Why are alternative therapies popular?
There are a number of reasons for this. Despite a relative lack of scientific support, many people have found them helpful, including a number of celebrities and royals. Receiving an alternative therapy is typically quite pleasant – especially compared to many hospital experiences. There has also been a rise in eastern thought in the UK, and with this comes reference to alternative approaches to healing. Many of the conditions and symptoms they are claimed to be effective for, are not addressed well by western medicine – like back pain, headaches and [of most relevance here] low mood.
Is ‘eastern’ bad?
Many Christians will be of the belief that as many alternative therapies appear to be ‘eastern’ in their mindset, then Christians should avoid them as they will run the risk of being involved with other religions and even the occult. However, I do not believe this is a helpful perspective.
-- Many of the practices involved, like massage and guided meditation, are an established part of the history of Christianity. They have become removed from Christianity since the 18/19th Century, as Christianity in the UK became more western, rational and scientific in response to the Enlightenment. However, this cultural shift does not imply that what was lost was anti-Christian. Mindfulness is a good example, which is often seen as Buddhist, but actually has major Christian roots and is also a core biblical technique. You might like to read this article on Mindfulness.
-- Christianity in the UK is built on a western mindset like much else in our country. However, it comes from a Middle Eastern country, Israel, and has Hebrew foundations that are very ‘eastern’. This is one reason why we find the Old Testament and some more-Hebrew parts of the New Testament hard to understand. See the article on mindfulness mentioned in the section above.
-- Just because something is ‘eastern’ does not mean it is always tied to the principles of another religion. There is a spectrum here that people need to be aware of – and exists within each of the alternative therapies. For example, acupuncture: a) anyone can put needles into a body and find success though an unknown mechanism, b) there may additionally be a belief in energy lines or personal forces, and c) the ‘healer’ may also invoke the power of another god. I am fine with a, less happy with b and as a Christian would not be able to agree with c.
Instead of jumping to conclusions about all alternative therapies being bad, we need to evaluate what is going on, what are we buying into and what are the motives and intentions of the person offering the therapy. This should also apply when we go and see a western doctor as one surgeon’s knife is not the same as another – and this applies even more in jobs like mine as a psychiatrist.
A lack of evidence
One thing that is clear is that alternative therapies struggle to do well in some types of research like randomised controlled trials and so can be accused of being based on a lack of scientific evidence. However, it is by no means true that all NHS-validated approaches are robustly supported by good quality evidence. If you look on the NICE website [www.nice.org.uk], you will see that many of it’s recommendations are based on expert opinion and not primary research.
Also, though alternative therapies do not perform well on certain types of research [eg quantitative], they do perform well in other ways [eg, qualitative]. Different worldviews lie behind different types of research and so different types of therapy perform well in different types of study. Western people tend to like therapies with quantitative evidence [ie, 100 people did this, 95 got better, etc] because this is our worldview. However, some Christians go one step further and say that quantitatively-validated therapies are Christian, and those that struggle to perform in this area are not for Christians – although they may perform very well in other areas. We need to remember that Christianity is not a western religion – we have only made it so. It is unfair to see everything a western-trained doctor says is true as true, but to ignore everything that comes from an eastern perspective.
What this means is that, if you read articles by Christians that start by asking of this or that therapy has a rational/scientific basis, you may well be asking the wrong question. If there is not this type of basis it may mean that you cannot make western-style recommendations on its likely statistical efficacy, but it does not mean that it doesn’t work or that it is anti-Christian or anti-moral. In fact, an ‘eastern’ approach may actually be a lot more moral than some things a scientific viewpoint is able to agree with. For example, most western-trained doctors are more in agreement with terminations of pregnancy than most Christians would be.
However, it is worth noting that some people out there claiming to offer remedies really are trying to sell snake-oil and so we do have to be looking for some kind of evidence. As a Ravi Zacharias, who is from the ‘east’, says, “if you step out in front of a bus in India, it will still kill you – and if you like I can prove this to you with a rational experiment…”
Suggested questions to ask
-- Is this treatment overtly occult or anti-Christian? The answer may be yes, but it very well may not be as there is a huge range. Many of these therapies are offered by Christians – and that is something you could look for.
-- Is the person well accredited according to their field? We give a list below and as in many areas of life, there are professional standards that we ought to look for.
-- Is there at least some evidence for effectiveness, even if not numerical, and is there any evidence that it causes harm?
-- How much control are we giving to the person? The more control you give away, the more you want to be sure of the person’s motives and faith perspective.
Below is a list of accrediting organisations that give you assurance that people meet basic professional standards.
-- Hypnotherapy: British Association of Clinical Hypnosis
-- Homeopathy: British Homeopathic Association
-- Osteopathy: General Osteopathic Council
-- Acupuncture: British Acupuncture Council
-- Cranio-Sacral Therapy: Craniosacral Therapy Association of the UK
A recently updated book by the Christian Medical Fellowship covers this topic in much greater detail than we can here and is recommended.
£8.00; Pb 137pp
ISBN 978 0906747384