25 JUNE 2010 VOL 328 SCIENCE, p.1636
Paths Out of Illness via Faith
Reviewed by Esther M. Sternberg*
At a time when issues of religion and science can so easily ignite passions at both ends of the spectrum of true believers, it is refreshing to see the topics treated in an objective and scholarly manner. Robert Scott's Miracle Cures presents a thorough sociological analysis of unexplained cures that, over the centuries from medieval through modern times, have been alleged to occur at shrines, by saints, and through pilgrimages. Fascinating in its depth, thoroughness, and detailed accounts of medieval life, the book is a good read despite the numerous footnotes and the clearly textbook- style chapter structure. Indeed, dealing with a subject as potentially controversial as this one the author does well to extensively document his point of view. His position is consistently nonjudgmental and open; he states in the prologue:
Scott (Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University) does not set out to debunk or substantiate these claims of miracle cures, but rather analyzes them from a sociological point of view. In this he succeeds. The book's first chapters set the stage in Christian Europe with detailed descriptions of medieval life, conditions of poverty, malnutrition, poor hygiene, and crowding. He suggests that these could have led to and fostered the many ills rampant in the population, which he surveys. Once the stage has been set, Scott introduces the characters in the drama: the saints to whom medieval people turned for help and salvation. There are several ah-ha moments in the book when these characters are seen through a sociologist's eyes. Thus, it appears that medieval Christians accepted as fact that there were certain things that saints could do and other actions that lay beyond their powers. For example, they could cure blindness but could not reattach a limb. Scott also deconstructs the system by which miracle cures and sightings of apparitions were disseminated. He likens that to a modern public relations campaign, in which it is always humans who do the disseminating. In comparing the process to our modern publicity machines, Scott does not disparage the system or the event, but simply analyzes the methods involved.
The author similarly analyzes the why and what of pilgrimages: why would an individual undertake such a daunting task, when in those times going on a pilgrimage was no small feat, involving extensive preparation and considerable risk? Scott suggests a variety of motivations, which range from the serious (seeking cures for illness, escaping dire circumstances, the draw of the supernatural, and devotion to their faith) to the mundane: "an excuse to travel" or "the prospect of a partially subsidized vacation!" Such insights allow the reader to relate to the material and understand it in more personal terms.
Having set the stage and added the characters, Scott introduces the action: the healing of ills. But first he discusses the illnesses for which people sought cures (drawing on the records of healing shrines in England and France, such as that of Thomas Becket in Canterbury). He uses statistics to illustrate an interesting phenomenon that appears to have repeated itself at many shrines: an initial large number of sightings and miracle cures is followed by a drop-off over time. Offering another comparison with the modern day, he likens this phenomenon to the effects often seen when new drugs are introduced to the market: after an early peak, efficacy declines with time. Scott cites William of Canterbury's explanation for this phenomenon: "once a saint has performed enough miracles to command veneration, he withdraws gracefully and leaves the task to other, more recently canonized saints." But the reader has already grasped that Scott is leading up to a more modern explanation, which he expands upon in later chapters: the placebo effect. And in fact, this pattern is a typical feature of neural habituation that could accompany the placebo effect.
This is not to say that Scott dismisses all such miracle cures as just the placebo effect. He devotes three chapters to discussing the effects of stress on illness, belief on healing, and the social world on both. These provide an excellent summary of the modern body of work that in recent years has elucidated not only that the mind and emotions have a very powerful effect on health and illness but also how this effect occurs.
Taken together, the structure Scott provides— outlining exactly how medieval pilgrims left oppressing situations and were then exposed during their journey to social support, clean water, and fresh, healthy food— makes a strong case for the effectiveness of the simple act of going on a pilgrimage as a healthy endeavor, which could have begun the course of healing. The added power of belief in healing, through the placebo effect and the many nerve chemicals and brain hormones released in such states, almost ensures that people who engaged in such activities would feel much better, if not be cured from illnesses that would today be considered "selflimiting" under the right circumstances.
Implicitly, Miracle Cures suggests that a parallel situation might be propelling some of the resurgence of modern-day seeking of spiritual solutions for physical ills. Although the physical conditions fostering illness in the developed world today are a far cry from those in medieval times, we are certainly exposed to a vast array of emotional stresses, which may trigger or worsen many illnesses. The power of belief and the lifestyle and social changes that go along with it may indeed assist many in their search for healing.
*Esther Sternberg is the author of Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being. Web site: www.esthersternberg.com