01/08/2010 06:17 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Between the idea and the reality

The delusions of the religious are so all-pervasive these days, perhaps more so than they have been in several hundred years, that we seek explanations, and metaphors, for how our lovely Enlightenment, not to mention our irreligious Sixties, was stolen from us. And we seek explanations for other retrogressions of the 21st Century. How is it that wars are becoming more frequent and popular? Have we really brought back torture? Monarchy, whether the British real one or the Hollywood pretend one, more popular than ever? Still burning coal for energy? Jailing and executing people because of mob pressure? A belief in the creationism that Darwin banished 150 years ago? Belief in witchcraft and exorcism? Still a war on drugs? The list, depressingly, goes on and on. And a particularly worrying member of the list is a turning away from modern medicine and a return to quack medicine pushed by salesmen some of whose whose ancestors probably once sold snake oil in travelling circuses.

Hey presto, a metaphor, and an explanation. Let us take homeopathy. The fundamental proposition is that less is better. A scientist would say that if a substance is good for treating something (having been tested and proved) then its effect (obviously within limits) will be proportional to the amount. Homeopaths believe the reverse, that if something is good for you (and these benefits are never tested) then the less of it you have the better the effect will be. Not only are ingredients diluted well beyond the point where they could possibly have an effect, but they are diluted to the point where they are not actually present at all. The only possible "benefit" could come from being told firmly by someone that there is a benefit, that faith is necessary, and that the greater the dilution the greater the needed faith; and having a disease or condition that can respond to the placebo effect.

Why would people fall for something so obviously unrelated to reality? Well, firstly they are being told that it is true, firmly and confidently, by people who they think they can trust (because they speak firmly and confidently). And second, there is a problem with scientific modern medicine - certainty of cure carries the corollary of certainty of failure. If I say to you I can cure A with penicillin, B with chemotherapy, and fix C with an operation; I am also saying that if you have X, Y, or Z, you are out of luck, can't help you, get your affairs in order, write speeches for your friends to give at your wake.

Much better to have someone say "Look, I know it sounds strange, but trust me on this, just sip the medicine twice a day for the next year and I guarantee to not only cure A, B, C, X, Y and Z, but all of the diseases in between. Guaranteed. If you have faith, of course, and follow instructions TO THE LETTER. Any failures, we find, are caused by either lack of faith or patient error". Well, you can see where this metaphor is going, can't you? Doesn't homeopathy sound just like religion (no, not A religion, though it may be that as well)?

And for the same reasons - science deals in reality, the whole reality, and nothing but reality. Science tells you there is no imaginary friend in the sky, that we evolved like all other organisms on the planet, and that life has no meaning beyond what we choose to ascribe to it. If such reality sends you to an early grave, or makes you poor, or stops you achieving anything you desire, then you are likely to reject science and turn to religion. And of course there will be any number of snake oil salesmen telling you that you have made just the right decision, they guarantee supernatural help in your everyday life, and, just as a bonus, make the right financial investment in snake oil and you get a second life, white robes, harps, grapes and all.

We, those of us to whom reality has a liberal bias, thought that people, all people, could deal with reality. But we were wrong - reality? They can't handle reality. And so they turn to religion, and homeopathy.

Nothing but reality on The Watermelon Blog.