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Does religion help people cope with chronic pain, even in secularized Western Europe? Research psychologists Jessie Dezutter, Koen Luyckx, Linda A. Robertson, and Dirk Hutsebaut set out to answer this question in a study that looked at the association between religious centrality and life satisfaction for patients living with chronic pain (CP). Their subjects, who were part of a Flemish patients’ association, answered a questionnaire about how central religion was to them, their satisfaction in life, pain, and their “sense of coherence,” which is essentially the degree to which one “sees the world as a place that makes sense.”

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Dezutter et al. hypothesized that a religious meaning system can be “an important predictor of life satisfaction for CP patients because it offers an adjusted appraisal of this stressful experience and provides the ‘tools’ to facilitate coping.

Building on earlier research that “suggest[ed] that certain aspects of religion may mitigate or buffer the negative consequences of stressors on well-being, they set out to determine if it mattered how central religion was to someone and whether religion, however personalized and far from culturally prescribed religious content, gave people something beyond a sense of order or coherence in the world.

They found that “a central religious meaning system appeared to function as a resource for the CP patient by promoting adjustment to pain.” Moreover, if a subject held religious beliefs, but religion wasn’t “central” to their life, severe pain did, in fact, affect their satisfaction with their life.

However, as the researchers point out, there are some crucial limitations to this specific study. For example, “the participants, by virtue of their membership in a patients’ association, are more active than most individuals in the CP population.” The researchers note that further exploration on this subject should have “a more diverse group of CP patients, including those who are undergoing pain treatment or those who are hospitalized.”

The participants of this study also overwhelmingly consisted of people who follow one faith: Christianity. In their response to a question on the questionnaire about their religious affiliation, 32 percent said they were Catholic, 26 percent said they were Christian, 21 percent identified as a “believer without church affiliation,” 13 percent were atheist, 4 percent were agnostic, and the remaining 4 percent identified as having a different religious affiliation, such as being Buddhist.

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Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol. 49, No. 3 (September 2010), pp. 507–516
Wiley on behalf of Society for the Scientific Study of Religion