By Allison Reilly
Introduction: Religion and Medicine in North Carolina
Throughout history, humans have approached health and healing from a variety of lenses, ranging from traditional scientific medical care to home remedies, faith, and other cultural alternatives. Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM)—especially that motivated by religious faith—is prevalent among rural North Carolinians, leading to a balance of religion and medicine that has shifted across generations. According to Harold G. Koenig’s journal article, “Religion and Medicine I: Historical Background and Reasons for Separation,” only within the past 200-300 years has society moved to keep religion and medicine separate (Koenig, “Historical Background” 385). And yet, while some scholars argue that religious influence on medicine has irrelevant or even negative health effects, others claim that religion—when balanced with complementary scientific health practices—may provide much-needed community, hope, and other benefits for social and emotional well-being.
Incorporating religion into healing practices can look a variety of ways, including traditional treatments (often inspired by historical religious texts); faith (prayer and blessings for family, friends, and congregation members); and community (childcare, financial, and social support). In North Carolina, eighty percent of adults are religious, with sixty-five percent of them being classified as “highly religious,” according to Pew’s religiosity index (Pew Research Center). A vast majority (seventy-seven percent) of North Carolinians are Christian, meaning that religious healing practices often stem from biblical references (Pew Research Center). For example, the journal article, “From Disease to Holiness: Religious-Based Health Remedies of Italian Folk Medicine” describes how Holy Water, Blessed Oil, and other religious objects have made their way into common religious home remedies (Romeo et al. 2).
These North Carolina religion demographics are important to keep in mind as one evaluates the following three case studies—three oral histories of North Carolinians who have partaken differently in this balance of religion and medicine. Altogether, these accounts provide further context for the balance of scientific medicine and religious alternatives that most benefits doctor and patient well-being (socially, emotionally, and physically).
Blind Faith: Crystal Deshazor
Crystal Deshazor is a Black woman from Danville, Virginia who works now in North Carolina as a Community Health Worker and advocate for trust and social support in the healthcare field. Deshazor’s interview provides an example of one’s over-reliance on faith, prayer, and other religious alternatives to scientific medical care. In her oral interview, she relates the following anecdote of a time when she experienced long-term internal bleeding and relied primarily on faith in God and frequent prayer to alleviate her severe condition:
I had been bleeding for probably about 36 days. It was a long time. It was over a month, way longer than what you should actually have to bleed. And when I went to the doctor, I told her, I said, “I know you might think this is crazy,” I said, “but I’m not bleeding now.” She was like, “No, no, no.” And she was telling me it was normal. But I was praying. I would go to church, and I’m praying, I was like, “God, just like—could you please just heal me?” And I’m praying every day because I didn’t know what was going on because I had never experienced anything like that before. And that was the first and that was the last time that it ever happened. (Deshazor, [0:39:14.9 – 0:40:33.2])
Although Deshazor’s bleeding problem was ultimately resolved, the way that she describes her experience—in particular, her denial of the medical doctor’s scientific explanation for the changes in her condition—reflects the potential for unconditional faith in religion as a means of healing to have detrimental effects on one’s physical well-being, something against which Richard P. Sloan Ph.D. warns in his book, Blind Faith: The Unholy Alliance of Religion and Medicine. In his book, Sloan advocates against the argument that religion and medicine can and should work cooperatively to improve patient health. Rather, Sloan claims that studies in support of religious incorporation into the medical field are over-reliant on anecdote and unquantifiable faith determinants, making their data unreliable (Sloan 84). Sloan’s research demonstrates that an over-reliance on religion (especially the imposition of religion onto non-religious doctors and patients) can prevent the necessary trust of more traditional scientific health care practices and, though fortunately not in the case of Crystal Deshazor, have potentially deadly consequences (Sloan 256).
Community Support: Lisa McKeithan
Lisa McKeithan—born in 1979 in Lumberton, NC, educated at the University of North Carolina, and working now as the Program Director for Positive Life (a patient-centered HIV care program)—relates how her family’s relationship with home remedies and the church community has evolved generationally. McKeithan describes her mother as “very spiritual,” and how, perhaps as a result, she “didn’t go to the doctor a lot” as a child. McKeithan witnessed her mother’s reliance on prayer to God as an immediate response to her children’s sickness, as well as other home remedies including the use of cod liver oil, castor oil, and garden herbs for colds and stomachaches.
Lisa, too, shares her mother’s faith in God, stating “We both believe… We’ve seen God heal.” Nevertheless, McKeithan is clear that God alone cannot be relied upon to cure all disease. Having received more formal education and been trained to work in the medical field, McKeithan explains the following:
Being in this field, I’m also mindful that God gives these doctors the wisdom and the knowledge and he provides us medication for us to take to get better. So, yes, I’m going to pray, but I’m also going to go to the doctor so he can give me the proper diagnosis and the medication to fight off this disease or this whatever I’m dealing with too. (McKeithan, [0:39:43.4 – 0:40:45.5])
Evidently, at least in McKeithan’s family, there has been a generational shift away from complete reliance on religion and home remedies, and instead towards incorporating proactive preventative measures and conventional scientific medicine into healing practices.
In her oral interview, McKeithan also describes the important social-emotional benefits that her Church provides by way of community support. She describes how, in her small town in rural North Carolina, the Church served as a “close-knit family.” Her anecdotes echo the theoretical model presented by Koenig, one that underscores the importance that religious communities—in North Carolina, especially Christian Church congregations—play in providing such support systems as childcare, financial contributions, stress relief, and other social-emotional solace (Koenig, “Developing a Theoretical Model” 208).
A Complementary Model: Reverend William Kearney
In his oral interview, Reverend William Kearney—himself a church official and strong believer in his faith—shares the following desire to bridge the gap between religion and academia:
We are all operating by faith, and research should help us to say that if I have a vision, then I have to write out a goal and objectives, and then I have to evaluate it along the way. And from my experience, I believe that we who are of faith do the best we know to do, and if God wants to step in and do a miracle, that’s up to him. So, again, my work is trying to bring down these walls that separate us, and faith and research, to me, I think they complement one another. (Kearney, [0:48:03.4 – 0:49:17.3])
Evidently, Rev. Kearney is a firm believer that religion has the power to contribute positively to the healing process, even that God, in some circumstances, has the capability to perform miraculous healing. Nevertheless, Kearney is adamant that faith alone cannot suffice. Rather, he cites an example of a member of his congregation with diabetes, explaining how instead of solely asking for the Church to pray for his diabetes in blind faith that God alone will heal, it is necessary to complement faith and prayer with tangible, proactive steps to prevent and treat his diabetes: changing his diet, becoming more physically active, engaging in positive self-talk, etc. This balance of faith and medicine closely mirrors the theoretical model presented in part three of Koenig’s “Religion and Medicine” series. While advocating still for trust in scientific medical practices, Koenig’s research supports several of the other benefits of religious healing practices to which Kearney alludes in his interview, from moderating the physiological effects of stress, improving coping mechanisms, providing social support, preventing alcohol and drug abuse, and promoting other healthy behaviors (Koenig, “Developing a Theoretical Model” 201).
Conclusion: Finding Balance
In their essay, “Religion, Faith, and Family Medicine,” John Foglio and Howard Brody draw the following comparison between faith and medicine:
The basis of religion in reason becomes more clear when we define faith as taking risks on sufficient evidence. Faith, defined in this way, is equally necessary to religion, science, and medical therapy. (Foglio and Brody 473)
Of course, no broad-stroke conclusion about the most effective balance of religion and medicine can be drawn from just three oral history anecdotes. However, based on the diversity of perspectives among both scholars and these three North Carolinian interviewees, an equally important conclusion can be made: there is no single balance of religious faith and scientific medicine that will always result in optimal care.
As has been a theme throughout this course, every individual has a range of identities and experiences that intersect to determine the methodologies of care that best address their specific social, emotional, and physical needs. These varying health care needs—what medical anthropologist Arthur Kleinman defines as “explanatory models”—must work in tandem, with each patient and provider working together to determine where along the spectrums of religion and medicine each individual falls. Only after this mutual understanding occurs will the patient have the best chance of receiving effective care.
Foglio, John P., and Howard Brody. “Religion, Faith, and Family Medicine.” The Journal of Family Practice, PDF ed., vol. 27, no. 5, 1988, pp. 473-74.
Koenig, Harold G. “Religion and Medicine I: Historical Background and Reasons for Separation.” The International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine, vol. 30, no. 4, Dec.-Jan. 2000, pp. 385-98. SAGE Journals Online, doi:10.2190/2RWB-3AE1-M1E5-TVHK. Accessed 9 Apr. 2021.
Koenig, Harold G.. “Religion and Medicine III: Developing a Theoretical Model.” The International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine, vol. 31, no. 2, 1 June 2001, pp. 199-216. SAGE Journals Online, doi:10.2190/2YBG-NL9T-EK7Y-F6A3. Accessed 9 Apr. 2021.
Pew Research Center. Religious Composition of Adults in North Carolina. Pew Research Center, 2021. Pew Research Center, www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/state/north-carolina/. Accessed 3 May 2021.
Romeo, Nelide, et al. “From Disease to Holiness: Religious-based Health Remedies of Italian Folk Medicine (XIX-XX Century).” Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, vol. 11, no. 1, 6 June 2015, pp. 1-23, doi:10.1186/s13002-015-0037-z. Accessed 3 May 2021.
Sloan, Richard P. Blind Faith: The Unholy Alliance of Religion and Medicine. Macmillan, 2006. Google Books, Macmillan, books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=2Mv4BYz8D9cC&oi=fnd&pg=PA7&dq=religion+and+medicine&ots=AY3UqARCiy&sig=NLVxzc0x-l_T4QYLEnhiS9x94gU#v=onepage&q=religion%20and%20medicine&f=false. Accessed 9 Apr. 2021.
Stories to Save Lives. “Crystal Deshazor – Stories to Save Lives.” Southern Oral History Program, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 22 October 2018, dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/sohp/id/28268/rec/87. Accessed 3 May 2021.
Stories to Save Lives. “Lisa McKeithan – Stories to Save Lives.” Southern Oral History Program, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 29 June 2018, dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/sohp/id/27927/rec/85. Accessed 3 May 2021.
Stories to Save Lives. “William Kearney – Stories to Save Lives.” Southern Oral History Program, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 28 June 2018, dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/sohp/id/28250/rec/5. Accessed 3 May 2021.