Edited October 5, 2016: If this subject interests you listen to the podcast rather than reading the transcript because I found numerous differences, especially one important one:
One thing you point out is that evangelicals began to define religion, as we understand it in terms of our own faith and worldview, a word-directed, doctrinally structured faith. You point out that that left evangelicals in a position in which they told themselves that other belief systems are religious because they’re not based on the same kind of cognitive structure.
The last sentence should read “they told themselves that other belief systems are [NOT ] religious because they’re not based…”
A question posed to me about an alternative healing therapy sent me looking for help in thinking it through. This interview was better than I had hoped for. It is an interview of Candy Gunter Brown, author of The Healing Gods: Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Christian America, interviewed by Albert Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
Mohler: … How did you come, as a historian, to look at the intersection of Christianity in America and what you identify as “CAM” – complementary and alternative medicine?
Brown: My research started off by looking at the growth of Christianity worldwide over the course of the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries. What I found in that set of research was that one of the primary reasons why Christianity is growing on a global scale is because of divine healing practices. People pray for healing from a Christian God, and they perceive that they’re healed through prayer. As I was interviewing Christians who believed that they were healed by God through prayer, I was surprised to find many of the same individuals also were involved in what can be termed as complementary and alternative medicine. These are practices such as chiropractics, homeopathy, meditation, martial arts, yoga, and therapeutic touch. These are practices that are actually much more closely tied to other religious traditions such as Hinduism or Buddhism as compared with Christianity.
Mohler: In your book, you describe what you call “The intriguing and sometimes astonishing story of the mainstreaming of this CAM in America,” but you’re really writing particularly about the mainstreaming of this movement in American Christianity. Of course, the thing that makes your book so interesting is that, as you say, “it’s intriguing and astonishing” because in many ways, this is the absolutely last subgroup in America one might expect would mainstream and accept this kind of import with association to very different religions. To you, as an American historian, this must have been an interesting discovery.
Brown: It was very surprising because the more closely I looked at the CAM practices, the clearer it became that they are not only historically, but currently, tied with religious and spiritual traditions. The more closely I looked the clearer the contrasts became between the assumptions and worldviews that underlie many of these CAM practices, as compared with a Christian worldview. Part of what’s interesting here is that there are certain overlaps and assumptions. Both the CAM and the Christian worldview assume that there is something spiritual. You might describe them as holistic, as opposed to materialistic or the idea that there’s just science and the study of material things.
Yet, they are also very different in the sense of relationship between the world around, creation, and where that came from. For a CAM worldview, everything is really of the same substance. It might be described as monistic. There’s not really a rigid separation between the Creator and creation or divine consciousness and nature; whereas in historic Christian theology, there is a very clear separation. It might be described as dualism. There is an outside Creator God who is transcending and separate from the creation. Therefore, when there are problems in the world, the remedy for those problems are also very different. In the CAM worldview, it’s really a matter of rebalancing the flow of impersonal energy; whereas, in a Christian worldview, the Holy Spirit is actually a person, a member of the Trinity, and not just an impersonal energy. The remedy for the problems of the world, the separation of humans and God, is repentance and faith, not just physically unblocking personal energy.
Mohler: You used the word “astonishing.” I think I would even amplify that to say “astounding.” This is just one of those stories that has to be told. By the way, I think your book is the definitive book thus far on this issue on the intersection between American evangelical Christianity and these movements in alternative medicine. Yet, you also do something beyond that, which so far as I know, no one else has done. You actually deal head on with the question of efficacy and of evidence-based medicine. We’ll talk about this in just a moment. When you’re talking about American evangelicals, you’re talking about a subgroup that came fairly late to accept this alternative medicine movement.
Mohler: Let’s deal with the very first question you take head on in your book. If you’re looking at contemporary and alternative medicine, are these various forms of therapy and treatment basically religious? You answer that unquestionably they are.
Brown: That’s correct. I wouldn’t want to make this as a completely generalized, blanket statement. Even the phrase “complementary and alternative medicine” embraces a great deal. It basically includes anything that’s not accepted by the medical mainstream as having been validated by scientific studies. If you start to look at the most popular of these CAM therapies, many of them share the same basic worldview. There is a universal life force energy that flows through the universe and into the human body. The basic problem of sickness is a lack of harmony or balance between humans and that cosmic energy. The basic solution is to redirect or rebalance that energy flow. That’s really a religious set of assumptions. A lot of what’s appealing about these CAM practices is that they do give people a sense of meaning, purpose, and their place in the universe. A lot of the functions that these practices fulfill could very easily be described as religious functions. Beyond that, there are very specific historical and cultural ties to religious traditions including Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, and Western metaphysical spirituality.
On the scientific evidence:
Mohler: On most of these movements, if I read your book correctly, there’s actually very little evidence to actually look at objectively.
Brown: That’s true. I mean, this is why these practices are classified as complementary and alternative medicine. The term really at its most basic level refers to practices that have not been accepted by conventional medical science because there’s been a lack of scientific validation that these practices are effective. Most Americans simply ask the question about CAM, “Does it work?” They don’t really press very hard on the question, “What exactly is the evidence that this works?” They’re satisfied generally if there are some studies published somewhere in scientific journals, but there’s a wide range in terms of the quality of studies that get published and the quality of journals. The gold standards, in terms of medical research, are what are known as Cochrane Systematic Reviews. It’s a database of very rigorous studies that are regularly updated that look at double-blinded randomized controlled trials, and not just one or a few. They really look at the quality of the methods. They look at the collective evidence that’s out there. If you look at these Cochrane Reviews for CAM practices, over and over again the conclusion reached by the reviewer is that there is insufficient evidence to recommend this practice medically. There’s just not a demonstration that the practice works. If you look at something like Reiki, for example, which is an interesting case. There’s a whole organize which is devoted to getting Reiki into hospitals. They’ve been very effective actually. Hundreds and hundreds of hospitals have Reiki programs now, but if you look at this organization’s website on scientific research, their own claim is that the best scientific evidence for Reiki comes from two particular studies. They’re studies of rats. Between the two studies, they have a grand total of seven rats that did better in Reiki studies. Nothing about human subjects and no indication of how studies were done before they were able to find two studies in which there were seven rats that did betters. That’s the kind of level of research that we’re talking about for a number of these popular practices.
Mohler’s conclusion and challenge:
But the warning to every single one of us as evangelical Christians in this book is that it is very possible that we are doing that which we oppose. We are doing that which we know faithfulness in terms of our Christianity would forbid. We’re doing things in terms of how we fail to think through so many of these approaches that would alarm us if we actually took the time to think about it, which is what I hope we do based upon not only this conversation but this important new book. Quite frankly, the issue is truth and that’s where Christians are supposed to know at the advance and be committed from the very beginning to knowing that where the truth leads will take us to Christ and to the Scriptures and to consistency with everything that is revealed in the Bible. And the truth will take us to a place where we understand that when we measure all things by the Scripture we simply have to let the Scripture judge everything, every idea, every worldview, every hypothesis, every theory, or every medical modality for that matter as well, every medical approach. So when we look at this I think it is a test of our Christian faithfulness. So my encouragement to all of us is simply the encouragement of the Apostle Paul to the Bereans: test it by Scripture, but test it knowledgeably.
You can read it all here