East Asia and possibly South Asia have strong traditions that offer insight into Western medical and scientific follies, but many parts of the developing world are much more vulnerable. The French author, Olivier Clerc, in his 2004 publication, Modern Medicine: The New World Religion has exposed the complex and confused mix of Christian and Enlightenment forces unleashed on many communities without effective traditional spiritual and scientific defences.
It is perhaps no accident that Clerc comes from a nation that, like those of East Asia, has sought ways to defend traditional agricultural and food cultures from the dictates of Anglo-American free trade and market forces. France is also a nation with a uniquely strong administrative tradition capable of exercising authority over corporate interests.
Clerc offers a unique and powerful insight into the way in which contemporary life and thought in developing nations have been perverted by a wicked mix of the power of corporate marketing, the mystique of science and the superstition of religion. He shows how illusion operates at many levels in society and how medicine and religion become entangled and almost inseparable in popular faith.
The following summary is derived from an outline on the web of Clerc’s book. He shows that illusion and faith are central qualities of Western civilisation, which are distinguished with difficulty. They are capable of destroying spiritual and health wisdom wherever they are found.
Clerc remarks on how Christian missionaries of the last three or four centuries sought to evangelise ‘primitive people’ by destroying or burning the various cult objects of these people in order to eradicate their religions, superstitions and customs.
Yet, whether it was conquistadors stamping out Inca culture, the Inquisition stamping out European heresies, or Christian missionaries stamping out Voodoo or other African and Asian religions, the destruction of objects of worship did not prevent the continuation of strongly rooted inclinations, albeit with different qualities.
Clerc shows that the supposed secularisation of present day society is also just an illusion, with the beliefs and superstitions of Judeo-Christian culture remaining deeply embedded in the modern Western subconscious, becoming identified with many secular aspects of daily lives without people realising it.
The daily evening television news bulletins, the stars of show-business and sport, humanitarian associations, cults and all sorts of other things in modern life have become the new gods that are venerated or feared. The field of medicine, however, most displays this unconscious transposition of the religious experience and enjoys an astonishing degree of undeserved credit out of all proportion to its actual results.
While real health regresses and great medical ‘miracles’, such as vaccines and antibiotics, display their limitations, medicine and science have replaced religion as the only certain belief in an uncertain world. Doctors and scientists are seen as the priests of the new religion, delivering through the certainties of science what the old discredited gods were not able to deliver.
If we can no longer believe in the miracles, the cures and the curses of the old religions, we can certainly believe in the miracles, the cures and the destructive powers of the new science.
Medicine, like religion, has taken on a saving or messianic role, with qualities that have often characterised the Roman Catholic Church, such as autocracy, centralisation, the control and manipulation of people, censorship, propaganda, total obedience, infallibility, the destruction of heretics and the stamping out of individuality. All has been done for public health and the general good, just as the church acted for mankind’s salvation.
People, whether within the medico-pharmaceutical industry or outside it, are being subconsciously influenced by deeply rooted myths, fears and superstitions, projected onto the new screens of science and medicine.
Although medicine sees itself as exclusively scientific and rational with no room for spiritual or human dimensions (such as psychic healers or shamans who are dismissed as charlatans), it organises itself and functions in a way that is intrinsically religious. But, by rejecting a spiritual dimension medicine in fact becomes the toy of the forces and myths it tries to ignore and cannot control.
Clerc holds that, even though Western society considers itself to be secular, it has remained as Christian as it was a century ago but with two major differences.
Firstly, it is not aware of it. It fails to recognise that it is still observing the old religious rituals but under a new guise. Secondly, society now lives its religious experiences through secular forms – medical ones in particular – and has transferred its hopes and aspirations from the spiritual world to the material.
Western medicine has sought to become the new world religion. The specific myths, beliefs and rites of Christianity have been projected over medicine since Pasteur. Physicians have taken the place of priests. Vaccination plays the same initiatory role as baptism and is accompanied by the same threats and fears. The search for health has replaced the quest for salvation.
The fight against disease has replaced the fight against sin. Eradication of viruses has taken the place of exorcising demons. The hope of physical immortality (cloning, genetic engineering) has been substituted for the hope of eternal life. Pills have replaced the sacrament of bread and wine. Donations to cancer research take precedence over donations to the church. A hypothetical universal vaccine could save humanity from all its illnesses, as the Saviour has saved the world from all its sins.
The medical power has become the government’s ally, as was the Catholic Church in the past. ‘Charlatans’ are persecuted today as ‘heretics’ were yesterday. Dogmatism rules out promising alternative medical theories. The same absence of individual responsibility is now found in medicine, as previously in the Christian religion.
Patients are alienated from their bodies, as sinners used to be from their souls. People are still being manipulated by their fears and childish hopes. They are still told that the source of their problems is outside them and that the solution can only come from the outside.
They are not allowed to do anything by themselves and they must have the mediation of priest-physicians, the administration of drug-hosts, and the protection of vaccine-absolutions. In other words, the secularisation of society happened only on the surface.
Behind the different structures of medicine and the Church of Rome we find the same fundamental concepts, the same relationships, the same characteristics, the same fears, the same hopes and expectations.
This substitution of medicine for religion has many unfortunate consequences.
In medical research, it influences what should be looked for and what can be discovered. Any discovery or theory that is at odds with the overarching orthodoxy is rejected and its authors called heretics. Entire areas of research, as well as promising new lines of approach, are thus disqualified.
Furthermore, the unconscious need to bring the medical world into ‘religious’ obedience frequently leads to (involuntary) falsifications of results, as became clear with Pasteur’s discoveries. The medical credo takes precedence over reality, which remains unacknowledged if it does not correspond with preconceived ideas.
Lastly, the hidden religious dimension of modern medicine inhibits the free debating of already fixed beliefs. Dogmatism, irrationality and passions – all characteristic of the religious experience – take precedence over calm and carefully thought out argument.
The vehemence that led Galileo to be condemned by the Church for his theories, in spite of the scientifically demonstrable facts, is now being used by medicine to reject any thesis that is contrary to its own dogmas. Science has learned its lessons from the Church.
With the development of science and the rise of intellectualism, the Western world has tried to rationally justify these beliefs, under the cloak of medicine and life sciences and utilising three layers of false consciousness:
- a core of fears, from which we have learned to protect ourselves by covering it with
- a layer of beliefs, which make us feel safe (even though those fears have not disappeared), this layer being itself dissimulated under
- an intellectual varnish, a rational facade, which give us the illusion of having transcended superstitions and beliefs, and which shelters us from our fears, keeping us barricaded behind intellectual knowledge.
The use of religious fears and beliefs, under a cloak of rationality, for worldly ends has a long and prestigious political history in the West. This includes the prominent figures of the Roman Emperor Constantine and the English King Henry VIII, who each took major institutional initiatives and used the power of the Church to extend their own worldly reach.
Arguably, much of the success of East Asia in recent years can be explained by spiritual and health traditions that place the emphasis on personal discipline and direct intuitive understanding and develop strong defences against fear, belief and intellectual varnish.
Moreover, the Confucian, Daoist and Zen (or Chan) Buddhist traditions contrast starkly with the Western political practice of using peoples’ spiritual needs as a political tool. The Falun Gong movement has fallen foul not of communist intolerance but of a long and deep tradition of Chinese political wisdom.
Clerc emphasises that taking personal responsibility for one’s own health, one’s own inner evolution, and one’s own life at every level, without rejecting any available help or advice, remains the safest and most rewarding attitude. This is hard to separate from the essential teachings that sustain East Asian spiritual traditions.
Moreover, the practice of refined therapeutic disciplines like qi gong and taiji quan quickly develops for the attentive student sensitivities and dimensions of spiritual, mental and physical awareness. These can be highly effective in shaping and guiding healthy behaviour.
On the one hand, the student become aware of stretching, breathing, internal and other exercises that help create a general sense of physical well-being and a confidence that ailments can be remedied with appropriate attention.
On the other, the student is much more conscious of harmful behaviour, excessive pressure, nutritionless food, bad air and other modern realities that are best avoided where possible.
Overall, the student develops practices of spiritual and mental reflection and calm that are self-empowering and that liberate from the fraudulent seductions exposed by Clerc.
The gentle but demanding disciplines of qi gong and taiji quan highlight fundamental differences between Eastern and Western approaches to well-being, understanding and consciousness.
At the physical level, they highlight an Eastern preference for a soft approach that nurtures and explores well-being in a manner that is sympathetic with the natural order of organic life. The Western preference is more often for forms of harsh activity that promise much but do so at the cost of distracting attention from sensitivity and awareness.
At the intellectual level, they highlight an Eastern concern to remain free from the artificial constructs of the human mind and to retain the capacity to experience reality directly and without the distractions of hidden assumptions or excessive effort.
The Western preference seems inclined to accept the authority of predetermined structures in ordering reality and to abandon personal independence to mass convictions, whether these be religious, ideological, scientific, rational or physical.
At the spiritual level, they highlight an Eastern preference for a disciplined, reflective consciousness that empowers the individual with confidence in personal sensitivities and life fulfilment.
The Western preference seems more disposed to mobilise people in forms of mass conviction with promises of postponed reward of one form or another, while being careless about the ravages inflicted by hidden political and worldly ambitions.
Chinese qi and Japanese ki, like Indian yoga, disciplines offer a sensitive, realistic and exploratory understanding of and insight into one’s own spirit, mind and body. This, in turn, begins to develop an awareness of the perils of contemporary living and eating customs and expose the dangers of faith in the assertions of modern Western scientific and medical dogma.
They also equip the practitioner with spiritual, mental and physical tools of defence against the pressures, fashions and distractions that pose as imperatives in modern Western life and lead people into behaviour that has produced today’s epidemic of degenerative diseases.
In particular, by cultivating an acute and positive consciousness of one’s own natural organic being they nurture an immediacy and directness of perception that transfers to other areas and that strips away many of the confusing artifices that clutter the contemporary world.
The independent strength, nurtured by these forms of Asian spiritual, mental and physical wisdom, can help explain much of the East Asian region’s unique success in competing with the West in terms of social, economic and health well-being.
Once Mao Zedong ridded China of its opium plague, the people of East Asia have all worked on building societies as free as possible from the seductive follies that Clerc has identified. The therapeutic and meditative disciplines of traditional Daoist and Chan Buddhist wisdom work to expose and protect against corrosive religious, medical, scientific and other superstitions.
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The above is reprinted from the section “Transferring Christianity and Science to the Developing World” in Reg Little’s book A Confucian-Daoist Millennium? (Connor Court Publishing, 2006).
REG LITTLE was an Australian diplomat for 25 years, during which time he received language training for 18 months in Japanese and 15 months in Chinese and served as Deputy or Head of 5 Australian overseas diplomatic missions. In Canberra he headed Divisions concerned with North Asia, International Economic Organisations and Policy Planning, and directed the Australia China Council. In 1976 in Beijing, while Mao Zedong was still alive, he foreshadowed China’s future 10% growth. For the past three decades he has been active in China and other parts of Asia in conferences addressing the renaissance of Confucian traditional values, about which he has been involved in writing three books. Since 2009 he has been a vice president of the Beijing-based International Confucian Association, a discreet organisation which has been shaped, informed and led by key leaders who have guided and overseen China’s peaceful economic rise.