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Feb 12th, 2015
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  1. Turning to the alternative
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  6. ASKED to consider the biggest battles between reason and faith, many of us think of terrorism. But everyday versions of protest politics play out in fields such as health and nutrition which may not fall into the traditional ­definitions of religion or faith.
  8. The government is likely to slash the rebates to private insurers for alternative therapies such as naturopathy, Chinese herbal remedies and homoeopathy. Such therapies are responsible for the biggest increase in non-­hospital services — a whopping 345 per cent in a decade.
  10. This is driven by consumers, not medical authorities, although many medicos have adapted to the market and promote themselves as “holistic” or “integrative” to cater to demand.
  12. In TheMedical Journal of ­Australia, Kerryn Phelps, an enthusiastic advocate of alternative therapies, calls it “the emerging mainstream”. She was responding to widespread criticism from medical experts who considered it unethical to prescribe such treatments.
  14. According to the National ­Institute of Complementary Medicine, two in three Australians use complementary med­icines each year and spend almost four times as much on out-of-pocket expenses for these med­icines as on pharmaceuticals. Mostly, the use of vitamins or ­supplements is unwarranted in healthy people.
  16. Alternative medicine covers many disciplines, most based on a view the body is not just a material reality, but that we have an energy that can be guided by external manipulation, much the way that matter and tissues can be redirected by chemicals and radiation in conventional medicine. This is underlined by Complementary Medicines Australia, which says “the true strength of naturopathy lies in its underlying philosophy, which sees the client as a ­complete being and the body as a complete ­system”.
  18. Much alternative medicine relies on practices commonly used in conventional medicine — pill-taking, needle-poking, and the ­application of heat and pressure, giving it the cloak of science.
  20. In the past, the ordinary person may have sought solace and relief from their woes either through the medical profession or via organised religion. Now doctors are seen as too distracted, reliant on five-minute medicine and too technically oriented to care about patients’ everyday troubles, while priests often are seen as ­irrelevant or antiquated. Alternative medicine is in many respects a fusion of both, a middle ground between religion and science.
  22. On ABC radio, emeritus professor of sociology at Monash University Gary Bouma said a growing but poorly measured aspect of religious belief ­exists among those who consider themselves spiritual but not ­believers in organised religion. On census forms they are the fastest growing subcategory: they tick “not religious” but do not consider themselves atheist.
  24. The practices that may emerge from such belief systems vary from the use of alternative medicine to the rise of virtuous food, to more harmful practices such as the rejection of vaccination.
  26. American ­essayist Eula Biss writes in her new book, On ­Immunity, about “those blazingly hygienic parents, many of them upper-middle-class, for whom organised personal purity (air filters, water filters, ‘natural’ foods) substitutes for organised religion”.
  28. Biss says acting in a perceived natural way is tied to broader fears about industrialisation and scientific domination, an insight that goes to the heart of environmentalist anxieties about modernity: “Where the word filth once suggested, with its moralist air, the evils of the flesh, the word toxic now condemns the chemical evils of our industrial world.”
  30. This trend explains the rising hostility towards modern medicine.
  32. A faith-like belief, immune to facts, also explains research that shows that when scientific data is presented to anti-vaccination groups it can harden their views rather than change them.
  34. An advantage alternative therapies have is they are not confined by the limits of testable knowledge. This gives them great boundaries for explanation and allows patients to believe their ailments have spiritual significance.
  36. Sneering at adherents of alternative therapies is unhelpful and its popularity raises genuine questions about the deficiencies of modern medical practice, particularly its assembly-line mode of delivery that leaves many patients unsatisfied.
  38. We need to recognise the power of the placebo and that the veneer of omniscience in the medical profession is, in part, a charade.
  40. Natural therapies are symptomatic of a broader disenchantment with aspects of modernity, from industrialisation to societal fragmentation and a seemingly soulless world. Feeling hopeless in the face of ever-widening complexity and a perceived corruption of nature’s essence, some people resort to actions that give them a feeling of personal purity.
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