Truth and consequences

Whether certain religious beliefs, attitudes, and practices are helpful to sick people is one question; whether the beliefs are “true” is a different question. The question of effects can be studied scientifically, and should be.

I agree with Mike and Harold. The empirical effects of religious belief can be studied without reference to the truth-claims of the various religions.

But that works both ways: it means that religious belief could be life-saving, though false.

Having been an atheist in a cancer ward (or at least under treatment for a life-threatening cancer) I don’t for a second subscribe to the “Your faith has made you whole” school of medicine. (A brief religious autobiography is here, if anyone’s interested.)

Since I didn’t start with the expectation that the Ruler of the Universe was going to take care of me, I didn’t need to adjust my world-view in the face of the disease. I found, somewhat to my surprise, that I wasn’t especially scared of dying, despite (because of?) my conviction that dying is the end for an individual consciousness. So I didn’t move either “toward” or “away from” any divinity. But I also didn’t get either angry or anxious.

I don’t know whether the equanimity I found had any connection with my cure, but it must have been an advantage to sleep well and not to have stress hormones coursing through my veins. If some people get that equanimity from religion, it’s not hard to imagine that they might get health benefits from it.

Others in similar circumstances seem to get serenity as a result of their use hallucinogens, either before or after the threat of death becomes apparent. A mystical experience seems to be a fairly reliable cure for death anxiety, and the hallucinogens have a way of bringing about such experiences if taken under the right circumstances.

If that turned out to be predictably true, then there would be a good argument for using the hallucinogens with some patients to treat for anxiety in the face of life-threatening illness. At least, that’s the premise of at least three current medical studies.*

If some people get the same result with religious texts and traditions rather than with chemicals, why isn’t that also an important medical finding?

Now that’s a completely different question from the borderline-paranormal stuff that the folks at Noetics are studying, and it was surely a mistake for NPR to collapse the two questions together. But it would be a shame if the disapproval of faith-healing led us to neglect the potential medical benefits of various spiritual or religious beliefs, experiences, and practices. Since those effects can be studied without reference to any religious doctrine, we ought to count those studies as science, and not disdain them out of a superstitious fear of superstitious belief.

Footnote The UC/Harbor and Harvard studies aren’t looking at life extension, but simply at improved quality of life in the final months. In the name of “protecting human subjects,” the scientific censors who run the IRBs insist that the studies deal exclusively with terminal patients. God forbid someone should overcome the fear of death and then screw things up by failing to die. The Hopkins group seems to have a more understanding IRB.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: