The Sciences

Reconciling Traditional and Religious Beliefs with Western Medicine

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorSep 5, 2013 8:01 PM


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When a science-minded crusader in India was murdered in August, it made international headlines. As the New York Timesreported:

Narendra Dabholkar traveled from village to village in India, waging a personal war against the spirit world. If a holy man had electrified the public with his miracles, Dr. Dabholkar, a former physician, would duplicate the miracles and explain, step by step, how they were performed. If a sorcerer had amassed a fortune treating infertility, he would arrange a sting operation to unmask the man as a fraud. His goal was to drive a scientist’s skepticism into the heart of India, a country still teeming with gurus, babas, astrologers, godmen and other mystical entrepreneurs.

He had done this for decades, incurring the wrath of Hindu hardliners and other religious groups in India. Dabholkar's killing, the Times wrote, "is the latest episode in a millenniums-old wrestling match between traditionalists and reformers in India."

The episode also highlights an ongoing larger clash in the developing world between age-old customs and modern-day attitudes about everything from mental disorders to gender rights. No issue has exemplified this divide more than that of vaginal circumcision of young girls in Africa, a brutal, agonizingly painful rite of passage enforced through socio-cultural norms. In the West, the practice has come to be known as genital mutilation

. Personally, I view this practice as barbaric and am horrified it is still so deeply embedded in some societies. Many share this view. But I'm also aware that such blanket condemnations are perhaps not the best way to effect change. As Erin Crossett has observed

 of families that still adhere to this custom:

Mothers love their daughters and fear they will be ostracized unless they are cut. Many are unaware of the immediate and long-term health risks and simply want to allow their child maximum options for marriage. By recognizing this fact, that these women love their daughters and are acting out of convention, Western aid and development practitioners can abandon their patronizing post-colonial attitude and instead foster a dialogue with education as a focal point.

The treatment of the mentally ill in developing countries is another issue that also requires a culturally sensitive approach. And it's another example where science-minded folks such as myself have to tread carefully in debates that pit science against religion. I got to thinking about all this after reading a post

by psychology doctoral student Peter Phalen at the development blog Humanosphere, which discusses the collaboration between medical professionals and traditional healers in Guinea, a country in West Africa. He writes:

In Guinea as in many parts of Africa, Western medicine is seen as a last resort for the mentally ill. People prefer local healers, whose services can range from the violent exorcisms of Sierra Leone to the more banal healing dances of northern Senegal. “By the time we receive a patient,” says [Dr. Siaka] Sangare [the head of a Guinea psychiatric clinic], “they have exhausted all other avenues.” And they’ve spent a lot of money. Traditional healers typically charge at least $150 per session and often demand animal sacrifices of goats or sheep, which needs to be supplied by the client. One Sierra Leone family I spoke with had spent nearly $12,000 on traditional remedies for their daughter’s schizophrenia before deciding to seek out a psychiatrist.

Discover readers are likely to blanch at such practices and dismiss them as medieval witchcraft. (The above photo, via Wikipedia

, is of a "crab sorcerer" in Cameroon.) That would be my response, too. But as Phalen notes,

with traditional healers so entrenched in local [African] culture, psychiatrists have usually opted to complement rather than attempt to displace them. Staff at Dakar’s state hospital have been known to attend their patients’ Ndeuphealing dances. They attest to the psychological importance of traditional practices. The Sierra Leone Mental Health Coalition even includes healers in its database of mental health resources.

In the atheist discourse on the conflict between science and religion, similar pragmatic approaches are branded negatively by some as "accommodationist." It's good to see that professionals in one branch of science are more interested in helping people get better than they are in winning an argument.

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