Religious Placebo Effect: Does it Matter What You Believe In?

      During the first few hours of the September 11th attacks there were hundreds of people hopelessly trapped above the collision points in both towers of the world trade center. Anxious with fear, they desperately struggled to find a way out.  But as scared as they were they probably did not fully grasp just how much trouble they were really in for. It must have been impossible for them to believe that it would take only an hour or so for the towers to completely collapse, and that it would be impossible to put out the fires in the meantime. Also, escape through the roof was not an option because the doors were locked due to insurance rules, and helicopters could not have landed in the smoke even if the people could have gotten to them in time.    

            So how did the people cope in those last few minutes that they had to live? Surely not by telling themselves that they were about to die. Undoubtedly they reassured one other by coming up with seemingly plausible scenarios that could lead to their escape.  The truth—that less than half a dozen of them were going to make it out alive—had to be ignored because it was just too horrible to accept. One could say that they were telling each other “lies,” in order to keep themselves from learning the truth. I think it’s safe to say that no sane person can condemn them for this.  There’s a common saying that “ignorance is bliss.”  When you are trapped a thousand feet above the ground in a burning building with no chance of survival, this statement is completely true.         

            Unfortunately, many people today act as if the entire human race is trapped in a burning tower and there is no way out.  They make up various religions in order to relieve the stress, but they don’t really believe in any of them.  They say that faith is extremely important, but at the same time their actions betray the fact that the know that the things they have “faith” in are not really true. Our pluralistic society preaches that it is important to believe in God, but it’s wrong to “judge” another person who believes in a different God than you do.  After all, they say, how can you really know which one is right? We are all expected to keep our beliefs private, never attempting to “proselytize” others.  It is supposedly alright for all of us to have a different “truth” that helps us cope with the struggles of life. The obvious problem with this strategy is that truth is inherently exclusive.  The pluralistic approach to religion only makes sense if all the religions are wrong, since many of them have contradictory foundations. Most of those who preach plurality really don’t believe in anything deep down inside. They simply recognize that faith in God has some positive placebo effects. They want you to believe in God so that you will have some remnant of hope to keep you from panicking about life.  They do not care if the things you believe in are actually true or not: they just want you to believe something that keeps you from harming them.

            I strongly disagree with this approach to religion.  I do not want to believe in anything that forces me to lie to myself and those around me.  I would only do this if the truth itself was too horrible to accept.  But I do not believe that we are trapped in a burning tower without a single way out. I believe that life, as difficult as it can be at times, has an escape route, and that escape route is called Jesus. I believe that God really and truly created heaven and that anyone can go there if they repent of their sins and believe in the gospel. So why should I go around humoring other people’s fantasies when I have faith in a truth that is good and wonderful?  People say it’s “not nice” for me to tell them that they’re going to hell; I respond that it’s “not nice” for me to shut my mouth and let them go there.  If there were no way at all for them to escape from hell, then I admit that it would be better for me to never bring the subject up.  However, I tell them about hell because I believe in heaven, and I believe that the door is open for them to enter it if only they will humble themselves enough to walk through it.  Salvation is theirs to have if they want it, but they must accept God’s version of the truth. They cannot make up their own. We have a word for that in contemporary culture. We call it fiction.

Above the breach the towers each
            Were filled with troubled souls.
Whose bodies faced a hopeless case
            That left them few controls.
They thought they might escape by flight,
            If some could reach the roof;
Unless the cloak produced by smoke
            Was helicopter-proof.
In fractured streams they joined as teams              
            To help their injured friends.
They clenched their teeth and fought the grief,
            Yet feared it was the end.
The young interns took frequent turns              
            To mitigate their plight.                         
With cheerful tact they claimed, in fact,            
            They’d all get home alright.                   
But wishful trust could not adjust                    
            The substance of their fate.
And ev’ry scheme their minds could dream,
            They saw evaporate.    
We still don’t know what size of flow
            In panic, upwards flocked.                      
But this we do: that none got through,                  
            Since all the doors were locked.                 

            (Excerpt from Chapter Four of the September 11th Epic Poem)


2 Responses to “Religious Placebo Effect: Does it Matter What You Believe In?”

  1. 1 Matt July 2, 2010 at 1:26 am

    I not a fan of pluralism either (well, as in syncretism).

    Placebo effect? Research (by Neil Krause at UMich) suggest prayer is good for *ones own* health (only).

    I’m all for people *telling* me I’m going to hell. That’s not the issue. I’m less keen on their *actions* to save me from hell (banning marriage, abortion, etc). They will try to conflate the two though (letting one’s opinion be known and making own’s God’s will be done).

  2. 2 schildan July 2, 2010 at 8:58 pm


    There is no doubt that religion and prayer have a placebo effect. But if that’s all there is, than “religion” is of no more use than a band-aid put on top of a cancerous tumor. It may make you feel better, but it’s not going to stop the cancer.

    Thanks for your input.

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