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Shamanism is an ancient religion that includes belief in animism, deities, and demons. The shaman, or priest/medium, is believed to have special powers that allow him to communicate with ancestral spirits, the gods, or their evil counterparts. Shamanism is still practiced by indigenous peoples in Siberia.
The term "shaman" has come to refer to any priest or priestess who uses magic and superstition to heal the sick, exorcise demons, or communicate with spirits. Shamans are thought to possess magical powers and have esoteric knowledge, especially regarding the healing powers of certain plants. In Malaysia, the shaman is called "the bomoh." In Indonesia, the shaman is called "the dukun."
Shamanic healing centers, books, and programs are common New Age developments, growing in proportion to the complexity of the modern world and the longing for a simpler past. For some people, shamanism is a window to a glorious, if illusory, past, when humans lived in harmony with nature and with each other. Shamanism offers not only an alternative medicine, but an alternative reality.
Some contemporary folks have been attracted to shamanism because of its association with altered states of consciousness induced by drumming, fasting, wilderness vision questing, sweat-lodges, and especially by hallucinogenic plants. For such people, shamanism offers the hope of an experience that will not only give meaning and significance to their lives, but will also erase from consciousness, at least temporarily, the horrors of a world that at times seems to have gone mad.
Neither New Age shamanism nor Native American religions have any direct connection to the ancient religion of Siberia.
I'll conclude by reprinting the text of a podcast I did for Skepticality:
Once upon a time, there were two shamans who lived on opposite sides of the earth. Both shamans were loved by their respective tribes. One shaman discovered that no matter what medicine he used, most of his patients recovered. He discovered that it wasn’t the medicine that gave relief to those who beat a path to his hut. He knew he was tricking them. He may have figured out that what gave relief to his patients were his rituals, the confidence he exuded in his ability to contact the spirit world, the expectation of healing that his community shared, the power of his suggestions, or that most illnesses resolve themselves in due time. He may even have been wise enough to recognize that most of his patients were scared and that fear was, in some important way, related to their symptoms. Reducing fear helped his patients recover. The medicine was usually irrelevant. Calming down his patients—what we call reducing anxiety—was the important thing.
The other shaman was not so enlightened and he believed it was his powerful medicine and contacts with the spirit world that healed people. He was a good shaman and had many satisfied customers. The enlightened shaman made a conscious decision to continue with the traditional rituals and medicines because they worked even though he knew they weren’t efficacious. After all, if he told his fellow tribe members what he’d discovered, he’d destroy their faith. Rather than be grateful for knowing the truth, they might turn on him. So, he continued with the deceit, justifying it by telling himself that he was, after all, helping people and if he didn’t do it, somebody else would. His decision was made easier knowing that if he revealed what he knew, he’d have to spend the rest of his days as an outcast, jobless and hated. Like the unenlightened shaman, the enlightened deceiver could always come up with a satisfying narrative to explain why his failures weren’t really failures. He could blame the patients: they weren't living right; they'd offended some spirit and were being punished; they didn't perform a ritual correctly. He could rely on people’s gullibility and their willingness to believe just about anything magical, mysterious, and involving powerful spirits from another world.
One of the more interesting fake healers debuted in Paris in the eighteenth century. Franz Anton Mesmer had many ladies convinced he could heal them by using magnets to tap into a new force that he called “animal magnetism.” He eventually figured out that he didn’t need the magnets. Just waving his hands did the trick. Modern day nurses practicing “therapeutic touch” seem to have hit upon the same formula, though they have replaced animal magnetism with some sort of mysterious energy called chi or prana. Aura healers, chakra healers, and various types of energy healers have been practicing a similar craft under different names in different countries for centuries. In Japan, for example, the practice is known as reiki. Like the shamans, these healers have their rituals too, and they have had many satisfied customers. They’ve provided relief from such things as swelling, pain, nausea, headaches, anxiety, and an assortment of other ailments without the use of real medicine or surgery. Some of these healers have found that they can bring relief to their patients without even touching them or giving them any medicine at all. Some have found they can get the same results whether the patient is present or a thousand miles away. Like our unenlightened shaman, many of these energy healers have not awakened to the fact that most of their patients will recover from most of their ailments no matter what they do. Personally, I’ve found that nothing brings relief from anxiety like the comforting touch of someone who seems to care about me.
Then there are the ones we commonly call “faith healers”—the Peter Popoffs, Benny Hinns, and Poonam Uppals of the world. These are the ones who know they are duping their clients. They callously take advantage of people in dire straits who believe in supernatural powers. They are joined by some unenlightened faith healers who really do think some god or spirit causes all illness and healing requires divine intervention. Unlike the shamans and energy healers with their many satisfied customers, however, we usually only hear about these unenlightened faith healers when one of their clients dies for lack of proper medical care. Often enough the victim is one of their own children.
Finally, there are the New Age healers who make no claims about the spirit world or mysterious energies, but who focus on patients whose main hurt is fear or stress itself. These healers often combine scientifically validated methods like cognitive behavioral therapy with the relaxation and stress reducing techniques known to shamans, energy healers, and faith healers. The New Age healers have their own little rituals like waving a crystal wand, rubbing various gemstones, placing weak magnets in various items, having the patient follow a light source moved by the healer, or tapping on various parts of the patient’s body. There are various explanations given by fake healers for what they think is going on in these healing experiences. Some of the explanations are rather simple, like the Chinese theory of chi running along meridians and occasionally getting blocked or clogged, thereby causing illness and disease. The energy healing is thought to unblock, unclog, move, or transfer energy, and that somehow brings about healing. Some of the explanations are rather elaborate and involve reference to such things as vibrating sub-atomic particles, takionic energy, biofields, quantum mechanics, transcendent beings, extraneous energy trapped between cells, astral bodies, rewiring or restructuring the brain, or repatterning of neural pathways. These explanations, however clever they might be, have very little plausibility. Is there any science that supports these various forms of fake healing or the explanations of how they work that have been proposed in their defense? Some say no, that it’s all a matter of faith and that these methods won’t work for non-believers. Others think there is a growing body of scientific evidence supporting the efficacy of various types of fake healing. I’ve looked at much of this evidence and I’d say that there is a growing body of evidence that many of the fake healing techniques I’ve mentioned work, when they do work, by the power of suggestion, by relaxing the patient and reducing stress, by allowing symptoms to resolve themselves, by regression to the mean, by classical conditioning, and by a host of other factors that have glibly been referred to as the placebo effect. When New Age therapies work it seems that it is because they are built around a core of cognitive behavioral therapy, which they combine with their own unique rituals and the kinds of things that work for other fake healers.
Fake healing is a grand delusion that has been around for as long as human communities have had healers. Is it a harmful delusion? Some, like Benny Hinn and Peter Popoff, take advantage of the delusion for their own fun and profit. Others really believe they are powerful healers but they have no idea of the real reasons their patients improve. Some bring about their own child’s death because of their belief in faith healing. Some adult patients die because they choose to undergo some form of fake healing rather than see a science-based medical practitioner for an easily treatable condition. So, yes, the fake-healing delusion can be dangerous and hazardous to your health and the health of your loved ones.
Consider, for example, what happened to two energy healers who both died because they used their own form of energy healing instead of seeking proper medical treatment for diabetes and an infection. Mary A. Lynch, a retired physician, and Debra Harrison, a massage therapist, created Consegrity, a type of energy medicine that involves a belief that disease is caused by extraneous energy being trapped between cells. Through their own form of ritual hocus-pocus they thought they could release this bad energy and thereby bring about healing. Harrison was diabetic. She died in 2005 while being treated by Lynch with Consegrity. Presumably, Dr. Lynch provided the best healing energy that Consegrity can give, but was unable to assist Harrison with lowering her blood sugar below 900 mg/dl, which is what it measured at her death at age 55. The type of diabetes that Harrison had doesn’t resolve itself. Had she another type of diabetes, she might have controlled it with diet and exercise. Of course, given her investment in Consegrity, in her mind any recovery she might have made would have been due to the energy healing.
We might forgive Harrison, who was not trained in medicine, for her folly. Dr. Lynch is more puzzling. She was educated at a fine medical school and had practiced sports medicine for many years before turning to energy healing. A correspondent informed me that Lynch had a toe infection that she tried to treat with Consegrity. She refused antibiotics and eventually had the toe amputated. She continued to refuse antibiotics, left the hospital, and died at home from septic shock. She was 65. Many infections do resolve themselves. Unfortunately, some infections kill their hosts. You can bet, however, that the followers of Consegrity and other forms of New Age shamanism will find a way to rationalize the failures.