• Users Online: 165
  • Print this page
  • Email this page

 Table of Contents  
Year : 2017  |  Volume : 1  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 54-55

Riven between faith and reason

Department of Psychiatry, KEM Hospital and Seth GS Medical College, Mumbai, Maharashtra, India

Date of Web Publication19-Jun-2017

Correspondence Address:
Elvin Lukose
Department of Psychiatry, KEM Hospital and Seth GS Medical College, Acharya Donde Marg, Parel, Mumbai - 400 012, Maharashtra
Login to access the Email id

Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/aip.aip_10_17

Rights and Permissions

Faith healing has been a silent topic in the sense that we as psychiatrists often cross our paths with faith-healers, and yet, we seem not to make much practical effort in understanding the psychological roots behind it. We often come across patients and their relatives who would prefer the miracles of a faith-healer over evidence-based medicine. We observe that people are inclined to approach the uncertainty of faith-healing remedies with utmost optimism while the medical interventions suffer the brunt of critical and at times cynical scrutiny by patients. As a resident in psychiatry, I have come across patients who sought faith-healing as their first choice as well the ultimate one. On close observation and open-minded reflection, we can learn what makes our minds tick when they are plunged into ambivalence between demons and decompensated neural circuits and this article is intended to touch on these gray lines.

Keywords: Faith, faith healing, reason

How to cite this article:
Lukose E. Riven between faith and reason. Ann Indian Psychiatry 2017;1:54-5

How to cite this URL:
Lukose E. Riven between faith and reason. Ann Indian Psychiatry [serial online] 2017 [cited 2023 Feb 7];1:54-5. Available from: https://www.anip.co.in/text.asp?2017/1/1/54/208331

As doctors, we practice scientific observation and usually do not take matters of religion or faith too seriously in our practice. I always felt one could be aloof and intellectually distance oneself from the spiritual choices of patients until I entered my residency in psychiatry that it became conspicuous that somewhere in the fray of treating mental illness, we were competing with faith-healers. There are patients and their relatives who would prefer the paranormal deductions of a faith-healer over evidence-based medicine thus, sadly losing them to follow-up. From rationalizing to demeaning them, I tried everything just to keep my anxieties at bay, but I could not ignore the faith that these patients had in forces that defied scientific principles. Hence, I did some researching and decided to pen down the insight I gained about not the antitheses but the parallels between psychiatry and faith-healing.

So, what makes a person mentally ill? Is it neurochemistry gone haywire? Or is it a curse from the Gods in the heavens above? Noticeably, the common anomaly in both is the “deviation from the norm” – defined differently by both. While the debate of the tangibility of mental illness stayed in the annals of psychiatry long enough, the concept of “normality” goes even beyond the history of philosophy itself. While philosophy endeavored to dissect the clockwork of the human mind, religion took resort to unearthing the roots for the “deviation” and finding a cure to the vexations of the common man. While religion continues to resort to traditions and scriptures and science takes pride of having the capacity to figure it all out,[1] there seems to be a thick line between reason and faith – a chasm that we fail to realize is nothing but man-made.

Instead of dismissing faith-healing practices as some sort of hogwash loopholing; a closer look at some of the psychological hacks that make their remedies apparently work should deepen our curiosity in the human mind we strive to understand.

The concept of suggestion is well known in the medical fraternity [2] as “placebo,” be it in the form of sugar pills or sham surgeries. The fact that the psychological “halo” surrounding the placebo is what cures the patient and not the placebo per se prompted research all around the world to demystify this elusive cure. We finally have some reliable evidence that claim “top-down” mechanisms which anticipate the cure can alter the perception of “bottom-up” information provided by our body.[3] Thus, our beliefs can override logical reasoning even at the neurological level resulting in differential activation of prefrontal and temporal circuits.[4],[5] Faith healers are well known to use suggestion as a therapeutic tool in patients.[6] Hence, why does it work better in faith-healing? Here, both the messenger and the message matter. Here, the messenger, i.e., the faith-healer represents to the people – a humanoid projection of the “Savior archetype,”[7] and hence, an entitlement is bestowed on him by virtue of his association with religion which confers an authority bias on the followers making them more receptive to his suggestions. As for the message, faith healers skillfully use the “Barnum/Forer effect” in their suggestions feeding the self-serving bias of the people making them more inclined to their future transactions.[8]

We must observe that while our psychotherapies solve some of the symptomatic riddles of our patients, religious and faith-healing practices give them an experience of a realm of consciousness where they feel stronger than they ever felt to be; as opposed to the diagnostic labels in our consulting rooms, into a realm of consciousness where they feel stronger than they think they are. Sessions which involve people gathering to witness the miracles of a faith-healer such as evangelical conventions and satsangs also involve some form of worship accompanied by music and dance wherein one experiences a synchrony of one's body with the other; thus entering into a state of 'collective effervescence' as Durkheim puts it[9]. This leaves the devotees as well as the sick feeling rejuvenated and a revamping of their senses that for some, pushes them into a possession trance. Prayers are also known to enable people to experience a “flow” state making them feel “in communion” with a higher power.[10] While some of them do experience some form of relief albeit temporary, some of them are staged by the organisers [11] to create the illusion of a healing thus glorifying the faith-healer's image which can withstand the duress of scandalous accusations because the followers preserve the “halo”[12] of their healers as their faith becomes a sign of their fidelity. Using Talismans, lockets, rings, holy threads, crystals, and other symbolic accessories make the followers aware of their commitment to the faith-healer's remedies which later only feeds their confirmation bias when a cure does occur, no matter how arbitrarily.

Hence, how do we differ from them? For starters let's say first, our history - our white coats and our paraphernalia have left some blemish on the way we are perceived in the society because of the associations they evoke in people's minds in relation to the stigma of mental illness and the misery of an asylum. Second, psychiatrists deal with the “why” and “how” a patient does or feels, i.e. the concrete parts of his self-schema; faith-healers take it one notch higher by dealing with “who” and “what” a patient is or would want to be, i.e. the more abstract parts of his self-schema. Third, with the structured settings and discipline of our psychotherapies, we beget an intellectual relationship with the patients; while with their more client-centered and at times unconditional approach, the faith-healers beget an emotional relationship with the patients.

Psychiatrists have started to adopt a more holistic approach to psychiatric care by incorporating spiritual dimensions in psychotherapy as in spiritually augmented cognitive-behavioral therapy [13] and Dr. NN Wig's Hanuman complex in Indian settings.[14]

Science has always tried to understand “matter” in terms of derivable and measurable parameters while religion saw “matter” as an occupant of a “larger universe.” Mass media are taking leaps in technology and have helped disseminate both ideologies unfortunately reducing some of the patients to mere help-seeking consumers. It is no longer about in whose court the ball is, it is about how prudent and ethical we are when it comes to basic patient care. Even the most rational philosophy, if practised radically and inflexibly, can turn into a dogma.

Whether it is the question of demons or chaotic neural circuits; we need to accept they both reside in the same human mind. Like science, religion can too give us a clue to the psychological constructs of the human psyche. Understanding the underpinnings of psychology of “faith-healing” can perhaps help us customize our therapeutic tools for the benefit of our patients. Letting our curiosity grow rather than vesting ourselves in post hoc rationalizations can help us get over this embarrassing debate and achieve better than the optimum good.

Financial support and sponsorship


Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

  References Top

Jung C. Approaching the Unconscious. Man and His Symbols. New York: Dell Publications; 1964.  Back to cited text no. 1
Lipkin M. Suggestion and healing. Perspect Biol Med 1984;28:121-6.  Back to cited text no. 2
Benedetti F, Mayberg HS, Wager TD, Stohler CS, Zubieta JK. Neurobiological mechanisms of the placebo effect. J Neurosci 2005;25:10390-402.  Back to cited text no. 3
Wiech K, Farias M, Kahane G, Shackel N, Tiede W, Tracey I. An fMRI study measuring analgesia enhanced by religion as a belief system. Pain 2008;139:467-76.  Back to cited text no. 4
Goel V, Dolan RJ. Explaining modulation of reasoning by belief. Cognition 2003;87:B11-22.  Back to cited text no. 5
Cannon A. Hypnotism, suggestion and faith-healing. Br J Psychiatry 1932;78:943.  Back to cited text no. 6
Gier NF. The savior archetype. J Dharma 1979;4:255-67.  Back to cited text no. 7
Forer BR. The fallacy of personal validation; a classroom demonstration of gullibility. J Abnorm Psychol 1949;44:118-23.  Back to cited text no. 8
Durkheim É. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd; 1915. p. 201.  Back to cited text no. 9
Nakamura J, Csikszentmihalyi M. The concept of flow. Handbook of Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press; 2002. p. 89-105.  Back to cited text no. 10
Whitsell D. Ex-faith Healer Mark Haville Explains the Tricks of the Fake Faith Healing Trade. Available from: https://www.thewordonthewordoffaithinfoblog.com/2009/05/26/ex-faith-healer/. [Last accessed on 2017 Feb 18].  Back to cited text no. 11
Nisbett RE, Wilson TD. The halo effect: Evidence for unconscious alteration of judgments. J Pers Soc Psychol 1977;35:250-6.  Back to cited text no. 12
D'Souza RF, Rich D, Diamond I, Godfery K, Gleeson D. An open randomised controlled trial of a spiritually augmented cognitive behaviour therapy in patients with depression and hopelessness. Aust N Z J Psychiatry 2002;36:A9.  Back to cited text no. 13
Wig NN. Hanuman complex and its resolution: An illustration of psychotherapy from Indian mythology. Indian J Psychiatry 2004;46:25-8.  Back to cited text no. 14
[PUBMED]  [Full text]  


Similar in PUBMED
   Search Pubmed for
   Search in Google Scholar for
 Related articles
Access Statistics
Email Alert *
Add to My List *
* Registration required (free)

  In this article

 Article Access Statistics
    PDF Downloaded193    
    Comments [Add]    

Recommend this journal