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:

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

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?

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  • PeggySue

    I really *hate* the word “wellness.” I think it is sort of religious, with the religion being an underlying humanism that places the human will as the highest force available. There may be a vague concept of “spirit” or “universe” but it seems to function kind of like a cheerleader, doesn’t offer much help, and values a sort of physical perfection that its subjects COULD achieve if only they wanted it enough.

    Was so relieved to encounter on this site not long ago a conversation about the difference between being healthy and being “fit,” and how it is not necessary to be slavishly devoted to the latter in order to achieve the former.

    I do get at the very least highly annoyed, though, with people who, gullible and poorly educated in science, do things that actually impair their health in aid of “wellness.” Having seen cases of breast cancer treated with homeopathic remedies, and kidney problems resulting from taking staggering amounts of turmeric, I think my annoyance makes sense.

    • RudyTooty

      Wellness = “There really isn’t anything wrong with you, but I’ll charge you for my ‘wellness’ pseudo-scientific BS therapeutic services anyway.”

      Wellness = “I’m not treating your disease, I’m enhancing your ‘wellness'”

      Wellness = “You can’t hold me accountable for medical neglect or malpractice, because I’m a wellness provider, Not A Real Doctor.”

  • Russell Jones

    Far be it from me to mess with anyone’s inalienable right to be a gullible dumbass, but sooner or later any religious group that develops financial clout starts insisting that their beliefs be granted the force and effect of law. That’s where “personal belief exemptions” to public school vaccination requirements come from. That nonsense needs to be opposed politically, and I have no qualms about going all Ronald Reagan and calling the woomeisters welfare queens who not only want a bunch of free stuff but insist that they have a “right” to receive said free stuff on their own terms.

    “When a Religion is good, I conceive that it will support itself; and
    when it cannot support itself, and God does not take care to support, so
    that its Professors are oblig’d to call for the help of the Civil
    Power, ’tis a Sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.”

    ~ Benjamin Franklin (1780)

    It’s also okay – necessary, even – to intervene when people attempt to visit the consequences of their gullible dumbassery upon others. You got sick as hell from ingesting some quack powder you bought from fake-PhD-havin’ Gary Null? Absent outright fraud, that’s tough toenails for you. A child or incapacitated person gets sick because you fed the Gary Null quack powder to them? In that event, the state can and should come down on you good ‘n’ hard.

  • demodocus

    OT: you know you’re a lefty in a lefty family when you look at that pic and for half a second you wonder why she’s holding that pen in the wrong hand.

    • sdsures

      I’m a lefty, but the only one in my immediate family. Mom’s brother and a couple of his sons are all lefties. 😀

      I can only make the Vulcan Hand Salute with my left hand. The right version, as actress Ceila Lovsky (from TOS episode “Amok Time”) put it, “I speak it with an accent”.

      Makes me wonder if any of my children will be lefties.

    • BeatriceC

      I write with my right hand only because I was at a nun-run Catholic girl’s school in kinder and they forced me to switch to my right. Both my parents, one of my sisters, and one of my my kids are left handed. The youngest would also be left handed, I think, if left to his own devices when he was younger. He used to hold two pencils, one in each hand, and go from the left to the midline of the page with his left hand, then switch to his right from the midline to the right side. In the first grade his teacher forced him to pick a hand. Of course he looked around and saw that everybody in the class was using their right hands, so clearly that was the correct hand to use. He, like me, does most gross motor skills left handed, eats left handed, but writes with his right.

  • sdsures

    In other words, telling people with chronic illnesses that they “just aren’t trying hard enough” to get better. It’s horrible having to endure that kind of behavior.

    • demodocus

      like that woman who came to my knitting shop, found out my husband’s blind, and just kept going -on- about the work her ophthamologist husband was doing with epigenetics and a wide variety of ills including autism.

      • sdsures

        *eyeroll* Does he actually have autism, out of curiosity?

        You have a knitting shop?? :O I loooove knitting and yarn! Husband calls yarn “my crack cocaine*. Currently working on a shawl and a scarf.

        • demodocus

          No, I meant the nearest knitting shop to my house that I frequent.

        • demodocus

          Her DH also cures 40 year old glaucoma, donchaknow.
          I do suspect Dem is on the border of the spectrum (his original cataracts are from congenital rubella) but I didn’t mention that to her.

      • PeggySue

        ofergodsake.