International Journal of Cultic Studies ■ Vol. 10, 2019, 32-40
Homeopathy As a Form of Practical Magic
University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada
Homeopathy is generally thought of as a form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) developed in the late 1700s. Although homeopathic medicine is little more than a placebo from a scientific perspective, advocates of the treatments have nonetheless influenced medical practice, research, and public health. In this article, I examine homeopathy and its significance as a form of practical magic and part of the occulture or “cultic milieu,” which refers to a spectrum of mainstream beliefs and practices that herald an ongoing reenchantment process (Partridge, 2016). By focusing on homeopathy's status as a health practice, scholars have failed to take its more esoteric roots seriously. This contribution is important because, though medicine and science have both advanced rapidly since the era of miracles and magical cures, many consumers turn to homeopathy instead of conventional treatments to both imbue the everyday with spiritual meaning and solve concrete problems left unaddressed by conventional medicine.
Keywords: homeopathy; magic; occulture; religion; health
In November 2009, the United Kingdom’s House of Commons Science and Technology Committee recommended that the National Health Service (NHS) stop funding homeopathy, a form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM; House of Commons, 2010, p. 34). In 2017, despite concerns about limiting consumers choice, the NHS decided to stop funding homeopathic remedies, meaning that homeopathic remedies would no longer be available by prescription. Homeopathy is a popular but controversial form of health treatment with magico-religious undertones. In what follows, I argue that we should not understand practices such as homeopathy merely as pseudoscience. Rather, homeopathy is an example of a complex magical system that has been become “scientificized” and ubiquitous (Granholm & Asprem, 2014, p. 15). Many scientific and medical professionals see modern medicine as a secular and scientific activity, and the NHS’s decision to stop funding homeopathy was in part driven by this rationalistic worldview (given the NHS’s desire to prioritize treatments with robust evidence of clinical effectiveness). Nevertheless, the NHS, like many other health care systems, is facing significant challenges in its attempts to secularize healing (Harrington, 2005). For example, the British Homeopathic Association (BHA) brought a legal challenge against the NHS’ decision to stop paying the cost of homeopathic remedies (Donnelly, 2018). More broadly, alternative medicines continue to present an attractive worldview to consumers, one that reflects “premodern conceptions of health and the body” (Robertson, 2014, p. 19). Although advocates for CAM embrace what might be called a magico-religious approach to health, many practitioners of these alternative treatments seek out scientific credentialism and also acceptance within the same scientific and medical communities that decry the harms of pseudoscience and quack medicine. More importantly, health consumers often see the presence of homeopathic remedies on pharmacy shelves as an indication of the treatment’s legitimacy, and they may not distinguish between evidence-based medicine and its less well-grounded alternatives.
Further complicating matters, celebrities have substantial influence on the public’s health-related behaviors. Consider that Steve Jobs (1955–2011), the late founder and CEO of Apple, apparently turned to CAMs such as homeopathy for his relatively mild form of cancer (Greenlee & Ernst, 2012). One need not look far for many similar cases. Consider, for example, actress Gwyneth Paltrow’s advocacy of homeopathy, which she describes as “the first line of defense” against ailments in “most countries” outside the US (Praderio, 2017, para. 3). Cutting across traditional boundaries, both the Jobs and Paltrow examples illustrate the current fascination with CAM, while also pointing to a worrying trend of celebrity influence whereby celebrity’s health decisions guide the public through their offers of medical advice or health endorsements (Hoffman et al., 2017).
Celebrity influence aside, some health services implicitly validate treatments such as homeopathy. For example, Health Canada legitimizes naturopaths as health professionals, and naturopaths often prescribe homeopathic remedies (Caulfield & Rachul, 2011). This blending of some aspects of science while maintaining a connection with premodern approaches to healing sets the stage for this article, in which I present a possible mechanism for understanding the current fascination with treatments that are, from an evidence-based perspective, either ineffective or dangerous.
In a recent IJCS article about a group (Gentle Wind) based in Maine, Kayla Swanson argues that quasi-religions allow scholars to focus on groups that exist at the intersection between religious and secular. Borrowing from Arthur L. Greil and Thomas Robbins (1994), quasi-religions are groups that “either do not see themselves, or are not seen by others, as unambiguously religious” (Swanson, 2018, p. 8). In this article, however, I take a different approach from Swanson while also acknowledging the importance of considering the liminal space between the religious and the secular. I argue that, from a secular perspective, some forms of CAM are forms of practical magic, which I define as a set of practices used to influence or protect the body by calling upon the assistance of supernatural forces. Although this definition of practical magic may entertain any number of contemporary treatments, I add another element that is relevant to this article. Instead of occupying a middle position between the religious and the secular, practical magic is a blending of the two.
My narrow definition of practical magic borrows from Adrian Chadwick’s analysis of Iron Age and Romano-British settlements. Although there may be little to connect modern and Iron Age beliefs about magic, Chadwick offers a useful definition of practical magic as a spectrum of practices and beliefs reflective of implicit social structures (Chadwick, 2015, p. 38). More typically, scholarly discussion of practical magic focuses on anthropological descriptions of various people’s pragmatic engagement with their environment, such as casting a spell for a safe sea voyage. Consequently, Edvard Hviding describes practical magic not only as a “false technical act” but also a “true social act” which gets at part of the discourse regarding magic’s role in various cultures. My main focus of Hviding’s comments here, however, is on how this false technical act constitutes “bad science” while also satisfying health consumers’ need for exceeding natural constraints, or their ambivalence toward distinguishing between scientific and medical cures (Hviding 1996,
In addition to conceptualizing homeopathy as a form of practical magic, it is worth thinking of CAM as part of what Christopher Partridge has described as the “occulture,” which refers to a broad collection of occult and esoteric beliefs and practices that include human potential spiritualities, healing, shamanism, alternative science, and so on (Partridge, 2016). Partridge argues that, rather than being limited to subcultural practices (e.g., secret and underground practices), the esoteric has now come into the mainstream. In some cases, this mainstreaming involves seeking out and achieving a scientific veneer. Significantly, modern practical magic should be distinguished from premodern magical practices, which may have served to provide a cognitive structure regarding the large domain beyond perception. By contrast, practical magic sits alongside a scientific worldview that has increasingly pushed the mystery back.
This article is organized as follows: In the first section, I describe homeopathy, highlighting some current tensions in our analysis of CAM. In the second section, I describe practical magic in more detail. In the third section, I analyze homeopathy’s religious roots. Finally, I apply the concept of practical magic to homeopathy and conclude with a discussion of the implications of these findings for both consumers and social scientists.
Homeopathy and the Allure of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)
In the late eighteenth century, homeopathy emerged from the work of German physician Christian Friedrich “Samuel” Hahnemann (1755–1843), who discovered (or invented) homeopathy as a treatment reliant on stimulation of the body’s healing power. Hahnemann viewed his practice as scientific and only prescribed placebos to “soothe the patient’s mind and desire for medicine with something inconspicuous such as a few teaspoons a day of raspberry juice or sugar of milk” (Jütte, 2014, p. 209). As part of his nonplacebo treatment plan, Hahnemann prescribed diluted medicines according to the “law of similar,” or “like cures like”; this means that, to cure an affliction, the treatment should mimic the symptoms of the illness. If a patient has hay-fever symptoms, then a homeopath might prepare a dose of red onion because both the illness and treatment lead to tears, a runny nose, and so on (Banerjee, Costelloe, Mathie, & Howick, 2014). The homeopath would dilute the onion, and then increase the potency of the dilution by shaking, or succussion, to release the spirit-like power of the medicine.
Although critics of homeopathy emphasize both its lack of benefit and its potential harms as an alternative treatment, it is necessary to go further than simple dismissal of health consumers’ choices, and ask why individuals seek out such treatments in the first place. Scholars have shown that magical thinking is at the heart of many decisions to use alternative therapies (Beyerstein, 2001; Greasley, 2010; Stevens, 2001). But magical thinking aside, other motivations to use such products may include a justified disillusionment with orthodox medicine or a fear of adverse drug side effects (Ernst, 2002). This literature has made significant contributions to an understanding of CAM’s use, but the concept of magic provides additional insight into beliefs and practices such as homeopathy that defy easy categorization, especially in contemporary health care.
Spiritual or religious identities (e.g., religious affiliation or attendance, beliefs, or practices) may predict the use of CAM, and increased spirituality may result from the use of particular therapies. More telling perhaps is that the choice to use a particular modality is not as easy or straightforward as that of choosing a brand of a multivitamin or some other supplement. Consumers’ investment in alternative treatments is suggestive of a more profound attachment that goes well beyond normal health-seeking behaviors (Evans et al., 2007; Mao, Palmer, Healy, Desai, & Amsterdam, 2011).
Complicating matters further, many contemporary homeopaths both distance themselves from mainstream medicine and seek out scientific validation. Regarding the former position, Hahnemann specifically developed homeopathy in reaction to his concerns about existing medical knowledge and practice, which homeopaths refer to by the pejorative allopathy, from the Greek meaning “other suffering.” For Hahnemann and his twenty-first-century followers, allopathic medicines produced effects opposite the symptoms of an illness and involved treatments such as bleeding a person to reduce fluids, and induced vomiting (Boyle, 2013). Although many homeopaths acknowledge the benefits of modern medicine, they nonetheless describe evidence-based approaches such as clinical trials as allopathy (or more recently, biomedicine). The use of the term allopathy may seem innocent, if perhaps archaic, but it is often used as a pejorative (Levy, 2016).
Despite distancing themselves from mainstream medicine (allopathy/biomedicine), many contemporary homeopaths nonetheless seek scientific and medical legitimacy (Vigano, Nannei, & Bellavite, 2015). Several journals publish research regarding homeopathy. One of the more popular journals is Homeopathy (formerly the British Homoeopathic Journal), which is published by Elsevier, one of the biggest companies in academic publishing. Although some homeopaths have attempted to convert homeopathy to rational medical science through the appropriation of scientific discourses, they have been unsuccessful in escaping a “spiritual and metaphysical view of healing” (Haller, 2009, p. 113). Contemporary homeopaths, for example, continue to emphasize a homeopathic consultation’s spiritual benefits (Brien, Lachance, Prescott, McDermott, & Lewith, 2010).
Magic is notoriously difficult to define, especially in relation to religion. I make no claims about the relationship between magic and religion. Instead, I aim merely to discuss magic as a category (regardless of whether it runs in parallel to religion or should be subsumed under the broader category). Of analytical interest to me here is the notion of practical magic, which I defined earlier as a set of practices used to influence or protect the body by calling upon the assistance of supernatural forces. My focus on the body does not ignore the more transcendent experiences associated with broader definitions of magic; but in the case of homeopathy and other forms of CAM, it is necessary to focus on the more technological experiences of magic, especially those that primarily address concrete concerns, such as bodily health.
Practical magic, as I define it here, has two major components: (a) an attempt to come to terms with the world in the absence of a competent understanding of the natural sciences, mimicking the struggles of premodern peoples; and (b) the manipulation of laws to produce desired results, such as homeopathy’s “like produces like.” In the latter case, the user of practical magic is likely to engage in a “scientificized” ritual that resembles an evidence-based treatment plan by appearance only. Additionally, it is worth noting that many people may employ magic as a complement to established science, or they may not see a significant difference between magical and scientific treatments.
Christopher Partridge argued that magic is part of many peoples’ everyday experiences, even in the face of scientific progress (Partridge, 2016). In fact, one may argue that practical magic has flourished with modern science as practitioners and consumers inform themselves about clinical trials and other science-like practices. Partridge is not alone in noticing a flourishing of magic and its casual invocations in consumers’ private lives. For example, Paula Eleta described magic's invasion of the public sphere toward the end of the 1990s, and her ideas have since been taken up in the study of New Age spiritualities (Eleta, 1997). Partridge’s innovation, however, was in taking a typically historical subject (the study of esotericism) and noticing how little separates, say, Renaissance magic from contemporary magic (practical magic). The point I want to highlight here is that we should not be surprised that an ostensibly medical system is imbued with all the lore, charms, and miracles one would normally associate with past forms of magic.
With the ubiquity of magic in mind, if we look at homeopathy’s metaphysical character, disconnected from how it is used as a mere alternative to scientific medicine, it shares features with more explicitly esoteric systems because of its acknowledgment of an “other” world or realm (Streib & Hood, 2013, p. 144). For example, both magico-religious homeopathy and its “scientific” cousin share a belief system based in vitalism, Swedenborgianism (defined in the following section), and other remnants of esoteric thought. Although scientific or academic homeopathy establishes its scientific credentials via journals, experiments, and the rhetoric of scientific authority, consumers do not appear to be concerned with the distinction between science and practical magic. The consumer treats both worlds as real, or at the very least, useful. In other words, as Eleta argues, “In the eyes of some individuals, magic appears to be a particularly ideal solution to their health problems (relating to both ‘body and soul’)” (Eleta 1997, p. 58). Many consumers either fail to distinguish science and technology from practical magic, or they do not care about the distinction.
Both science and practical magic are free to be co-opted, ignored, or combined with other beliefs and practices. Similarly, many people borrow or co-opt indigenous and popular cultures, flattening history and context (Possamai, 2012). Although homeopathy is not an indigenous practice, it might be one of many activities, such as astrology, naturopathy, reiki, or spiritualism, with which a religious/health consumer might engage, further illustrating the diversity of paths open to individuals seeking everyday enchantment (Mäkelä & Petsche, 2013, p. 415). Consumers also may combine esoteric practices with more rational pursuits, drinking from the well of science while also recognizing the need for powerful potions and spells.
Homeopathy’s Magico-Religious Roots
Vitalism as an explanatory style extends far beyond archaic medical practices and is central to many spiritual beliefs and practices (Heelas, 2014). Vitalism refers to and energy that courses through biological entities (Clarke, 2001). Today, the vitalistic term energy also is used for a wide variety of unusual but everyday experiences. These vitalistic elements aside, Hahnemann takes credit for finding the truth in homeopathy, even if he also acknowledges that the “truth is co-eternal with the all-wise, benevolent Deity” (Perry, 1984, p. 2). Consequently, the melding of scientific truth and divine truth was built into homeopathy from the beginning. This characteristic of homeopathy should not be surprising, given that Hahnemann was as influenced by alchemy as he was by the religious climate of the day. Whitall Perry (1984) compared sections of Hahnemann and Dudgeon’s Organon of Medicine (2002/1810) with the writings of Paracelsus (1493–1541), a Swiss-German Renaissance physician and alchemist. Perry found great similarity between these sources in both sentence structure and ideology (Borzelleca, 2000).
Like Hahnemann, Paracelsus emphasized the spiritual plane of healing and the spirit-like power of alchemical medicines. Even the principle of dilution engrained in homeopathy has an antecedent in alchemical writings (Perry, 1984). Besides alchemy, Hahnemann likely appropriated techniques associated with other spiritual systems, including “mesmerism, hydrotherapy, and massage modalities to accomplish a transformation from material to spiritual levels” (Haller, 2009, p. 102). Mesmerism, in particular, seems to have fascinated Hahnemann. He described mesmerizers as possessed with “an abundance of the subtle vital energy” (Haller, 2005, p. 74). Some of Hahnemann’s followers borrowed from his lineage of influences and sought to combine homeopathy with Swedenborgian philosophy. Swedenborgianism refers to several spiritualistic sects with Christian underpinnings that involve prophecy, communication with spirits, and the ushering in of a new era (similar to the later New Age movement).
A Swedish mystic, Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) believed Jesus Christ had selected him to reveal the spiritual truth of the Bible (Williams-Hogan, 2016). The relationship between Swedenborg’s mysticism and homeopathy lies in the metaphysical rationale offered by Swedenborg, who saw the spiritual principle within the material world. Under the influence of Swedenborg’s writings, homeopathy transitioned from a false empirical practice to a “religiously based belief system sporting a myriad of competing interpretations” (Haller, 2009, p. x), but intent on improving well-being.
Homeopathy began to decline in the nineteenth century. Advances in medicine, biology, and the other sciences pushed out many vitalistic practices, but homeopathy reemerged with vigor in the late twentieth century, riding the coattails of New Age beliefs and practices into the contemporary health care system. Homeopathy’s metaphysical conjectures were muffled, and the homeopath as shaman became a marginalized identity among physicians. Contemporary homeopathy tries to establish a more sterile laboratory identity, but its romantic and spiritual elements never disappeared entirely. It is both a core component of integrative and holistic medicine and an esoteric tradition. Further complicating matters, homeopathy is submerged in the broader trend of self-help and often is confused with herbal medicine, natural health products, and even some scientific interventions.
Homeopathy As Practical Magic
Homeopathy’s maintenance of a magico-spiritual component is consistent with other forms of practical magic that employ sectarian and religious claims (Manca, 2012). As other scholars have observed, certain alternative medicine traditions may even function as postsecular religious practices (Barrett et al., 2004). For example, consider that homeopathy resembles faith healing, given homeopathy’s emphasis on dilution and shaking rituals (Shaw, 2014). Although homeopathy does not rely on a traditional monotheistic God (like many forms of faith healing do), Hahnemann made many references to God in his work. Additionally, during homeopathy’s development, practitioners often combined the system with other religious healing practices, and some even connected homeopathy to Christian teachings (Brown, 2013).
Despite some similarities with faith healing, homeopathy is distinct from other practices because of its emphasis on the body’s vital spiritual force. Without this vital force, advocates argue, people would lack sensation, function, and self-preservation (Perry, 1984). When someone is sick, it is the vital force that is affected, and the only way to remove a spirit-like disease is through a spirit-like cure (Scofano & Luz, 2008).
Explaining homeopathy’s continued relevance to health consumers is challenging, especially given that the underlying vitalistic principles of its approach to treatment have remained mostly unchanged since its invention. To help explain the continued existence (and in some cases, the thriving) of New Age spiritualities and holistic healing practices, some scholars describe what they refer to as modern culture’s “subjective turn” (Hanegraaf, p. 293). Paul Heelas et al. describe the subjective turn as “states of consciousness, states of mind, memories, emotions, passions, sensations, bodily experiences, dreams, feelings, inner conscience, and sentiments—including moral sentiments like compassion” (Heelas, Woodhead, Seel, Tusting, & Szerszynski, 2005, p. 3). We can use the subjective turn as an analytical category to help explain the transition of the New Age from a counterculture movement to a diffuse form of modern magic that has invaded numerous domains, including health care. For example, care for and interest in patients’ lived experiences reflects a change in the notion of what constitutes health and encompasses “life beyond physiological functioning” (Sointu, 2006, p. 332). Even though many CAM modalities often do not work from a scientific perspective, the choice of a particular remedy reinforces in health consumers a feeling of control and empowerment (MacArtney & Wahlberg, 2014).
The empowered health consumer and the religious consumer have much in common. Both are responding to instability and uncertainty, turning to beliefs and practices that imbue the everyday with symbolic significance. Just as patients choose CAM to manage uncertainty about their bodies, religious consumers choose beliefs and practices to manage spiritual uncertainties (Lyon, 2013/2000). Although the identities of health and religious consumers are not synchronous, they do overlap, especially as old distinctions between science, culture, and religion continue to blur. Traditional institutions no longer satisfy the majority of people’s everyday needs like they once did; and in such a climate, it is easy for people to turn away from both mainstream religion and orthodox medicine toward clusters of beliefs and practices that emphasize inner experience and holism. In the area of religion scholarship, these hybrid and marginal religious practices have given rise to terms such as spiritual supermarket (Lyon, 2013/2000), religion a la Carte (Sigalow, 2016), and perennism or syncretic spirituality (Possamai, 2003), just to name a few. Although scholars who study health are less enamored with the religious or spiritual significance of changes to health care, they end up at a similar place as the sociologist of religion.
One of the chief appeals of homeopathy is its holistic focus on the uniqueness of the individual, and homeopaths often match remedies to a patient’s particular symptoms. The consumer’s need for the sacred in health is part of a more general project of the self, and a response to actual problems found in the everyday. The overlap of magic and health in CAM practices suggests practical magic is working its way throughout society, and, like any other consumer product, its potions and spells may be purchased and exchanged.
Although some consumers may acknowledge the spiritual or religious dimensions of homeopathy, it is not necessary for them to invest in the religious character of the remedies to make use of them for healing. In other words, homeopathy does not represent merely the reemergence of an early protoscientific practice such as, say, the humors of medieval medicine (Craig, 2017). One may discard homeopathy’s origin story and dismiss the vitalistic elements, leaving the medical toolkit behind.
Magic’s invasion of the healthcare space is a return to form when one considers the history of medicine. The difference lies in the approach. Wherein past peoples may not have been able to distinguish medicine from religion or magic, our contemporaries are perhaps more aware of the differences (or just do not care) and become generalized seekers, looking for particular solutions to everyday problems. Although many of the spiritual commodities “occulturalists” draw from are decades and even centuries old, the relationship between the user and the magic has changed in concert with processes of postmodernization that include the decline of traditional ecclesial structures and the individualization of religious belief and practice. Personal autonomy, empowerment, and preferences for holism all play a role in homeopathy’s popularity. However, social scientists should look beyond homeopathy and other forms of CAM as mere health solutions and instead recognize that many patients do not turn to nonorthodox treatments because of their scientific credibility (or purported usefulness), but because of their magical utility.
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About the Author
Jonathan Simmons received his PhD from the University of Alberta. His research interests include nonreligion, new religious movements, and human rights. His work has been published in Social Movement Studies, the Canadian Journal of Sociology, and the International Journal for the Study of New Religions. He can be reached online at http://jonsimmons.ca or by email at email@example.com
 New Age refers to a diffuse assortment of beliefs and practices that combine esotericism and Eastern thinking (Hanegraaff, 2002, p. 293).
 Faith healing refers to the unscientific belief that faith and prayer can cure physical ailments (Flamm, 2004).
 Those involved in the occulture, that is, the enchanted and often magic-infused versions of reality.