Healthy skepticism — the tendency to disbelieve — is often a commendable impetus to learning (represented by the maxim “Look before you leap”). But mystical “skeptics” hold that attempts to verify claims or justify actions are futile processes because everything is open to doubt or interpretation. Thus, in alternative healthcare, mystical practitioners and their patients are the sole arbiters of treatment efficacy and put whatever feels right to them on a therapeutic pedestal.

Whereas modern medicine relies on science, alternative healthcare is a rampart for religious principles and pseudoscience.

Faith — steadfast belief without logical proof or material evidence, or belief contrary to evidence — is one of the world’s most time-honored attitudes. It is supposedly the key to everlasting bliss, knowledge and health. In the form of religion, it is a major link with the distant past and its magical follies. The healing-faith connection has ancient roots; the first “doctors” were shamans, and religion and medicine have been entangled throughout history.

Faith is also a central Christian virtue — a prerequisite for heaven. Near the turn of the first century C.E., Tertullian, the first Christian theologian to write in Latin, declared: “I believe because it is absurd.” Augustine, another church father, pronounced faith the path to knowledge. The “primacy of faith” doctrine holds that faith precedes reason — that logic, science, knowledge and the very existence of the material world stem from faith. In defense of this dogma, some religionists employ variations of universal skepticism — the “conviction” (with a built-in refutation) that humans cannot know (or pin down) anything. Consider, for example, the old saying “God only knows.” But universal skepticism vindicates nothing. Rather, it engenders chaos — which delusional skeptics mistake for profundity.

Alternative healthcare cradles the main objects of faith: God and an afterlife. This relationship between healing and supernatural beliefs is prevalent in each of its branches: “spiritual healing,” “natural healing” and bodywork. In the province of “spiritual healing,” unbelievers purportedly risk watering down the healing process.

Paul Johannes Tillich (1886-1965), an influential Protestant theologian, defined religion — symbolized by God — as humankind’s ultimate concern. He promoted a peaceful separation of philosophy (critical inquiry) and religion (faith). In the essay “Religion and Health,” Tillich equated “the cosmic disease” with “cosmic guilt,” healers with saviors, and “cosmic healing” with salvation. He stated that the priest is “always and essentially” a medicine man. “He who has the healing power,” he continued, “does not have it for himself, but from a special transmission of the universal healing power unto him. The healing power is rooted in the divine realm.” According to Tillich, union with divine beings is the means of healing or salvation

More recently, in “Medicine and Religion: Strategies of Care” (1980), several contributors argued for the inclusion of religious studies in medical education. The editor, Donald W. Shriver, Jr., Ph.D., a pastor and theologian, wrote:

Stereotypically considered, religion is placed in opposition to the major “virtues” of modern society: faith versus scientific rigor; salvation in another world versus technological solutions to human problems; adherence to antique ideas versus progress and improvement. Over against this stereotype stand the experience and the claims of our group’s medical practitioners, who insist that they see the influence of religion in their patients, in themselves, and in their colleagues.

In his back-matter biography, Shriver reported “a mounting accumulation of personal complaints about medicine and its professionalization.” For instance, he was “loath to remember” the “pseudo-authority and moral cynicism” of his wife’s gynecologist. Two other contributors proposed a sample academic program with courses covering: “the healer as a religious figure,” “religious healing” as “the alternative to ‘scientific’ medicine,” the “religious significance” of “laetrile and other nonscientific remedies,” and relationships between psychiatric terms and religious themes.

Science vs. Pseudoscience Science is a continuous, complex process whose basic purposes are to identify phenomena and to predict events. It is not a collection of facts, but a method of reasoning. Its current of interdependent activities includes: observing and describing phenomena and forming general conclusions about them (empiricism); integrating new data into a systematically organized body of related observations that have been confirmed; formulating testable hypotheses based on the results of this integration; testing the hypotheses under stringently controlled, repeatable conditions; observing results, recording them unambiguously and interpreting them clearly; and actively seeking criticism (reasonable skepticism) from others engaged in science. This process — known as the scientific method — has produced knowledge that contradicts cherished articles of faith. But faith is a law unto itself. In “The Atheist Debater’s Handbook” (1983), B.C. Johnson wrote:

Science searches for correct explanations and does not settle for known or adequate ones. If science had been content to explain every puzzling phenomenon by saying that God caused it, there would have been no scientific progress whatsoever. Just imagine the knowledge science would have accumulated by now if it had taken this route. All scientific knowledge would consist of one thing: God. No electrons, atoms or molecules would be invoked as explanations. What causes fire to burn? God. What causes lightning? God. What causes rain? God. The success of science in developing correct explanations has been based solely on its refusal to take the easy way out and proclaim God as the explanation.

Alternative medicine does not merely take this “easy way out. ” It often attempts to misrepresent its supernaturalistic basis by embroidering it with scientific jargon. Thus it maintains a facade of secularity and respectability. “Alternative medicine” is not science but pseudoscience. Daisie Radner and Michael Radner describe the characteristics of pseudoscience in “Science and Unreason” (1982). These include: anachronistic thinking — dusting off and championing a refuted theory because of its moral appeal; mystery-seeking — making the search for anomalies and enigmas one’s primary aim; myth-mongering — making myths the starting-point for research or invoking them to promote a theory; a lopsided approach to evidence — accepting unreliable (unconfirmed) findings that support a favored theory; construction of hypotheses that preclude disproof — stating an argument in a way that negates testing; false comparison — outfitting unscientific practices with the accouterments of science; “literary criticism” of the scientific literature — taking the entire body of scientific literature as one’s field of study, and picking and choosing statements therein to support a theory; and refusal to revise a theory in response to legitimate criticism. When science is made subservient to empiricism and universal skepticism, supernaturalism is enthroned. Many gurus, faithmongers, quacks and conventional religionists would make supernaturalism the quintessence of healthcare. But the mingling of religion and healthcare (scientific or unscientific) opens the door to all manner of mumbo-jumbo and whimsicality.

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