The Negative Impact of Shamans in Contemporary Healthcare

The Negative Impact of Shamans in Contemporary Healthcare

Is Complementary Medicine the solution?

The term Shaman has become roughly synonymous with spiritual healers, priests, and other spiritual practitioners. These individuals typically link with specific religions and cultures, and many of the people employing these healers belong to minority cultures in the US. The credence given these practitioners often supersedes the authority of mainstream medicine's doctors and nurses creating negative impacts on healthcare.

Shamans, Culture, and Healthcare

Culture is a powerful behavioral influencer even when one’s views run counter to cultural norms. The belief in magic and supernatural forces in the context of shamanism exemplifies this cultural power since many minority groups hold deep spiritual convictions. While American culture adopted some beliefs in shaman, this group largely remains entrenched in Christian religiosity in the US. The differentiation of these groups holds importance since minorities are prone to healthcare disadvantages, not just for holding different spiritual beliefs but also due to economics. Lack of economic equality and exorbitant healthcare costs create reliance on local medicine men and shaman healers within many communities, but even in cases of insured individuals, these healers are often sought. Too often overreliance on faith healers leads to negative medical outcomes. To understand this problem, one must understand the nature of magic and sorcery faith within these groups and how interwoven these cultural beliefs are with medicine and healing.


Many cultures have some form of shaman or shamanism: individuals believed to command supernatural powers through altered states consciousness or ritual. The concept of shaman suffers ambiguity because the practice is often associated with witchcraft and other supernatural practices. This report defines shamanism as a person using spiritual forces to heal individuals of medical or psychological conditions. In this context, the shaman appears in almost every culture, such as Catholic priests who once practiced exorcism on patients suffering from mental or physical illnesses. These healing practices tremendously diversify across many cultures.

Culture & Religion

One of the most important elements of US society is the freedom of religion. Religious freedom, as a right, is given extraordinary place within US culture. Religious beliefs, even when conflicting, are given their space, and in many ways, religious protection is counterintuitive since religions often reinforce practices harmful to the adherent. Bruno Latour frames this problem when he discusses the treatment of science and religion:

...I am interested mainly in the practical conditions of truth-telling and not in debunking religion after having, so it is said, disputed the claims of science. If it was already necessary to take science seriously without giving it some sort of “social explanation,” such a stand is even more necessary for religion… (Latour, 2010)

Religious and spiritual beliefs are not always qualified and in most instances demand no explanation. This thinking leads to debates concerning faith, but suffice it to say within the context of shamanism, many groups cling to these healers. There are many drivers of this cultural belief such as economics, faith, the desire to hold onto one’s beliefs in the face of a new culture, etc. Some of these beliefs are discussed herein to exemplify the way all religions in the US have the opportunity to grow due to their legal and social treatment as a human right, which can damage healthcare performance.

Healthcare & Science

Medicine operates on the same principles as other sciences, such as scientific method. Western medicine’s methods, despite providing the greatest number of advancements in healthcare, often holds a narrow-minded, culturally insensitive view. Science in general, forms this way in the strive for objectivity. Both scientists and medical practitioners adopt this narrow vision when studying the occult and the interpretations of these spiritual beliefs:

The occult magician lives in a world of forces-forces almost always por­trayed as supernatural or spiritual. The magician believes that these forces and powers can be controlled through certain supernatural rituals and incantations. These may vary widely, from a simple curse or evil glance to a highly elaborate rite that none but adepts can follow.

The objective or motive of the magician is power. Control over nature, over circumstance, and over other people’s lives is the driving force behind all magic. Of course, we all want to have some control over our circumstances; think how much time we spend on finding and keeping a job, or staying healthy, or developing friendships or love relationships. These are the driving interests behind most magic, as well (Grandy & Burton, 2004).

This cultural-centric interpretation of the magician (shaman) and her interest makes sense from a western worldview but becomes lost on other cultures that view the shaman or magic as intrinsic to healing. Western science, having developed in evidence-based thinking, interprets religious and spiritual ideas within a rational framework, which is an odd way of thinking, considering the amount of credence and respect given religion as an individual right. Opponents to this way of thinking argue that when interpreting religious beliefs, science ignores the believer's worldview and operates on erroneous assumptions.

West (2007) claims science, specifically anthropology's use of interpretation and metaphor to explain sorcery invents a riddle or mystery concerning the subject. According to West (2007), the act of doing this assumes erroneous ideas concerning the religion and dismisses the worldview.

While this idea may be true to some extent, West gives the religion too much credit for being easily understood. If religions were easily understood, no controversy would surround them. Religions are interpreted because by their nature they are unprovable and often extremely ambiguous.

One might ask what this has to do with healthcare and medicine and the answer is everything. Healthcare operates on the same principles as other sciences and being culturally sensitive is not always possible when practices could endanger the patient. This is especially true in cases where ethics are at stake. Understanding this difference between healthcare and cultural belief allows one to see how shamanism in practice can negatively impact healthcare.

Negative Cultural Impacts

Hispanic Culture

The largest growing group in the US is Hispanic Americans. This group is highly diverse but shares a common interest and belief in folk medicine. Folk medicine has a long-standing place in Hispanic-American culture, and is especially common among first-generation Hispanics. Healing through the folk system is practiced by “curanderos” or “santeros” (Juckett, 2013). Curanderos are naturalist healers who use herbs and plants to heal illness combined with prayer. Santeros, on the other hand, use the power of the saints to heal, aid, and counsel individuals (Juckett, 2013). These holistic healers are used widely throughout Hispanic American culture, without regard to socioeconomic status, and are sought for social, physical, and psychological purposes. The healers do not advertise services but are well known through informal communication in the Hispanic community network (Juckett, 2013).

Folk medicine's belief and practice stands in sharp contrast to professional healthcare systems in the United States. While many Hispanic Americans regularly visit curanderos for a number of ailments, often many of these individuals go untreated for serious conditions. Curanderos, often refer to diabetes as “hot” and “cold” illnesses and prescribe natural and unnatural (sorcery-related) cures (Juckett, 2013). Healthcare, even when culturally sensitive, has a difficult time convincing first generation Hispanics to use medicine in lieu of the folk medicine, and diabetes often goes untreated because of folk medicine.

Snake Charmers

Shamans tend to rely on strange practices that endanger lives. These healers often adopt the cultural practices of other groups and incorporate them into their religion. Often in these instances, modern medicine is forced to deal with these shamans out of social contrivance. In Sir Edward Tylor vs. Bronislaw Malinowski: Is Magic False Science or Meaningful Performance? Tylor responds to the practice of magic and sorcery as:

…the practice of magic as “pseudo-sciences” correspond in part with Thomas Kuhn’s description of the manner in which “normal science” is conducted, especially how the majority of respectable scientists working under the umbrella of a paradigm are willing to tolerate anomalies and may resort to ad hoc explanations and additions and apologetics to save it (Tambiah).

One such situation can be found in snake charming. Snake charming is the ancient practice of playing and instrument and feigning that the sake has been hypnotized. Traditionally, charmers have used the pungi, a clarinet-like instrument. The snake charmer will perform seemingly dangerous movements such as getting close and handling the snake. Snake charming is predominantly a form of entertainment both historically and in the present, but it has adopted for religious practices.

Snake charming has been documented as early as ancient Egypt. The earliest snake charmers were considered healers and possessed magical abilities. These individuals might be sought to help with sickness and with other issues requiring divine intervention (Houlihan, 2003).

Snake charming has a long history in India where under Hindu belief the serpent is considered sacred. Snakes were believed to be connected with the Gods and served as protectors, especially cobras. In India, snake charmers were considered holy men due to the ability to control the snake (Houlihan, 2003).

Snake Charmer
Read more about Snake Charmers

Over the centuries, in most parts of the world, snake charming evolved into more of an entertainment than religion often incorporating dancing, music, and magic (Houlihan, 2003). It is not uncommon to see snake charmers working streets or appearing in carnivals and fairs.

In the early 1900’s, in the United States, there was a resurgence of snake charming as a form of religion. The practice began in poor rural Appalachia and continues today in small Christian Churches. This practice became known as "snake handling" and considered an act of faith by practitioners. Handling the snake reveals the strength of one’s faith in God protecting the person from being bitten or killed (Houlihan, 2003). The dangers associated with snake handling reduced the religious practice to a small minority of churches (Houlihan, 2003).

It’s estimated that 125 churches in the United States use poisonous snakes during services today, with many clustered in the South. In tiny churches tucked away in rural Appalachia, “snake handling” is a long-standing tradition, one that took root in this region more than a century ago (Effron, 2014).

Despite the fact that snake handling has been outlawed in this region, people persist in the practice. These same preachers practice spiritual healing and refuse all medical treatments. Most of the people who die from snake bites in these ceremonies could be saved if they were not following the belief that God will protect them. Ancient practice are often adopted by new religions and used by shaman, and healthcare vie against faith in these dangerous religious practices.

New Age Shaman

Shaman come in many forms and one of the more prominent Shamans today is the New Age Shaman. This is a self-proclaimed healer who typically follows spiritual concepts (his own or other religions). The New Age Shaman has a an appeal to many subordinate groups because he offers answers to problems that are health related, economic, social etc. This Shaman utilizes what is commonly referred to as New Age Wisdom. William Dairymple characterizes the thinking that exists in this form or religion in his book “Nine Lives”. In this book, nine religious stories are told concerning different religious sagas (Dairymple, 2009). In one story named “The Nun’s Tale” a Jain Nun struggles with her belief in the virtue of detachment while witnessing her best friend starve herself to death in a ritual (Dairymple, 2009). Dairymple relates various other stories of this nature which superficially appear to be concerned with faith and virtue but in reality they critically call into question the spiritual concepts and beliefs of different faiths (Dairymple, 2009).

One of the main concepts the Dairymple highlights is the contradictory nature of spirituality. This same idea can be extrapolated from New Age Shaman who often speak in colloquialism and contradictions. For example, a book known as the “Secret” was marketed and it claimed to have the solution for every problem including disease and illness.

The idea of the Secret begins with the idea that the brain is like a radio. Essentially, people are transmitting their thoughts out to the universe. The basis of this idea is that because thoughts are energy they are transmitted in the same manner as a radio wave. Next, whatever thoughts individuals have (no matter how random) are sent out to the universe. The universe hears or somehow perceives these thoughts and then in response, sends out a command to give the person whatever he or she is thinking. The universe is at one’s fingertips. Thus, the more positively one thinks, the more positive things will occur in their life.

Sadly, millions of people are tricked by this techno babble. Many of these people are sick and seeking solutions. Many of the people who listen to these New Age Shaman will lose money or worse yet miss out on the opportunity to receive vital healthcare. Today, the concept of the shaman has become intertwined with gurus, spiritual healers, and even life coaches. The real problem with shaman is that they detract from healthcare professionalism and take advantage of cultural propensities towards religiosity and folk medicine.

Complementary Medicine

There is a significant difference between shamanism and complementary medicine. The domain of complementary and shamanism includes a number of healing practices presenting alternatives to modern, western medicine (National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2002). Complementary healing integrates spiritual and other alternative forms of healing alongside modern medical care. Shamanism or alternative medicine presents these different methods as substitutes for modern medicine. Though most aspects of complementary medicine have not been scientifically proven, they have been rapidly gaining popularity in the west for the past half century (National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2002)This is partially because complementary medical practices are less expensive and provide positive effects on mental wellbeing, which contributes to the morale required to battle major illnesses and recover from maladies like depression (National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2002). Complementary medicine incorporates spiritual, or religious, practices, alongside modern physical therapy techniques and modern medicine for personalized courses of treatment.

Spiritual healing techniques include qi gong, Reiki, and biofeedback therapies linking electromagnetic fields around the human body to the state of the spirit. The common factor that serves as the basis for these spiritual healing techniques is the notion of a life force, or spiritual energy, contained within the body (National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2002). For example, Reiki is the Japanese term for Universal Life Energy. A Reiki practitioner channels spiritual energy through the body of the patient in order to heal the spirit and the body by proxy. Qi Gong is designed to enhance the flow of qi, or life energy, through the body. It incorporates breathing and movement techniques to achieve this end (National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2002.) Biofield therapies are a relatively new western answer to spiritual energy healing. This form of energy therapy supposedly manipulates energy fields using Therapeutic Touch, or “laying on of the hands.” These forms of energy healing target primarily the spirit rather than the body, which is a main difference between spiritual and modern medicine (National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2002).

Modern, scientific medicine focuses on the physical body rather than a spirit or energy. Scientific medicine took root in the west during the Renaissance period, after the birth of the scientific method and the rise of humanistic thought (Osler, 1990). Doctors made a major breakthrough in the 17th century with the advent of germ theory, which states that some diseases are caused by microorganisms. By the late 19th century, this theory was largely accepted as fact. In the 1870s, the acceptance of germ theory led to sanitation efforts in medical settings and basic hygienic practices, such as handwashing (Osler, 1990). After the need for sanitation was established, the practice modern medicine became standardized in America in the early 20th century. This led to a revolution on the way medicine was taught. Since the development of standard medicinal practices and a scientific approach to healing, life expectancy rose approximately 40 years from 1850 until 2011. Modern medicine and germ theory were undoubtedly responsible for these improvements (Osler, 1990).

The incorporation of spiritual aspects through complementary and alternative medicine benefits patients largely by improving their morale and overall mental state. While modern medicine does little for a patient’s spirituality, alternative medicinal practices can engage the faith of the patient and improve their outlook on life. This is particularly true of those suffering from major illnesses and chronic pain (National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2002). Whether their healing properties come from placebo effect or from actual manipulation of energy through the body is not scientifically testable. However, improved emotional state is important during a difficult healing process.

Modern medicine has been scientifically proven to improve life expectancy and cure illness (Osler, 1990). However, the spiritual approach to healing provides a boost to patient morale where science cannot (National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2002). Therefore, it is beneficial to integrate complementary and alternative healing practices into a care plan.

In a cultural context, some cultures may respond better to some of these therapies as they are relevant to the group. While complementary therapy seems to have positive impacts, it should not be used as an alternative or substitute to research based therapies. Here in lies the challenge for many healthcare providers, as they vie with cultural beliefs that often lead to poor healthcare practices. For this reason, more research is needed to find more practical and effective means of communicating cultural understanding and empathy to patients.


Dairymple, W. (2009). Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India. New York, NY: United States Vintage Books.

Effron, S. W. (2014, February 17). Snake-Handling Pentecostal Pastor Dies From Snake Bite. (ABC) Retrieved from ABC News.

Grandy, D., & Burton, D. (2004). Magic, Mystery and Science. Bloomington, Indianna: Indiana University Press.

Houlihan, P. F. (2003). Spellbound: Charming the Snake & Scorpion. Ancient Egypt , 21.

Juckett, G. (2013, July 1). Caring for Latino Patients. Retrieved from American Family Physician.

Latour, B. (2010). Thou shall not Freeze frame” or How not to Misunderstand the Science and Religion debate, an excerpt from Bruno Latour, On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods (Vol. 1). Indianapolis , Indiana: Duke University Press.

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. (2002). What is complementary and alternative medicine (CAM)? National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Bethesda.

Osler, W. (1990). The evolution of modern medicine. Project Gutenberg. Germany: Champaign, Ill:.

Tambiah, S. J. (n.d.). Sir Edward Tylor vs. Bronislaw Malinowski: Is Magic False Science or Meaningful Performance? and “Malinowski’s Demarcations and his Exposition of the Magical Art In Magic, Science, Religion and the Scope of Rationality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

West, H. G. (2007). Ethnographic Sorcery (Vol. 1). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Photo by Content Pixie on Unsplash


Triola Vincent. Wed, Feb 17, 2021. The Negative Impact of Shamans in Contemporary Healthcare Retrieved from

Need similar articles?

Back to: Ten Years of Academic Writing