The objective of this survey was to assess the prevalence and types of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) usage as well as the participants’ spirituality/religiousness in an outpatient department for endocrinology and metabolic diseases. All individuals visiting the outpatient department at a German university hospital from April to June 2009 were offered a standardized questionnaire on the use of dietary supplements and other SCAMs as well as their religiousness/spirituality. Demographic and clinical data of 428 respondents were taken from the electronic health record.

Of the respondents, 16.4% (n = 66) classified themselves to be religious/spiritual and 67.9% (n = 273) as not religious/spiritual. The results show that:

  • 41.4% of the respondents used supplements and 27.4% additional therapies;
  • the use of supplements and other SCAMs was more frequent in people with higher religiousness/spirituality (p = 0.005 and p = 0.01,resp.);
  • there were no associations between religiousness/spirituality and the number of consultations, costs for drugs, appraisal of the physicians treatment methods, the perceived effectiveness of prescribed drugs, fear of late complications or of side effects.

The authors concluded that a higher religiousness/spirituality is associated with a more frequent use of supplements or additional therapies in individuals with endocrinopathies or metabolic diseases. As SCAM has been shown to be associated with worse outcome, addressing religiousness/spirituality which stresses the responsibility of the person for his life might offer an additional resource and should be further studied.

This survey has a dismal sample size and even worse response rate and must therefore be taken with more than a pinch of salt. Yet vaguely similar associations have been shown before. For instance, analysing data from the 1995-1996 National Survey of Midlife Development in the United States (n=3032), researchers examined the correlations between four aspects of spirituality/religiousness-i.e., spiritual only, religious only, both spiritual and religious, and neither spiritual nor religious-and six measures of SCAM. Compared with spiritual only persons, the odds of using energy therapies were 86% lower for spiritual and religious persons, 65% lower for religious only persons, and 52% lower for neither spiritual nor religious persons. Compared to spiritual only persons, spiritual and religious individuals were 43% more likely to use body-mind therapies in general; however, when this category did not contain prayer, meditation, or spiritual healing, they were 44% less likely. Religious only individuals were disinclined toward SCAM use.

There might be considerable cultural and national differences, of course, but if it is true that religiousness/spirituality is associated with a more frequent use of SCAM, we ought to ask what the nature of the link between the two might be. There are, as far as I can see, three possibilities:

  1. religiousness/spirituality causes SCAM use;
  2. SCAM use causes religiousness/spirituality;
  3. the two are related via one or several other factors.

I see no reason why 1 or 2 should be true. More likely there is a common denominator. The obvious one might be that both religiousness/spirituality and SCAM use are somewhat irrational, more a matter of belief than evidence, and revealing a lack of scepticism or critical thinking. In this case, religiousness/spirituality and SCAM use would simply be two different expressions of the same frame of mind.

What do you think?



13 Responses to Higher religiousness/spirituality is associated with a more frequent use of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM)

  • It’s probably pointless to speculate on causality, with such limited data, but here goes. I think it’s a mixture of all 3 possibilities, but I have personal experience of the first one. My mother was deeply religious and faith was the most important thing in her life. She was appalled that I had become what she called a `cynic’, because I questioned things that people were claiming. In her last years she dissipated her savings on providers of reiki and acupuncture. She didn’t ignore evidence, but cherry-picked it to support her faith.

    The vast majority of religious people get it from their parents. They don’t make a reasoned decision about it. My mother’s side of the family was dominated by religion, and they had no interests or friends outside it. My father was forced to accept it. I believe that it conditions adherents to accept claims without asking for evidence.

    I can see how it might work in reverse, but can’t cite any evidence. The odd thing is that in Europe religion is rapidly declining, while SCAM seems to proliferate. Perhaps SCAM is the new religion?

  • I don’t follow either but believe global warming/climate change or whatever it is called now is natural. I believe in science but also believe in political swayed science. Wow, political science major in college is a subject, yes, I know it is not the same and being facetious. What does that make me?

  • Forgot to mention, I do not believe in any alternative medicine, it is voodoo and crazy stuff. I will continue to see my medical doctor in science based medicine, including all my vaccines.

  • As often seen on your blog, believers in sCAM also profress their belief in a genocidal, celestial fairy, despite zero evidence of the existence of either.

    As equally evident is an abject lack of understanding of basic logic and science, and an overwhelming wish to believe in magic as shown by nonsensical arguments to ‘prove’ the validity of their beliefs.

    A classic example is jm who, despite a reasonable competence in language, is laughably out of touch with reality. No amount of real evidence is able to shake his devotion to his form of magic, which gives him a sense of importance far detached from the reality of extortion from bruising people for no good reason except, of course, for misplaced ego and money.

    Sadly, their is no ready cure for stupidity.

  • Something seems off with this study, the percentage of “religious/spiritual” people in Germany should be much higher.

    According to the “Forschungsgruppe Weltanschauungen in Deutschland (fowid)”, around 62.2% of people in Germany were members of one of the organized religions (numbers from 2018).

    Given that an unknown number of the people without denominational ties will certainly be “spiritual” in one way or another, the number of 16.4% from this paper can´t be representative (it is more similar to people who consider themselves “highly religious” in Germany).

    So maybe, this low number could indicate methodological issues and/or biased answering of the questionnaires.
    Other odd aspects are the low response rate (as you mentioned), and furthermore that fact that the data was collected in 2009 and the paper published not before eleven years (!) later (in a low impact journal).

    Therefore, taking this work with a pinch of salt is not sufficient imo.
    I would not recommend drawing any general conclusions from it.

  • Ernst, dear chap,

    My angle on this:

    Whatever can be said of the inadequacies of this study, it is certainly true that the pseudo-skeptics are not on the side of the angels.

    As for CAM practitioners (and the existence of angels), there is insufficient evidence one way or the other.

    • If you want to believe in angels and scams, feel free – with or without evidence. If you do have evidence you might care to share it?

  • Less imaginative, more mechanistic, fearful, conformist people are associated with using mostly allopathic medicine.

    • @Roger

      Do not forget that you need to provide evidence for your claim. And while you are at it, define `allopathic’. Hahnemann invented the term as meaning anything that wasn’t homeopathic. This would include reiki, reflexology, and every other form of poppycock invented since.

    • When I make health care choices, I’m not trying to demonstrate my imagination, my individuality or my political affiliation – I choose what science says works.

    • “Homeopathy” is a word for a particular nonsensical belief system. The word “allopathy” belongs to that belief system. To use the words is merely to indicate a personal belief system. A nonsensical belief system.

    • Rog,
      The word ‘allopathic’ is a nonsensical contrivance by SCAMmers in a pathetic attempt to belittle real medicine.

      THAT is unimaginative, cultish, and totally illogical, as well as boorish. Go back to talking to your imaginary friends.

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