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Energy Medicine: 21st Century Snake Oil

(Image courtesy of Wesley Fryer at Wikicommons)

People write to us all the time with questions about the various energy medicine techniques – from Reiki to tai chi and everything in between – so I decided to write a general overview of energy medicine that can provide additional details for those who wish to learn more.

In many ways, energy medicine is the new “snake oil.” Instead of being a bottle of every day mineral oil with a “Snake Oil – Cures All!” label, these practices like to use scientific language such as “bioenergetic” and “Quantum” to describe what is essentially a form of energy that has never been scientifically proven to exist. In a way, the original snake oil at least offered the consumer something – mineral oil. In the case of energy medicine, it offers the consumer thin air.

It’s important to understand there is no such thing as the “energy” practitioners purport to be manipulating, balancing, and channeling in practices such as Reiki, Therapeutic Touch, Reflexology, Qigong, and crystal healing. Basically, anything that references chakras or meridians is referring to a kind of energy that simply doesn’t exist. It goes by a variety of names such as chi, ki, qi, prana, vital force, subtle energy, universal life force, vitalism, etc. Although being based on a non-existent energy may make these practices seemingly benign (except for the disastrous effect they may have on your wallet), there are many dangers inherent in their use.

Physical dangers can come about if a person suffering from a serious disease forgoes conventional medicine for any of these forms of healing.

Because there is no credible scientific substantiation for this energy or the practices related to it, there is no insurance coverage. Practitioners are not regulated and no professional standards are enforced, which opens up the consumer to a host of other potential financial risks.

There are also grave spiritual risks because the belief in a universal life force is a central component in pantheistic belief systems such as Hinduism and Buddhism and may encourage a person to slowly begin to abandon the Christian worldview which is based on belief in a personal God.

What is Energy Medicine?

According to the National Institutes for Health, there are dozens of healing techniques that are based on the alleged existence of a universal life force or energy which permeates all of creation. “Energy workers” believe illness occurs when this energy becomes unbalanced and that they can restore this balance by manipulating it.

In spite of a complete lack of scientific evidence, energy medicine techniques, particularly Reiki and Therapeutic Touch, have infiltrated many hospitals and nursing homes. Until 2009, when the U.S. Catholic bishops issued a directive stating that the use of Reiki in Catholic health care facilities is inappropriate.

“In terms of caring for one’s spiritual health, there are important dangers,” the bishops warn. “To use Reiki one would have to accept at least in an implicit way central elements of the worldview that undergirds Reiki theory, elements that belong neither to Christian faith nor to natural science.”

Therefore, a Catholic who puts their trust in Reiki “would be operating in the realm of superstition, the no-man’s-land that is neither faith nor science.”

Most medical experts agree and find this infiltration of pseudo-science into our health care system, which is largely due to the work of influential nurses over the years, to be appalling.

For this reason, the informed consumer needs to understand the different forms of energy and which ones are scientifically substantiated.

Know Your Energy!

What is perhaps most confusing to the public – and many practitioners – about energy medicine is the distinction between the two forms of energy – veritable and putative – and precisely which one is involved in energy medicine.

In an overview of energy medicine, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes for Health provides a clear explanation of these two energy forms.

Veritable energy consists of mechanical vibrations (such as sound) and electromagnetic forces, including visible light, magnetism, monochromatic radiation and rays from other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. “They involve the use of specific, measurable wavelengths and frequencies to treat patients.”

Putative energy consists of alleged “energy fields” that human beings are supposedly infused with. This is what practitioners of Reiki, Therapeutic Touch, yoga and others purport to be manipulating.

“These approaches are among the most controversial of complementary and alternative medical practices,” the NIH reports, “because neither the external energy fields nor their therapeutic effects have been demonstrated convincingly by any biophysical means.”

Confusion among the public is caused by energy medicine practitioners who either do not know, or misrepresent, the kind of energy being manipulated. Some use terms such as “vital force” or “bioenergetic” (which can mean just about anything) either because they don’t know what kind of energy they’re using or they don’t want you to know.

Is it Christian?

Compounding this problem are attempts by practitioners to apply a Christian veneer to these practices to make them more palatable to the faithful. For instance, some practitioners claim that Jesus may have used Reiki, or claim the energy they are manipulating is actually the Holy Spirit. Others say that one can simply substitute the name of Jesus or God for this energy force, or choose to believe its source is God, and they will not be violating Christian tenets.

But this is not true simply because the very basis of energy medicine – the energy itself – is not a Christian belief, but a thoroughly New Age concept.

“The New Age god is an impersonal energy, a particular extension or component of the cosmos; god in this sense is the life-force or soul of the world,” writes the authors of the Pontifical document Jesus Christ Bearer of the Water of Life.

“This is very different from the Christian understanding of God as the maker of heaven and earth and the source of all personal life. God is in himself personal, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who created the universe in order to share the communion of His life with creaturely persons.”

In addition, Christians believe that man is a union of body and soul and that the soul is an essential form of the body – not an energy force.

“From a spiritual perspective, it is the soul that is the life-principle of the body, not something else. Consequently, there is no spiritual ‘life energy’ animating the body,” write the apologists at Catholic Answers. “Any energy used as part of the body’s operations” such as the electricity in our nervous systems “is material in nature, not spiritual. . . . Since this is contrary to Christian theology, it is inappropriate for Christians to participate in activities based on this belief.”

Energy healers also like to refer to the Christian practice of laying on of hands as a sign that Jesus either used or was channeling some kind of energy force when He healed. However, this only reveals their lack of catechesis. The Catechism teaches us that the Christian use of the hands in healing has nothing to do with channeling energy but is considered a “symbol” of one person interceding for another.

There is so much more than can be said about energy medicine, such as what the science of physics has to say about it, the problems it is causing within the health care profession, why it is a form of “superstitious medicine,” etc. For a more in-depth study, see the chapter on Energy Medicine in my book, The Learn to Discern Compendium.

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