Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science

Spiritual Transformation, Healing, and Altruism

by
David Glover

Zygon in its December 2006 issue takes a look at spirit healing and indigenous healing practices in the cultures of Guatemala, Maya, Peru, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. In her introduction to the Symposium on Spiritual Transformation, Healing, and Altruism Joan D. Koss-Chioino argues that there is often bias against these healing systems in the face of western health care based upon biomedical science. In light of this acknowledged bias she asks, does a discussion of the type found in this symposium belong in the religion and science dialogue? Her response, and that of the others in the symposium is yes, there is a place for the study of other-regardedness and generous self-giving—altruism—within the religion-and-science conversation.

Scientists have been reluctant to look at ritual healing because of its subjective nature, its unquantifiableness. But there is more at stake here. Bonnie Glass-Coffin says these actions “speak from the heart rather than just the head.” To dismiss the “subjective” as “non-objective” and “un-scientific” is to set apart healing, the reinstatement of the sufferer’s wholeness and sense of place in the community, from the health and equilibrium within and individual’s body provided by science and western medicine. Ritual healing restores a person’s connection with their community, those living in sym-pathy with one another, which is broken by disease (dis-ease) and distress. It overlooks the role that altruism plays in a community.

When science is practiced as a highly specialized and compartmentalized endeavor, particularly in cultures that emphasize the individual, it may well overlook humanity’s altruistic tendencies. This is possibly because those tendencies result in actions that are unselfish (anti-self-interested), and hence appear to be irrational to individualistic culture. However, throughout the ages it has been humanity’s, and the individual human’s, ability to survive has depended upon its ability to foster cooperation within a community.

The work in this symposium looks at how a religious experience, as a societal experience, extends altruism beyond ones immediate family (those who are subject to biological, or kin, altruism) to more extended village or clan members. This is particularly meaningful because the persons seeking ritual healing, those who are hurt and distressed, are likely to be either the ones unable to be biologically reproductive in the future (and hence be unable to rely upon kin in the future) without outside assistance to their distress, or to be the elderly—those most likely to help reproduce the cultural inheritance. That is, altruism may play a role in biological and cultural survival that can be intuited from who is helped as well as who is doing the helping.

In that these articles attempt to describe and interpret the phenomena of ritual healing and the variety of its attendant outcomes we can begin to understand how it is possible for this cultural activity to occur and, ultimately, how this action is helpful for cultural propagation, fostering wholeness in individuals and communities. As such, they are a “most unusual” field for the religion-and-science discussion that may offer insight into the cultural milieus that both science and religion must inhabit.

Koss-Chioino, Joan D. 2006. “Spiritual Transformation, Healing and Altruism: Introduction to the Symposium.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 41 (December): 869-876.

———. 2006. “Spiritual Transformation, Ritual Healing, and Altruism.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 41 (December): 877-892.

Glass-Coffin, Bonnie. 2006. “A Mother’s Love: Gender, Altruism, and Spiritual Transformation.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 41 (December): 893-902.

Harvey, T. S. 2006. “Ipseity, Alerity, and Community: The Tri-unity of Maya Therapeutic Healing.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 41 (December): 903-914.

Vieten, Cassandra, Tina Amorok, and Marilyn Mandala Schlitz. 2006. “I to We: The Role of Consciousness Transformation in Compassion and Altruism.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 41 (December): 915-931.

Turner, Edith L. B. 2006. “Discussion: Altruism, Spiritually Merging with a Fellow Human Being’s Suffering.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 41 (December): 933-939.


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initially prepared October 20, 2006

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