Is “positive thinking” religion’s Trojan Horse?

I read something on PZ Myers’ blog, Pharyngula, about a very bad editorial from a medical journal, reporting a non-blinded, unscientific study where people who were prayed over were urged to report that their sight had improved or that they felt better. The study was erroneously included on a U.S. government health website. The ensuing discussion turned to positive thinking.

I Suspect that Positive Thinking is to miracles as Creationism is to science. The review for Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America points out that the positive thinking movement is massively funded in the U.S. by the Conservative Right. I’d guess that if you get sick or don’t get better or don’t get rich, it’s your fault because you didn’t think positively enough or, in a religious context, you didn’t pray enough or have enough faith. It’s just blaming the victim all over again, a very popular notion with fellows who started at Vice President and worked their way up.

Conversely, the reason that prayed-for people are more likely to die is not, of course, that prayer is harmful of itself, but that when told that everyone is praying madly for them, some people feel, “OMG I must be sicker than I thought!” and so panic, stress out, and interfere with their own healing. It’s the religious equivalent of a careless curse.

Of course, prayer isn’t necessary to trigger placebo effects. Expectations are incredibly powerful, which is why negative cultural stereotypes are so bad.

Another book, Counter Clockwise by Ellen J. Langer, mentions research that messes with people’s minds  to see how they work. For example, by putting the small letters at the top of an eye chart, does not send the message that At Some Point These Will Be Too Small to See. People tested with those charts can read, on the average, two or three lines smaller than they can on the descending ones. In fact, that might be the allure of Thinking Positively in the first place. The book explores how to harness the Power of the Placebo or at least keep it from tripping us up.

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