Do we prevent somebody being hurt by superstition or faith by rejecting and challenging those things? 

Is it mistaken to support organised religion in membership or donations?

If people do good because they are human, not because God prompts them then is it right to risk giving God any credit when they alone own their good?

Patrick H


"Faith helps Christians because faith is just like a placebo prescribed by a doctor, the intent of which is to deceive patients into thinking it will solve their ills...The healing is therefore self-caused".

From Christianity is Not Great (All Quotes are from this excellent book, edited by John Loftus)


The quote is quite good but not perfect.


It is good that it states that faith and deception go together.


It is good to state that the healing comes not from faith but from the person with faith.


It needs to be careful with what it said about the healing.  The placebo lifts your spirits so it is an emotional healing  but if there there is a cancer there or something physically wrong it is dangerous to feel cured when you are not.


If you feel better it can help you fight off your illness better.  The placebo NEVER directly helps the illness.


I'd have liked to see the above book develop the point that the placebo of religion is not just about feeling better and safer in a scary universe, but also about feeling good about your so-called sins and your bad side. The placebo deals with the symptoms you have not the causes so it should only be tolerated or facilitated for very serious reasons. The ethical person tells the sick person that a placebo was used and says, "Okay, now do you see that if you feel you are getting better and believe it, how good that is for you? You did this because of the placebo. The placebo did not do it. Go and feel confident in yourself. You know your power now. Tell yourself that you have the power to heal yourself. Tell yourself that often and let that be your placebo from now on."




The placebo relieves the pain that comes from knowing that things are not good.


If you believe in the placebo, and if you expect your mind and body to respond to taking one, that can produce a beneficial response. Imagine if you thought that green tea made you feel happier - taking the first sip would be enough to trigger a happy response.


The placebo makes you believe that it is not that bad or you are getting better or you are cured.


A placebo is fundamentally a mechanism by which you seek to dodge the truth because you think it relieves or stops pain. It does not follow that the truth is really as painful as you imagine. The sensible person makes the truth her or his "placebo" instead of trying to look for quick and ultimately harmful solutions.


The placebo is offered for problems with physical health and mental health. It is easy for people to imagine that it helps their souls when it fails to do anything for body and mind. Using a placebo for alleged spiritual ill-health is one of today's biggest and most foolproof scams. For example, there are people out there who sell spells and sacraments in order to develop peace of mind and heart in you.



A placebo works because of you. It is you. However, it is trying to give your power away to a belief or idea. A belief or idea has no power to look after you so a placebo is dangerous in that sense. It is like putting a baby outside by herself and expecting nothing bad to happen. The elements are not going to look after her.


The only sensible and responsible "placebo" comes from learning that you can and will accept the terrible things that cannot be avoided in life and that you can and will embrace the good things too.


No matter what you do or don't do, you either help or you don't. Helping a bit is fine but helping a bit is not fine if it is not enough. The question is not, "How do I help?" The question is, "What is the best thing to do?" These questions are not asked. The placebo should be used sparingly or as little as possible. If the questions were asked it would be uncommon.




You look to the future and imagine your marriage could break down.


You are of great age and know that death could come tomorrow.


You are in cancer remission and know it could come back.


You can be in danger of being exposed by the papers as a criminal.


There are many things you can fear.


You don't fear because you tell yourself it is in the future.


You don't fear because you feel you will handle it with help or walk away.


These attitudes themselves are placebos. They stop you being crippled by fear and anger. They feel good at the time but when reality hits they are no help then.



Religion thrives on the same notions. Believers feel they are ready to do great works when they go to Church but as soon as they vacate the building they become disinclined. Worship has a placebo effect and gives the illusion that religion is a lovely thing.


Many people fear thinking for themselves in spiritual matters. They are prone to the notion: "God knows better than me and has done all the thinking. I will believe and trust in this religion or book he has revealed." It relieves them of the fear of getting it wrong or having do the hard work themselves. It means they opt out of having to develop a faith of their own that conflicts with the ethos of their community or society and all the difficulties that may entail. Handing your responsibility to some authority is a placebo itself.


No matter what they think God does, religious people try to justify it. They allow nothing to refute the love of God even if it does refute it. People have fears and they relieve them by telling themselves that untestable doctrines are true. They are trying to immunise themselves by altering their perception. They have their placebo and they feel safe with it for nothing can refute it. So the placebo not only makes them feel better but they feel good that it is unchallengable. They do not fear any refutation of it. Such a placebo can be strong but it keeps the person away from reality so it is not worth it.


Not having the truth or not recognising the truth can be dangerous and painful. Religious people deal with this by imagining they have the truth. Religion can be a placebo for the suffering that comes from uncertainty or not having the truth. Some people believe it is always that...


Religion based on God is disgusting. It has you apologizing to God instead of apologising to the people you hurt. Religion is a placebo for “sin”. Anybody who hurts a child and apologising to God is more important to him than to the child even if he does apologise to the child should be told to keep his insulting apology.





The faith placebo gives people false comfort. Giving a person a placebo that helps them, risks judging them as stupid people or people who care about what they want to think and not the truth.


Not knowing very important things or things perceived as important may be dealt with by telling yourself that you have faith and this is a gift from God which tells you what you would not know otherwise. This may comfort but it is a refusal to care properly about truth. Truth is better than faith. If faith is good it can still be the enemy of the best. The good too often is the enemy of the best.


The placebo can be given as a result of a misdiagnosis. You could die if you get a placebo for pain when the cancer has been missed. You could kill somebody if you depend on a sacrament or prayer that does not work in order to deal with your inclination to evil.


The placebo is faith in faith and that is a dangerous and that "stunts one's intellectual growth".


To have faith in faith leaves one vulnerable to religious and medical charlatans. This could outweigh any benefits. It is not worth the risk. And believers will lead the vulnerable to the charlatans and by encouraging religious faith in them they put them at risk.


The placebo helps emotional problems but it cannot affect the physical or spiritual (if we have a spirit!). It cannot make acne go away in time for the prom tomorrow night. It cannot stop a serial killer from killing by filling his heart with the grace of conversion.


Having a placebo creates a need for placebos that seem to validate it and creates an unhealthy fondness for placebos and fantasy based thinking. Religion encourages prayer which depends and prolongs the hold the placebo has over you. Religion claims that faith fades away without prayer to nourish it. It is no wonder prayer nourishes faith when believers praise God for giving them what they pray for and when prayer doesn't work they pretend that it is working for God must have better plans and is using their prayers for something better than what they prayed for. Prayer is an exercise in escapism and cognitive dissonance. Substitute some superstition as touching wood or leaping three times for prayer and the same things will be imagined to result.





So what is harmful about the placebo?


Well for me, even if it seems to be good for the person, it is still lying. Lies will be found out. The placebo always threatens the good it does. You need to know what really cures you of anything - if you self-cause your cure you need to know that.


A big placebo versus a small placebo? No ethical person advocates telling a cancer patient they are better when they are not. That lie is just too big to do much good. It may make the liar feel better but the patient will be the one who suffers. Placebos tend to cover smaller matters such as pain relief. It is not one placebo a person needs but a number of them. The danger with too many is that it will backfire.


The placebo takes away your chance to be more realistic. It robs you. It may feel good now but what about tomorrow? The quote from Christianity is Not Great, "unrealistic views of the world cause unnecessary pain and suffering, and those views should be rejected" could be understood as the ultimate reason the book was written. And it is a very sensible line.


To it I would add that the risk is not worth it. If the views make you feel good, they can destroy you in the long-term. They destroy many. Because of how lies and errors lead to more lies and errors, religion can spin into extreme and detrimental detachment from reality.




I would add that having a placebo creates a need for new placebos that seem to validate it and creates an unhealthy fondness for placebos and fantasy based thinking. Religion encourages prayer which deepens and prolongs the hold the placebo has over you. Religion claims that faith fades away without prayer to nourish it. It is no wonder prayer nourishes faith when believers praise God for giving them what they pray for and when prayer doesn't work they pretend that it is working for God must have better plans and is using their prayers for something better than what they prayed for. Prayer is an exercise in escapism and cognitive dissonance.


Catholic quackery insists that the sacrament of baptism heals the tendency to sin and is so effective that you only need it the once.
Yet the baptised and unbaptised are no better than each other.
Unsurprisingly the Church has devised other sacraments to be received on a regular basis.
The reason is simple.


When you are taking sacraments every day and you believe in them, it is more effective than an occasional sacrament. With faith in the sacraments, you are triggering and renewing the placebo effect every day. You are maximising the effect.




The placebo is faith in faith itself.


To have faith in faith leaves one vulnerable to religious and medical charlatans. Those who take advantage of desperate people looking for hope are the lousiest scum imaginable. Religious placebos are dangerous as they are encouraged and reinforced by being part of a community held together by placebos. Religion defeats the need to outgrow placebos. Also, religion is dogmatic about its placebos - it does not let you go to other religions for spiritual placebos.


A placebo is manipulative - but a placebo that is presented as the only effective or divinely approved one is worse.


With the religious placebo, you end up saying that it is the only one that works properly for anyone because it works for you. Or you think it works! The religious placebo enables and reinforces the problems caused by religion. As each person is part of a community or society, you must see that the evils or harms that come on them have a wider impact. The person attached to a placebo will ignore or dismiss or avoid any evidence that disconfirms his placebo.
A religion that tells very obvious lies such as that it cures paedophilia or possession or cancer when anybody comes to it for healing or that it is the only way to God and that God does all he can to help people find this religion is clearly getting away with it for it knows its audience goes into fantasy land and enjoys the placebo. Obvious lies told by a religion are placebos. That is how it gets away with talking rubbish.


The placebo is not simply a matter of giving somebody a sugar pill and telling them it is a cure all. The diagnosis is very important too. The more an interest in shown in the patient and her or his problems, the better the chance that the sugar pills will seem to work! The diagnosis makes the patient feel helped and cared about and empowered. Unless you know what is wrong with you and how it affects you as a person you cannot feel happy enough for it to have a placebo effect.


The placebo effect can fool anybody into thinking a treatment works when it is in fact useless. And bringing in the supernatural into it is a placebo in itself.


You get hope from the thought that the laws of cause and effect may not apply in your case and your problem may lessen or vanish which is not the norm.


You get hope from feeling that God is going to miraculously cure your black heart and soften your hard heart and do nothing or too little about war-crazed demagogues - you feel that special and that important.


Perhaps religion can be a placebo for people who have psychological problems. The placebo can only last for so long. Then the person is back to square one and needs another placebo. This cycle can hide the damage that the religion is doing to the person. People tend to be impressed by the placebo and that leads to people becoming inspired to adopt placebos and they may end up hooked on them. The book is right that "we cannot easily separate individual benefits and harms from societal ones, since what causes individual harm also causes societal harm to some degree, and vice versa."


Needing religious or spiritual placebos leads to needing more religious or spiritual placebos and risks becoming a victim of charlatans. If there is a magic power interfering in the world all the time, how you can know what is real? If your strength is an illusion created by a placebo that is no substitute for real strength and you are cheated of the opportunity for real strength and you will end up being bigoted, fearful and hostile if you think somebody is going to challenge your placebo.


Religion is not the only case where faith functions as a placebo. The old woman may need a loaf but spend the money on a lottery ticket. She seems to believe that she will win though it is extremely unlikely. The soldier going to war thinks he will come back alive and a hero. Notice that if you act like you think the impossible lotto win or whatever will happen to you, the underlying assumption is that God or magic is going to make it happen. All those other faith placebos show that religion can only be a placebo itself.




Actions speak of what you believe more than your words. It is easy to think you believe you have healing power over sinners or bad people when you know fine well you don't. Words are an action too and do speak but we know action is the best speaker.

If religion really believes in its power to heal sin then why does it not take more risks with its claims?


It does not say, "Our prayers will stop people entering same sex marriages" when same sex marriage is legalised. It does not depend on prayer and Masses alone to stop abortion.


People who claim to have absolute faith in God or a healer do not act as if they do. In fact they act in such a way as to avoid anything that will disprove their faith. Thus they protect the lies they tell themselves - and others. They protect their placebos and hate anybody who might expose them.


Religion follows Jesus in saying that sin causes enslavement to it - in other words it has a strong addictive power (John 8:34). If a person claims to be healed of sin and forgiven and relapses too much, we should take him as an example of an addict who pretends to have recovered. He wants to fool you in order to feed his addiction. And even if faith in God's mercy is not bad in itself it can be abused as a placebo. Why would we believe that any sinner is really recovered?




A placebo is not a good thing. At best it is a necessary evil. That being the case, it has to be gotten rid of as soon as possible. It makes people better at fooling themselves and others which means that they become prone to being devastated by negative events and people. This would be like a placebo in reverse - it does harm.


A good doctor will try to wean you off placebos. They are only for short-term immediate and important help. They are given to be outgrown. Religion is cruel for it wants to keep you hooked on its placebos. Religions toxic charm is part of its scheme.


It is evil to say you know something when you merely believe it. It is a lie and what if your neighbour claims to know that you are the Antichrist and that you should be killed? It is dangerous. Science is about beliefs for it is about working out what is probably true. Science is self-correcting. People are not keen on science for they like to think they can know things as opposed to merely believing in them. Beliefs and probabilities carry the risk of being wrong and harmful. There are indirect risks too. Once false idea can lead to an avalanche of errors. Beliefs and probabilities lead to confusion too for there is a lot of disagreement about what should be believed or regarded as probably true.


The popular view that you should challenge a person's moral beliefs but not their faith is a bizarre, unfair and dishonest one. What you believe about morality matters more than your religious beliefs! The view is only acceptable to a person who feels that faith is some kind of addiction or crutch and that it is dangerous for the believer to hear criticism and maybe dangerous for the critic to challenge it. The view is acceptable only to a person who feels that morality should be treated separately from faith when in fact the faith has a lot of moral content. Obviously only faith that is a manifestation of hypocrisy can be enabled by hypocrites. A hypocritical faith is a placebo for the evil you have in your heart and that you actually do.


Some people feel that you must not try to wean a person away from religious belief. They confuse religious belief and moral belief. When they say they want the religious belief respected they mean the moral beliefs or they think that the religious and moral are too intertwined so to wean the person from faith is to wean them from morality. This view suggests that it is really morality that matters. Surely then it is okay for one religion to convert another religion as long as the moral code is not ruined?




Placebos help not just with current turmoil but with the fear that terrible things may happen in the future. "Don't let things get to you." "Whatever happens you will be okay." "God will lovingly protect you." All these thoughts make you feel you can face anything. It is easy to feel good about the dangers of future when they have not happened yet. But when the turmoil comes none of the thoughts will help. Religion tricks people to believe the future will be bearable and that they will never feel alone. None of these promises are true and are in fact a disgrace. If one fares badly and copes and feels supported by a higher power that is down to luck not their belief. The sense of being protected from unbearable suffering and the feeling of abandonment by God is the reason why people do daring things in the name of evil and power. We all know power-hungry people who don't seem to think that they could lose all they have in minutes or reap what they sow.