Why are so many people in the West, who have access to the best biomedicine, turning to complementary and alternative medicine (CAM)? Naturopathy, homeopathy, Ayurveda, traditional Chinese medicine, meditation, reiki, massage, yoga, all have experienced a surge in the twenty-first century.
Overall, sociologists found that in the past decades more and more people are mistrusting institutions and losing faith in progress, science, and politics. They explained that the prominence of science and knowledge have meant social practices are constantly examined, reflected upon, and changed, as new knowledge comes to the fore. Thus, doubt and instability are everywhere. While in traditional societies individuals deferred to an external authority and their own choices were limited by traditions and customs, now people are able to “work” on their identity rather than inherit it.
This choice of lifestyle and rejection of an external authority also extend to how people relate to biomedicine. Studies have shown that people choose alternative therapies for several reasons: their disillusionment with biomedicine’s ability to deal with illness, particularly chronic illness; a search for a more egalitarian relationship between doctors and patients (i.e., the empowerment of patients); a search for meaning and context for their illness; a feeling that alternative therapies can offer a better medical model for and a different understanding of their illness; and the emergence of “postmodern values,” such as a decline in faith in the ability of science and technology to solve the problems of society and the individual.
Broadly speaking, these were the reasons people I met in my research gave me for seeking healing with the Brazilian faith healer John of God (João de Deus). However, they found in John of God a more radical form of alternative medicine, one that made the healer even more attractive to them and that has made him famous worldwide. While purportedly incorporating spiritual “entities,” John of God performs surgeries in which he cuts people’s skin with a scalpel, scrapes their eyes with a kitchen knife, or inserts surgical scissors deep in their noses, all without asepsis or anesthetics. They have not reported infections after these surgeries. Despite John of God asserting that “invisible” surgeries (based on prayer and without cutting) are equally effective, many Westerners interviewed hoped to undergo the extraordinary experience of “visible” surgery. They wanted to feel the presence of transcendence in their own bodies. In that way, they felt that the “spiritual world” was caring for them. This was particularly so in those cases of chronic or terminal illnesses, where biomedicine could do very little for them. Moreover, I also found that a sense of community was important for them. By sharing their stories of illness with others who were also ill, they recovered hope and a sense of joy. People offered each other social and emotional support while undergoing life crises.
In general, I found that industrialization, modernization, and secularization have created a longing for an (idealized) past when time was slower and nature was not degraded, when there was a connection with the “spiritual,” and a strong sense of community and belonging. The little town of Abadiânia, where John of God’s healing center is based, gave foreigners a place where this nostalgia for a more simple and spiritual life could be found.
Rather than perceiving the rise in CAM and radical alternative medicine as strange and irrational, perhaps we could take some lessons for healthcare in the twenty-first century. For instance, instead of a focus on the disease—“fixing” a part of the body which is malfunctioning—biomedicine could start also attending to illness—the experience of disease from the patients’ and their families’ perspectives (such as discomfort, depression, and frustration of being sick, which also affects patients’ outcomes). Rather than placing patients in large hospitals which may become centers of infectious diseases, healing can also take place in smaller clinics, hopefully containing sunny outdoor spaces, and with others who are undergoing similar experiences so that they can support each other. Given that biomedicine has become so expensive, it is conceivable that low technology can also support the healing process.
Featured image credit: Main Hall at Casa de Dom Inácio, John of God’s Spiritual Hospital in Brazil by Christina Rocha. Used with permission.