This talk was given to the South Place Ethical Society on April 9th by Sue Mayer In the first part it  points out  that the religion of the Poor Law, the workhouse and Bedlam, that kept women -with all their experience of caring for children, the old and ill  - out of education and science and health professions for centuries, has nothing to brag about on health and welfare. 

The second part is about 'alternative therapies' and the outspoken views of Professor Edzard Ernst on much of the research into alternative therapies, on which he is scathing.

It also points out that is an important subject for atheists and secular humanists, because the way it works when it does so, may also explain how other irrational and unfounded beliefs are inculcated.

‘Faith’ Can Seriously Damage Your Health

(meaning  ‘Faith in the supernatural’  and not in ‘to have confidence in’ )


Intro & Physical health and superstitious beliefs

Mental Health

Alternative Therapies

Links & Sources


This statement will not come as new to most atheists and freethinkers but the extent to which is true may come as a surprise even to some of us, since the notion of religion as ‘a good thing’ is deeply ingrained in our culture- in family, social, and political attitudes. We all know that religion is implicated in many of the causes of ill health, but it is rarely clearly recognised as such. If more people were able and willing to question the false claims and assumptions made by the religions, and looked at the evidence, they would not tolerate the current promotion of religion on the BBC and the indoctrination of children allowed in schools.

On a general level one need only look back to the history of squalor and degradation of Victorian London, the rural poverty, and child and maternal mortality in Britain at the height of its Christian past, to see that the religion of the Poor Law, the Workhouse and Bedlam had nothing to brag about as far as the  health and welfare of the population was concerned. Progress in health and welfare came with the education of women, from science and from secularism.

Is religion good for social ills?

In an editorial by Dr Edzard Ernst, Britain’s first professor of complementary alternative medicine (CAM) in the Health Journal ‘Perfusion’ he draws attention to research done by Gregory S Paul in the US, on whether religion contributes to social ills. He quotes from research, published by Paul in 2005 “In general higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, teen pregnancy and abortion in the prosperous democracies.  The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developing democracies, sometimes spectacularly so” and, he says that by contrast, more secular societies such as France, Japan or the UK were the least dysfunctional. These nations had been relatively successful in reducing rates of murder, early mortality, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and abortion, while the US suffered from “uniquely high” rates of adolescent and adult syphilis, and adolescent abortion.” [1]

A large research project  in the United States show recently  that praying for the sick has absolutely no effect on their rates of recovery, in fact if there is any effect to be seen it could be said to make them worse and can lead to post-operative complications. This was a large-scale and authoritative study from the Mayo Clinic in the USA. By the Templeton Foundation an organisation with religious ideas and deep pockets [2]

Religion & Politics

(But one has to realise that among the prosperous democracies the US is unique also in the dominance of its right wing political ideology that also affects the health and wellbeing of its citizens. But this is not unconnected with ‘the faith factor’. Health services, welfare and income support mitigate the effects of poverty in any country in which there are high numbers of citizens who live one step away from the gutter .(In my opinion ‘The Insecurity Factor’ explains the apparent paradox of the high level of religiosity in the constitutionally secular US) [3]

Religion & suffering

Many would deny any connection between religion and health, but it does not take deep thought to realise that the concept of faith in the supernatural and divine influence on human life creates difficulties for the believer in accepting that human beings can and should intervene in the direction of their fate, for themselves and  others and challenge the supposed  inevitability of suffering of sickness and untimely  death. The myths surrounding Teresa of Calcutta are a well known example.[4]

 Even greater, is the difficulty for those who believe in the concept of a compassionate and loving God who cares for his ‘children’, rewarding their good deeds and their ‘faith’ in him. How can they reconcile this concept of an omnipotent and omniscient god who planned and created the universe and humanity, who influences and intervenes in human life by answering prayers (or not) with the suffering of illness and disability, much of which we now know is unnecessary and preventable. And which some of us realise is caused, directly or indirectly by the doctrines, prejudices, practices and faith in religion.


Both of the above definitions of faith – in the supernatural, and in God - explain the resistance to science generally and to medical science and research into the social causes of ill health in particular. Questioning the causes of illness & disability and driving forward progress by rational, problem solving, is ‘meddling’ with gods ordained plan - questioning his omnipotence and motivations. As are any attempts to change attitudes that are rooted in the teachings of the religions, towards what they call sin – attitudes that we know cause, contribute to, or obstruct the prevention of   physical, mental and psychological ill health.

As in many other fields of human endeavour, women, with their particular expertise and experience as the carers of babies, children, the old, ill and disabled, were excluded from any participation in educational or professional consideration of ill health and its causes or cures. Only since the inclusion of women into colleges, universities and medical schools over the last century have the talents of women on the many aspects of health practices, and sciences, on which they have a particularly relevant perspective, been used to improve the health of individuals and the nation – And equal balance has still not been achieved.

Ill health as punishment

Even worse, for the faithful  (and perhaps most contradictory for modern people) is the attitude towards evidence-based scientific and social research , to prevent conditions that have been explained for centuries as God’s punishments. Even today there are millions of people around the world, who sincerely believe that illness is gods punishment for their sins or those of previous generations  – the cruelty and killing for witchcraft or possession by devils or spirits being but one of the most extreme, and bizarre. A practice that has spread with evangelical priests and congregations from sub-Saharan Africa where it is sadly far from rare. Amputations as punishment and Female Genital mutilation are serious and still widespread causes of physical abuse of the human body that cause physical disability, infection and mental and psychological illness.

The modern world is no less violent than it has always been, and much of the killing and maiming is still from sectarian conflict and from violence on women. It causes fear, physical trauma, lasting disability, chronic &  mental illness among the combatants and civilians – individuals and populations who suffer all the health problems of the disruption of their lives, and hardship as refugees.

Most widely among the devout, even in developed countries, is the notion – however subconscious for some - that disease and death from, STDs including HIV/AIDS,  septic abortion, and the stigma of unwanted pregnancy and disease is punishment for sex outside holy wedlock – (a telling phrase given the control it has had over people’s lives). They create fear of sex to deter sex for pleasure not procreation.

It explains  why the faiths oppose and demand punishment of homosexuality and prostitution. Safe, early, legal abortion, freely available contraception, adequate sex education, counselling, and the use of  condoms – are all ways of avoiding the repercussions of what the faithful regard as ‘illicit sex’.

It is why they oppose the ‘safe sex messages’ that have proved effective, and unbelievably why some even express regret at the development of vaccines against some STDs such as HPV.

In 2004, superstitious fear of immunisation, among the faithful in Kano, Nigeria sparked the re-emergence of Polio., a disease almost eradicated by WHO child health programmes, which has since spread across many countries in Africa the Middle East and Indonesia.

Faith in religious teaching, its creation of stigma and prudery, its prejudice towards sinful sex and women, is a major cause and contributory factor in illness. Inadequate nutrition, debility, depression, stress and anxiety, caused by poverty and overpopulation in poor countries causes suffering and death for millions of mothers and babies, as it once did for the poor of Europe. Today we see its results in many parts of the world most terribly in a swathe of countries across sub-Saharan Africa, where Fundamental Christianity and Islam are strong, and getting stronger.

Mental Illness

The understanding of ‘mind’ and ‘consciousness’ and their relationship with the workings of the brain (and other bodily systems) is confused by notions of the supernatural and existence of an immortal soul, especially where the workings of the brain are disordered.

Mental health is rarely mentioned in the same breath as religion, because of the all-too-obvious examples of florid religiosity as symptoms of mental illness; and the disgraceful history of persecution of mentally ill people, as objects of devilish possession by people who knew no better or believed it to be God’s punishment. But this only partly explains the role of religion in mental health and attitudes to mental disability.                             

The religious association of mental illness with sin, punishment and the devil have had a devastating effect on millions of sufferers. The problem is not just that there are ‘mentally ill’ people who think they are God or Jesus, who ‘see’ visions or ‘hear’ voices (brain experiences that they interpret in the line with their learned or cultural expectations). Or have experienced other visual or auditory hallucinations in which they ‘see’ religious figures. But the fear and stigma of mental illness and disability, that has created many other problems for sufferers, and their families.

The Problems?

In the past, one cure for mental illness (caused by god or the devil) was to be ‘saved’ or to have the devil ‘driven out’ by exorcism and this can still be seen today – in exorcism, and the terrible child cruelty cases arising from such beliefs that have been uncovered one of the worst examples being the Victoria Climbie case)

The distorted thinking of superstition can confuse, reinforce or exacerbate the symptoms of personality disorder. It can cause guilt and anxiety and the distorted perception that undermines or exaggerates self-esteem. It can cause problems at family, social and community level and can affect how mentally ill and disabled people are treated - by professionals, friends and family and the general public. How other people react to them can contribute significantly to the confusion and distress of mental illness. It can confuse or delay diagnosis and stifle rational understanding  and research.

It is also clear that many of the manifestations of mental illness & neurosis, and drug, or poison induced experiences have their counterparts in religious ‘experience’ and practices. And confused and punitive attitudes based on religion, to mind or mood altering drugs, for recreation or medication can affect sufferers willingness to undergo treatment or take medication.

Although many more people do understand mental illness, many others pay lip service to being sympathetic while in reality maintaining age-old superstitious fears, but this is not surprising because it is difficult to understand disordered thinking and the often strange behaviour it can lead to.

And we should not forget that pressure for reform in health care and treatment of the mentally ill came not from the Church, but from doctors and scientists. The progress over the last 150 years has been brought about through rational, scientific investigation and secular interest in mental health; and progress has not been helped by superstitious practices that still persist in this field, such as ‘faith’ healing, An area in which ‘faith’ is being increasingly used to undermine rational, evidence based health care.

This brings us to the subject of alternative therapies. or  Complementary Alternative Medicine CAM as it likes to be called .

It is impossible for me to do justice, here, to the subject of alternative therapies (ATs), which are being so widely promoted so often in some sections of the media. Firstly because it is a very important subject in its own right, and not only for the effect they have on individual patients.  But also by asking who is using them and why, and what effect are they having?

The promotion of ATs impacts on conventional evidence-based medicine (EBM), health care, health professionals, and research. It  impacts on the NHS, its services and funding. It is also important for us (as freethinkers) because the way in which these therapies sometimes work, may show how the same techniques are used to induce supernatural beliefs, and maintain them in educated, intelligent and otherwise rational adults.[5]

Professor Edzard Ernst of Peninsular Medical School (Plymouth and Exeter Universities) is an internationally recognised scientist charged with investigating ATs, quantifying the research that is being used to promote them, and assessing the rigour of its methodology [6]. He points out that:-

“Some forms of complementary medicine have a lot to offer, others are not effective, some are even dangerous, and most are too under-researched to be sure either way.” And we know that stress and anxiety, for instance, affect human resistance to ill health through its effect on the immune system and the brain”

It is a slow and laborious process for one man, particularly as those promoting ATs are presenting a plethora of subjective surveys that he says “are of such poor quality that they tell us little worth knowing, and the data are often over interpreted” And he says that ‘integrated medicine’ as promoted by the Prince of Wales Foundation for Integrated Health (PWF) is being promoted “with little thought”.

“Whereas Evidence Based Medicine BM first defines which treatments work, and subsequently judges them for routine use, integrated medicine tends to bypass crucial assessment”.

 “Is scientific rigour being sacrificed for political correctness?” he asks, perhaps referring to the Royal seal of approval of homeopathy that carries such weight among the British public, and some of the ATs that the PWF chooses to promote.

In one of his many papers, Ernst castigates the PWF for distributing a ‘Complementary Healthcare: a guide to patients’ paid for by substantial amounts of public money, that he says “is very misleading, and does not contain the most essential component of any patient guide – reliable and detailed information of efficacy and safety”

The problem today is that  NHS is coming under pressure from alternative therapists and their supporters for the NHS to pick up the bill for long and expensive therapies that are unproven and have no independent regulation. Their supposed validation coming only from their own self interested bodies..

Doctors are coming under pressure to refer patients for some alternative therapies for which there is no evidence of safety or efficacy. The problem is not with qualified doctors who may use ATs  for their patients simply for their placebo effect or to get the ‘worried well’ off their backs, presumably they will have made an accurate diagnosis in the first place, and have the full range of evidence-based treatments from which to choose; but from practitioners who have no medical training and may be tempted to offer their therapies as more than sympathetic soothing, or any placebo effects, they may have.

ATs as a first line option, or their promotion as cures, is a very serious health hazard. They can delay diagnosis that can be crucial to the successful treatment of some conditions. It can create pressure to replace cheaper and more effective conventional treatments. Faith in pseudo-science, can undermine patient confidence in EBM, and conventional health services. They may themselves be dangerous in some cases.

In another of his papers, Dr Ernst says: “The dangers of this erosion of science are much greater than the economical consequences. The notion that science is no better or worse than other forms of knowledge has already claimed victims on a large scale” and he goes on to instance supposed cures for HIV/AIDS.

There is also the effect they have on research. There is a burgeoning demand for  ATs,, however weird and wonderful to take up expensive and time consuming scientific research, that is already in short supply, even when it is clear from observation, common sense and statistical evidence, that any results are accidental, placebo or no better or worse than a good friend to talk to, an evening class in yoga or meditation, or retail therapy.

Another effect is the danger of dismissing, along with the ‘fruit cake’ therapies, and their mumbo jumbo rituals,  serious consideration of how when they do work, they do so, and the continuing research into plant products

Two thousand years have not ended this conundrum for those who have faith in the magic of God and the supernatura, yet it persists. Perhaps because the claims constantly made for religion have not been answered with the abundant evidence that is all around us.


Based on ‘The Role of Religion on Health’ by A.Shaw published by secularsites PO Box 172, Westerham, TN16 9AN  (ISBN 0-9550671-2-X


How Faith can Damage Your Health – Sources & Links

Based on ‘A Challenge to Religion on Health’

The text of the talk is on

[1] Journal of Religion and Society

Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies Gregory S Paul.

[2] Prayers Don’t  Work

[3]  Explaining the Paradox of the Religiosity of the rich and secular US

[4]  Articles on Teresa of Calcutta – No mother, no saint.

[5] ‘A Theory of Belief’  A.Shaw  published by secularsites (ISBN 0-9550671-0-3)

[6] Professor Edzard Ernst – Peninsular (Plymouth & Exter) University.,,1048903,00.html

SPES 2006