John Riddell

Even in a secular age, it’s hard to surrender the religious habits of old

Back when our ancestors lived in caves, life was frightening. Anything could kill you. Lions, earthquakes or disease. I don’t suppose people felt they had much control of their own destiny. So they invented religion. They sought supernatural assistance. The Gods (or goddesses if you prefer) are powerful. Suck up to one of the Gods and He will make sure everything goes well. And if things don’t go well, it’s not because the Gods don’t exist, it’s because the sacrifice wasn’t pleasing.

The great thing is this works even if the Gods don’t exist. So long as you think they exist, you feel better. You have the illusion of control.

I think it was Karl Marx who said “Religion is the opiate of the masses”. Religion, like a drug, keeps you happy. God will take care of everything. God’s plan is unfolding as it should. Everything happens for a reason. Not too long ago, everyone believed in God. Well, nearly everyone. The priests told us that disease was God’s way of punishing us for being sinful. For breaking his laws. If you broke the seventh conmandment [not a typo] (Exodus 20:14), for example, you caught VD. Simple cause and effect.

And then along comes a medieval skeptic who says “What about babies? Why do babies get sick when they haven’t committed any sin? And why did St. Francis get leprosy if he was such a saint?”

“Easy”, says the priest. “Exodus 34:7 says that God will visit ‘the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation’.” Which means children are punished for the sins of their ancestors. Now apart from being untestable and not very fair, this explanation means it was God’s will that you got sick. So curing illness means going against God’s wishes. So you shouldn’t try.

Some people didn’t like that explanation.

So they looked for another one.

Maybe it isn’t God’s will. People have come up with a lot of different explanations. Maybe disease is caused by toxins. We are being poisoned. Before anyone discovered bacteria and viruses it was commonly believed that disease was simply poisoning. You prick your finger on a rose bush, and a day or so later your finger swells up and oozes pus. If you don’t do anything about it, you die.

We now believe bacteria and viruses cause infections. But at the time, it was a good explanation. And even if the explanation is wrong, the treatment can work. You clean the wound, slap on a poultice and draw out the toxins (which are really bacteria) and if you do it in time, you get better. And because this works, you wrongly conclude that disease is caused by toxins. So treatments concentrate on flushing these toxins out of your system. The word virus originally meant poison. The idea that diseases are caused by a build up of toxins has been replaced by germ theory in modern medicine. But it is still widely believed among the alternative health crowd. They think nasty modern agriculture is putting lots of chemicals on crops and farm animals. These chemicals are supposed to be poisoning us. Give us cancer. The fact that the average life span has doubled in the last 100 years does not seem to bother them.

There are many alternative treatments designed to purge toxins from your system. These do not work on cumulative toxins, or any other toxins for that matter. But you can buy herbal detoxification remedies (although I don’t understand why eating large amounts of herbs that contain dozens of toxic chemicals could possibly remove toxins from your body). You could try colonic irrigations or coffee enemas but why you might want to is a mystery.

But some people swear by them. Why? Because they appear to work.

You work hard at school, get a qualification and a job. You get married and have 1.7 kids. You worry about saving for your retirement and how the kids are doing at school. You drink countless cups of coffee during the day and after a stressful day at work you relax with a glass of beer or seven. And because you are so tired at night you don’t exercise and because you skip breakfast in the morning, you overeat at night. Then your wife leaves you to find herself with Susan from Accounting. And takes the kids. You haven’t been feeling too well for a while now. You always have aches and pains, and headaches. And you don’t sleep through the night the way you used to. And you don’t have much energy or motivation these days. So you go to the doctor and he tells you that you need to take it easy. Your problems are psychosomatic. Which you think means that he thinks it’s all in your mind. But you know it isn’t all in your mind. The pain is real.

And then Janice, who works in the marketing department, tells you about her naturopath and how great he is. So you go to a naturopath who uses applied kinesiology (See for more details) to diagnose your problem as a build up of toxins. Probably caused by all those herbicides and pesticides they are using these days. But the good news is he can help you.

This is great. You knew it wasn’t all in your mind. He sells you a herbal detoxification program and tells you to eat only organic food. You start to feel better almost before you leave his office. And it really does make you feel better. Now Janice has one of those water distillation machines and since she moved in you’ve been drinking your eight glasses of water a day. You feel great. Your energy levels are at max. You are motivated again.

But why?

Did the naturopath accurately diagnose and treat the problem?

Or did you have a moderate case of depression which was treated by a lifestyle change?

We eat too much. We smoke too much. We don’t get enough exercise. We work too hard, or not enough. We worry too much. And then we get sick. But do we blame our lifestyle? Not likely, because that would make it our fault. It’s easier to blame someone else. Multinational chemical companies. They’re poisoning us. That must be it.

Sometimes what we really need is someone to say that everything is going to be all right. To give us that illusion of control. We have got rid of the Gods, but we still have those needs that made people believe in them in the first place. We still are afraid of dying. We still need to feel we have control of the uncontrollable. So we invent another religion. It’s no more rational than the rest, but it is more suitable for our modern lives. We think we control earthquakes with improved building codes. But we still need protection from the fast changing world. Life is still frightening. We need to feel we have control over science and technology. Over all those toxins.

Of course the solution might lie in the Bible. “Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy heart. Let him drink and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more” (Proverbs 31:6-7: see also 1 Tim 5:23 and Ps. 104:15 ).

No mention of beer I’m afraid.

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