Saturday, June 02, 2012

Healthy, Religious & Scientific Thoughts in the Last Years of Life

By Gary Berg-Cross
I’m a big fan of the Washington Post’s Health and Science section which appears every Tuesday. True this is a compromise from the purely science section of earlier days, but health articles are often interesting too. Of course there is often controversy about the claims. This week in Free for All there Michele Leonardi pointed out that the Health and Science section’s article on purported risk of hormone replace for post-menopausal women was at odds with the statements in Section A of WAPO. 

My own feeling of incongruity in this week’s Health and Science section was an article on Older and Wiser that featured an interview with 80 year old Rev. Joan Brown Cambpell. As the interview makes clear Campbll was awarded the Walter Cronkite Faith and Freedom Award, which promotes tolerance and public dialogue on controversial issues, and she published a book, “ Living into Hope: A Call to Spiritual Action for Such a Time as This .” Hope was the part of this interview but the main focus was “how a woman of the cloth deals with aging.” I guess this qualifies for the Health section, which often discusses aging and prolonging life. A popular topic among the Baby Boomers that are entering retirement and experiencing mixtures of joy and diminishing capabilities in grandparenthood. An aging is an important topic for policy. Health economists report that 90% of health spending goes on the last 10% of lives. Such topics are good for attracting WAPO readership - death is the fate of every human, but the way we handle this journey has been a human obsession well covered in writing since at least Egyptian times. Their myths explain the origin of death and have been found among many other cultures. Clearly, reflection on death and on life after death belongs to the oldest layers of religion and usually serves some comforting function. But then again so does morphine.

The interview with Campbell started with “Has your faith changed as you have aged?”
The answer was one of those perambulating trips which on the one hand said “I have become much less concerned about the literal nature of the Bible — from whence it came, from how it came. “ But the Reverend also claimed, without support from the above, that:
“is a source of truth and guidance in our lives. It is a God-blessed document. I don’t doubt that. I am very much a God believer.”
From there she went to the only connection to science that I could find, a glancing reference to Carl Sagan:

“One of my great experiences in life is becoming friends with Carl Sagan. He would say, “You are so smart; why do you believe in God?” And I would say to him, “Carl, you are so smart; why don’t you believe in God?” We had great discussions about if I could prove there was God. Of course, you can’t.”

This idea of lack of proof of claims and a reliance on feeling of knowing runs throughout the interview such as the answer to the Q of what happens after death:

“I don’t know what is beyond us. I would not want to deny that there is something beyond us, but we don’t know. Will I be reunited again with my father? Will I see my mother again? I don’t know. I feel my mother. She is in my life in many ways.”

“I am not hooked to a magical something, but I do think there is a presence. I don’t know what it is. I don’t stew about it a lot.”
It is well known that there are studies that find some relation of Religion and the Quality of Life in the Last Year of Life (see Idler et al). Differences in quality of life for those who are religiously involved in that last year compared with those who are not appear in studies. As reported in the Idler study, they had better self-rated health, fewer depressive feelings, and were observed by the interviewer to find life more exciting compared with the less religious. Largely this is attributed to social and community factors. Deeply religious respondents were more likely to see friends, receive strength and comfort from religion reported poorer self-rated health. Those who attended religious services often were most likely to have attended holiday parties, even after adjusting for health status. All things that people in more secular societies, but community oriented societies like Norway, are achievable without religious commitment.
Campbell’s positions sounds somehow moderate, certainly by evangelical stereotypes. And much of what she said we directly experiential and reflective of such things as the fears of aging and finding some good threads in it.  Yes, we can be more secure in who we are and what we've accomplished. But I find it a largely rationalized, if humanistically flavored, discussion which largely ignores many aspects of what the Rev. likely preached through her life. We can still ask in the 21st century what we are doing discussing geriatrics inspired by Bible stories, medieval doctrine, and woolly rabbinical allegories as the basis of morality and a life.

1 comment:

Gary Berg-Cross said...

See "Sam Harris - Death and the Present Moment " which starts with an homage to Hitch