Placebo effect works in psychology too. God must exist.

Saw an article on Hemant’s blog this morning.  A recent study in the Journal of Affective Disorders concludes that religious belief makes people feel better about their recoveries from mental disorders.

Over all, those who rated their spiritual belief as most important to them appeared to be less depressed after treatment than those with little or no belief. They also appeared less likely to engage in self-harming behaviors.

“Patients who had higher levels of belief in God demonstrated more effects of treatment,” said the study’s lead author, David H. Rosmarin, a psychologist at McLean Hospital and director of the Center for Anxiety in New York. “They seemed to get more bang for their buck, so to speak.”

Sure.  And if you gave them a sugar pill and told them it would make them better, I suspect you’d see a similar result.  You know who also reports great effects of treatment – greater than all of what modern medicine has been able to accomplish?  These people:

Well, I’m convinced.  It seems clear to me that a god exists who was more moved by rock music and the prayers of a guy in a backward baseball cap to heal a couple people in the wealthiest nation on earth, but not to relieve the millions of starving children the world over who pray daily – or even hourly – as if their life depends on it (because they’re dying).  That same god (the one who conceived of mental illness, cancer, AIDS, blindness and ever other human ailment and left them in his design) clearly decided to help people who can afford psychiatric treatment and/or drum sets.  It’s far less likely that people naturally tend to feel good about things in which they’re invested.  It’s less likely that believing things causes people to naturally report that they actually experience the effect of those things: like god curing them of their ills in a church service, or in a psychologist’s office, or that a pill with no curative value made them better, or that a guy who rose from the dead really talks to them.

The study, as Hemant notes, even points out that this is the result of the placebo effect:

Randi McCabe, director of the Anxiety Treatment and Research Center at St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Ontario, said, “People’s belief that something is going to work will make it work for a significant proportion of people,” similar to the placebo effect.

“Your belief that you’re going to get better, your attitude, does influence how you feel,” Dr. McCabe continued. “And really, in cognitive behavior therapy, that is really what we’re trying to change: people’s beliefs, how they’re seeing their world, their perspective.”

So unless Christians are willing to concede that god is similar in power to a tiny amount of sugar combined with a dose of untruth, this study does nothing to confirm god’s existence.  It does reiterate, however, that the placebo effect exists.

Also, if god can cure mental illness, why doesn’t he cure all of it?  What doctor gets people in his office with broken legs and only elects to put casts on the people who beg him sufficiently?  I’m sorry, that metaphor doesn’t work because a doctor is constrained by the limits of his time, inability to be everywhere at once (or even swiftly), and the limits of human capability.  Remove those limitations and I suspect there’s nary a doctor on earth who wouldn’t set and heal everybody’s broken legs…because that’s what compassionate people do: they alleviate pain because pain sucks, not because they like having their asses kissed.

Anytime a Christian cites this study for me as proof of god’s existence, I’m pretty sure all I’m going to hear is “God can cure mental illness – and he leaves most people to rot with it!  Ain’t god good?”  No, god doesn’t do shit.  Belief in god changes people, just like belief in the efficacy of a sugar pill can change someone’s perception and even their physiology.  That belief in something can change people does nothing to confirm that the belief is actually true.

And what’s more, belief in a faith which repeatedly tells you you’re worthless without belief/Jesus can cause panic with every suspicion that maybe the bible isn’t true.  Let’s not forget that religious guilt is why a lot of people are in therapy to begin with.  Trying to cure that problem with more faith is like going to the emergency room because you swallowed rat poison and being given injections of rat poison to solve the problem.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • unbound55

    Of course, you have to balance this out with the fact that the religious, when told that their parish is praying for their recovery, tend to have more complications during recovery. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16569567

  • Billy Bob

    If God cured people who have mental illness, I wouldn’t have wasted money on therapy and just prayed instead.


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