In a nutshell : In this article, a dual attempt is being made : one, to correlate faith in the supernatural with the sub-optimization of health and two, to discover possible strategies to preclude this sub-optimization.
Why do people have faith in the supernatural ?
It is a simple truth that the vast majority of the world believes in divinity and all its associated precepts (i.e. an afterlife, a soul, heaven, hell, karma, reincarnation, fate etc.).
There are any number of reasons for this :
Protection : As a student of psychology and a secular humanist, I believe it lies in stress reduction. That is to say, to believe in an omnipotent agency watching over you helps ease the worries of everyday life. One must simply have faith in their particular divinity, hold on to its predefined ethical code, and it will protect and aid you. There can be no doubt that this is an enticing proposition.
Immortality : Naturally, however, the appeal doesn’t stop there. What if, by holding on to religion, you never had to die? Therein we discover the other great lure of religion, namely, a belief in the afterlife. After all, everything is within the power of a being that is omnipotent. When one dies, one’s spirit merely ascends to the higher plane on which God dwells, to live there for all eternity in complete bliss.
Justice : Therefore, a religious person has the patronage of his or her divine agency, which affords both daily protection and spiritual immortality. As the commercials say, “But wait! There’s more!”. What if, by joining a religion, all of the people you have ever hated get tortured for all eternity? That sadistic boss, the robber who vandalized your house and took away all the black-money you had stashed away, even the man who tried to tell you that your religion was bullshit and everyone who’s ever wronged or hurt you, gets to burn for ever once they die.
Now, who can beat that triad ? Protection, Immortality, and Justice to boot.
But there is a price to pay.
Why is Optimal health important to us ?
Health is defined by the World Health Organization as a state of complete physical, mental & social well-being and not the mere absence of disease or infirmity. Some people are inclined to say, “I virtually never get colds, coughs or fever, so I am quite fit and healthy”. But this cannot be deemed as optimal health. A man is having optimum health if he works with gusto & supererogatory zeal for 8 hours in a day in a bank, office, factory, shop, mall, school or college and then when he returns home, he has enough energy to take his family for an outing (Restaurant, Cinema, Opera, Rock concert or Symphony) or at least should be able to play indoor games with his kids.
For attaining this kind of health, a certain amount of knowledge of Preventive Medicine is essential. Preventive Medicine however comprises three distinct phases : Primary, Secondary & Tertiary.
Primary prevention is preventing diseases through appropriate nutrition & dietetics, exercise regimens & stress control. Secondary prevention is when we get some symptoms of pain, fever, bleeding or lumps and we visit a clinic, the doctor puts us through lab tests, X-rays, ECG to narrow down the diagnosis. Here what is prevented is not the disease, since the disease is already there but what is prevented is the progression & aggravation of the disease.Tertiary prevention is the stage of drugs & surgery when we have a full blown disease and we seek the help of doctors. Here what is prevented is morbidity & mortality and the complications of diseases.
Faith & the Sub-Optimization of Health
Religious fanatics neglect to take appropriate actions in all the three phases of Preventive medicine, and hence for them optimum health, more often than not, is elusive and slippery.
In Primary Prevention : They have a laid-back approach to life and are primarily lazy, indolent and averse to exertion. This laziness is derived from a largely sub-conscious illusion of invulnerability and a partly conscious sense of self-complacency & security that “a sky dad or mom is watching over them and will prevent all serious illnesses”. So they are not willing to personally invest the necessary effort to prevent illness by first learning about Primary prevention and then translating it into practice by actually exercising, by planning their food intake, avoiding fatty foods and exercising portion control.
They are always giving examples of centenarians who smoked 2 packets a day, drank alcohol, ate fried stuff and never did any exercise other than walking to the toilet several times in a day, to rationalize & gloss over their own aversion to a self-disciplined dietary & exercise regimen.
In Secondary Prevention : For the deeply religious, everything is pre-ordained by God(s). What is fore-ordained is bound to happen and nothing we do, can forestall it. So they say : no point in frequent check-ups and lab tests. Perhaps some of the symptoms like fever and pain are caused by the deities to test their faith.
They will say, “Do you claim that microbes and antigens like viruses, bacteria, parasites & toxins cause all this morbidity ? Well perhaps the divine beings are working through these agents to remind me of my laxity in my piety. So I must retain my faith in the supernatural and regain my religious fervour”. However they think whatever happens is for the best in the long run, though it may appear not so beneficial to them right now. That is because of their implicit assumption that the sky-daddy will not forsake them for ever, though he may be inattentive to their needs at the moment, because of other preoccupations. That is why according to them, we must pray to give him a gentle reminder.
Also belief in Immortality leads some religious people to disregard present health. Immortality means immortality of the soul, the shedding of the outer garment or physical body at death. The body can be destroyed but the soul is immortal and indestructible (Bhagawad Gita). Similar views are there in other scriptures as well. Such a religious belief could lead individuals to ignore their bodies or lead to extreme ascetic practices.
In Tertiary Prevention : Religious people visit churches, mosques, synagogues or temples for many reasons, primarily :
- to assuage their guilt in amassing wealth through illegal/immoral methods or committing some crime and cleverly evading capture by the police – by seeking divine forgiveness,
- to ensure a comfortable existence in the Afterlife,
- for keeping a pledge for favors received already, lest He/She gets angry at our ingratitude and refuses to do us favors in future,
- to ensure success in exams, interviews or elections.
- to request the Lord to cure serious illnesses in themselves or their family members,
- and whatever.
So one of the important reasons for those visits to pilgrim centers like the Hajj in Mecca for muslims or the Christian pilgrim sites like Lourdes in France or Banneux in Belgium for the Catholics or the Hindu pilgrim centers in India like Thirumalai, Sabarimalai, Vaishnov Devi, Amarnath cave or Shirdi Niwas is to ensure their own good health or the good health of their loved ones. In India, the rich load the Hundis ( the receptacle for offerings) with their black money, the poor tonsure their heads or break a specified number of coconuts, but does this have any effect on the health of the petitioner or the health of his loved ones ?
It’s anybody’s guess.
This is the time when the religious people who wish to play it safe, resort to anecdote-based ‘Alternative medicine’ and not evidence-based modern medicine, as an additional safety measure to cure their ailments.
Being religious means being okay with believing in things without evidence ( Soul, Afterlife, God(s), Heaven, Hell, Reincarnation, Maya, Karma) and with the same mind-set, believing in pseudo-sciences like : Astrology, Reiki, Vaastu shastra, Ayurveda, Homeopathy and the 1001 other delusions of our ancestors. After all ‘Faith’ (in God or in Alternative medicine) is belief in something not only without evidence but despite evidence to the contrary.
If these people get cured by the Alternative systems of medicine, even though it might be because of a “Placebo Effect” or because of “Self-Limiting Diseases”, their faith in these systems gets reinforced. Failing to obtain a cure here, they reluctantly go to the practitioners of modern conventional medicine. By this time it might be too late even here to cure the disease. They might die and the family members say that God(s) recalled him/her early because the person was a favorite of the God(s). What nonsense. To begin with, all human lives are transient & fleeting enough as they are but they are made even more brief through their religious dogmatic beliefs. That is the tragedy.
So I say : Religious people will find it more difficult, if not impossible, to be healthy compared to the prudent folks who practice Preventive Medicine. Unless of course they follow the advice of Oliver Cromwell :
“Pray to God and keep your gunpowder dry”.
My parents practiced this pragmatic philosophy. I would say that they were quite progressive-minded for their times. They followed the advice of modern medical specialists while simultaneously dispatching a prayer to the sky-daddy in tandem – as a backup prop and contingency plan. If the treatment succeeded, it was primarily because of the grace of the sky-daddy and if it failed it was because of the limitations of modern medical science. A simple, naive faith indeed but it kept them happy. If happiness is the end-goal for all of us, who is complaining ?
Also, it helped them to remain healthy for most of their lives, as they followed the advice of medical specialists!
Possible Strategies to preclude this Sub-Optimization
The whole point of a non-theistic approach to life ( Whether we call it positive atheism, Scientific naturalism or secular humanism), is discovering that mankind is all alone and must seek meaning and happiness on earth (not in an after-life), for itself, by itself. The modern intellectual realizes that he is responsible in a large measure, for his own destiny. Living on a minor planet on the edge of a small galaxy in an infinitely vast universe ( It is estimated that there are more than 100 billion galaxies like our milky way galaxy, each with 100 billion stars and millions of planets), man has come to see that he cannot look outside himself for salvation.
This realization is a privileged one and not meant for the faint-hearted who have a compulsive need to suck on the pacifier of blind faith.
So the person liberated from these illusions of faith has to create meaning and happiness for himself in his own life. This life is all that we have. Whereas the deeply religious are solely obsessed with ensuring a secure & happy life after death for the soul, the secular humanists are only concerned with life before death and how to create meaning & happiness while living inside their physical bodies. For the latter, the physical body is paramount, i.e., more important than anything else. And for ensuring our happiness on this planet, it is imperative that we focus on Preventive Medicine and in particular on what our interventions ought to be for optimum bodily health.
This is because sickness and happiness, needless to say, are mutually exclusive entities.
The ten commandments for self-care of our health could be :
- Don’t use tobacco or drugs at all.
- Don’t drink alcohol but if you are habituated to it, do not consume more than 2 ounces per day.
- Eat a diet low in saturated fat, transfats, cholesterol and salt and consume complex carbohydrates of whole grains with a Low Glycemic index but eat a diet high in soluble and insoluble fiber, fruits, vegetables and fish (if you are a non-vegetarian). Use Olive oil or Canola oil for deep frying if necessary. Eat one walnut everyday for the essential omega 3 fatty acids for brain & nerve health.
- Stay lean. Do not develop a paunch or if you do develop a pot belly, take drastic action through a diet to reduce.
- Take a multivitamin & mineral supplement daily as also an antioxidant comprising Vitamins A,C & E and minerals Zinc & Selenium, to protect yourself from all the pollution caused free radicals.
- Exercise regularly for 40 to 60 minutes each day. After 25, Wogging is best : 10 mts. of Jogging followed by 20 mts. of brisk walking, then a repeat of 10 mts. of Jogging and 20 mts. of brisk walking. If you have pain in your knees or you are beyond 40, choose a low impact exercise like brisk walking, biking or swimming.
- Avoid excessive stress. Try offsetting the stress by listening to soft music, do some meditation or play with children.
- Minimize your exposure to radiation ( X-rays, mammograms, CT scans or angiograms) which could mutate your DNA and cause cancer. Insist on MRI or Ultrasonics if that option is available.
- Protect yourself from sexually transmitted diseases, by confining your intimacy to your spouse.
- Obtain immunizations, screening tests, lab tests and get yourself clinically examined periodically because certain diseases are “Asymptomatic” viz., Hypertension, Osteoporosis and Silent Ischemia among several others.
It is too risky & puerile to completely rely on unseen supernatural forces to come to our aid. The locus of control of our health ought to be internal and coming from within ourselves and we can certainly do a lot to prevent morbidity & suffering in our lives by practicing preventive medicine.