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.