MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

It has often occurred to me that some people use alternative medicine not as medicine but as something entirely different. A new investigation sheds an interesting light on this question.

The aim of this study was to explore how and why Australian men with cancer use complementary therapies (CTs) and how their significant others (SOs) contribute to the regular uptake of CTs. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 26 male cancer patients and 24 SOs. Participants were purposefully sampled from a preceding Australian survey investigating the use of CTs in men with cancer.

Three core themes were identified: men used CTs as (a) problem-focused coping (e.g., diet modification), (b) emotion-focused coping (e.g., meditation), and (c) meaning-based coping (e.g., prayer). Practicing CTs helped men to cope with physical, emotional, and spiritual concerns, although some men spoke of difficulties with practicing meditation to regulate their emotions. SOs were supportive of men’s coping strategies but were only rarely involved in men’s emotion-focused coping.

The authors conclude that CTs have the potential to facilitate coping with cancer, independent of any measurable physiological benefit. Our findings suggest that when clinicians engage in conversations about CTs use, they should consider the type of coping strategy employed by their patient. Such information may enhance the efficacy of some interventions (e.g., meditation) and also provide for an opportunity to discuss patients’ expectations concerning CTs.

If these findings are generalizable – I always have problems when researchers draw sweeping conclusions on the basis of two dozen patients – then it would seem to follow that alternative medicine is being used as some sort of ‘Ersatz’ religion. Religious coping strategies are effective in Spiritual growth that results in positive or negative situations. It is the perception of an individual’s relationship with God that brings meaning, purpose and emotional comfort when dealing with circumstances. Prayer, meditation, worship are all examples of religious coping strategies. Positive coping strategies associate with better mental health and negative coping strategies relate to poorer mental and physical health.

Leading researchers have split religious coping into two categories: positive religious coping and negative religious coping. Individuals who use positive religious coping are likely to seek spiritual support and look for meaning in a traumatic situation. Negative religious coping (or Spiritual Struggles) expresses conflict, question, and doubt regarding issues of God and faith. The effects of religious coping are measured in many different circumstances, each with different outcomes. Some common experiences where people use religious coping are fear-inflicting events such as 9/11 or the holocaust, death and sickness, and near death experiences.

I do not want to labour my point (that alternative medicine might be an ‘Ersatz’ religion) beyond reason. Nonetheless, I would be very interested to hear what my readers feel about it.

4 Responses to Alternative medicine = ‘Ersatz’ religion?

  • They are very much alike, religion and alternative medicine. Surely the (faulty) reasoning is the same. A brother who is a chiropractor shared all sorts of anecdotal data about how homeopathic substances helped him and his family (even the family dog!) When he would take the homeopathic substance or agent and then recover from whatever ailment he took it for, he would see a “link” between taking the homeopathic agent and recovering. As he saw it, the homeopathic “medicine” acted in some way to aid in his recovery.
    Soon after this, our mother, who is very religious, told a story of how, before undergoing exploratory surgery to find if she had ovarian cancer or not, she, the same brother, and her close friend all huddled together and prayed that no cancer would be found. No cancer was found. According to her the doctors were “amazed” at this. Her conclusion? That the praying somehow “caused” this result. When asked how she knew this, she could not answer. Again, she saw a “link” between praying for something and the fact that what she prayed for came to pass.
    It took a while to see this, but it slowly became clear that the reasoning in both cases was the same. “If I take this homeopathic ‘medicine’ or say a prayer, and I get the result I expected or wanted, it must have been because of the ‘medicine’/prayer.”

  • Established religion as practiced by those who are not zealots causes no conflict with traditional (real) Western medicine. Treatment by a properly educated and trained physician comes first, with prayer or religious observance as a source of comfort and support, e.g. something familiar in a hospital or other sick place environment.

    Alternative medicine seems very much like ersatz religion to me. Many ardent atheists repudiate any sort of faith as “magical thinking”, yet find complementary medicine, or natural/alternative/homeopathic remedies to be completely credible. In fact, these individuals, like the Australians afflicted with cancer in the post, are themselves guilty of magical thinking in believing the powers of quacks, while ridiculing legitimate medical treatment as unauthentic or sullied by “big pharma”, “the government”, greedy physicians, etc. Sadly, this sort of credulity is almost impossible to dispel.

    Often, individuals who condemn climate change denialists will praise alternative medicine practitioners with the same level of stridency, yet see nothing contradictory in their behavior. (Climate change is a completely different subject, and whether it is real or not is beyond the scope here, but those who believe it to be true generally consider themselves to scientifically informed. That is why the concomitant belief in quack medical treatments is especially incongruous.)

    • I have assumed that those who believe in the efficacy of homeopathy, would also be likely to hold other irrational beliefs and be impervious to reason or scientific evidence. Has any research been undertaken which shows such a correlation or lack of it?

  • I’m surprised I missed this thread when it first appeared. From my perspective, beliefs in things that can’t be reliably evidenced all stem from the same flawed human misapprehensions. I can’t distinguish firm belief in snakeoil from belief in religion and belief in “the paranormal” — extrasensory perception, ghosts, psychokinesis, spiritualism. All amount to belief in a kind of magic that violates everything we’ve learned about the universe over millenia of reasoned investigation. All depend amazingly heavily on the ‘post hoc ergo propter hoc’ fallacy (it happened after XX so XX must explain it). All lean hard on the ‘argumentum ad populum’ fallacy (lots of other people believe it so it must be true). All depend almost totally on anecdote as supporting evidence.
     
    You’d think that, by the 21st century, with so much clear evidence demonstrating realities that have transformed every aspect of our lives, most people would begin to realize that clinging to beliefs purely as a matter of faith is something from which they should by now have learned better/grown up. Homogenous human cultures are long gone: multi-culturalism shows there are loads of different religions all claiming to have ‘the truth’; but by definition that’s absurd. Altmed teems with ‘professions’ each of which claims their version of magic can heal most or all human disease; but by definition that’s absurd. ‘Paranormal phenomena’ fail every time resonable controls are placed to define precisely what and under what conditions is supposed to be happening — the minimum expectation for something capable of serious investigation.
     
    My biggest and most constant gripe is the failure of so many people to comprehend how desperately unreliable subjective experiences are as evidence. This has been proved time after time after time, but still the nonsense goes on. “I believe in Jesus/Mohammed/Krishna from personal experience”, “My pain went away immediately I was treated with acupuncture/homeopathy/chiropratic”, “I saw something that couldn’t possibly have been anything other than a ghost/ESP/message from a dead relative”. People are wedded to their gut feelings; they should pay more attention to Carl Sagan, who told a journalist “I try not to think with my gut”.

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