Alternative medicine as religion

Over the years, I’ve often likened non-science-based medical belief systems to religion. It’s not a hard argument to make. Religion involves believing in things that can’t be proven scientifically; indeed, religion makes a virtue out of ignoring the evidence and accepting various beliefs on faith alone. Similarly, alternative medicine frequently tells you that you have to believe in the therapy, dedicate yourself completely to it, in order for it to work. Of course, as I’ve also mentioned before, it is that insistence on belief and total commitment shared by religion and alternative medicine that provides quacks with an “out” when their treatments don’t yield the promised results, their frequent excuse being to blame the patient. He didn’t believe hard enough. In a reverse of The Secret, which states that you can bring good things to yourself by simply wanting it, in alt-med world, it’s all too often implied (or even more than implied) that you bring calamities on yourself through bad diet, bad lifestyle, and bad thoughts. After all, what is the German New Medicine, other than the claim that cancerous tumors are not the disease, but rather a manifestation of buried emotional traumas that cause the “protective” mechanism of a tumor to result?

I was reminded of these things as I perused the copious comments of yesterday’s post, which, as you might recall, was about the utter quackery that is naturopathic cancer treatment. More specifically, I was reminded that the similarity between religious thinking and quackery can lead to situations where religion facilitates belief in quackery. It began rather rapidly and early in the comments when someone named Steffanie England leapt into the fray with statements like:

ALLOPATHIC THINKING: Why sell GOD MADE medicine when you can’t make money off of it? Why not extract one or two components of an herb, a fruit etc. and PATENT IT!!! Discover what effects it has on the body. Then make more money prescribing drugs to counter the side effects!!! Brilliant!!! (NOT) Why not use the medicine GOD prescribed. “Let FOOD be THY MEDICINE”.

England then goes on to remonstrate with me:

Do some REAL research! Be brave enough to tell the TRUTH – like Dr. Judy Seeger!

Whenever I see the word “truth” in all capital letters, I’m reminded in what seems to be a nigh unbridgeable gap between our methods of thinking, because in science we do not speak of the “truth” (or the “Truth” or even the “TRUTH”). We speak of evidence, experimentation, and what the evidence shows. All conclusions are provisional, subject to revision as new evidence comes in. In contrast, Stephanie speaks of The Truth, and her “truth” includes antivaccine views, cancer quackery, and many, many more irrational views, proclaiming that the “truth is simple.”

It wasn’t long before another commenter arrived expounding similar ideas about God and how doctors are supposedly so “arrogant.” I’m referring to someone named Tamara St. John, who apparently runs a website called Optimum Health Through God’s Pharmacy. Tamara was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009 and claims to have “healed herself” of cancer without the use of drugs or surgery. Given that I’m an aficionado of cancer cure testimonials (indeed, perhaps the earliest substantive post I wrote for this blog was about cancer cure testimonials), and it’s a topic I’ve revisited on this blog many times, Tamara’s story caught my attention. Breast cancer, as I’ve pointed out before, is a disease that has a highly variable clinical course, which can range from indolent, slowly progressing disease to rapidly progressing disease that kills within months. Indeed, it is possible that more breast cancers either fail to progress or even spontaneously regress than we thought.

All of this is why I’d need to know a lot more about Tamara’s case to make an educated judgment regarding whether there’s any chance that her anecdote represents a true treatment effect. Most likely, it does not. Indeed, I wouldn’t be too surprised if her case resembles that of Kim Tinkham, who tried to heal herself using Robert O. Young’s quackery and, alas, ultimately saw her cancer progress and kill her. Of course, Kim Tinkham appeared to do well for nearly four years. Unfortunately, as is usually the case, Tamara provides information completely insufficient to make even an educated judgment, probably because she is currently writing a book and looking for an agent and publisher.

All I could find out about her story came from this interview, in which she says she had a lump in her breast and that the cancer spread to her lymph nodes. No mention is made of how the cancer was diagnosed, or even if there was a tissue diagnosis from a biopsy. In a more detailed discussion of her story, no mention is made of a biopsy. At the time, apparently Tamara was uninsured and couldn’t afford medical care; so she decided to “just pray.” The story Tamara relates is that she had a lump in her breast that was “painful to the touch” and that she developed enlarged lymph nodes under the arm and that the nodes were painful, all of which sounds a lot more like an inflammatory process than cancer. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a myth that if a breast lump is painful it can’t be cancer. It is, however, true that most breast cancers don’t hurt. In any case, Tamara claims to have healed herself using what can be best described as pure quackery, namely the Budwig Protocol, laetrile (yes, laetrile—how 1970s!), “enzyme” therapy, and juicing, not to mention “detoxification,” up to and including coffee enemas. She also spouts what can best be characterized as pure nonsense about how the illness she experienced while “detoxing” must have indicated that she had the epidermal growth factor receptor in her cancer and that she was shedding it.

Nowadays, Tamara is running a consulting business that appears to me to be, in essence, practicing medicine without a license, her Quack Miranda Warning notwithstanding. No doubt God is helping her fleece unsuspecting cancer patients.

It’s not just cancer quackery, however. I’ve often discussed how much the antivaccine movement resembles religion as well, a religion in which vaccines are Satan. I was reminded of this, perhaps serendipitously, when, as I was contemplating writing about the religion of cancer quackery, I came across a gem of a post on yet another wretched hive of scum and quackery, that temple worshiping the arrogance of ignorance, the completely misnamed Thinking Moms’ Revolution by a contributor named B.K. The post is entitled Christianity and the (False) god of Modern Medicine. B.K. begins with some hand-wringing about how worried she is that her post would be controversial and she doesn’t really want to write it but feels compelled to (no doubt because Jesus is telling her to).

Every bit of B.K.’s language is steeped in the language of belief. For instance, the next part of her preface is all about how much she used to “believe” in conventional medicine and science:

But before my son’s autism, I was a hard-core believer in the system… the medical system, that is. I believed in vaccines. I believed in doctors. I believed in the CDC. I believed in Tylenol. I believed in prescription meds. I believed in it ALL. I trusted in doctors and vaccines to protect me before — so I didn’t get sick — and I believed in doctors and prescription medicines to make me well when I actually did get sick. I believed that pretty much everyone in medicine, from the top researchers, to pharmaceutical companies, on down to the receptionists at your pediatrician’s office, wanted to make us all well and keep us all well. It was all about health and wellness. And so, I trusted them. I believed them. And I handed my child over to them without even thinking about it. And, appallingly, I handed him over without even praying about it.

What on earth does praying about it have to do with deciding whether science supports a treatment? Absolutely nothing. It’s not about faith; it’s not about “belief.” It’s about evidence, and the evidence does not support the antivaccine views promulgated by the (Un)Thinking Moms, nor does it support the biomedical quackery that many of them subject their autistic children to. After her child was diagnosed with autism, B.K. suddenly had an “awakening” or an “eye-opening” experience, which was intensified by her hearing a sermon from her pastor about how man has “dethroned God” and “exalted Man,” or, as she puts it, “Instead of praying and asking God to help us, we are handing things over to men to handle it. We think if the right man gets the job, our problems will be over. Man can fix things! Man can do it!”

You probably know where this is going, and it doesn’t take B.K. very long at all to get there. She talks about how each baby is “perfect,” created in God’s image, but arrogant humans try to “improve upon God”:

Let me ask you a question. If we are truly created in God’s own image, do you not believe that we are given the immune system that God wants us to have? Do you not believe that He perfectly planned the human immune system? Or do you think that God was “holding back” on us?

When we vaccinate our children, we are attempting to improve upon the immune system that God has given us. Plain and simple. We are trusting that man knows better than God how to keep us healthy. Therefore, we get only MAN’S best instead of God’s best. So where is that getting us? We are trading diseases that we once had that were TEMPORARY, such as measles, mumps, chicken pox, rubella, etc, for diseases that are usually PERMANENT, such as autism, ADHD, allergies, asthma, and the countless number of other chronic illnesses that we see today, including increased rates of childhood cancers. And as the number of vaccinations that each child receives grows, so does the number of chronically ill children (and adults).

What in the world are we DOING?

What we are doing (or trying to do) is to rely on science rather than faith. B.K. doesn’t like that and proceeds to rant about how we live in a “fallen” world, with a corrupt medical system, all corrupted, of course, by Satan (with a little help from pharmaceutical companies, natch) and complain about how doctors have been elevated to “god-like” status and how often people comply with doctors’ orders without even praying about it. (The horror!), concluding:

What I submit to you now is that we have lifted up modern medicine to the status of a god. That is something we need to repent of, and ask forgiveness, and ask God to show us how to trust him more fully with our health. When we get sick, pray first, seek wisdom, do some research into some alternatives, pray again, and then go where HE leads you. And stop blindly trusting fallen man to save us.

B.K.’s entire post is not a post describing how one rationally looks at the evidence, decides that one was wrong about something, and then changes course based on science, evidence, and experimentation. It is, in essence, a conversion story. Although she did not change her Christian religion, she did use it to facilitate a conversion from one religion that shouldn’t be a religion but was to her (science-based medicine) to another religion (antivaccinationism and alternative medicine), that she now follows based on faith rather than reason. Her description of medicine is very much like the fall of man as described in The Bible. Now, to her, modern medicine is no longer God but Satan, and she made that religious conversion without so much as a single shred of scientific evidence.

The longer I study alternative medicine and alternative medical systems, the more it becomes clear to me that they show far more similarity to religion than they do to science. It’s true that alt-med apologists dress up their beliefs in language that sounds scientific, but when you scratch the patina of scientific language off, it doesn’t take long to find the religious imagery, often facilitated by the more conventional religious beliefs (i.e, Christianity) of the believer. We see the same thing with respect to evolution denial. So why not with denial of scientific medicine? A nonscientific world view that is based on faith in things that can’t be seen is often not confined to church.