Why Mars Hill was the perfect incubator for questionable naturopathy

Guest Opinion: The mentality of Seattle's mega-church propelled one of its most prominent pastors into questionable medical territory, then cast him aside.

Until his license was suspended by the State of Washington, naturopath John Catanzaro was a role model at Mars Hill Church in Ballard — a respected contributor to the church’s Resurgence blog, where he urged readers to “know Jesus Christ as a personal Savior, Guide and Friend.”

The license suspension came because Catanzaro charged cancer patients thousands of dollars for questionable treatments he developed himself without appropriate research and review. Now Catanzaro’s presence has been scrubbed from church media as leaders move to distance themselves from an awkwardly public transgression of medical and scientific ethics.

Unfortunately for them, scrubbing the websites doesn’t change the fact that the Mars Hill worldview is painfully consonant with how Catanzaro practiced medicine — and may have made church members with cancer particularly vulnerable to questionable treatments.

The Mars Hill approach to Christianity is built on hierarchical authority, in-group trust and suspension of critical thought in the face of poor quality evidence. Each of these, it would appear, contributed to Catanzaro’s appeal, and I will address each in turn.

Authoritarianism. As a mega-church franchise owner, Pastor Mark Driscoll has nurtured a cult of personality in which he and his inner circle receive a level of adulation that is rare outside of Hollywood. Catanzaro, it would appear, was a member of this circle — he was once referred to by Driscoll as “my doctor and friend.”

Mars Hill theology teaches a hierarchy of authority in which good Christian children and women submit to the divinely appointed leadership of men, who in turn submit to the will of God as interpreted by church leaders.

In this model of reality, trust in authority is considered a virtue. Doubt is considered a sign of weakness or prideful insubordination. A person in this frame of mind is less likely to question, to scrutinize evidence and logic, or to seek a second opinion when given advice or information, even information that may affect his or her wellbeing.

In-group dynamics. Questioning is made all the more unlikely by the social dynamics of the shared religious community. Scientific study suggests that one function of religion is to increase altruistic behavior and trust among insiders (while decreasing altruism and trust toward outsiders to a slightly lesser extent).

Mars Hill consciously amps up this aspect of religious tribalism — encouraging members to socialize and seek support within the church and to avoid close bonds with outsiders except as conversion opportunities.

It also practices retention techniques like early marriage, mentoring and “shepherding,” in which older members house young singles until they can be paired with godly partners. Techniques like these create a soft-walled community that enhances member retention through mild and mostly positive mind-control techniques that emphasize sharing and caring.

An elder in Catanzaro’s position is unlikely to be questioned because most of the time members do act with positive intent toward each other. Knowing that someone is a fellow member provides a shortcut that allows members to bypass the kind of cautious moves by which we evaluate another person’s integrity and intentions.

Poor standards of evidence. When considering novel or alternative medical procedures, patients and family members are their own best protection against quackery. Mainstream medicine is subject to rigorous requirements for research before claims can be made about efficacy and non-harm. But even with these safeguards, complications and side effects get missed — sometimes to horrible effect.

When it comes to “natural” supplements, practices and additives, the guardrails are mostly gone. As entertainer Tim Minchin jokingly put it: “By definition, alternative medicine has either not been proved to work or been proved not to work. You know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work? Medicine.” Until a breach of practice standards or public safety become egregious, as in the case of Catanzaro, alternative medicine patients are largely on their own.

But along with the authoritarian structure and social dynamics of Mars Hill, the group teaches a crippling approach to evidence analysis, creating a perfect storm of vulnerability. The kind of biblical literalism endorsed at Mars Hill is increasingly difficult to sustain in the age of information and Internet. It has long been abandoned by mainline Christian scholars, who have adapted their understanding of scripture to findings in the fields of archeology, anthropology, linguistics, biology, neuroscience and more.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Feb 26, 10:01 p.m. Inappropriate

This is not a well written story. I am surprised it passed editorial muster.

WSDW

Posted Fri, Feb 28, 9:49 p.m. Inappropriate

I thought it was a great story. The real job of journalism is to shed light on what's happening, and it does that.

Posted Fri, Mar 7, 9:14 a.m. Inappropriate

A couple of commenters thought my analysis should have been backed up with more and better links. Although the article is an opinion piece, I thought that was a fair critique.

Here is an article about religion increasing altruism toward insiders while decreasing altruism and trust toward outsiders, a phenomenon called patriarchal altruism: http://www.stanford.edu/dept/islamic_studies/cgi-bin/web/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/gaduh.pdf One of my early articles describes how Mars Hill explicitly sought to capture and retain the charitable funds of members during the Asian Tsunami and Haiti crises: "Sad About Haiti? Give to our MegaChurch" http://www.huffingtonpost.com/valerie-tarico/sad-about-haiti-give-to-o_b_441125.html

Two blogs, Driscoll Watch (http://driscollwatch.wordpress.com/about/) and The Wartburg Watch (http://thewartburgwatch.com/category/mark-driscoll/) examine Mars Hill theology and institutional misbehavior from the vantage of other Christians.

ValerieT

Posted Thu, Feb 27, 6:35 a.m. Inappropriate

This is a dreadful article written by a woman with a vendetta against conservative Christians. I am shocked that it was published by Crosscut. If you google Valerie, you will find out her biases - they are many and all directed against conservative/fundamentalist Christianity. She must have had a really bad experience somewhere, but Crosscut don't publish any more articles that aren't news but just bigoted gibberish!

Posted Thu, Feb 27, 6:37 a.m. Inappropriate

and, OMG, she links to her own blog as evidence.

Posted Fri, Mar 7, 9:23 a.m. Inappropriate

Actually, I linked to my own past articles for further discussion but should have placed the link differently. Feedback accepted.

Articles by Matthew Paul Turner, religion professor Robert Cargill, and a former church member provide additional evidence for the discussion in this piece.

http://robertcargill.com/2012/01/24/how-much-more-evidence-do-you-need-mark-driscolls-mars-hill-church-is-a-cult/

http://matthewpaulturner.com/2012/01/24/jesus-needs-new-prmark-driscolls-church-discipline-contract-looking-for-true-repentance-at-mars-hill-church-sign-on-the-dotted-line/

Mars Hill Refuge: http://marshillrefuge.blogspot.com/

ValerieT

Posted Thu, Feb 27, 6:44 a.m. Inappropriate

"...built on hierarchical authority, in-group trust and suspension of critical thought in the face of poor quality evidence."

The first thing I thought of when I read that was "Climate change orthodoxy." Helped put the rest of the article in perspective because most true believers in anything are going to resist critical thought challenging their faith in the unproven.

Posted Thu, Feb 27, 7:25 a.m. Inappropriate

All the naysayers appear to be Mars Hill parishioners.

I found the article well written and accurate. Mars Hill is a cult of personality.

If you read the medical board's review of the doctor he basically did little more than offer a faith healing service to his patients.

elbowman

Posted Fri, Feb 28, 9:51 p.m. Inappropriate

Agree.
It's funny what you can get away with if you label it "religion"

To me, it seems that religion is hijacking the constitution. We need to take America back from religion. Separation of Church and State is more important and more pressing than it has ever been.

Posted Thu, Feb 27, 7:29 a.m. Inappropriate

A strong article -- looks at Mars Hill (really all fundamentalist religion) from a generalist social science perspective. Of course it finds it lacking, because fundamentalist religion requires suspension of basic intellectual rigor. The Mars Hill version, as Tarrico points out, also includes some celebrity bedazzlement and affirmation of sexist hegemony. Yep, it all seems to be true. Thanks, Valerie, for putting all the problems with Mars Hill into one comprehensive article.

Posted Thu, Feb 27, 7:59 a.m. Inappropriate

Yikes,

Why does anyone coming to the defense of religious freedom get labled? Typical liberal tactic. No, I am not a Mars Hill member. I'm not even of the same religion. I do know some Mars Hill folks, as well as Mormons, and even had relatives who dabled in Christian Science. Great people. If they are happy, who cares. No one forces people to subscibe to a particular creed. There are good and bad of all faiths.

Seasoned

Posted Thu, Feb 27, 9:25 a.m. Inappropriate

Defense of religious freedom? Please help us understand how this article is attacking religious freedom.

Mars Hill is free to do what they do, we are free to use speech to critique it.

Typical conservative tactic? You love your freedom except when someone else is using theirs in a way that offends you.

joolian

Posted Thu, Feb 27, 9:47 a.m. Inappropriate

joolian,

I was responding to the commenters who labled other commenters as obvious Mars Hill partisans. There are plenty of folks who go in for alternate medicine as well as plenty of groups who are close-knit. If this were not a "conservatve Christian" group, it would not be written about.

The current "progressives" remind me of the puritans H.L. Mencken wrote exensively about. The belief set is different, but the blind adherence to orthodoxy is not.

Seasoned

Posted Thu, Feb 27, 8:13 a.m. Inappropriate

Excellent commentary and analysis which can be applied to groupthink errors everywhere.

When our only social contacts, our only sources of information are limited and only confirm our bias, we get a skewed view of reality. It makes us vulnerable to predatory individuals and propaganda.

gaia

Posted Thu, Feb 27, 9:44 a.m. Inappropriate

Essentially, this article defines the difference between "religion" and "cult." Mars Hill is the latter.

olaf

Posted Thu, Feb 27, 10:19 a.m. Inappropriate

Not a Mars Hill member, but what a poor piece. One guy is a miscreant, so we take this as an opportunity to fling sheyt on the group.

Did you know some kiddie sex predators are liberals?

Yeah, tha's the ticket, and in-kind.

Geezer

Posted Fri, Feb 28, 9:47 p.m. Inappropriate

"what a poor piece"

Very interesting. I thought its a great example of journalism. The job of journalism is to shed light on things, and that's what it does.

Did the Church do anything about the miscreant? No
Just like the Catholic Church has done nothing to address well known child abuse. Guess what this behavior is called? Being an accomplice.

Posted Thu, Feb 27, 2:16 p.m. Inappropriate

On the other side of this coin is a dispute between two hospital's idea of patient care resulting in loss of parents' custody of a child:

http://guardianlv.com/2013/12/boston-childrens-hospital-controversy-after-court-denies-parents-custody-of-child/

Critical thinking is too important hand over to government without a great deal of critical thought!

afreeman

Posted Thu, Feb 27, 3:54 p.m. Inappropriate

Is there a Megachurch of the Mainstream that I can come and join? Sounds like they use evidence, data, and research to back up their claims. See the never-wrong website: trebledoubleu.medicine.gov/NIHresearchisalwayscorrect.cdcalwaysright.ouchtml.

Thanks again for the wonderful article,
Alexander Hamilton

"One small step for the Federal Government, one giant leap for Mother Russia."

Posted Fri, Feb 28, 12:06 p.m. Inappropriate

Sounds exactly like how we would define a cult:

"Mars Hill theology teaches a hierarchy of authority in which good Christian children and women submit to the divinely appointed leadership of men, who in turn submit to the will of God as interpreted by church leaders."

jschlicke

Posted Fri, Feb 28, 3:25 p.m. Inappropriate

To attack the article without substantive, factual evidence in defense shows the true bias. Admittedly it would be nigh impossible to present such evidence. Ms. Tarico is not the first to shed light on this group.

This article is factual. People don't like it when their "church" is exposed as a cult, but I challenge you to look up the definition of cult. Mars Hill members would be well advised to take an objective step back and actually question some of these extreme teachings.

It's always all in the name of god.... you can say and do anything in the name of god. I witnessed that firsthand at Wheaton College too. It's a free country -- religious freedom apparently includes duping followers into things that serve the needs of the hierarchy.

Posted Fri, Feb 28, 9:44 p.m. Inappropriate

Thank you for an informative article.

I really wish that the Government would be a better job protecting people from scams that come in the name of religion. It is starting to look like one can get away with anything as long as they somehow link it to religion. Medical malpractice is what this is, and I am glad someone is calling a spade a spade.

I especially loved this: "You know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work? Medicine"

Posted Fri, Feb 28, 10:47 p.m. Inappropriate

what a great article. what a horrible excuse for a church. i have attended several churches (in different states) over the years. thank god none of them were like this place, or i'd be sleeping in with the cats every sunday. and, no real christian would be attacking the article's author as some here have. yet another example of the cultish fraud of the sunday house that worships money. heck, the people there sound practically satanic!

go seahawks!!

Flint

Posted Sat, Mar 1, 8:02 a.m. Inappropriate

How sad. Take people who are facing a terrifying situation, "treat" them with "remedies" that don't work... and do this in an environment where any doubt or questioning when they fail to get better is looked upon as weakness or insubordination, whether it comes from themselves or concerned family members. And all backed up by a person in a position of trust, someone you should be able to turn to in need and get genuine help.

I feel so sorry for these people. Wonderful article, thank you for shedding light on this tragedy.

JFinley

Posted Sat, Mar 1, 12:14 p.m. Inappropriate

Just another religious type cult, with lots of money. Unfortunate their followers have no brains.

Posted Sun, Mar 2, 7:39 a.m. Inappropriate

deleted

gom8

Posted Sun, Mar 2, 10:14 a.m. Inappropriate

Wow. Her hair is wet, her t-shirt is wet, and the 2 young men behind her look like they are at a frat party, drinking & having a grand old time.

Leadership? Religion? Certainly not religious baptism, unless you like a couple of frat boys rah-rah-rahing you into the baptismal pool. Age old boys coercing girls behavior.

Then these boys pass the basket and want you to donate more money.

Posted Sun, Mar 2, 8:22 a.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for a well written story regarding this church and basic tenets of fundamentalism. I have seen, heard and felt the "trust us" mentality that teaches blind faith without critical thinking. I have never really understood this phenomenon in religion but this article sheds a lot of light on the topic while exposing the very hypocritical downside to it. When people cannot see beyond this created world they lose real life perspective. So sad that people get so boxed in to this way of thinking that they cannot see what is in or not in their own best interests.

buddycats

Posted Mon, Mar 3, 6:11 p.m. Inappropriate

Looking at this article and judging it by its own standards, it fails pretty miserably.

First, it claims to value evidence. What evidence is presented for its claims about Mars Hill? None. It tells us that "scientific study suggests that one function of religion is to increase altruistic behavior and trust among insiders," but doesn't cite or link to the supposed study, as though we should just take Tarico's word for it. It tells us that "retaining the literalist view requires believers to . . .engage in processes that psychologists call confirmatory thinking and motivated belief." Probably, but anyone who follows the link will learn that confirmation bias is a tendency we all share in all of our thinking, something we have to work hard to try to counter. There's no sign here that Tarico is trying to overcome her evident bias against Mars Hill.

Second, Tarico suggests that accepting science over religion is something we do based on the evidence. The problem with that is that most of us can't evaluate scientific evidence--we rely on scientists to do that for us. That is, we take science on authority--whether it's telling us about the age of the universe or the value of PSA tests and mammograms. And when scince changes its position, mostly we change right along with it. Tarico tries to use that belief to bully us with her reference to a "scientific study" of religion. Iif it's science, it must be true. No critical thinking necessary.

Third, the author wants to make a fuss about credulity with regard to one doctor and a fundamentalist church. But what about credulity with regard to the imagined dangers of vaccines? It has nothing to do with fundamentalists. If Tarico's really worried about the cult of personality and the ways it can promote anti-science, maybe she should have written about Jenny McCarthy, an Indigo or Crystal or whatever she is, and all the credulous people who take her seriously.

cato

Posted Tue, Mar 4, 9:37 a.m. Inappropriate

This may provide at least a perspective of what influences naturopathy.
I sat in on a few Bastyr classes. I was looking to observe something that provided insight into the philosophy behind the teaching, and not something dryly technical. It was a required course for entering Freshman.
This course (at least the three sessions I sat in on) essentially defined the difference between medical treatment like naturopathy and “conventional” medical practice. The difference is something called the “spirituality” element which involves the paradigm that naturopathy treats the “whole” person, and not just the symptoms that follow from some kind of “toxicity.” Spirituality opens a potential perspective to each case that allows the naturopath to tune in the “whole” person. “Spirituality” in this case means treating not just the symptoms of toxicity that the patient experiences, but treats all the factors affecting the patient, including the relationship the patient has “to the universe.” (words used in class!) That “universe” I heard three teaching naturopaths say, is characterized as being something that is “order, intelligent, and benign.” Another characterized it similarly but as “purposeful, organized and beneficient.”
This, apparently, was the philosophical base of this “alternative” medicine.
I heard were applications of this philosophy, after thoughts ran through my head such as if the universe is beneficent---meaning its “intent” is not to harm---why is the ecological complexity of what we are immediately able to experience being degraded at such a rapid rate.
In addition if the purpose of all creation was benevolent, why is it that everything in the universe, from cosmos to all ecosystems all disappear Is cause and effect between universe and man but not man and universe?
But here are what two naturopaths made clear as guest lecturers. Their repertoire of treatment strategies involves assessing the “spirit,” “zen,” or “psychomedalysis” (interesting word, eh?) of the patient. In essence each identifies a means for “seeing” the “inner essence” that “exposes the physical manifestation.”
One example of consequent treatment noted was one naturopath's feeling a patient’s head, and “intuitively” experiencing that this patient “had been introduced to teaching in a windowless room.”
This same practitioner then noted how he had visualized a patient’s head and “saw in his mind red streaks striating the patient’s skull---a sure sign of a migraine headache.” Consequent treatment: “willing the red streaks gone.”
Another case involved a suicidal woman who had learned in a variety of ways that the “world” was a “very hostile place.” (which means this patient did not see the “benevolence” of the universe) This woman consequently could not “trust it (the world) or “any one” because “she had learned she must fight for survival.”
Treatment involved teaching her that the universe is “ordered and benign,” and that there is “truth in nature” and “we are creations of the universe--we were of it and welcomed in it.” This “knowledge” brought results, calming the patient and making her feel better. Hydrotherapy and a no-fruit diet helped aid this improvement but it was made clear that it was her willingness to accept the fact that “the universe was friendly and supportive” which was most responsible for her resuming work and achieving an improved marriage.
He did add, though, that later he attempted to call her but her phone was disconnected.
These are examples of what the “spiritual” element of alternative medicine, as taught at Bastyr, is. This is how it teaches the “whole” person.
The phone disconnection augurs something symbolic to me---my inability to concretize the language which disconnects me from this treatment process.
The body is a very complex organism, and the cause and effect of your liver recovery may have involved some other factor than the milk thistle and arnica administered by the naturopath. But a retired M.D. told me it is remarkable the impact the mind has over the body.

Massive numbers of people often with desperation seek health-related answers, and that means a lot of money is involved in the process. That money attracts many kinds of treatment while making many very gullible.

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