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Exploring the impact of religion and spirituality on health outcomes and engaging religious and spiritual resources in health care contexts.

The intersection of health and religion or spirituality has been a focus of our work almost since the Foundation was created. Since the mid-2000s, our funding has covered at least six related but distinct themes: (1) research into the relationships between religion and health; (2) capacity-building through establishing academic centers; (3) training health professionals in religious and spiritual competencies; (4) studying medicine as a spiritual practice or calling; (5) testing religiously integrated health interventions; and (6) research into the impact of chaplains on health care. For the 2019 – 2023 funding cycle, we are narrowing our focus to prioritize two areas: (1) applied research and dissemination that engages religious/spiritual resources and issues in the context of health care; and (2) basic research into religious/spiritual factors as determinants of health.

1.) Religion and spirituality in health care. Religion, spirituality, and faith have multiple potential interactions with health care. We are currently prioritizing funding inquiries in the range $250,000 – $1,000,000 for applied research, action research, or implementation-oriented projects related to any of the following specific interactions:

    • Religious and spiritual resources for positive mental health. How could scientific research on spiritual struggles or concepts of God be applied in the context of self-help or other preventative non-clinical interventions to help protect people from depression and anxiety? Are there novel methods or contexts for the development, evaluation, and dissemination of resources that are grounded in rigorous psychological science? Resources could be for individual use or for use in groups or community settings, and could include apps, workbooks, trade books, programs, podcasts, websites, AI tools, or other digital assets or initiatives.
    • Partnerships between faith communities and health services. What models exist for co-designing, building, evaluating, or scaling partnerships between faith-based communities and health services? How can trust between faith communities and health providers be built such that mutual referrals for specialist mental health care and spiritual care become the norm? How could greater engagement with scientifically informed theological anthropologies lead to greater preventative and therapeutic engagement with mental health issues among faith communities? How might such partnerships address health disparities and improve access to care?
    • Religious and spiritual competencies of health care practitioners. What is the scope of such competencies? How might such competencies differ among health care disciplines? How are they best assessed? What training models are most effective? What difference does religiously and spiritually competent care make to patient outcomes? Practice areas of interest include public health, social work, counseling, psychology, medicine, nursing, and chaplaincy.
    • Religiously/spiritually integrated psychological therapies. Does integrating religious or spiritual content or practices into conventional therapies change their effectiveness? Does including religious or spiritual interventions within treatment improve patient outcomes? If so, why, and for whom? Might engaging religious or spiritual resources during treatment improve therapeutic alliance or more reliably protect against relapse? Would wider availability of religiously/spiritually integrated therapies improve access for underserved populations?
    • Religious and spiritual data in health informatics. How can the quality and quantity of data related to religion and spirituality in electronic health records (EHRs) be improved? What opportunities exist to leverage extant EHR data to evaluate the role of religious/spiritual factors in health care and patient outcomes?

2.) Causal relationships between religion/spirituality and health. Are there robust associations between religious or spiritual beliefs, experiences, practices, and identities, on the one hand, and physical or mental health, on the other? Are such associations causal in nature, and, if so, what are the underlying causal mechanisms? Some of our first grants helped expand the number of studies reporting some association between religion and health. But most published studies in this area rely on weak—often correlational—research designs and provide little resolution as to what it is about religion or spirituality that might be influencing health outcomes. Many health cohort studies (e.g., see the R|S Atlas for an analysis of many U.S. cohorts) or national household panel studies contain data on religion for which analyses have yet to be published; whether this is due to lack of researcher interest or results deemed unpublishable (the “file drawer effect”) is unclear, however. We are therefore particularly interested in proposals with pre-registered analyses of extant data, proposals to add improved measures of religion and spirituality into ongoing longitudinal research programs, and proposals that creatively leverage other sources of data or research designs to provide insights into such causal relationships as may exist.

Featured Grants

Human Sciences
Project Leader(s): Alexandra Shields
Grantee(s): The General Hospital Corporation d/b/a Massachusetts General Hospital
Human Sciences
Project Leader(s): Jean Golding, Kate Northstone
Grantee(s): University of Bristol
Human Sciences
Project Leader(s): Joseph Currier, Jesse Fox, Holly Oxhandler, Kenneth Pargament, Michelle Pearce, Edward Polson, Cassandra Vieten
Grantee(s): University of South Alabama
Human Sciences
Project Leader(s): Christina Puchalski, George Fitchett, Betty Ferrell
Grantee(s): George Washington University
Human Sciences
Project Leader(s): Tin Tin Su, Pascale Allotey
Grantee(s): Monash University Malaysia
Human Sciences
Project Leader(s): Miraj Desai, Larry Davidson
Grantee(s): Yale University