Questionable Motives

August 21, 2011

What’s the difference between religious belief and quackery?

Umm… confusion?

First, a bit of background.

I was in discussions with a fellow who used this article as evidence that religious belief in god is driven by biology because it’s true, yet I had a difficult time explaining why the human tendency to attribute agency to supernatural causation was not evidence for god. (It’s a human attribute to get mad, say, at a series of red lights when one is trying to drive somewhere quickly, as if these lights were possessed by a malevolent spirit aimed at thwarting your desires. That experience doesn’t offer us evidence for a malignant spirit, however; it reveals we are all susceptible to giving in to these silly notions.). But the study he was using was from Oxford university, you see, so it had the pedigree of academic authenticity. Therefore, I had to be wrong. It didn’t seem to matter to the fellow that the Project – called the Cognition, Religion and Theology Project – was run by theologians funded by Templeton, nor that it’s funding depended on attributing this tendency to assign agency to be equivalent of ‘believing in god’. It simply didn’t matter that the project’s reason to be was that its “seeks to support scientific projects that promise to yield new evidence regarding how the structures of human minds inform and constrain religious expression including ideas about gods and spirits, the afterlife, spirit possession, prayer, ritual, religious expertise, and connections between religious thought and morality and pro-social behavior.”

Well, it matters a great deal to me because there is a flip side to respecting both supernatural claims and directives that transpose one’s beliefs into actions and, more  specifically, how we are to behave towards others. That flip side runs the gamut from exercising quaint beliefs – some of which motivate the killing of children (see here and here) to outright medical quackery and no human society – no matter how developed in economy or academia – is somehow immune… except and only by those who exercise honest scepticism through critical reasoning, who respect reality – and not our beliefs about it – as the final arbiter of what is true. And that approach can be learned, which I think is a very worthwhile endeavor to undertake. But how to convince more people to exercise it when we are bombarded by familiar and comforting beliefs in supernatural agencies as if they were true in reality?

We are surrounded here in the west by self-spawning quackery to the extent that taxpayers subsidize its teachings and accept its many guises as legitimate treatments. But how many people understand the link between supernaturalism in religion to supernaturalism is medical treatments? To me it seems self-evident that what we’re talking about is not a difference in kind of beliefs in the supernatural but in degree of belief in the supernatural. In other words, faith-based belief comes in many expressions but the root – belief in the supernatural – remains the same. This confuses whether reality or our beliefs about it arbitrates what’s true.

For example, Orac, while criticizing a new study in journal Cancer, tells us the difference between reiki and the ‘energy chelation’ therapy used in the study under ‘peer review’ is that “reiki is faith healing in which the person being healed is usually not touched but the practitioner believes that he’s channeling healing energy into the patient from a “universal source.”

Universal source? Doesn’t that sound a lot like… oh, I don’t know… maybe another way to say  god? Coincidence?

And the founder of energy chelation?  “Founder and director of the Healing Light Center Church, Reverend Bruyere has committed her life to the teaching of these sacred and ancient disciplines, thereby providing her students with practical tools for living the spiritual life, while introducing them to the venerable traditions from which those tools are derived.

That she’s a reverend must also be a coincidence, I guess.

So what are those sacred and ancient disciplines, these venerable traditions? Rev. Bruyere explains:

Human Energy Chelation Therapy (HECT), a process of transmitting or channelling energy, is based on the electromagnetic nature of the human body. The body’s electromagnetic or auric field is generated by the spinning of the chakras. As it spins, each chakra produces its own electromagnetic field. This field then combines with fields generated by other chakras in the body to produce the auric field. An individual’s auric field is manifested via a combination of energies from three chakras. Generally these are the first, third and fifth chakras, which empower the person’s physical, intellectual, and etheric bodies. It is a combination of these three chakras that produces the primary auric field (the inner shell of the aura), which can be physically felt by the therapist’s hand as it is passed over the client’s body in the process of scanning.

Of course. That we have no evidence of the human body as an ‘auric field’ generator matters little when we are talking about ancient and venerable practices, which in turn are based on… you guessed it… faith-based beliefs. The dictionary tells me that ‘auric’ actually means “of, or containing, gold in the trivalent state,” so I suspect what the reverend actually meant was ‘auratic’ – pertaining to the aura. But what’s in a term when the whole thing is pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo?

Well, a lot as it turns out.

Consider the pejorative sense of the word ‘quackery’ to describe medical practices that failed to establish efficacy. From this was born the terms complementary and alternative ‘medicine’ when people could earn degrees to become doctors of ‘naturopathy’, which is now morphing into “integrative medicine” and appearing, like the Oxford Project, on university campuses (see here for the latest) where they suck legitimacy not from the efficacy of their work results, which are non-existent, but parasitically from the university’s name alone . The terminology used in quackery, as ethereal and nebulous in meaning to those found in religious belief, is important to keep the founding faith-based beliefs of these ‘venerable practices’ hidden from those who purchase them today expecting efficacy (I can’t find a religious believer in christianity, for example, who accepts without qualification that prayer is not efficacious in spite of very strong evidence that it is not).

None of these terms are, as David Gorski writes in his excellent critical article,

serious, sober names for a serious, sober, science-based specialty. They are about the branding of quackery. They have always been about the branding of quackery. They are about double standards whereby treatments that can’t pass scientific muster are admitted to the “club” of science-based medicine under lowered standards.

Can this be true? Why, even insurance companies fund treatments like chiropracty presumably because they do work. Don’t they?

Well, you may be surprised at the words of David Palmer, the founder of what we now call chiropractics… a stellar example of what quackery in the medical world looks like today. In his book, The Chiropractor (published posthumously, 1914), Palmer described how he came to understand that 95% of all diseases came from subluxated vertabra  from a channeled spirit from ‘the other world’ (source):

“The knowledge and philosophy given me by Dr. Jim Atkinson, an intelligent spiritual being, together with explanations of phenomena, principles resolved from causes, effects, powers, laws and utility, appealed to my reason. The method by which I obtained an explanation of certain physical phenomena, from an intelligence in the spiritual world, is known in biblical language as inspiration. In a great measure The Chiropractor’s Adjuster was written under such spiritual promptings.” (p. 5)”

He regarded chiropractic as partly religious in nature. In a letter of May 4, 1911 he said:

“… we must have a religious head, one who is the founder, as did Christ, Mohamed, Jo. Smith, Mrs. Eddy, Martin Luther and other who have founded religions. I am the fountain head. I am the founder of chiropractic in its science, in its art, in its philosophy and in its religious phase.”

In his 1914 book, the first chapter expanded on his religious views of chiropractic: “The Moral and Religious Duty of a Chiropractor”.In it he dealt with religious liberty and stated:

“… nor interfere with the religious duty of chiropractors, a privilege already conferred upon them. It now becomes us as chiropractors to assert our religious rights.” (p. 1)

“The practice of chiropractic involves a moral obligation and a religious duty.”

Yes, the same engine that drives faith-based belief pops up in just about every avenue of human activity where we face uncertainties and lack of knowledge: calls from those who profit from the status quo appeal to us to take superstitious claims seriously because they are venerated, because they are ancient, because they are not familiar… not because they are true.

Perhaps that has something to do with why Leo Igwe tells us that:

In some cases Africans associate certain traits or behavior like stubbornness, talking in one’s dreams, sleep walking, aging, albinism, soliloquy, hallucination and uttering meaningless syllables even when it is as a result of some psychiatric problem or self deceit, with magical powers. The general belief is that the veracity or validity of witchcraft claims is beyond the scope of ‘western’ science but within the ambit of ‘African science’. This misconception is common among the so called African elite and is at the root of the problems associated with belief in witchcraft in the region.

Western science versus African science? Isn’t science simply science? So why does this false dichotomy sound so familiar? Oh, yes, that’s right: it’s common to hear people talk about ‘Eastern medicine’ versus ‘Western medicine’ conveniently forgetting that such a dichotomy is just as false. That’s why we need to substitute terms that only seem to be meaningful in reality, to cover up the fact that what the terms represent are not true in reality but exist only in the faith-based beliefs people hold in these superstitious claims… where ignorance and fear are plentiful.

Gorski writes in the same article,

There is no such thing as “alternative” medicine. There is medicine that has been proven safe and effective through science; there is medicine that has not; and there as medicine that has been proven unsafe and/or ineffective through science. Whatever you call it, “alternative,” “CAM,” or “integrative” medicine, when medicine, whatever its source, is demonstrated to be safe and effective through science, it ceases to be “alternative” or “complementary.” It becomes simply “medicine” and is automatically integrated into the current armamentarium of medicine, no special name needed, no special consideration needed to provide a lower standard of evidence.”

The common root of both medical quackery and religious belief is exactly the same: faith-based belief in the supernatural. And, in spite of repeated assertions by all stripes of apologists for faith-based beliefs with the old mantra of ‘What’s the harm?’,  both these expressions really do kill people unnecessarily. And in great quantities. In this sense of supporting the unsupportable, then, there is no difference between religious belief and quackery.

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  1. You may want to look at this posts on Canadian Atheist: “Humanist Ministries of Canada?”

    PS: Because I like to play with words, I offer this thought. Surely “complimentary” medicine works because if the compliment is sincere it make the receiver feel so good. However, “complementary” medicine does not work. (smile)

    Comment by Veronica Abbass — August 22, 2011 @ 9:13 am | Reply

    • Now for my error, the word “posts” should be “post.”

      Comment by Veronica Abbass — August 22, 2011 @ 9:17 am | Reply

    • Thanks, VA. And this isn’t the first time I’ve done this. Someday I hope the difference sinks into this brain of mine.

      Comment by tildeb — August 22, 2011 @ 9:26 am | Reply

  2. More confusion and false dichotomies finds its way into health care policy here in Ontario by terming evidence-based medicine with ‘allopathic’ medicine, meaning medicine that has efficacy, to non-allopathic medicine, which at its source means respect for non-evidence based medicine that has no efficacy, particularly homeopathy, which relies on the magic of water retaining memories. The policy is aimed at physicians to respect patient ‘choice’ to seek out quackery and woo and not be biased against their ‘complementary’ use. This is a blatant use of public policy funded by tax payers to promote faith-based belief in supernaturalism in medicine. An excellent article about this abuse of science in medicine by those who promote woo and quackery can be found here, the ‘Eh?’ team of northern skeptics.

    Comment by tildeb — August 22, 2011 @ 9:20 am | Reply

    • Is this reply for me, the person who has two grammar errors in her first comment?

      Comment by Veronica Abbass — August 22, 2011 @ 9:26 am | Reply

      • See? I did it again! Arggghhhh! (Gone back to edit)

        Comment by tildeb — August 22, 2011 @ 9:33 am

  3. LOL

    Comment by 4amzgkids — August 22, 2011 @ 8:13 pm | Reply

  4. Homeopathy makes my blood boil. I have had countless discussions with people about this nonsense for years.

    The placebo effect is scientifically known to exist – this is indisputable, and that is all that homeopathy is – it is an exploitation of this effect.

    What people forget is that placebos are used in drug trials. Nearly all drugs are competed against other known drugs to be known to be beneficial, as well as a placebo (sugar pills). This baselines the study and helps the scientist determine whether or not the chemicals being trialled actually have any effect on the patient at all.

    I just despair when I see people waffle on about a different science for alternative medical treatments, because they just have a massive misunderstanding of what medicine is, which can be fatal.

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — August 23, 2011 @ 5:15 pm | Reply

    • Completely agree. Recently, I had a discussion on homeopathy with a close friend and it was a very unpleasant and frustrating experience. I was dealing with someone whom I respected and and knew was very intelligent and capable of being a healthy skeptic with other topics but homeopathy was her blind spot.
      To my horror, I found out she was fully into acupuncture and other such nonsense.
      Yet, even though she shut down the conversation multiple times, I persisted over the course of many months to appeal to her better side. I knew she was essentially an intellectually honest and well-educated person and I felt strongly that a “softly, softly, catchee monkey” approach was the best.

      Finally, my friend did the right thing and applied the skeptical process and started demanding the hard-core peer-reviewed evidence. Now she’s more against quack medicine than I am!

      Keep the candle burning in the darkness. It’s usually a pain in the ass but sometimes you can get a positive result. :)

      That Mitchell and Webb Look: Homeopathic A&E

      Comment by Cedric Katesby — August 24, 2011 @ 2:41 am | Reply

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