I was quite a bolshy little atheist when I was in my teens — all teenagers should be. I still don’t Believe, but nothing makes me feel more tired these days than hearing some smug comedian or other chat-merchant dumping on religion. If you live in the Bible Belt, fine — there’s something big and real and sometimes dark to kick against, and those guys have money and power and say some outrageously dumb and unkind things. But in England it’s like kicking an old person who’s fallen over in the snow. Here, the battle’s over. You’ve already won. If you really want to look big and tough, then take on the new orthodoxy, the Ben Goldacres and Richard Dawkins and other zealots who’ve made it their non-God-given mission to scorch from the earth anything that doesn’t exactly fit their paradigm.
Like, for example, Herbal Medicine. I’m delighted by the news this week that the government has decided to regulate the field, giving it the legitimacy it needs to stand against the legions of the narrow-minded. There was an argument that this venerable profession should simply be left alone to do what it’s been doing for centuries, but unfortunately that’s not the way the world works any more, and so regulation is good. My wife is a medical herbalist, and I know just how many have been helped by her and her kind — people who’ve found their depression lifted after years, or their skin healed after decades, people who have given birth to children that would not have existed otherwise. For the most part these are individuals of whom ‘conventional’ medicine had already washed its hands, people who didn’t respond to the standard drugs and treatments ‘properly’. And don’t tell me all these herbal wins are psychosomatic, either, or I’ll come and kick your ass — after I’ve suggested to you that if what the human mind believes is so very powerful (which I’m prepared to accept), then perhaps belief, and its naughty sister ‘faith’, is something that deserves taking seriously - by everyone.
Herbal medicine both celebrates and functions by the fact that we’re not all the same. Its practitioners take the time to get to know the patient, use their judgment to sculpt individually-targeted medicines out of the plants we have co-evolved with, and understand that the human body’s job is not merely that of doing what some standardized (and patented, and expensive) drug says that it’s supposed to.
One of my favourite jokes of all time is that bit in LIFE OF BRIAN, where Brian’s stirring declaration to the crowd that “You are all individuals!” is met, after a perfect pause, with a quiet and solitary voice muttering... “I’m not’.
Herbal medicine works by confirming that yes, we are.
Good luck to it, and all who sail in it.