Faith and pain intensity: levels, forms, and faith beyond religion

Sculpture by Fabio Viale

Levels of faith and pain intensity
Research studies show significant relationships between strong spiritual well-being, increased pain tolerance[1] and an ability to cope with pain.[2]

A recent study demonstrated that spirituality well-being, and faith particularly, as measured by the Functional Assessment of Chronic Illness Therapy – Spiritual Well-Being-Extended scale (FACIT-Sp-Ex), was significantly related to reduced pain intensity in some study participants over a course of pain treatment.[3] What accounts for this relationship? The authors speculated that:

“It may be that a strong element of “faith” is associated with a greater confidence or trust in health professionals and a greater likelihood of following their advice. It is also possible that those with higher levels of “faith” are more likely to improve because they are more likely to engage with a program that seeks to incorporate a spiritual and existential component. It is also possible that they are more eager to please the program providers and report better outcomes. All of these possibilities would need to be explored further and cannot be answered in the present study.”[3]

The quotation suggests that higher levels of faith might be associated with reduced pain intensity in some people with pain.

Forms of faith and pain intensity: a hypothesis
A hypothesis is that, in addition to levels of faith, particular forms of faith, or combinations of faith forms, could reduce pain intensity.

So, what forms of faith are there? The following forms are commonly distinguished in philosophy of religion (Table 1).

Faith formName in philosophy of religion
A feeling of existential confidencethe ‘purely affective’ model
Knowledge of specific truths, revealed by Godthe ‘special knowledge’ model
Belief that God existsthe ‘belief’ model
Believing in (‘trusting in’) Godthe ‘trust’ model
Practical commitment beyond the evidence to one’s belief that God existsthe ‘doxastic venture’ model
Hoping the God who saves existsthe ‘hope’ model
Table 1: Common forms of faith identified in philosophy of religion[4]

Scientific study could investigate if some forms of faith are significantly related to reduced pain intensity compared to other forms, or combinations of forms, of faith. These same forms of faith could be used prognostically by clinicians to predict improvements in pain intensity in some patients, or in other outcomes, such as quality of life or pain-related disability. Qualitative research could investigate if patient conceptions of faith accurately map onto faith forms, as identified by philosophers.

Faith beyond religion
Can faith exist without commitment to any religion? Tennant wrote that: ‘faith is an outcome of the inborn propensity to self-conservation and self-betterment which is a part of human nature, and is no more a miraculously superadded endowment than is sensation or understanding.’[5] He thinks that ‘much of the belief which underlies knowledge is the outcome of faith which ventures beyond the apprehension and treatment of data to supposition, imagination and creation of ideal objects, and justifies its audacity and irrationality (in accounting them to be also real) by practical actualization.’[5]

If faith exists beyond religion, then people who commit themselves to a view based on a particular interpretation of reality exclusive of the objective verification of the truth, are people of faith. Faith of this kind may be religious without being theistic, as in Buddhism or Taoism. Or, it may be scientific when people propose that reality is no more than what is discoverable by the natural sciences (e.g. ‘scientific atheists’, ‘naturalists’).

Study of the interaction between faith and pain could investigate relationships between forms of faith and pain intensity, in addition to other psychosocial outcomes. Such forms span broadly across traditional orthodox religious thesim, relgious non-theism, scientific atheism or naturalism. Interaction between forms and levels of faith, and pain outcomes, is a further possibility. Personal faith could be a useful tool in the clinical armamentarium.

[1] Lysne CJ, Wachholtz AB. Pain, spirituality, and meaning making: What can we learn from the literature? Religions 2010;2(1):1.

[2] Keefe FJ, Affleck G, Lefebvre J, Underwood L, Caldwell DS, Drew J, et al. Living with rheumatoid arthritis: The role of daily spirituality and daily religious and spiritual coping. J Pain 2001;2(2):101-10.

[3] McCabe R, Murray R, Austin P, Siddall P. Spiritual and existential factors predict pain relief in a pain management program with a meaning-based component. J Pain Manage 2018:11(2):163-170.

[4] Bishop J. Faith. In: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Available at:

[5] Tennant FR. 1943/1989. Faith [Tennant, 1943, Chapter 6]. In T. Penelhum (ed.), Faith, London: Collier Macmillan, 99-112.

How to lose faith in God

Moving, causing, surviving. That’s why animals have a central nervous system. And that’s how a religious person ought to lose faith in God: on the move.

Simulation (mimicry) is included under ‘moving’.

The best way for a religious person who already doubts his faith, but doesn’t know how to go on, is to enter into learning relationships with atheists. Such relationships, mediated by goodwill and the sincere desire to learn, allow the religious doubter to ‘try out’ atheism, to simulate it for its effects on self and others. Multiple simulations should be attempted.  Slow cure is all important. These experiences must be largely positive to induce attachment.

Sudden and dramatic loss of faith almost never happens, if ever, for the reward system in the brain needs to re-tune itself out of the current attractor-category (religion) and into the new attractor-category (atheism). This change takes time; sometimes years.

To lose faith in God, you need to do something. You do this by first copying others who are already masters of the game.

What is religion? Next question, please.

What is religion? If this question asks what all religions have in common, then the answer is: next question, please.

What do all religions have in common? Nothing.

In contrast to Christianity, Islam and Judaism, Buddhism is atheistic with regard to a creator god. There is no doctrine of karma in Christianity. Hinduism is opulently polythesitic, but Islam is not. And so on.

In this kind of situation, it is more promising to offer a simile. What is religion like? Religion is like a cord composed of braided strands (e.g., a rope). The strands overlap and lie over each other in complex ways. The integrity of the cord does not consist in one strand, but in the arrangement of many strands.

Take any family. Look at the faces of its members. Do they have one facial feature in common?  No. There are both similarities (e.g., eye color), and differences (e.g., face contour). The relationships are complex, not simple. That is how it is. Just look and see for yourself.

Religion is extremely complex. To make a decent start at understanding it, good questions need to be asked. This is not easy. So, I urge looking first. What is observed? Compare your visual experiences. Look first, ask questions later.

Religious pretenders

I am too honest to be religious. Religion lains waste to honest reflection and questioning.

Many people claim to be religious. How many are pretenders?

There may be good reasons why a person pretends to be religious. A religious son adores his devout mother so much that he could not bare her to learn of his atheism. However, unknown to him and family, the mother is an atheist, and has been for decades. Like the son, she became a religious pretender in order to protect her mother’s feelings, and so on.

How to break this circle of lies? Honest reflection and questioning. And that takes great courage.