The Connection between
Psychoneuroimmunology and Religion
HAROLD G. KOENIG
Psychoneuroimmunology is the study of how social and psychological factors affect neuroendocrine and immune functioning. Religion involves beliefs about the transcendent, as well as private or communal practices and rituals that reflect devotion or commitment to those beliefs. Why should religion and psychoneuroimmunology be related, and how? This chapter provides a background to help us understand why a connection between these two seemingly disparate topics might exist—and, in fact, makes good sense.
Religious beliefs and practices throughout recorded history have been associated with health and healing practices. All early human civilizations (Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Indian, Chinese, Greek, and Roman) dealt with physical illness in religious or spiritual terms (Koenig, McCullough, et al., 2001). Supernatural methods of treatment often involved healing rituals, prayers, incantations, or religious pilgrimages. Until recently, however, it had not been considered that religion might have an impact on physical health through natural mechanisms—that is, via social, psychological, and behavioral pathways. Relatively little attention was paid to the effects of religious beliefs and practices on mental health or social support until the latter half of the twentieth century. Research in this area, however, has been rapidly accumulating. In a recent review of this literature, we discovered that more than 850 studies have examined the relationship