Integrative Care
Policy News

“Holy Health” Highlights Multiconfessional Sweden

10 April, 2014 by David Finer

Contemporary Sweden is a multicultural and multireligious society. Whether we like it or not. That is the message of the anthology “Holy Health”, writes Göran Ståhle, a senior lecturer in the Psychology of Religion at Södertörn University in Stockholm, who is one of the editors of the book. After his article, journalist David Finer  provides a description of the contents.

This is something that has slowly become a reality during the last ten to twenty years and therefore is relatively new to the Swedish self-image. A self-image characterized by cultural homogeneity and the secular values ​​that predominate in the middle class, which also dominates public debate (and thus also the major mass media). Some people have even – somewhat exaggeratedly – wanted to talk about the Swedish media being “religiously illiterate ” because of this.

A Polarized Debate
Thus, it is also very important to study the phenomena scientifically, in order to obtain a more informed political or religious perspective. Unfortunately, public debate is too often characterized by polarized positions, where everyone who expresses themselves get pushed into extreme positions that are pitted against each other, instead of seeking a nuanced understanding that is somewhere in between, encompassing both sides of the coin. In terms of our positions in practice, in everyday life, few of us are completely ” either-or “; most of us are usually a bit of  “both”.

No Contradiction
The book discusses how people who are engaged in Christian so called free churches can speak of illness in terms of the laying-on of hands and of medicine simultaneously. For the individual, there is no contradiction in this.

Contrary to what many people with a secular life-view believe, people who get involved religiously/ spiritually are often critical of their own faith, while at the same time adhering to it. Unlike the distorted image of religion, it is not a question of uncritically ” selling out” to a system and thus abandoning one´s rational and critical faculties.

Important Complement
This book takes a humanistic and social scientific perspective on healing in Sweden today, and thus constitutes an important complement to more scientific studies. The primary focus is not on efficiency and safety, but rather on trying to understand and learn more about how these phenomena manifest themselves, as well as the social and cultural processes involved.

It’s important to understand that from this perspective, biomedicine is in many respects also a cultural, historical and social product. This does not mean that one should equate biomedicine with alternative medicine in terms of effectiveness and safety. Biomedicine is the most effective medical system that we have seen in history.

Fills a Void
So one of the main points in the book is the pluralistic situation of today’s Swedish society in terms of the provision of healing methods. There exist to date few overviews of the situation in Sweden, probably due to the fact that the realization of the multiconfessional/ multicultural state is relatively new in the public debate. This book fills a void.

Another point is that for the individual seeking care, this pluralism is no problem; people often use several methods simultaneously.

A third point is that secular values dominate ​​in Swedish public debate. This allows alternative healing methods to adapt their image accordingly. We see less emphasis on spirituality and religiosity in favor of “clean” method, as is the case for example, for mindfulness and yoga.

No Pure Method
From our religious studies´perspective, however, we do not believe that there is any “pure” method, but that all healing modalities (including biomedicine) are practiced in the light of certain basic philosophical assumptions, and in a specific cultural, historical and social context.

We want to emphasize that this does not mean we  are placing any values on what is more true, what is better or worse or what is more traditional, etc. We are not saying that biomedicine is on a par with complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). Nor do we assert that there are ”truer” versions of mindfulness and yoga in Asia.

Tradition as Status
The versions that we see in the Western world may often be more serious and more faithful to certain cited documents/records than the ones we see in Asia. There is no necessary connection to the tradition in these methods. The invocation of tradition may instead be seen as an attempt to endow the method of one´s own choice with increased status. Hence, it becomes an expression of how the method is practiced in today’s Swedish cultural and social contexts.

Goran Ståhle

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Here follows a description of the contents of the recently published book (in Swedish) “Holy Health. Healing Methods in Multireligious Sweden”(Dialogos), compiled by journalist David Finer.

The book consists of nine chapters thematically divided into three sections :

Section 1: Traditional healing in modern Sweden – non-institutionalized , “popular” methods and their encounter with institutionalized medicine in Sweden.

  • Illness, healing and cure among Somalians in Swedes by Johan Wedel, PhD in Social Anthropology
  • Spirit, self, body: Healing among Assyrians in Sweden by Aryo Makko , PhD in History
  • ´Purifying’ haunted houses by Olof Dahlin, Lecturer in Religious Studies

Section 2: Healing within religious organizations

  • Aspirin and Laying-on of Hands: Healing Practices among Charismatic Christians in Stockholm by Jessica Moberg, post-doctorate researcher in Religious Studies
  • Blessing or Diksha: Healing and Enlightenment at the Same Time by Liselotte Frisk, Professor of Religious Studies

Section 3: In the borderland between therapy and religion – forms of healing represented in Sweden as a result of the West’s increased interest in holistic health.

  • Lost in Translation: Secular Mindfulness and Buddhism by Per Drougge, a doctoral student in social anthropology
  • Health Therapy or Faith? Yoga in Theory and Practice by Ferdinando Sardella, Lecturer in Religious Studies
  • Getting the Flow of Life: Mind -body Therapy and Coaching as New Healing Methods by Anne- Christine Hornborg  Professor of Religious Studies.

Holism Among Somalian Swedes
Johan Wedel writes about healing among Somalis in Sweden, including the use of herbal remedies, koran recitation and displacement of so-called djinn (or genies), which are assumed to possess people and cause disease. The author also touches on individual users’ attitudes to established health care. Seeking help in this community is deeply stigmatizing. Many therefore interpret their problems in traditional terms (as obsessions) and use religious healing practices.

Miracles Side By Side With Biomedicine
Aryo Makko writes about healing among Assyrians in Sweden based on the so-called miracle in Södertälje (a Swedish town), where the young woman Samira Hannoch was said to be curing sick people. The chapter includes a discussion of the use of herbal medicines and beliefs about miracles and of healing and health in the light of the ongoing integration process Assyrians in Sweden are undergoing. Today, there are huge differences between different generations, with elders preferring traditional methods, while the younger ones have a more eclectic approach and combine these with biomedical methods.

A Shaman Who Purifies Houses
Olov Dahlin presents a study of Anders Sandkvist, who has contacts with the spirit world and also conducts actual healing activities. He also “cleans ” people’s houses from visitations, a technique that he believes developed within the Russian Orthodox splinter group commonly called the Old Believers, to which both Sandkvist and his ancestors belonged. He himself calls their activities “shamanism”, something he claims they took over from previous generations, who came from Karelia, in an unbroken sequence of 700 years.

This also offers him legitimacy to pursue something that would otherwise be classified as “new spirituality”, a term with which Sandkvist disagrees. Sandkvist is aware of the Swedish legislation which in some cases prohibits  activities in the health care area, now part of the Patient Safety Act. “Purifying houses” is however, not governed by the legislation. Sandkvist´s increasing involvement in houses can thus to some extent be seen as an adjustment to Swedish legislation, says Dahlin.

Charismatic Christians Combine Cures
Jessica Moberg, co-editor of the book, describes healing within charismatic Christian churches in Stockholm combing elements of prayer with the laying on of hands, anointing with oil and the use of so-called prayer cloths. Moberg also emphasizes competition among charismatic Christians and new religious healers, and how Christians perceive this. Moberg  asserts that contradictions seldom arise between those using biomedical health care and for example the laying on of hands. At the individual level, religious and biomedical healing practices and explanatory models – including theological , scientific and psychological ones – are combined.

Diksha Movement Generates Energy
The theme of Liselotte Frisk´s chapter is healing within the Diksha Movement, a neo-Hindu organization with roots in India, which has established itself in many parts of the world. The duo in charge is a married practitioner couple called Sri Bagavan and Amma. They started becoming more publicly visible in the 1990s and the movement today has tens of thousands of followers worldwide.

The most common healing method within the organization is where a rerepresentativae of the organization places his hands on a client and gives a blessing (diksha). Energies emitted by the movement’s leading figures are expected to lead to both enlightenment and healing from mental and physical ailments. The method has been disseminated both within other religious organizations, such as the Swedish church, and in the unorganized new religious environment.

Mindfulness ”Alternative” No More
As the title  – Lost in translation – of Drougges´ contribution suggests, he believes that something of substantial importance has been lost, as mindfulness has swept across the West, so much so,  to the extent that the method can hardly any  longer be considered ” alternative “.

Contrary to what is often claimed, today’s secular or therapeutic mindfulness did not come about by a meeting between Western medicine/ psychotherapy on the one hand and traditional Asian Buddhism on the other. Instead, says Drougge, it has its origins in a Western, psychologizing environment that in many ways differs from its Asian counterparts.

Drougge consciously devotes quite a lot of space to a critique of secular mindfulness, which he says has bee launched from religious quearters and to some extent from practicing Buddhists. He realizes that the criticism is probably not very relevant to “the thousands of people who use these methods to deal with stress, depression, chronic pain or other problems.” Mindfulness can be useful and effective, he admits, but he is also critical of how it is often described in the media, especially in terms of the relationship between mindfulness and Buddhism.

Mindfulness is a translation of the Pali word sati. It is often interpreted as a kind of immediate perception or pure attention free of values or conceptualizing. But in Buddhism, sati has a broader significance. It can also mean “memory”, conscience and conscientiousness.

The more traditional Buddhist contemplation represents an extremely focused attention that allows for an experience of “seeing through” the experience of being a separate self, something that often requires years of practice. Rather than carefully and acceptingly observing the internal monologue as interpreted in the West, something which may be taught in a short weekend course.

Meditation Exercises iwhich n Buddhism have different purposes (to cultivate stillness and provide insight into the nature of the Self, for example) are bundled together.

Yoga Disconnected From Tradition
Yoga is perhaps the most widespread and popular form of alternative practice  on the boundary between therapy and religion. About 400 000 Swedes are estimated to pursue some form of yoga. In his chapter, Ferdinando Sardella writes that in contemporary Sweden, physical exercises (asanas) commonly are allowed to dominate the practice, whereas the important breathing exercises (pranayama) are neglected . In a larger perspective, it can be said that the health benefits of yoga are emphasized at the expense of its philosophy and connection to Hindu religiosity and New Age thinking, which was more common in the 1980s. The growing popularity of yoga has gone hand in hand with its physicalization, as Sardella terms it.

The development is likely to have secured the future of yoga in Sweden. Meanwhile, the blurred boundaries between yoga and pure gymnastics have weakened the links of yoga to the origins of the Indian religious traditions. This decoupling from the roots also explains the confusion among practitioners about what yoga really is, argues Sardella.

There are no uniform requirements for becoming a qualified yoga instructor. It increases the risk of clients being damaged by hard workouts. It also lacks a common knowledge base, for example, as to the most commonly used exercises, but the community is working towads achieving common guidelines, Sardella emphasizes.

Hidden Potential Inside
In the chapter Getting the flow of life, Ann-Christine Hornborg analyzes the strategies that therapists and coaching establishments use to promote and legitimize themselves. The message of the coaching movement may be summarized as to thinking positively and getting a flow in life. A new form of spirituality has emerged, based on the idea that all people have a hidden essence at their core, a “potential” that can redeem the individual from illness  and more.

Many call themselves therapists – a title not protect in Sweden. You can call yourself a psychosynthesis therapist and a certified therapist/ coach – sometimes reinforced with the words authorized or licensed – without being subject to societal regulation, training or sanctions. The author calls this “self-certification”.

Coaching companies lend credibility by calling themselves ” academies” or ”institutes”. In their marketing, coaches and lay therapists may also emphasize personal characteristics and experiences of, for example traumatic experiences, as a kind of warranty, a guarantee of quality.

Hornborg also highlights what she calls pseudoscientific reasoning, as Olav Hammer noted in his study of the New Age movement. Terms borrowed from natural science are reconciled with notions of, for example, the life force.

A large part of the critical analysis pertains to the book and method The Journey by Brandon Bays in terms of individuation and ritualisation of treatment. Hornborg describes the activity as part of a new phase of the market economy, where coaches and lay therapists offer the promise of rapid changes in self -development, health and success in order to make money.

The chapter is written based on the Swedish so called Eligibility White Paper, which aimed to define eligibility requirements for individuals and organizations in the health field. In that perspective, the operations described in the book are not without problems, says Hornborg. Placing the responsibility of making one´s life over on the individual, runs the risk of ill-health – if the treatment does not have the intended effect – being seen as a sign that the individual has failed.

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