Religion and Alternative Medicine: An Interview with Dr. Candy Gunther Brown

  Author of The Healing Gods: Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Christian America



Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) has become increasingly popular over the last several years. Treatments such as acupuncture, yoga, and Reiki once fairly alien to the average patient have become increasingly common healing practices within mainstream biomedical therapies. With a growing emphasis on a holistic approach to health, one that includes the mind, body, and soul, many patients are employing alternative therapies. Several of the  premier medical institutions in the United States have in transitioned from tolerating CAM to in recent years promoting alternative therapies in patient care. Therapies that were once deemed alternative to biomedical treatments are now perceived in mainstream medicine as holding therapeutic import..  

In her new book published by Oxford University Press, The Healing Gods: Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Christian America, Dr. Candy Gunther Brown, Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University, provides a critical view of CAM based within the discipline of religious studies. Her book invites consideration of what she argues are religious undertones within the implicit theories of CAM.  In particular, Brown raises critical questions on whether CAM is secular or religious.  If practices such as yoga, acupuncture, and Reiki are implicitly religious, then recent framing of CAM as non-religious or secular practices is in tension with an ethical framework of patient consent.  In Brown's opinion, it is of high importance to not offer CAM to patients without their consent to the embedded theological meanings embedded within their practices. The Initiative on Health, Religion, and Spirituality recently caught up with Dr. Brown in order to ask her about The Healing Gods.”

What inspired you to write about complementary and alternative medicine, particularly within the American context?

I actually feel like I backed into the project. I never had any particular interest in complementary and alternative medicine (I use the acronym CAM, or the increasingly popular term integrative medicine), and I didn’t have either positive or negative impressions about it. But I was interviewing informants for a different book about Christian prayer for healing (Testing Prayer) in the United States when a number of theologically conservative Pentecostal and Evangelical Christians started volunteering information, unprompted, about how much they loved their CAM providers (especially their chiropractors). This caught my attention because, given what I knew about the history of CAM (including chiropractic), I was surprised that conservative Christian interviewees didn’t express more of a sense of tension between the religious premises of prayer and CAM. This made me want to find out more.


What surprised you the most when researching for this book?

I hadn’t realized just how widespread CAM had become (exemplified by its mainstreaming even in conservative Christian subcultures) or that this was actually a quite recent development. Before the 1960s, most Americans had never heard of CAM, and if they had, they generally regarded it with suspicion. Medical doctors for the most part rejected CAM as medical quackery, and Christians tended to denounce CAM as idolatry. By the end of the twentieth century, doctors were prescribing CAM, and Christians were practicing it in church. And what was even more surprising was that there really wasn’t a clear medical or religious explanation for this shift. In other words, there wasn’t—and still isn’t—compelling medical evidence validating the efficacy of most CAM therapies. And many of the most popular CAM practices are not only historically, but still today, premised on religious assumptions that have less in common with Christianity than with religious traditions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and Western metaphysical spirituality. So CAM became popular despite its medical and religious contexts, and this invited explanation of how and why this cultural transformation had occurred.


You seem to suggest that it is not possible to take part in most CAM treatments in a non-religious, secular manner?  Would you summarize The Healing Gods’ argument concerning the religious nature of CAM practices?

Many CAM practices (for instance, yoga, acupuncture, Reiki, homeopathy, and  chiropractic) presume the existence and possibility of manipulating for therapeutic ends an impersonal, universal life-force or vital energy that is metaphysical—more than physical—or spiritual, and variously termed prana, qi, ki, vital force, or Innate Intelligence. This premise reflects a holistic, monistic worldview that diverges from both biomedical materialism and historic Christian theology. Biomedicine focuses on material factors in the diagnosis and treatment of disease. Christian theology share’s CAM’s holistic assumption of material-spiritual interconnection, but Christianity is dualistic in the sense of presuming a fundamental distinction between Creator and creation, whereas CAM tends to presume that all of reality is of essentially the same substance. Thus, healing can be achieved simply by unblocking or rebalancing the flow of vital energy—without Christian insistence on repentance, faith, and reconciliation between humans and a personal God, or prohibitions against seeking spiritual help from sources other than God.

Now many people who use CAM do not understand—or care about—CAM’s foundational, religious assumptions. People, Christians included, tend to ask “Does CAM work?” rather than worrying about why it is supposed to work. In other words, many people try CAM without intending to practice religion. But an interesting pattern can be observed—of practices changing beliefs, or people’s intentions shifting through extended participation in CAM practice communities. Novices typically start off wanting only physical benefits, but over time, they tend to embrace a broader CAM philosophy that fundamentally transforms their religious worldviews. Many examples and sociological studies bear this out.

Take Kristin, a college-age informant who tried yoga as “exercise.” Kristin’s teacher explained yoga to her as “stretches” that are “not religious”—but, when interviewed, related that “you can’t practice yoga and not be affected by these deeper meanings of it . . . that each person’s ‘inner being’ is ‘like God.’” Raised Catholic, Kristin now considers the “eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga” (the eighth of which is samadhi, understood by Kristin as “becoming one with God”) to be “basically similar to the Ten Commandments,” but “just like suggestions.”

Kristin is not unique. A 2014 national study (Park et al.) found that 62% of yoga students and 85% of teachers changed their primary reason for practice over time. Typically, the primary motive switched from exercise and stress relief to spirituality. A 2011 survey (Greeson et al.) found that most participants in a secular eight-week mindfulness class enrolled wanting improved health or stress management. By the end of the class, 54% reported that the course had deepened their spirituality. The study concludes, moreover, that mental health benefits of secular mindfulness can be attributed to increases in daily spiritual experiences.

I am not claiming that CAM practices are inherently or essentially religious. Rather, theoretical and empirical research (in fields such as religious studies, semiotics, phenomenology, ritual and performance studies, art and architecture history, psychology, neuroscience, and machine learning) suggests possible mechanisms for observed effects. Participation in CAM can shape perceptions through an interplay of sensory experiences, framing effects of assumptions and values that are explicitly or implicitly communicated, and cultural associations that remain available even when overtly religious language has been removed. For instance, CAM can produce and heighten awareness of sensory experiences, such as touch, taste, and smell, which constitute primary, pre-cognitive, pre-verbal epistemologies. Pleasurable and painful sensations can elicit intensely positive or negative emotional responses that are highly motivational, providing assurance of religious ideas or metaphors that produce mental or spiritual states. CAM promoters often use scientific language to persuade novices to expect benefits, while signifying religious systems by retaining key linguistic signs (such as “yoga”—often understood as yoking with Brahman, or “mindfulness”—seventh in the eightfold path of Buddhist awakening). Perception results from a combination of stimuli and hypotheses; people tend to look for evidence that confirms, rather than disconfirms, hypotheses. CAM initiates seek evidence that their new practices are beneficial. Perceiving benefits, they infer causation and assign credit to the religious systems signified, thereby interpretively jumping over secular linguistic frames in a quest to go deeper in beneficial practices.

Psychological research in extinction and relearning suggests that once someone learns an association, for instance of a yoga pose with Hindu ideals, the associations do not disappear even when spiritual language is removed or replaced by other associations, such as science. People make transitive inferences—for instance, experiencing positive sensations from mindfulness, associating mindfulness with Buddhism, and assigning credit to Buddhism for benefits

Because sensory experiences constitute a primary epistemology, they urgently demand to be accommodated by people’s religious views to avoid cognitive dissonance. Individuals who perceive that they gain direct sensory experiences of ultimate reality are particularly open to adopting new religious beliefs that explain, legitimize, and give meaning to their experiences. In this way, religious systems may offer interpretive lenses for bodily practices, and subsequent sensory experiences can be perceived as confirming the associated religious worldviews. Thus, the interaction of religious frameworks and direct sensory experiences can powerfully shape religious perceptions and may induce religious combinations or transformations in worldviews.

A major concern expressed in the book was the possibility that people who are engaging in CAM are doing so without informed consent regarding the deep religious background of CAM practices.  Since 70% of the American population identifies with Christianity, especially Evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism, is it your view that CAM practices are in tension with or directly compete with these spiritual traditions?

Yes, sociological research suggests that many Christians would--if they understood at the outset CAM’s religious assumptions or potential to induce changes in worldview—evaluate many forms of CAM as conflicting with deeply cherished religious beliefs and values, and therefore choose not to participate. The religious dimensions of CAM can be especially difficult for patients to discern when offered in conventional healthcare settings such as hospitals or hospices, and suggested or administered by doctors, nurses, psychologists, or other secular therapists who vaunt CAM’s health benefits and scientific validation. The failures of healthcare providers to disclose material information about CAM’s religious implications may result in people making de facto religious decisions that they would not have wanted to make if they had been given full and accurate information in a timely manner.

You argue that federal funding for yoga in public schools is in violation of the establishment clause since yoga has direct ties to Hinduism.  Much of your argument hinges on a broader definition of religion that expands beyond theistic beliefs.  What would be necessary for a broader definition of religion to be accepted by the legal community or society at large?

I define religion as encompassing beliefs, values, and practices performed with the body that function to explain ultimate problems of human life, aspire toward salvation from suffering, connect individuals with suprahuman energies, beings, or transcendent realities, cultivate spiritual awareness or virtues of ethical and moral character, and instill moods and motivations that support a worldview, or big picture of reality, and an ethos, or philosophy of how one should live. This is not an idiosyncratic definition. Most religious studies scholars and law courts (including the Supreme Court) that have defined religion use similarly broad definitions that encompass embodied practices and non-theistic traditions (e.g. Buddhism).

The issue, rather, is that Protestant Christianity has been so dominant in American culture that many people think of religion as being expressed primarily through intellectual beliefs and verbal proclamations, rather than recognizing the potential significance of rituals or bodily practices (such as yoga postures and breathing techniques)—even without much or any verbal framing--in expressing, reinforcing, and instilling religious moods, motivations, and worldviews.

To take the example of yoga, many American instructors believe that performing postures will lead practitioners to all the other branches of the yogic path, including “yoking” or becoming one with the divine, Brahman, or God. Often these instructors do, moreover, intersperse coaching of physical activities with some verbal instruction in Hindu beliefs (even quoting texts sacred in Hinduism)—less so in introductory classes, but increasingly as practitioners advance. These same instructors—when seeking to increase market share or gain entrance into government-sponsored institutions such as public schools—may mute religious language and instead advertise scientifically validated health benefits. Certain instructors engage in intentional deception, but others are themselves convinced that the physical and spiritual aspects of yoga can be neatly compartmentalized, and that it is possible to teach yoga in a purely secular manner. They may nevertheless communicate more than a religiously neutral technique or universal values without recognizing what they are doing because they are so convinced of yogic teachings that they accept them as simply true. In either case, marketing yoga as health and wellness practices rather than as religious rituals has facilitated yoga’s mainstreaming because many Americans assume that practices are either scientifically validated or religious—though they may be both at once.

What would change the current cultural situation? I think this is a matter of education. If people looked more closely at CAM’s religious assumptions, contexts, and effects, attitudes and policies might start to change.

Interview by Rebecca Quiñones, MTS (Dana-Farber Cancer Institute)