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Why Mars Hill was the perfect incubator for questionable naturopathy

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.

In a world flooded with contradictory evidence, retaining the literalist view requires believers to suspend critical thinking, treat doubt as an enemy and engage in processes that psychologists call confirmatory thinking and motivated belief. These are processes that help us sustain what we already believe or want to believe.

They are valuable when it comes to affirming tradition, hope or entitlement, but they are terrible at helping us to find flaws in our thinking. For that we need to ask the questions that could show us wrong. This is what the scientific method does and why it has been called, “what we know about how not to fool ourselves.”

When naturopath John Catanzaro elected to short cut the scientific method and offer novel “natural” cures, his Mars Hill patients were poorly equipped to see the error of his ways. Some of them may have paid dearly. Indeed, the Mars Hill mindset may have been part of what lead Catanzaro to his own downfall. One can only hope that the website scrubbing undertaken by church leaders has been accompanied by a more private process of soul searching.

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