After reading a fascinating article in Newsweek about how antidepressants appear to be no more effective than a placebo, I got to wondering whether religions operate the same way.
Patients on a placebo improved about 75 percent as much as those on drugs. Put another way, three quarters of the benefit from antidepressants seems to be a placebo effect.
When people believe that a placebo -- a sham medical intervention -- is an effective treatment, that belief often is self-fulfilling. Meaning, they get better because they believed they should get better.
How this happens is largely a mystery. But there are some promising hypotheses. A sidebar to the Newsweek article says:
In addition to depression, many illnesses show a strong response to placebo treatments. These tend to be conditions for which the body's own biochemicals, such as opiates and dopamine, act as natural medications. Because placebos trigger the production of these compounds, dummy pills can be almost as effective as real ones.
...Illnesses that do not respond to the body's natural opiates and other compounds show little to no placebo response either.
Interesting. Can't help recalling Karl Marx's quote, "Religion is the opiate of the people." Believe and you shall get high. Or cured.
What's wrong with that?
This is one of the questions Sharon Begley, author of the Newsweek piece, struggles to answer. She was asked by a friend if she knew of research that would help him decide whether a new antidepressant recommended by his doctor might finally lift his depression.
Begley is well aware of the placebo effect, so she decided to keep her mouth shut.
Explain that it's all in their heads, that the reason they're benefiting is the same reason why Disney's Dumbo could initially fly only with a feather clutched in his teeth -- believing makes it so -- and the magic dissipates like fairy dust in a windstorm.
If you're not familiar with Dumbo (an elephant), or have forgotten the story, here's a synopsis courtesy of Wikipedia.
To cheer Dumbo up, Timothy takes him to visit his mother. On the way back Dumbo cries and then starts to hiccup so Timothy decides to take him for a drink of water from a bucket which, unknown to him, has accidentally had a bottle of champagne knocked into it. As a result, Dumbo and Timothy both become drunk and see hallucinations of pink elephants.
The next morning, Dumbo and Timothy wake up in a tree. Timothy wonders how they got up in the tree, and concludes that Dumbo flew up there using his large ears as wings. With the help of a group of crows, Timothy is able to get Dumbo to fly again, using a psychological trick of a "magic feather" to boost his confidence.
Back at the circus, Dumbo must perform his stunt of jumping from a high building, this time from a much higher platform. On the way down, Dumbo loses the feather and Timothy tells him that the feather was never magical, and that he is still able to fly. Dumbo is able to pull out of the dive and flies around the circus.
Ah, a great lesson! Get drunk and then you'll be able to fly. They don't make Disney movies like that anymore.
Here's another lesson: Dumbo knew how to fly, but he forgot. Losing confidence in himself, he needed the crutch of a supposedly magic feather for a while. But when Dumbo lost the feather, he learned he could still fly.
This is why I feel fine having a churchless blog. I'm not worried, as Begley was, that I'll be depriving people of a feel-good benefit if they stop believing in a placebo -- religion.
There's no proof of the effectiveness of religion in curing the problems true believers are seeking help for: cheating death via a happy afterlife; having sins, or karmas, forgiven; understanding the whys and wherefores of how the cosmos came to be, and so on.
Now, I can sympathize with doctors who prescribe a placebo because believing in the effectiveness of an ineffective drug seems to stimulate real biochemicals in the body that really make people feel better and help healing.
But the situation is different with religion. It's more of a Dumbo sort of deal.
The "magic feather" of religious belief isn't really doing anything substantial. There's no actual cheating of death going on, no genuine absolution of sins/karma, no true grasping of truth about the ultimate nature of the cosmos.
Each of us already knows how to find meaning and happiness in our lives. We just need to live life meaningfully in a happy fashion.
I realize that it may seem easier to fly with someone else's wings, to adopt their beliefs, teachings, philosophy, dogmas, theologies. However, there actually isn't any "their" there.
Meaning, whatever meaning we find in life always comes from us. Like Dumbo, we just get deceived into believing that some religious magic feather is the reason our hearts seem to be soaring higher than usual.
Lose the feather, and you'll realize that the feeling hasn't been lost. It's still with you. Except, now you know that it comes from you. Or is you.
The sugar pill has been seen through. The placebo of blind faith has been thrown away. You've become your own cure, because you've come to understand that you were never sick.
Now its clear: Religion was making you think there was something wrong with you, so it could continue to peddle its useless nostrums. From now on, your medicine chest of meaning only will be filled with what genuinely works for you.