When Does Medicine Become Religion?

Complementary and alternative medicine spans the gamut from the scientific and credible to the metaphysical and implausible.

Complementary and alternative medicine spans the gamut from the scientific and credible to the metaphysical and implausible.

Certain methods more akin to faith healing than biomedicine have blurred the lines of demarcation that ordinarily separate medicine and religion or spirituality. 

Prayer, for one, claims a foothold in both camps, with the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health regarding prayer as an “active process of communicating with and appealing to a higher spiritual power, specifically for health reasons.”1

An article in The Times of London last year asked, “If Chinese complementary medicine can go mainstream, why not spiritual healing?”2 The reporter shadowed such a healer treating cancer patients at University College Hospital in central London. One oncologist attested: “I was a skeptic at first, but you can’t question the results. I’d be devastated if we lost those professionals now.”

Patients experienced profound peace and relaxation as a result of her supposedly channeling healing energy. 

Therapists who perform spiritual healing posit that they are acting as conduits for energy arising from a higher source. They treat either with hands on or off the patient, and some do distance healing with patients living anywhere on the globe. 

Energy-work practitioners tend to resent their practices being called religion, because techniques such as Reiki, healing touch and therapeutic touch (TT) do not require either the patient or client and practitioner to follow the same religion. They have all developed strong footholds within human hospitals and are becoming increasingly visible within veterinary medicine.

Mixing medicine with either religion or spirituality has raised concerns, however, and representatives from both science and religion are fighting back. One Catholic publication took issue with therapeutic touch, noting, “ ‘Therapeutic Touch’ is a ‘New Age’ religion and incompatible with Catholicism.”3 A report4 issued by the Committee on Doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops expounded upon its displeasure with Reiki, a practice that has taken hold in some Catholic retreat centers and related institutions.   

The bishops claimed that while Reiki proponents do not represent it as a religion, they point to several similarities with religion. They stated that Reiki therapists frequently describe Reiki as a “spiritual” kind of healing and that Reiki literature contains abundant references to God, the Goddess and divine consciousness. They indicated that sacred ceremonies such as “attunements” elevate a Reiki student to master status, a process that involves the contemplation and manifestation of secret, sacred symbols.

The bishops countered assertions made by nurses that Reiki simply constitutes a natural means of healing, saying that even natural methods should fall under the scrutiny of science. They stated that Reiki not only lacks scientific credibility but it cannot be tested because “universal life energy” is unknown to natural science. The bishops ended by saying that Reiki operates in the realm of superstition, a “no-man’s-land that is neither faith nor science.” In their conclusions, the bishops referred to Reiki as a superstition, one that “corrupts one’s worship of God by turning one’s religious feeling and practice in a false direction.” 

Physiologists, on the other hand, have a different opinion, though not necessarily more love for spiritual medicine. In 1872, Charles Darwin’s cousin Sir Francis Galton, who founded modern biostatistics, proposed studying whether intercessory prayer would cause faster healing in trauma patients. This startled the scientific community, leading Darwin to comment, “What a tremendous stir-up your excellent article on prayer has made in England and America!”5

More recently, in 2006, Gerald Weissmann, the editor of the journal published by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, recounted the millions of dollars devoted to prayer research, which ultimately showed it to be ineffective. The study he pointed toward was the largest to investigate prayer’s health benefits, known as the Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer. It evaluated the outcomes of 1,800 patients undergoing coronary artery bypass graft surgery across six U.S. medical centers. 

Some patients actually learned that they were receiving intercessory prayer, but that did not help; in fact, it may have worsened their outcome. The lead Harvard researcher, Herbert Benson, concluded, “Intercessory prayer itself had no effect on complication-free recovery from coronary artery bypass graft, but certainty of receiving intercessory prayer was associated with a higher incidence of complications.”6

Weissmann questioned how much more of the public’s precious money will, or should, go to prayer and faith-healing research: “Those of us who do experimental biology are generally uninterested in enlarging the norms of our realm into the spiritual, artistic or ethical life of our time. But the believers in ‘noetic,’ spiritual, or supernatural explanations for the vast territory of the unknown in science seem to have no qualms. They have persuaded a credulous citizenry that there is spiritual gold to be mined by applying the methods of science to the study of religious practice.”

Physicians sometimes find themselves straddling the fence between medicine and spirituality. To wit, Sir William Osler, the founding father of Western scientific medicine, published a paper, “The Faith That Heals,”7 in a 1910 British medical journal.

Osler, the first physician-in-chief at Johns Hopkins Medical School, viewed the impact of faith on healing as something real and undeniable, saying, “Faith in St. Johns Hopkins, as we used to call him, an atmosphere of optimism and cheerful nurses worked just the same sort of cures as did Aesculapius at Epidaurus.”8

If faith and optimism could indeed lead to the “marvelous effects” for healing that Osler wrote about, perhaps their purported mechanisms of action, such as learned optimism and positive illusions, can finally help to explain other biologically implausible systems, like homeopathy, for example. <HOME>

Narda Robinson, DVM, DO, Dipl. ABMA, FAAMA, offers an evidential and scientific perspective on trends in complementary and alternative veterinary medicine. She oversees complementary veterinary education at Colorado State University.

This column first apeared in the August 2009 issue of Veterinary Practice News


1. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. “Prayer and spirituality in health:  ancient practices, modern science.” CAM at the NIH.  2005;XII (1).  Accessed here on June 26, 2009.

2. Evans J.  “Hands-on healing.” The Times.  July 14, 2008.

3. Guinan P.  “Therapeutic touch” is not a Catholic hospital pastoral practice.” The Linacre Quarterly.  2004;71(1):5-14.

4. Committee on Doctrine, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. “Guidelines for evaluating Reiki as an alternative therapy.” Issued March 25, 2009. Accessed here on June 26, 2009.

5. Galton.org. “Correspondence between Charles Darwin and Francis Galton; Letter 474.” Cited in Weissmann G.  “NIH funding: Not a prayer.” [Editorial] The FASEB Journal.  2006;20:1278-1280.

6. Carey B. “Healing power of prayer debunked.” The New York Times.  2006; March 31:  A16. Cited in Weissmann G. “NIH funding: Not a prayer.” [Editorial] The FASEB Journal.  2006;20:1278-1280.

7. Osler W.  “The faith that heals.” British Medical Journal. June 18, 1910; 1470-1472. Cited in Levin J.  How faith heals:  a theoretical model.  Explore.  2009;5:77-96.

8. Osler W.  “The faith that heals.” British Medical Journal. June 18, 1910; 1470-1472. Cited in Levin J.  How faith heals:  a theoretical model.  Explore.  2009;5:77-96.

Leave a Comment