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"Religion" has many definitions, but the word usually refers to something that includes a group of convictions based on subjective experience and/or alleged revelation. "Alternative medicine," too, has many definitions (and at least 27 synonyms). I define it as "a phantasmagoria of health-related methods on the whole dismissed by most mainstream physicians in Western countries." However, I prefer the expression medical alternativism, which groups alternative medicine, occult medicine, and sectarian "healing." (Sectarian "healing" encompasses Christian Positive Thinking, the "scientific prayer" of Christian Science, and the "Namu myoho renge-kyo" chanting of Nichiren Buddhism.)
In both the sphere of organized religion and the world of alternative medicine, three general philosophies predominate: supernaturalism, mysticism, and vitalism. The vast majority of the methods, systems, and general "approaches" that alternative healthcare comprises are mystical and/or supernaturalistic -- in a word, unnaturalistic. According to naturalism, positing supernatural or paranormal influences -- such as God, spirits, or detachable minds -- does not serve any explanatory purpose. Most of the methods of alternative medicine are at variance with this worldview. And of those methods that are consistent with naturalism -- hydrogen peroxide therapy, orthomolecular nutrition (a variation of megavitamin therapy), and shark cartilage therapy, for example -- most lack proof of significant therapeutic or diagnostic utility.
According to supernaturalism, forces (or quasi entities) that are outside the universe nevertheless affect the universe. Broadly, mysticism is belief in realities accessible only through subjective experience. Supernaturalism and mysticism overlap: According to both philosophies, knowledge is attainable directly -- paranormally, without investigation. This notion is antithetical to science. Yet numerous alternative-medicine methods that are unnaturalistic are routinely portrayed as scientific. And proponents appear reluctant to describe any of these methods as primarily religious.
Most of alternative medicine's unnaturalistic methods are vitalistic. Vitalism is the doctrine that an invisible, intangible, unique form of energy is responsible for all the activities of living organisms. The lure of vitalism lies in its compatibility with humankind's longing for immortality. Vitalism has both supernaturalistic and mystical forms. For example, as the soul, the "vital force" appears supernaturalistic; as chi (a concept central to nearly all forms of acupuncture), it seems mystical.
In the world of alternative medicine, vitalism has two handmaidens: theism (a form of supernaturalism) and strong holism (a relative of Hindu mysticism). Broadly, theism is belief in God, a god, or gods. Strong holism is an aspect of supernaturalistic pantheism, or Spinozism, which holds that nature is divine. According to strong holism, the universe is uninterrupted in substance -- an unbroken whole -- and all things have instantaneous interconnections. Strong holism, is a less conspicuous theoretical ingredient of unnaturalistic methods. It figures in absent healing and in methods based on the notion of "etheric plane communication" or ether as one of the "Five Elements."
This book describes 1,169 unnaturalistic health-related methods. Most of the descriptions are not evaluative. The Glossary provides explanations of naturalistic methods, of constructs such as the collective unconscious, and of titular initials such as "D.N."
Most of the entries herein arose from painstaking examination of the writings of proponents. The trouble is, promoters of particular methods tend to describe them in generalities and with buzzwords. The greater part of alternative healthcare is a cottage industry removed from the scientific community; to mom-and-pop practitioners, "healing" hobbyists, and bodywork entrepreneurs, marketability is much more important than intelligibility.
In writing this book I intended to expound not the methods of medical alternativism, but medical alternativism itself: By conveying the central ideas of hundreds of alternativist methods, I hope to make clear that alternative healthcare is a "melting pot" of religion, occultism, folklore, escapism, parapsychology, pop psychology, pseudoscience, and medical guesswork. The entries emphasize theory, claims, and context. It may seem cavalier to judge a method solely on the basis of the theory that underlies it, the method's context, its history, and the credibility or implausibility of claims for the method. However, such information furnishes valuable clues, especially when pertinent scientific findings are nonexistent, meager, or discrepant. Relatively few of the unnaturalistic methods of medical alternativism have been the object of scientific experimentation, and these few have, at best, proved to be of questionable medical utility.
America has long been fertile ground for alternativism; but with the confluence of multiculturalism, spiritualism, and the health-food movement, it has become a greenhouse for quackery, health fraud, and medical unnaturalism.
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