The Catholic Church versus Reiki

Nearly two weeks ago, P.Z. Myers mentioned a story that would normally have provoked a post by me. Specifically, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had issued a warning against the use of reiki as being unscientific, unproven, and, worse, “dangerous to Christian spiritual health.” Unfortunately, this story came out right before Autism Awareness Month and the all out spring offensive by antivaccinationists fronted by Jenny McCarthy, along with all the nonsense that entails, and my attention rapidly got sidetracked. The reason I’ve come back to it is that I recently learned that defenders of reiki have responded to the U.S. bishops.

How could I resist?

First, let’s look at what the Catholic Bishops said about spiritual healing:

The Church recognizes two kinds of healing: healing by divine grace and healing that utilizes the powers of nature. As for the first, we can point to the ministry of Christ, who performed many physical healings and who commissioned his disciples to carry on that work. In fidelity to this commission, from the time of the Apostles the Church has interceded on behalf of the sick through the invocation of the name of the Lord Jesus, asking for healing through the power of the Holy Spirit, whether in the form of the sacramental laying on of hands and anointing with oil or of simple prayers for healing, which often include an appeal to the saints for their aid. As for the second, the Church has never considered a plea for divine healing, which comes as a gift from God, to exclude recourse to natural means of healing through the practice of medicine.1 Alongside her sacrament of healing and various prayers for healing, the Church has a long history of caring for the sick through the use of natural means. The most obvious sign of this is the great number of Catholic hospitals that are found throughout our country.

If you believe that spiritual or divine healing through the power of God is possible in the manner described in the Bible, then this is not an unreasonable position to take. Of course, the wag in me can’t resist pointing out that, when you boil it all down, this position is really no different from “integrative” medicine, in which unscientific and religious “healing” is “integrated” with conventional scientific medicine. And that’s exactly why I think the U.S. Catholic bishops have reacted to strongly to reiki. In fact, they lay it right out plainly for all to see in this passage:

8. Some people have attempted to identify Reiki with the divine healing known to Christians. They are mistaken. The radical difference can be immediately seen in the fact that for the Reiki practitioner the healing power is at human disposal. Some teachers want to avoid this implication and argue that it is not the Reiki practitioner personally who effects the healing, but the Reiki energy directed by the divine consciousness. Nevertheless, the fact remains that for Christians the access to divine healing is by prayer to Christ as Lord and Savior, while the essence of Reiki is not a prayer but a technique that is passed down from the “Reiki Master” to the pupil, a technique that once mastered will reliably produce the anticipated results.7 Some practitioners attempt to Christianize Reiki by adding a prayer to Christ, but this does not affect the essential nature of Reiki. For these reasons, Reiki and other similar therapeutic techniques cannot be identified with what Christians call healing by divine grace.

9. The difference between what Christians recognize as healing by divine grace and Reiki therapy is also evident in the basic terms used by Reiki proponents to describe what happens in Reiki therapy, particularly that of “universal life energy.” Neither the Scriptures nor the Christian tradition as a whole speak of the natural world as based on “universal life energy” that is subject to manipulation by the natural human power of thought and will. In fact, this worldview has its origins in eastern religions and has a certain monist and pantheistic character, in that distinctions among self, world, and God tend to fall away. We have already seen that Reiki practitioners are unable to differentiate clearly between divine healing power and power that is at human disposal.

They conclude:

12. Since Reiki therapy is not compatible with either Christian teaching or scientific evidence, it would be inappropriate for Catholic institutions, such as Catholic health care facilities and retreat centers, or persons representing the Church, such as Catholic chaplains, to promote or to provide support for Reiki therapy.

I do have to admit that the bishops get two things right. Reiki is definitely not supported by any scientific evidence, and it is definitely not based on Christian religion. Rather, it’s based on Eastern mysticism, and that is explicitly the reason that the U.S. Bishops reject it. In other words, this is a religious battle. The U.S. Bishops have noted the infiltration of reiki practitioners into Catholic hospitals, and they are not pleased by it, not so much because it’s quackery (if it were because they believe it’s quackery, then why didn’t they expel reiki practitioners from Catholic hospitals years ago?), but because it represents a competing religious world view muscling in on their turf a little more than they were willing to put up with. The simply can’t have that, and were forced to take action. So while I’m happy that the U.S. Bishops are making a push to remove reiki practitioners from Catholic hospitals, I can’t help but observe that they are doing the right thing for the wrong reason. In other words, healing at Lourdes is OK, as is laying on hands. However, if the laying on of hands involves invoking the power of a heathen religion, it’s not OK.

In fact, there are a great many similarities between reiki and faith healing. I refer my readers back again to a famous reiki website to show why. There, I found a concise description of the history of reiki “from the horse’s mouth,” so to speak. There you will learn about Dr. Mikao Usui, the founder of reiki. It turns out that Dr. Usui’s quest to learn how to heal was inspired by Jesus himself when as a student he asked his master if he believed that Jesus had healed. He answered yes. Dr. Usui then asked him him how Jesus healed, and he was forced to admit that he did not know. According to reiki practitioners, this led Dr. Usui on a spiritual quest lasting decades to find out how to heal as Jesus did. This quest ultimately culminated in 1922, when, like Jesus, Dr. Usui engaged in fasting and praying on a mountain in the wilderness, described thusly:

After a few more years of study, he felt he had come to an understanding and that to go further required serious meditation. He went to a nearby mountain declaring his intention to fast and meditate for 21 days and that if he did not come back they should come and get his body.

He went to the mountain and settled in with 21 stones with which to count the days. On the 21st day nothing had come as yet, and he turned over the last stone saying “Well, this is it, either I get the answer today or I do not”. At that moment on the horizon he could see a ball of light coming towards him. The first instinct was to get out of the way, but he realized this might just be what he was waiting for, so allowed it to hit him right in the face. As it struck him he was taken on a journey and shown bubbles of all the colors of the rainbow in which were the symbols of Reiki, the very same symbols in the writings he was studying but had been unable to understand. Now as he looked at them again, there was total understanding.

After returning from this experience he began back down the mountain and was, from this moment on, able to heal. This first day alone he healed an injured toe, his own starvation, an ailing tooth and the Abbots sickness, which was keeping him bedridden. These are known as the first four miracles.

I again point to the strong parallels to the story of Jesus’ life and ministry as found in the Gospels. Jesus, too, spent 40 days praying and fasting in the wilderness before he began his ministry. Likewise, Dr. Usui didn’t begin his healing ministry until he, too, had undergone the same sort of ritual purification. This story also resembles that of Moses in the Old Testament where Moses received his wisdom and instructions from God Mount Horeb from a burning bush. The religious underpinnings of reiki are unmistakable and indisputable, and they have multiple parallels with stories in Jewish and Christian scriptures. Moreover, the religious concepts behind reiki infect many other “alternative” therapies under the rubric of “energy healing.” Therapeutic touch (TT) is a good example. Just like the case for reiki, TT practitioners claim that there exists a “life energy” that can be manipulated by practitioners for healing effect. Indeed, there really is no “touch” in therapeutic touch, as it only involves the practitioner holding his or her hands close to, but not necessarily touching, the patient and thus altering the flow of this life energy for healing effect. In reiki, the difference is that the practitioner does more than just redirect the patient’s “energy flow.” Believers in reiki believe that a reiki practitioner can actually channel healing energy from the universe into patients, even going so far as to believe that healing at a distance is possible.

Given these clear religious underpinnings of reiki, I always wonder why reiki practitioners seem to crave so desperately validation by science, but they do. They try study after study trying to demonstrate that reiki does anything more than a placebo (which it is) and virtually always fail. As for homeopathy, the studies for reiki tend to be most “positive” in the small pilot studies with less rigorous design, but the difference between reiki and placebo becomes smaller, the larger and better-designed the study, becoming indistinguishable from placebo in the largest, best-designed studies. In addition, sometimes reiki believers go to ridiculous extremes, as I’ve blogged about before, discussing, for example, a study in which some unfortunate rats were subjected to reiki. It’s all what Harriet Hall likes to refer to as “Tooth Fairy science.”

What brought me back to this story was that I’ve been made aware of some reactions of reiki practitioners, and the results are–shall we say?–enlightening. Indeed, there’s very little discussion of science, a fair amount of discussion of dubious anecdotal evidence (“I’ve seen it work!”), and a whole lot of discussion of religion. For example, Dennis Dupuis wrote:

The point I most wish to share with you is that Jesus did this. He did not call it “Reiki”, but it was the same thing. I am a Catholic who has a deep belief and desire that I should live my life as Jesus lived his. “What would Jesus do?” is a wonderful approach to every life situation. The laying on of hands and wishing to be an instrument of God’s love in the healing and comforting of another living being, especially our fellow humans, especially when this fellow human is suffering, is how Jesus lived and how I believe he would have us live now. How can this not be in accord with our Catholic faith and practice?

Mr. Dupuis doesn’t understand. It’s because reiki is based on religion–and a religion based on what the Catholic Church considers a heathen religion, to boot–there was never any doubt that one day the Church would start to push back against it. More interesting is that Mr. Dupuis doesn’t seem to have found it worth mentioning any science supporting reiki. Indeed, on a blog called Reiki Ramblings, the blog of a website called Catholic Reiki, I found this quote:

While it is a carefully thought out work, it’s done from an outside view, not one that’s experienced the connection with God through Reiki. With the very many views on what Reiki is, I can’t really blame the bishops. We don’t really have one voice as to what Reiki is. In some ways this is good as we must internalize the message of what Reiki is rather than following a message from a Reiki central authority.

I wonder if there is a lack of communication in the words we use. Sometimes the words we use don’t convey the same meanings to another. It is a matter of my personal faith that Reiki is Good and comes from the Source of all goodness.

The Bishops offered a conservative response to a relatively new idea. Possibly, in the future Reiki will be “Christianized” just as the feast of Saturnalia was changed to Christmas.

This is a very apt description. Reiki is a religious, not scientific, practice and belief system. It may well be that if the Catholic Church can’t beat it, it’ll do what it’s done with so many pagan practices and beliefs over the centuries: Co-opt it. Be that as it may, it says nothing about reiki’s efficacy from a scientific viewpoint. Perhaps my favorite quote is this one by a reiki practitioner named Sue Routner:

It is very sad that the bishops feel the need to denounce Reiki and feel justified to do so publicly. I also find it very odd that they argue on the basis of scientific proof, as they have up until now not provided any such proof that God exists.

Ouch. That one’s going to leave a mark! Of course, the irony is very thick here, given = no reiki practitioner up until now has provided any scientific “proof” that (1) the life energy (qi) postulated by reiki teachings exists; (2) that any reiki practitioner can even detect this life energy, much less manipulate it for “healing intent”; or (3) that any reiki practitioner can detect or channel healing energies from a “universal consciousness.” Indeed, as evidence, I present perhaps the lamest retort I’ve seen from a reiki practitioner yet:

People used acetylsalicytic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin, for thousands of years before there was any “scientific explanation as to how it could possibly be efficacious.” There is no record of the Catholic Church denouncing it before scientists found an explanation.

The stupid, it burns. This is one of the most annoying woo complaints I hear. First off, people have not been using acetylsalicylic acid for “thousands of years. People have been using salicylic acid, which is the natural product that is modified to produce acetylsalicylic acid, a.k.a. aspirin. In fact, acetyl salicylic acid is a semisynthetic drug and was not synthesized until the 1850s, and it wasn’t until 1897 when the drug and dye firm Bayer started testing aspirin as an alternative to salicylic acid that was less irritating to the stomach. Moreover, the big difference between aspirin and reiki is that we knew aspirin worked. There was lots of evidence. Moreover, even though the exact mechanism by which aspirin works for a long time, scientists did know that it worked by chemical interactions with cells through their proteins based on known science. It was not necessary to postulate a mystical energy field that no science can detect or religious woo. In any case, no reiki practitioner has been able to show that reiki works or that the “life energy” required for it to work exists.

I rather suspect that, as believers in woo try to “integrate” more and more “alternative” or “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) into mainstream medicine and academia, there will be more conflicts between Catholics and these modalities. Reiki was the “low-hanging fruit,” so to speak, given that it’s the most explicitly religious of the CAM modalities, but lots of others are arguably religious in nature. For example, homeopathy is based on medieval concepts of sympathetic magic; from the Catholic perspective it is arguably sorcery, which is explicitly forbidden in Catholic doctrine. Also, as I mentioned, TT is in essence an offshoot of reiki. At the very least, its inspiration came from reiki. In fact, I rather wish the Catholic bishops had come down just as hard on TT as it did on reiki.

Whatever the reason the Catholic Church is going after reiki, it actually gets it exactly right about the lack of scientific studies supporting reiki as being anything more than yet another elaborate placebo. It’s just a shame that the primary motivation appears to be, more than anything else, a desire to cast out a competing religious viewpoint. I’d rather see reiki thrown out of hospitals, Catholic or otherwise, based on the fact that it’s pure quackery based on Eastern mysticism, not on a new Inquisition.