An interesting editorial in Monday’s NY Times by Richard Sloan, entitled A Fighting Spirit Won’t Save Your Life, about the dangers of linking spirituality and physiology. Suffice it to say, the author is no homeopath. Yet as anti-religious as he comes across, there are definitely some sympathetic ideas being expressed. John 9 springs to mind:

The idea that an individual has power over his health has a long history in American popular culture. The “mind cure” movements of the 1800s were based on the premise that we can control our well-being. In the middle of that century, Phineas Quimby, a philosopher and healer, popularized the view that illness was the product of mistaken beliefs, that it was possible to cure yourself by correcting your thoughts. Fifty years later, the New Thought movement, which the psychologist and philosopher William James called “the religion of the healthy minded,” expressed a very similar view: by focusing on positive thoughts and avoiding negative ones, people could banish illness.

We want good things to happen to good people and this desire blinds us to evidence to the contrary… But such beliefs have implications for how we regard people who are ill. If people are insufficiently upbeat after a cancer diagnosis or inadequately “spiritual” after a diagnosis of AIDS, are we to assume they have willfully placed their health at risk? And if they fail to recover, is it really their fault? The incessant pressure to be positive imposes an enormous burden on patients whose course of treatment doesn’t go as planned.

It is difficult enough to be injured or gravely ill. To add to this the burden of guilt over a supposed failure to have the right attitude toward one’s illness is unconscionable. Linking health to personal virtue and vice not only is bad science, it’s bad medicine.