative associations or negative effects. Of the 13 methodologically most rigorous studies, nine (69%) reported positive associations with R/S [ 457 – 461 ] or positive effects of an R/S intervention (all involving Eastern meditation) [ 462 – 465 ]. We (at Duke) are currently examining the effects of religious cognitive-behavioral therapy on a host of pro- and anti-inflammatory cytokines, cortisol, and catecholamines in patients with major depressive disorder, although results will not be available until 2014 [ 466 ].

7.7. Cancer

At least 29 studies have examined relationships between R/S and either the onset or the outcome of cancer (including cancer mortality). Of those, 16 (55%) found that those who are more R/S had a lower risk of developing cancer or a better prognosis, although two (7%) reported a significantly worse prognosis [ 467 , 468 ]. Of the 20 methodologically most rigorous studies, 12 (60%) found an association between R/S and lower risk or better outcomes [ 469 – 480 ], and none reported worse risk or outcomes. The results from some of these studies can be partially explained by better health behaviors (less cigarette smoking, alcohol abuse, etc.), but not all. Effects not explained by better health behaviors could be explained by lower stress levels and higher social support in those who are more R/S. Although cancer is not thought to be as sensitive as cardiovascular disorders to psychosocial stressors, psychosocial influences on cancer incidence and outcome are present (discussions over this are ongoing [ 481 , 482 ]).

7.8. Physical Functioning

Ability to function physically, that is, performing basic and instrumental activities of daily living such as toileting, bathing, shopping, and using a telephone, is a necessary factor for independent living. Persons who are depressed, unmotivated, or without hope are less likely to make attempts to maintain their physical functioning, particularly after experiencing a stroke or a fall that forces them into a rehabilitation program to regain or compensate for their losses. Several studies have examined the role that R/S plays in helping people to maintain physical functioning as they grow older or regain functioning after an illness. We identified 61 quantitative studies that examined relationships between R/S and disability level or level of functioning. Of those, 22 (36%) reported better physical functioning among those who were more R/S, 14 (23%) found worse physical functioning, and six studies reported mixed findings. Considering the 33 highest quality studies, 13 (39%) reported significantly better physical functioning among those who were more R/S (including one study at a trend level) [ 483 – 495 ], six (18%) found worse functioning [ 496 – 501 ], and five studies (15%) reported mixed results [ 82 , 124 , 502 – 504 ] (significant positive and negative associations, depending on R/S characteristic). Almost all of these studies involve self-reported disability and many were cross-sectional, making it impossible to determine order of causation—that is, (1) does R/S prevent the development of disability, (2) does disability prevent R/S activity, (3) does R/S promote disability, or (4) does disability cause people to turn to religion to cope with disability.

7.9. Self-Rated Health

There is more agreement across studies regarding the relationship between R/S and self-rated health (SRH) than between R/S and physical functioning. While based on participants' subjective impression, self-rated health is strongly related to objective health, that is, future health, health services use, and mortality [ 505 – 507 ]. Might R/S, perhaps because it is related to greater optimism and hope, influence one's self-perceptions of health in a positive way? At least 50 studies have now examined the relationship between R/S and self-rated health. Of those, 29 (58%) reported that R/S was related to better SRH, while five (10%) found that it was related to worse SRH. Of the 37 methodologically most rigorous studies, 21 (57%) reported significant positive relationships between R/S and SRH [ 503 , 508 – 527 ], whereas three (8%) found the opposite [ 528 – 530 ].

7.10. Pain and Somatic Symptoms

On the one hand, pain and other distressing somatic symptoms can motivate people to seek solace in religion through activities such as prayer or Scripture study. Thus, R/S is often turned to in order to cope with such symptoms. For example, in an early study of 382 adults with musculoskeletal complains, R/S coping was the most common strategy for dealing with pain and was considered the second most helpful in a long list of coping behaviors [ 531 ]. More recent research supports this earlier report [ 532 ]. On the other hand, R/S may somehow cause an increase in pain and somatic symptoms, perhaps by increasing concentration on negative symptoms or through the physical manifestations of hysteria, as claimed by Charcot in his copious writings around the turn of the 20th century [ 533 ].

We identified 56 studies that examined relationships between R/S and pain. Of those, 22 (39%) reported inverse relationships between R/S and pain or found benefits from an R/S intervention, whereas 14 (25%) indicated a positive relationship between R/S and greater pain levels (13 of 14 being cross-sectional). Of the 18 best studies, nine (50%) reported inverse relationships (less pain among the more R/S [ 534 ] or reduced pain in response to a R/S intervention [ 535 – 542 ]), while three (20%) reported positive relationships (worse pain in the more R/S) [ 543 – 545 ]. Research suggests that meditation is particularly effective in reducing pain, although the effects are magnified when a religious word is used to focus attention [ 546 , 547 ]. No clinical trials, to my knowledge, have shown that meditation or other R/S interventions increase pain or somatic symptoms.

7.11. Mortality

The most impressive research on the relationship between R/S and physical health is in the area of mortality. The cumulative effect of R/S, if it has any benefits to physical health, ought to reveal itself in an effect on mortality. The research suggests it does. At least 121 studies have examined relationships between R/S and mortality. Most of these are prospective cohort studies, where baseline R/S is assessed as a predictor of mortality during the observation period, controlling for confounders. Of those studies, 82 (68%) found that greater R/S predicted significantly greater longevity (three at a trend level), whereas six studies (5%) reported shorter longevity. Considering the 63 methodologically most rigorous studies (quality ratings of 8 or higher), 47 (75%) found R/S predicting greater longevity (two at trend level) [ 548 – 566 ], whereas three (5%) reported shorter longevity [ 567 – 569 ]. Another systematic review [ 570 ] and two meta-analyses [ 571 , 572 ] have confirmed this relationship between R/S and longer survival. The effects have been particularly strong for frequency of attendance at religious services in these three reviews. Survival among frequent attendees was increased on average by 37%, 43%, and 30% (mean effect being 37% across these reviews). An increased survival of 37% is highly significant and equivalent to the effects of cholesterol lowering drugs or exercise-based cardiac rehabilitation after myocardial infarction on survival [ 573 ].

8. Explaining the Relationship: R/S and Physical Health

How might R/S involvement influence physical health and longevity? There are at least three basic pathways: psychological, social, and behavioral (see Figure 3 ).

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Theoretical model of causal pathways to physical health for Western monotheistic religions (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism). (Permission to reprint obtained. Original source: Koenig et al. [ 17 ]). For models based on Eastern religious traditions and the Secular Humanist tradition, see elsewhere (Koenig et al. [ 24 ]).

8.1. Psychological

As noted above, there is ample evidence that R/S—because it facilitates coping and imbues negative events with meaning and purpose—is related to better mental health (less depression, lower stress, less anxiety, greater well-being, and more positive emotions). Furthermore, several randomized clinical trials have shown that R/S interventions improve mental health (at least in those who are R/S). There is also much evidence that poor mental health has adverse physiological consequences that worsen physical health and shorten the lifespan (see earlier references). Thus, it stands to reason that R/S might influence physical health through psychological pathways.

8.2. Social

R/S involvement is associated with greater social support, greater marital stability, less crime/delinquency, and greater social capital. R/S beliefs and doctrines encourage the development of human virtues such as honesty, courage, dependability, altruism, generosity, forgiveness, self-discipline, patience, humility, and other characteristics that promote social relationships. Participation in a R/S community not only provides supportive social connections and opportunities for altruism (through volunteering or other faith-based altruistic activities), but also increases the flow of health information that may increase disease screening and promote health maintenance. Social factors, in turn, are known to influence both mental health and physical health and predict greater longevity [ 574 – 576 ]. Again, if R/S boosts supportive social interactions and increases community trust and involvement, then it should ultimately influence physical health as well.

8.3. Health Behaviors

Finally, R/S promotes better health behaviors, and is associated with less alcohol and drug use, less cigarette smoking, more physical activity and exercise, better diet, and safer sexual practices in the overwhelming majority of studies that have examined these relationships. Living a healthier lifestyle will result in better physical health and greater longevity. Consider the following report that appeared on CNN (Cable Network News). On January 3, 2009, after the death of the Guinness Book of World Records' oldest person, Maria de Jesus age 115, next in line was Gertrude Baines from Los Angeles. Born to slaves near Atlanta in 1894, she was described at 114 years old as “spry,” “cheerful,” and “talkative.” When she was 112 years old, Ms. Baines was asked by a CNN correspondent to explain why she thought she had lived so long. Her reply: “God. Ask Him. I took good care of myself, the way he wanted me to.” Brief and to the point.

8.4. Other Pathways

There are many ways by which R/S could have a positive influence on physical health, although the pathways above are probably the major ones. Genetic and developmental factors could also play a role in explaining these associations. There is some evidence that personality or temperament (which has genetic roots) influences whether or not a person becomes R/S. To what extent R/S persons are simply born healthier, however, is quite controversial. Note that more R/S persons are typically those with the least resources (minority groups, the poor, and the uneducated), both in terms of finances and access to healthcare resources. Karl Marx said that religion is the “opiate of the masses.” Rather than being born healthier, then, the opposite is more likely to be true for R/S persons. R/S could actually be viewed as acting counter to an evolutionary force that is trying to weed genetically vulnerable people from the population. R/S involvement is providing the weak with a powerful belief system and a supportive community that enables them to survive. For a more complete discussion of the role of genetic factors in the R/S-physical health relationship, see the Handbook [ 577 ].

Another important point needs to be made. Nowhere do I claim that supernatural mechanisms are responsible for the relationship between R/S and health. The pathways by which R/S influences physical health that researchers can study using the natural methods of science must be those that exist within nature—that is, psychological, social, behavioral, and genetic influences. Thus, this research says nothing about the existence of supernatural or transcendent forces (which is a matter of faith), but rather asks whether belief in such forces (and the behaviors that result from such beliefs) has an effect on health. There is every reason to think it does.

9. Clinical Implications

There are clinical implications from the research reviewed above that could influence the way health professionals treat patients in the hospital and clinic.

9.1. Rationale for Integrating Spirituality

There are many practical reasons why addressing spiritual issues in clinical practice is important. Here are eight reasons [ 578 ] (and these are not exhaustive).

First, many patients are R/S and have spiritual needs related to medical or psychiatric illness. Studies of medical and psychiatric patients and those with terminal illnesses report that the vast majority have such needs, and most of those needs currently go unmet [ 579 , 580 ]. Unmet spiritual needs, especially if they involve R/S struggles, can adversely affect health and may increase mortality independent of mental, physical, or social health [ 581 ].

Second, R/S influences the patient's ability to cope with illness. In some areas of the country, 90% of hospitalized patients use religion to enable them to cope with their illnesses and over 40% indicate it is their primary coping behavior [ 582 ]. Poor coping has adverse effects on medical outcomes, both in terms of lengthening hospital stay and increasing mortality [ 583 ].

Third, R/S beliefs affect patients' medical decisions, may conflict with medical treatments, and can influence compliance with those treatments. Studies have shown that R/S beliefs influence medical decisions among those with serious medical illness [ 584 , 585 ] and especially among those with advanced cancer [ 586 ] or HIV/AIDs [ 587 ].

Fourth, physicians' own R/S beliefs often influence medical decisions they make and affect the type of care they offer to patients, including decisions about use of pain medications [ 588 ], abortion [ 589 ], vaccinations [ 590 ], and contraception [ 591 ]. Physician views about such matters and how they influence the physician's decisions, however, are usually not discussed with a patient.

Fifth, as noted earlier, R/S is associated with both mental and physical health and likely affects medical outcomes. If so, then health professionals need to know about such influences, just as they need to know if a person smokes cigarettes or uses alcohol or drugs. Those who provide health care to the patient need to be aware of all factors that influence health and health care.

Sixth, R/S influences the kind of support and care that patients receive once they return home. A supportive faith community may ensure that patients receive medical followup (by providing rides to doctors' offices) and comply with their medications. It is important to know whether this is the case or whether the patient will return to an apartment to live alone with little social interaction or support.

Seventh, research shows that failure to address patients' spiritual needs increases health care costs, especially toward the end of life [ 592 ]. This is a time when patients and families may demand medical care (often very expensive medical care) even when continued treatment is futile. For example, patients or families may be praying for a miracle. “Giving up” by withdrawing life support or agreeing to hospice care may be viewed as a lack of faith or lack of belief in the healing power of God. If health professionals do not take a spiritual history so that patients/families feel comfortable discussing such issues openly, then situations may go on indefinitely and consume huge amounts of medical resources.

Finally, standards set by the Joint Commission for the Accreditation of Hospital Organizations (JCAHO) and by Medicare (in the US) require that providers of health care show respect for patients' cultural and personal values, beliefs, and preferences (including religious or spiritual beliefs) [ 593 ]. This point was reinforced by a personal communication with Doreen Finn ( [email protected] ), Senior Associate Director, who works under Mark Pelletier ( [email protected] ), Executive Director, JCAHO, Hospital Accreditation (January 6–12, 2012). If health professionals are unaware of those beliefs, they cannot show respect for them and adjust care accordingly.

9.2. How to Integrate Spirituality into Patient Care

What would I recommend in terms of addressing spiritual issues in clinical care?

First and foremost, health professionals should take a brief spiritual history. This should be done for all new patients on their first evaluation, especially if they have serious or chronic illnesses, and when a patient is admitted to a hospital, nursing home, home health agency, or other health care setting. The purpose is to learn about (1) the patient's religious background, (2) the role that R/S beliefs or practices play in coping with illness (or causing distress), (3) beliefs that may influence or conflict with decisions about medical care, (4) the patient's level of participation in a spiritual community and whether the community is supportive, and (5) any spiritual needs that might be present [ 594 ]. It is the health professional , not the chaplain, who is responsible for doing this two-minute “screening” evaluation. If spiritual needs are discovered, then the health professional would make a referral to pastoral care services so that the needs can be addressed. The spiritual history (and any spiritual needs addressed by pastoral services) should be documented in the medical record so that other health professionals will know that this has been done. Although notes need not be detailed, enough information should be recorded to communicate essential issues to other hospital staff.

Ideally, the physician, as head of the medical care team, should take the spiritual history. However, since only about 10% of physicians in the US “often or always” do so [ 595 ], the task often falls to the nurse or to the social worker. Although systematic research is lacking in this area, most nurses and social workers do not take a spiritual history either. Simply recording the patient's religious denomination and whether they want to see a chaplain, the procedure in most hospitals today, is NOT taking a spiritual history.

Second, R/S beliefs of patients uncovered during the spiritual history should always be respected. Even if beliefs conflict with the medical treatment plan or seem bizarre or pathological, the health professional should not challenge those beliefs (at least not initially), but rather take a neutral posture and ask the patient questions to obtain a better understanding of the beliefs. Challenging patients' R/S beliefs is almost always followed by resistance from the patient, or quiet noncompliance with the medical plan. Instead, the health professional should consult a chaplain and either follow their advice or refer the patient to the chaplain to address the situation. If the health professional is knowledgeable about the patient's R/S beliefs and the beliefs appear generally healthy, however, it would be appropriate to actively support those beliefs and conform the healthcare being provided to accommodate the beliefs.

Third, most health professionals without clinical pastoral education do not have the skills or training to competently address patients' spiritual needs or provide advice about spiritual matters. Chaplains have extensive training on how to do this, which often involves years of education and experience addressing spiritual issues. They are the true experts in this area. For any but the most simple spiritual needs, then, patients should be referred to chaplains to address the problem.

Fourth, conducting a spiritual history or contemplating a spiritual intervention (supporting R/S beliefs, praying with patients) should always be patient centered and patient desired. The health professional should never do anything related to R/S that involves coercion. The patient must feel in control and free to reveal or not reveal information about their spiritual lives or to engage or not engage in spiritual practices (i.e., prayer, etc.). In most cases, health professionals should not ask patients if they would like to pray with them, but rather leave the initiative to the patient to request prayer. The health professional, however, may inform R/S patients (based on the spiritual history) that they are open to praying with patients if that is what the patient wants. The patient is then free to initiate a request for prayer at a later time or future visit, should they desire prayer with the health professional. If the patient requests, then a short supportive prayer may be said aloud, but quietly, with the patient in a private setting. Before praying, however, the health professional should ask the patient what he or she wishes prayer for, recognizing that every patient will be different in this regard. Alternatively, the clinician may simply ask the patient to say the prayer and then quietly confirm it with an “amen” at the end.

Fifth, R/S beliefs of health professionals (or lack of belief) should not influence the decision to take a spiritual history, respect and support the R/S beliefs of patients, or make a referral to pastoral services. These activities should always be patient centered, not centered on the health professional. One of the most common barriers to addressing spiritual issues is health professionals' discomfort over discussing such issues. This often results from lack of personal R/S involvement and therefore lack of appreciation for the importance and value of doing so. Lack of comfort and understanding should be overcome by training and practice. Today, nearly 90% of medical schools (and many nursing schools) in the US include something about R/S in their curricula [ 596 ] and this is also true to a lesser extent in the United Kingdom [ 597 ] and Brazil [ 598 ]. Thus, spirituality and health is increasingly being addressed in medical and nursing training programs.

Sixth, health professionals should learn about the R/S beliefs and practices of different religious traditions that relate to healthcare, especially the faith traditions of patients they are likely to encounter in their particular country or region of the country. There are many such beliefs and practices that will have a direct impact on the type of care being provided, especially when patients are hospitalized, seriously ill or near death. A brief description of beliefs and practices for health professionals related to birth, contraception, diet, death, and organ donation is provided elsewhere [ 599 ].

Finally, if spiritual needs are identified and a chaplain referral is initiated, then the health professional making the referral is responsible for following up to ensure that the spiritual needs were adequately addressed by the chaplain. This is especially true given the impact that unmet spiritual needs are likely to have on both medical outcomes and healthcare costs. Given the short lengths of stay in today's modern hospital (often only 2–4 days), spiritual needs identified on admission are unlikely to be resolved by discharge. Therefore, a spiritual care discharge plan will need to be developed by the hospital social worker in consultation with the chaplain, which may involve (with the patient's written consent) contact with the patient's faith community to ensure that spiritual needs are addressed when the patient returns home. In this way, continuity of pastoral care will be ensured between hospital and community.

10. Conclusions

Religious/spiritual beliefs and practices are commonly used by both medical and psychiatric patients to cope with illness and other stressful life changes. A large volume of research shows that people who are more R/S have better mental health and adapt more quickly to health problems compared to those who are less R/S. These possible benefits to mental health and well-being have physiological consequences that impact physical health, affect the risk of disease, and influence response to treatment. In this paper I have reviewed and summarized hundreds of quantitative original data-based research reports examining relationships between R/S and health. These reports have been published in peer-reviewed journals in medicine, nursing, social work, rehabilitation, social sciences, counseling, psychology, psychiatry, public health, demography, economics, and religion. The majority of studies report significant relationships between R/S and better health. For details on these and many other studies in this area, and for suggestions on future research that is needed, I again refer the reader to the Handbook of Religion and Health [ 600 ].

The research findings, a desire to provide high-quality care, and simply common sense, all underscore the need to integrate spirituality into patient care. I have briefly reviewed reasons for inquiring about and addressing spiritual needs in clinical practice, described how to do so, and indicated boundaries across which health professionals should not cross. For more information on how to integrate spirituality into patient care, the reader is referred to the book, Spirituality in Patient Care [ 601 ]. The field of religion, spirituality, and health is growing rapidly, and I dare to say, is moving from the periphery into the mainstream of healthcare. All health professionals should be familiar with the research base described in this paper, know the reasons for integrating spirituality into patient care, and be able to do so in a sensible and sensitive way. At stake is the health and well-being of our patients and satisfaction that we as health care providers experience in delivering care that addresses the whole person—body, mind, and spirit.

Conflict of Interests

The author declares that he has no conflict of interests.

Acknowledgment

The support to write this paper was provided in part by the John Templeton Foundation.

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Book cover

Religion and Volunteering pp 1–20 Cite as

Religion and Volunteering

Complex, Contested and Ambiguous Relationships

  • Johan von Essen 7 ,
  • Lesley Hustinx 8 ,
  • Jacques Haers 9 &
  • Sara Mels 9  
  • First Online: 01 January 2014

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Part of the Nonprofit and Civil Society Studies book series (NCSS)

This chapter introduces the reader to the main themes and general content of this edited volume on religion and volunteering . It starts from the observation that the relationship between religion and volunteering constitutes a key focus of research on volunteering. The ‘default’ perspective posits a strong and positive causal relationship between both phenomena. However, both volunteering and religion are multi-dimensional and dynamic social phenomena. On closer inspection the relation between them appears to be more complex, contested and ambiguous than is generally assumed. The introduction further explores the (intensifying) tensions between religion and volunteering from the viewpoint of the particular nature and changing role of religion in society. A fundamental tension originates in the definition of volunteering as a freely chosen activity. From a religious perspective, in contrast, being of service to others is something the pious person does in obedience to God. A second source of tension relates to processes of religious change that include both the return and decline of religion A post-secular perspective is introduced, contributing to a more complex and variable understanding of how religion and volunteering interrelate. Against this broader background, the anthology addresses the following questions: How do the relationships between types of religions/religiosity and types of volunteering vary within and across nations? What recent changes in our understanding of society, religion and volunteering challenge the default view? What other dimensions, enactments, and consequences of the interplay religion and volunteering can be studied beyond the traditional perspective?

  • Definition of volunteering
  • Definition of religion
  • Default relationship
  • Ambiguous and/or contested relations
  • Religious change
  • Post-secular

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von Essen, J., Hustinx, L., Haers, J., Mels, S. (2015). Religion and Volunteering. In: Hustinx, L., von Essen, J., Haers, J., Mels, S. (eds) Religion and Volunteering. Nonprofit and Civil Society Studies. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-04585-6_1

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