The theology of wellness

Human Hand Drawing Wellness Concept

Wellness has been in the news a lot in the past few weeks.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner, writing about Gwyneth Paltrow a high priestess of wellness, had this to say:

The minute the phrase “having it all” lost favor among women, wellness came in to pick up the pieces. It was a way to reorient ourselves — we were not in service to anyone else, and we were worthy subjects of our own care. It wasn’t about achieving; it was about putting ourselves at the top of a list that we hadn’t even previously been on…

Jen Gunter noted:

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]If people want to tithe to Gwyneth Paltrow, is it really our job to stop them?[/pullquote]

Medicine and religion have long been deeply intertwined, and it’s only relatively recently that they have separated. The wellness-industrial complex seeks to resurrect that connection. It’s like a medical throwback, as if the halcyon days of health were 5,000 years ago…

I would go farther than that. In my view, wellness IS a religion.

It seems to meet the definition of religion:

[A] set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

Wellness is a set of beliefs concerning the cause, characteristics and purpose of the universe considered as the creation of “Nature,” involving devotional and ritual observances.

Indeed, in both style and substance, wellness mimics religious theology, right down to the financial outlay demanded to support it.

For example:

1. The Creation Myth

Every religion has a creation myth and wellness is no different. Indeed the wellness creation myth bears a startling resemblance to the creation myth of Judeo-Christian tradition with the difference that God is replaced by “Nature.”

Nature designed human beings to function perfectly in all respects (the state of grace known as wellness) and to live in a Paleo Garden of Eden where everyone ate organic, exercised regularly, used only natural remedies and lived to ripe old age and beyond. In contrast to many religions that view the Garden of Eden as metaphorical, wellness imagines that it actually existed.

So what happened?

2. The Fall

Human beings fell from the grace known as wellness. The serpent in the Garden was technology, which lured people farther and farther from the state of nature. As a result, people developed diseases like autism, cancer and obesity.

We got sick because we ate from the Tree of Knowledge.

3. Demons

We are now plagued by demons. We might not be able to see them, and we certainly can’t find them with our scientific technology despite its sophistication. Of course we don’t call them demons. We call them toxins.

Toxins function like demons. They are everywhere; they are insidious; and they lie in wait to prey on the weak.

4. Predestination

Just like the Calvinist belief in predestination allowed the spiritual elect to be identified by their wealth and success, wellness has its own version of predestination. In wellness, the spiritual elect can be identified by their good health.

Luck played no role in Calvinist predestination. You weren’t wealthy because you were lucky or even skillful. You were wealthy because you had been chosen by God. Luck plays no role in wellness, either. You aren’t healthy because you are lucky; you’re healthy because you are one of the health elect.

It goes without saying that people who get sick must have done something to deserve it or must have been damaged by demons.

5. The Devil

The Devil is a shape shifter. One day The Devil is technology; the next it is Big Pharma; or perhaps it’s Big Medicine. The Devil is responsible for illness and the only way to remain healthy is to thwart The Devil’s machinations. How? By refusing what the Devil is offering: CHEMICALS!

What are chemicals in wellness theology? In contrast to the scientific definition of chemicals that encompasses every single substance both inside and outside the human body, “chemicals” means something different in wellness. It is any substance that has a long, scary name.

6. Exorcism

Disease is caused by toxins, the demons of wellness, so it is hardly surprising that preventing and treating disease involves exorcism, forcing demons from your body by cleansing and detoxifying it.

7. Faith

Like all religions, wellness requires faith in the face of the inability to prove that it works or is true. Of course in wellness they call it “intuition.”

For example, it doesn’t matter to anti-vaccine advocates that there is no science to support the claim that vaccines cause autism, because their intuition tells them that it does. They explicitly reject rational explanations, and, like true believers everywhere, the persistence of faith in the face of ever greater evidence is treated as a sign of devotion, not gullibility.

8. Priests

Like any religion, wellness has its own priests and priestesses, the purveyors of wellness goods and services. Instead of offering rational prescriptions for health, wellness priests and priestess offer (for money) superstitions, affirmations, and support in rejecting rationality. They sell substances with no efficacy (herbs, homeopathy) and provide friendship and companionship as a substitute for knowledge.

9. Prayer

Affirmations are the wellness version of prayer. Visualizing the destruction of cancer cells and birth affirmations reflect the magical thinking that thoughts have the power to affect outcomes.

10. Salvation

The goal of wellness, like the goal of many religions, is to be saved and welcomed into paradise. In the case of wellness, paradise is a return the imagined state of perfect health “designed” by Nature for blissful life in The Garden.

Where does that leave health professionals who are struggling mightily to address the myths of wellness?

Viewing wellness as a religion has important implications for how we deal with it. It is often impossible to reason people out of beliefs that they didn’t reasons themselves into. Hence education in the sciences, or specific disciplines of immunology, oncology, etc. is doomed to be ineffective. That’s especially true when persistent faith in the face of evidence to the contrary is venerated as devotion.

It might be more effective to alert people to the fact that wellness is a religion and that their faith in it as akin to religious belief. Wellness is a form of magical thinking. It allows people an illusion of control over their fears around health and disease, imagining themselves as destined for return to the state of grace afforded by the original health Garden of Eden.

Or should we leave people to worship wellness as they wish? What’s the harm if people want to waste their money on wellness products that will never make them well?

The harm is two-fold. Some wellness products can actually make people sick, and people who are already sick may delay getting effective medical treatment while wasting time and money on wellness “treatment.” But the same risks apply to faith healing of all types.

If people want to tithe to Gwyneth Paltrow, is it really our job to stop them?