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Steve Hinnefeld
IU Communications

Last modified: Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The surprising story of how religion-based alternative medicine gained mainstream acceptance

Aug. 7, 2013

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Not so long ago, most Americans were wary of yoga, meditation, acupuncture, chiropractic and similar practices. Nowadays, complementary and alternative medicine has become so commonplace that many Americans -- even evangelical Christians -- might be surprised to learn that such practices have close ties to Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist or Western metaphysical religious traditions.

What happened? Candy Gunther Brown, an associate professor of religious studies at Indiana University Bloomington, tells the "intriguing and sometimes astonishing" story behind the mainstreaming of complementary and alternative medicine -- or CAM -- in "The Healing Gods: Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Christian America," published this week by Oxford University Press.

Candy Gunther Brown

Candy Gunther Brown

Print-Quality Photo

"These practices used to be seen as fringe, but now they're seen as ordinary and mainstream, without a lot of reflection," Brown said. "It's surprising how quickly this has happened. And there are implications that haven't been looked at carefully by health care providers, patients or the courts."

Brown makes an ethical argument about CAM based on the values of personal autonomy, self-determination, religious equality and religious voluntarism. She writes that:

  • CAM providers should be forthright in their communications with patients.
  • Patients should use valid information to make intentional choices about health care.
  • Government should not favor certain religious practices over others or over non-religion.

A key argument in "The Healing Gods" is this: When people consider using complementary and alternative medicine, they typically ask whether the practice will work to improve health or relieve pain. They rarely ask why the practice is supposed to work. And they should.

"For a lot of CAM practices," Brown said, "there are religious assumptions that are essential to why the practice should work, if it does work."

For example, yoga may include positions, gestures and chants that symbolize Hindu beliefs about achieving oneness with God or universal consciousness; acupuncture and forms of healing massage and herbalism are based on Taoist ideas about vital forces or spiritual energy; Reiki symbols and mantras represent Buddhist concepts of universal life energy; and chiropractic and homeopathic medicine arise from 19th-century European and American schools of metaphysical thought.

Furthermore, scientific research suggests that performing practices associated with religious meanings may actually instill religious beliefs. Many people initially try CAM for non-religious, health-related reasons but, over time, come to embrace CAM's religious concepts.

Brown finds it problematic from a church-state perspective that religion-based CAM practices have been taken up by public institutions. She served as an expert witness in a lawsuit by parents who challenged the teaching of Ashtanga yoga classes in California's Encinitas Union School District. Constitutional attorneys for the plaintiffs argue that the yoga classes are an unconstitutional endorsement of religion and entangle the government with religion.

The judge in the case ruled that yoga is religious but said school classes could continue because the students would not perceive them as endorsing religion. Last week, the school district accepted an additional $1.4 million grant from the Jois Foundation (renamed the Sonima Foundation) to expand the program.

Even more troubling, from Brown's perspective, is that the federal Affordable Care Act may actually require insurance companies to reimburse CAM coverage, or else be penalized for discriminating against state-licensed providers. Interpreting the act in this manner would arguably amount to a congressional law establishing religion, in violation of the First Amendment.

Brown began investigating CAM while working on her previous book, "Testing Prayer: Science and Healing," when she was surprised to meet pentecostal Christians who diligently rejected other religions and the "New Age" but eagerly embraced alternative forms of healing with a religious dimension.

"I started asking, 'Who is involved with this? Why is it becoming mainstream?'" she said. "I was surprised by how little scientific evidence supports claims that CAM is safe and effective. For many of the most popular CAM therapies, there is an absence of rigorous scientific research showing that CAM is more effective than conventional medicine, non-religious exercise and relaxation, a healthy diet, Christian prayer practices, or a simple placebo. And there is evidence that CAM can be dangerous."

One explanation for CAM's acceptance, she said, is that some practitioners have been less than transparent, or even deceptive, in their marketing. They have played down the religious meanings of practices and exaggerated the scientific evidence of benefits.

Brown doesn't suggest that religious people should avoid CAM, but she contends that they should proceed with their eyes open. CAM practitioners, she said, should disclose the rationales behind their practices, just as medical doctors should explain the procedures and medications they recommend.

"I'm not arguing that people shouldn't use CAM or that they shouldn't be religiously eclectic," Brown said. "What I am arguing is that people should make conscious decisions about their beliefs and practices. Otherwise, people's health care choices can lead to de facto religious decisions that differ from the choices people would want to make if they had more information."

To speak with Candy Gunther Brown, contact Steve Hinnefeld at IU Communications, 812-856-3488 or