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Faith -The Eternal Placebo

Updated on January 21, 2015
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I Will Please the Lord

And I called upon the name of the Lord. O Lord, deliver my soul. The Lord is merciful and just, and our God sheweth mercy. The Lord is the keeper of little ones: I was humbled, and he delivered me. Turn, O my soul, into thy rest: for the Lord hath been bountiful to thee. For he hath delivered my soul from death: my eyes from tears, my feet from falling. I will please the Lord in the land of the living [PLACEBO DOMINO in regione vivorum]. (Psalms 116:3-9)

From its medieval liturgical use in funerals to its modern use as a scientific term, the word placebo has elicited controversy and abuse. At first symbolizing the ultimate spiritual connection to God, it now stands for the scientific concept of a sham or simulated medical intervention.

Paradoxically, complementary medical research is restoring a measure of significance to placebos, finding that faith in God and prayers provide positive health results. However, it is as a metaphor describing the Divine allegory that placebo domino reaches its deepest meaning.

The phrase, placebo Domino , "I shall please the Lord," first appeared in the 116th Psalm of the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible by St. Jerome, at the beginning of the fifth century, C.E. Although the Hebrew word he was translating, אֶ֭תְהַלֵּךְ, "et·hal·lech," literally means "I will walk with," as to be "in step with or in accordance with God's will," Jerome followed the earlier Septuagint rendering and translated the word as placebo, "I shall please."

St. Jerome's translation was later rejected by most translators and his rendering is not found in any modern English translation, not even the King James Bible. However, the Catholic Church used St Jerome's translation to form much of its early liturgy. The 116th Psalm, in particular, became part of the prayers recited at funerals, the "Office of the Dead."

During these funeral ceremonies, prayers would be recited by the clergy with the congregation periodically uttering a response. The first recitation was Psalm 116:1–9, and the congregation’s first response was verse nine (9) of that Psalm: Placebo Domino in regione vivorum.

Naturally, the most passionate "placebo" responders were close relatives of the deceased. As the ritual became ingrained in medieval society, however, "professional" mourners began to appear at funerals of wealthy citizens, claiming a relationship to the deceased in order to partake of benefits offered to guests and win favors from the family. These intruders became known as "placebo singers," a disparaging title synonymous with deception and fraud.

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Side Effects of Placebos

By the eighteenth century, negative connotations of the word placebo were firmly in place. Around this time, the medical community in England, always fond of Latin words and not particularly respectful of Catholic rituals, began using the word to describe questionable and ineffective remedies. It wasn't long before the word won currency among scientists.

Today, placebo refers to an inert substance that does not directly cause anything. Sometimes placebos are given for psychological purposes, especially to satisfy patients who do not really need additional medicine. Often they are used as controls in testing the effectiveness of new medicines.

Psychologists tell us that the placebo effect is based on the subject's faith in and trust place on an authoritative, respected figure such as a doctor, priest or shaman. In scientific environments, the authority and trust may come from elaborate equipment, institutional prestige or the individual scientists or doctors in charge. In such a setting, medication that contains no active ingredients can actually affect a cure.

The power of the mind may not be unlimited, but nor is it negligible. As we have seen, some medical conditions are susceptible to a direct effect of the mind on the immune system, as when a placebo causes a belief to emerge which then suppresses the acute phase response . . . The mind fights disease in many ways, and the most important of all these is still by prompting us to take the right action. (Dylan Evans, Placebo: mind over matter in modern medicine, p. 204)

For skeptics and atheists, the placebo effect is somewhat discomforting. The mind-body interaction has always presented problems for them, and resistance to its acceptance persists. To them, this area is too close to faith-healing and is fraught with pseudo-scientific dangers.

Nevertheless, no one questions the need for placebos in scientific research. Not only have placebos won a place in science, but pharmaceutical companies are now finding that the placebo effect is actually increasing as the number of persons suffering from mental illness grows.

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Is Faith a Placebo?

To the secular observers, faith in God may resemble a placebo. A linear, reductive perspective does not recognize a transcendent spiritual reality, therefore, questions of faith and spirit are usually avoided in scientific environments. Nevertheless, scientists acknowledge effects on the body by the mind and have come to accept what is usually called the "mind-body interaction."

From a spiritual perspective, scientific use of placebos illustrates the elusive nature of psychological influences on the human psyche. When healing takes place as the result of a person's faith and trust in instruments, institutions and secular authority, is religious dogma necessary?

Ironically, some scientists are now delving into our spiritual nature, seeking understanding of phenomena that transcend conventional observations. The relationship between consciousness and matter, particularly in the fields of health and healing, are attracting much attention from academic and professional groups. Acupuncture, meditation, and other types of complementary therapies are now common topics in scientific literature.

Nevertheless, the professional barriers that prohibit scientists from openly studying faith, spirituality and psi remain high, as does the cost of challenging the science establishment. Even scholars at prestigious institutions and Novel Laureates are subject to bias and repression for merely expressing interest in the study of such fields.

I have lectured and written about the scientific taboo that prohibits scientists from openly studying psi. One way this prejudice manifests is by being invited to give a lecture at a scientific conference, and then finding yourself disinvited after someone on the conference committee discovers that the invitee has an interest in parapsychology. (Psi Taboo in Action).

In a way, some modern scientists today resemble the clerics of the fifteenth century, who delved into the emerging physical sciences seeking new paradigms while remaining true to their faith. Breaking away from orthodoxy and challenging conventional wisdom, these enlightened religious scholars accepted emerging scientific discoveries and discarded archaic Aristotelian and Ptolemaic perspectives. As a result, they shook the spiritual establishment out of superstitions and credulity, winning for themselves a foremost place in the history of science.

The roles now appear to be reversed. As modern scientists begin exploring the Divine Domain, they, too, must shed the shackles of protocol and the intimidation of professional and academic institutions. The resulting benefits may also be of Galilean proportions.

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The Eternal Placebo

During its early history, Christianity personified dedication and commitment. It redefined the meaning of renunciation and sacrifice by incorporating unique monastic and ascetic practices into its orthodoxy. As the need for actual martyrdom came to an end, passionate devotees often adopted asceticism and mortification of the flesh as a substitute.

Hermits, cenobites, desert anchorites, stylites, cloistered nuns and penitent monks became the beacons of society, guiding it through the dark days of the waning Roman empire. Their abstention and self-mortification testified to the sincerity of their belief and earned respect and reverence for their faith.

As a result of such dedication, religion pervaded society as the dominant influence. The world was cloaked with a spiritual mantle maintained by clerical authorities. People had an inclusive relationship with religion that reached deep into their daily lives. The entire culture was steep in Divine awareness and apprehension.

This mantle gave the church far reaching power very similar to that exerted by the mantle of modern science. To some, this religious mantle flung over the society was at best a placebo and, at worst, a sinister opiate controlling and oppressing the masses.

However, it was this same spiritual mantle that inspired the founding fathers of modern science such as Newton, Kepler, Mendel and Galileo. These faithful, believing scientists dedicated their lives to serving God by striving to understand His creation, not by establishing institutional dogma. They persevered in their efforts to think "the thoughts of God after Him."

Faith is not a tool at the beck and call of laboratory technicians. It may appear to be a placebo containing no active ingredients, but it is a substance belonging to a reality not encompassed by scientific processes. It is the active ingredient of every ethical and moral value in our society and the coating of every motivation in our psyche. Let us hope for a time when academics, researchers and scientists welcome spirituality into their intellectual domain and include God in their daily discourse.

AUM - Hindu/Buddhist Mantra

The Shemah - Hebrew Prayer

The Lord's Prayer - Christian

Synthesis of Science & Religion

As the dialog between religion and science becomes increasing hostile, we should remember that faith and science gained their respective preeminence in society by real accomplishments, not by rituals or procedures. Their ability to respond to essential needs of society won them the minds, hearts and souls of an entire civilization.

It is safe to say that the eventual synthesis of modern science and religion is inevitable. Their marriage (perhaps reconciliation is a better word) will be of great benefit to humanity, bringing together two of the most powerful forces in our understanding of reality.

The common element likely to permeate this synthesis is the Golden Rule, an affirmation that has won a place in every major religion and is acceptable to all ethical postulates:

Hinduism : This is the sum of duty: Do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you. (Mahabharata 5:1517)

Buddhism : Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful. (UdanaVarga 5:18)

Christianity : All things whatsoever ye would that man should do to you, do ye even so to them; for this is the law and the prophets. (Matthew 7:12)

Confucianism : Surely it is the maxim of loving-kindness: Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you. (Analects 15:23)

Islam : No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself. (Hadith 13, Abu Zakaria An-Nawawi)

Judaism : What is hateful to you, do not to your fellowman. That is the entire law; all the rest is commentary. (Talmud, Shabbat 31a)

Taoism : Regard your neighbor's gain as your own gain and your neighbor's loss as your own loss. (T'ai Shang Kan Ying P'ien)

Zoroastrianism : That nature alone is good which refrains from doing unto another whatsoever is not good for itself. (Dadistan-I-dinik 94:5)


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    MoonLetters 7 years ago

    Brother M,

    Thanks for your thorough and educational coverage of this important subject.