Can Belief in the Supernatural Heal?

I recently had a very good conversation with a leader from the local atheist movement.  He told me that a primary concern of his tribe is to expose and prevent the harm that comes about from belief in the ‘supernatural.’  He regaled a story of a married couple at the emergency room who refused to allow their dying child to have a blood transfusion, because it interfered with their religious beliefs.  The child was saved only because the physician on duty invoked the law to make the transfusion take place.  This is a useful example – it is an instance of faith, religion, and spirituality taken to a dangerous extreme, and how those extremes may harm innocents who have not chosen such extremism for themselves.

There is a shadow here that we must contend with:  in its darkest aspects, religion becomes dogmatic, legalistic, ideological; faith becomes an excuse to abandon ethics, and spirituality can be dissociative and downright delusional.  Every organization, philosophical system, lifestyle, group, and individual has a shadow, and it is worthy work indeed to bring it to light, and guard against its mischief.

So I’ll be the first to admit that belief in the ‘supernatural’ has a shadow, and that countless lives have been damaged and destroyed as the result.

But, my friends, what about the light?

One of the foundational courses in my Somatic Psychology PhD program is a course on the healing traditions of ancient Greece.  We are reading not only the original Hippocratic writings, which detail the sloppy beginnings of Western medicine – we are also looking in detail at the healing that took place at the temples of physician-god Asklepios.   For centuries, the sickest of the sick, those whom the physicians could not help, took pilgrimages to these temples, to seek direct healing from Asklepios himself.  Once arrived, they would go through ritual purification, and then descend into the abaton, an underground sacred chamber, and await a healing dream from the Divine Physician.

Although any healing was understood to come at the discretion of Asklepios, and never guaranteed, the surviving accounts of miracle cures at these temples are too numerous to dismiss out of hand.  At a time when belief in the mythic gods was waning and rationality was on the rise, Asklepios remained widely beloved.  Indeed, as our understanding of neuroscience slowly blossoms in the 21st century, many scholars are now considering whether the dream healing that took place in the ancient Asklepieia might not best be understood as the earliest working model for integrative medicine.

In deference to the skeptics, let us evaluate the temple medicine in terms of what we now know about human health:  first, exercise, diet, and stress reduction were prominent aspects of temple medicine, and modern medical research increasingly corroborates how essential these factors are to good health.  But more important, let us consider the psychological aspects of this cure: it represented a retreat from the mundane world into psychologically sacred space, it represented a culturally acceptable healing method, and it operated through accessing the deepest levels of the personality – an encounter with the unconscious mind that invites a direct imaginal experience of a divine, healing presence.

The words “psychosomatic” and “placebo” have been unfortunately somewhat dragged through the mud in previous decades – we often take these words to connote imagined illness, false cures, and hypochondria.  But on the frontiers of neuroscience and integrative medicine, these concepts have transformed into a cornucopia of information about where healing comes from – how the mind can be harnessed to heal the body, and the body harnessed to heal the mind.  There is something deep within the mind-body connection – a place we have not learned to access consciously, where powerful healing can take place.  With this in mind, we can use models from somatic psychology and placebo research to explain the miracle cures at the temples, and still recognize those cures as legitimate medicine.  After all, what could be more real to an individual than being given another 20 years of life, when all the doctors of his age have given him up for dead?

It’s important to note that during the time of Asklepios, there was almost none of our modern contention that somehow science and spirituality should be at odds.  Those early greek physicians and the temple healers of Asklepios (called therapuetes, from which we derive our modern word therapist) were allies in the art of healing!  What the doctors could not cure, they sent to the priests.  In fact, the original Hippocratic Oath is sworn in part to Asklepios, who represented to these early doctors the pinnacle of medical practice.

Now, I’ll be honest:  I’m not ruling out some sort of ‘supernatural’ phenomena at work in the temples of Asklepios.  My personal understanding of the word ‘supernatural’ is that it references anything that is outside of our understanding of ‘nature.”  One piece of data clearly evidenced by the history of science is that science itself is always revising itself with better information, better theories, whole new paradigms for understanding the universe (one brief example: according to science, bisexual attraction didn’t exist in human males prior to last year when someone at Northwestern University finally devised a study that could measure it – tell that to bisexual men! – one of thousands of examples of the dangers inherent in treating science as gospel!).  Thus, the word ‘nature’ is best apprehended as something that changes its meaning over time.  Our understanding of ‘nature’ 200 years ago is radically different from what it is today, and we have every reason to believe that in another 200 years our understanding of ‘nature’ will change even more dramatically.  So in speaking of the existence of the ‘supernatural’ I am merely acknowledging that human knowledge is limited, that there are things outside of it, beyond our understanding, things that don’t fit inside our language now, and might not fit for hundreds or even thousands of years to come.  I see this as a matter of common sense.  Science must remain extremely conservative to maintain its integrity, but common sense, I think, must remain firmly moderate if it is to be of any use at all.

In the meantime, let us leave speculation aside, and look at the psychological, and yes, somatic benefits that supernatural belief may engender.   For this is not a tale of sick people learning how to “think positive” and miraculously cure themselves in the comfort of their own homes, during their spare time, by simply wishing it so.  The story of the Asklepieia represents an intensive journey of psychological transformation.  These terribly sick and impaired individuals of yore took a pilgrimage across vast distances, in an era without motor engines, to surrender themselves before a psychologically sacred image, an image that was culturally reinforced as a divine source of healing, and on this foundation they were invited to engage directly and deeply with the most primal, and perhaps most powerful, forces of their own unconscious minds – they met Asklepios in the realm of dreams.

My point in rendering this dramatic portrait is that for the asklepieian model to work, belief in the ‘supernatural’ is an essential factor in affecting a cure.  This goes deeper than conscious belief and cognitive processing – this is healing that engages the core of the psyche.  One must believe and believe deeply, believing in the bones, in the nervous system, in the cells themselves, or the cure would surely fail.

Asklepios may be lost to us, but the potential for this deep healing is not.  And indeed, those who have studied these matters scientifically have had to admit an astonishing truth – that deeply held beliefs are a very real factor in health.  Harold Koenig of Duke University has found in large epidemiological studies that religious observance is associated with less medical illness and lower rates of hospital admission.  Frontier science is largely corroborating that, whether objectively true or false, beliefs, spiritual practices, and alternative healing methods seem to have a tangible, measurable impact on health outcomes.  This is one of the primary reasons that integrative medicine has exploded in the united states – and with great results.

Given this evidence, are we not bound to question the ethics of not only religious extremism that denies western medicine – but also materialist extremism which attempts to eradicate all belief in the supernatural?  If holding a space for the divine has even a small chance of effecting psychological and physiological healing and transformation, are we not doing violence to humanity by attacking such beliefs ubiquitously?  Nor can we expect the same degree of healing and transformation once we have disemboweled these beliefs by insisting they are a purely imaginary affair  (i.e. it’s all in your head) – one did not go to the Asklepieia to think about pleasant concepts and dialog with inner figures – one went to have a direct encounter with the living God!  As we move deeply into the mysterious contents of the subjective psyche, we by nature come into a realm that science cannot exactly measure, and scientific language can only partially describe.  This is a realm of uncertainties – that life should be uncertain is a difficult truth that we all must face at some point in our lives – but in uncertainty also lies extraordinary potentials, to which our rote ideological certainties may blind us.

I began by acknowledging the shadows of supernatural beliefs, and it is only fair to point out that the shadows of conventional medicine are also considerable.  According to Barbara Starfield, MD, writing on data gathered by the American Medical Association, over 225,000 deaths  every year are due to iatrogenic causes –i.e. deaths caused by medical treatment.  By this account, medical treatment is arguably the third leading cause of death in America, and others have placed that number much higher.  These figures are truly shocking!  But in contemplating the shadow of the medical establishment, let us here too not forget the light: how many dear loved ones have been saved by traditional medical intervention?

As always, my plea is for balance and integration.  I do not mean to endorse spiritual healing over Western Medicine, but rather to suggest that the two must find a way to coexist.  If we are going to heal ourselves, not just as individuals but as a species and as a planet, we owe it to ourselves – and each other – to accept all the help we can get.

*For more information on Asklepios, frontier science of the placebo effect, the role of belief in health and the role of spiritual healing in integrative medicine, I recommend the wonderful book Imagination and Medicine: The Future of Healing in an Age of Neuroscience, a collection of  scholarly & scientific papers presented at the conference of the same name, edited by Stephen Aisenstat and Robert Bosnak.

1 thought on “Can Belief in the Supernatural Heal?

  1. Good article, Jonathan. I especially like the idea that common sense must remain firmly moderate. The people found at the extremes of belief (only science or only faith) are driven by fear; they take inflexible positions that deny the thing they fear. Those who hold nothing exists that has not been verified using the scientific method are afraid of whatever they don’t intellectually understand. This makes them too rigid even to be good scientists. And religious extremists fear the complexity that characterizes real life. It’s not easy to evolve a personal philosophy that equally addresses the physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual dimensions of living, but if we don’t make that effort, we have no hope of dealing in reality.

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