Examining whether unjustified beliefs are really the best medicine
Shannon Nixon was a 16-year-old Pennsylvanian with highly treatable diabetes. Shannon, however, had parents who believed that faith alone could cure her. Shannon died in June 1996, and her parents, Dennis and Lorie Nixon, were convicted on April 22, 1997, of involuntary manslaughter. In 1991, Shannon's eight-year-old brother, Clayton, also died after his parents relied on faith instead of medicine to treat an ear infection. In his case, the Nixons pleaded no contest to a charge of manslaughter and received probation.(1)
Nevertheless, for every story of someone who died or was injured because of reliance on faith, there are medical researchers who would say that faith still has many beneficial effects on health. Representatives include Herbert Benson, head of the Harvard-affiliated Mind/Body Institute, and Andrew Weil, author of a best-selling book.(2)
Their ideas are rooted in experiments performed earlier in this century by the Russian Nobel Laureate Ivan Petrovich Pavlov (1849-1936) and Walter Bradford Cannon (1871-1945) of the Harvard Medical School. These experimenters showed that certain mental states can indeed affect physiology.(3)
According to Benson, Weil, and similarly minded colleagues, even if the content of faith has no objective reality, belief can create positive emotional states that can promote health or reverse harmful mental and physical states. It follows that faith is something to be encouraged by the medical profession. Andrew Weil says:
I can think of no better way to change belief in a manner that facilitates rather than obstructs healing than to seek out the company of persons who have experienced it. . . .
As more people come to believe in spontaneous healing more people will experience it, and that will benefit everyone.(4)
David Larson, a research psychiatrist at the National Institute for Healthcare Research, even goes further and suggests that Christian faith communities, such as churches, have a very beneficial effect on health. Accordingly, churchgoing ought to be encouraged by medical professionals.
So can faith really be good for you? Does belief affect health in the manner claimed by Weil, Benson, and other practitioners who praise the positive effects of belief itself?
More important: Is it really beneficial for the medical profession to encourage beliefs that it considers false or unjustified for the sake of the alleged well-being of the patient? Time reports that 64% of Americans believe that doctors should join patients in prayer if the patients request it.(5)
A FLIMSY FOUNDATION
What is faith? As it is ordinarily understood, faith is "belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence."(6) In a broader sense, living by faith refers to a mode of life that relies on unjustified or false convictions.
Within Christianity such a definition is rooted in, among other texts, Hebrews 11:1: "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."
In John 20:29, when Thomas, the skeptical disciple, wished to verify through sight that Jesus had indeed been crucified and resurrected, Jesus rebuked him: Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.
Certainly, Christianity has held some inconsistent positions on the extent to which convictions can depend on any external evidence. Some Christians make distinctions between "faith" and "blind faith."(7) Others would contend that Jesus did provide signs in order to support his claims. Yet it is clear that Hebrews 11:1 and John 20:29 were encouraging belief without any appeal to evidence, and that is the definition of faith on which we shall concentrate.
A life based on faith is the opposite of the general approach of most secular humanists, who hold that, despite the recent assaults of postmodernism and relativism, real knowledge is based on one or more of the five senses and/or reason (normally called empirico-rationalism). …