The no-man’s land of religion


Vang was a Hmong (Laotian) soldier.  He resettled in Chicago in 1980 after escaping the ravages of the war in Laos.  Soon Vang developed serious medical problems.  He started having nightmares and breathing problems. 

Vang’s case would have remained unnoticed had it not been for the similar symptoms reported by 25 other Laotian refugees In the USA who died before the ‘advanced’ medical science of the USA could save them.  The death of these 25 Laotians led to a theory that came to be known as the ‘Hmong sudden death syndrome.’ 

The US Centre for Disease Control investigated these deaths and could not detect any natural cause.  The experts came to the conclusion that the deaths were triggered by a combination of the stress of resettlement, guilt over abandoning family members or relatives in Laos, and (this is interesting) the Hmong’s cultural beliefs about angry spirits.

Vang was taken to a Hmong woman regarded as a shaman.  A shaman is what we might call a priest-doctor.  The shaman told Vang that his problems were caused by unhappy spirits.  She performed ceremonies to release the spirits.  Vang’s nightmares and breathing problems stopped.  He is probably still alive (and kicking) in Chicago. I read his story in a 2007-book written by American psychologists Passer and Smith and all I know is that Vang was alive when the book went to the press.

What saved Vang, in short, was his belief.  It was/is a belief that science will find ridiculous. 


Your belief can also kill you. 

About half a century ago, a woman died in Baltimore City Hospital on her 23rd birthday because of a belief of hers.  She was born on a Friday the thirteenth.  The midwife who helped in the childbirth was a member of a voodoo cult in Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp.  Friday the 13th was an ominous day for this woman and so she placed a curse on all the three children whose births she assisted that day.  She cursed that each child would die before its 16th, 21st and 23rd birthday respectively. 

The first child died in an auto accident at the age of 15.  The second died on her 21st birthday during a shooting incident in a nightclub.  The third was stricken with terror as her 23rd birthday approached and was admitted in Baltimore City Hospital.  She had no physical illness whatever.  The doctors assured her that nothing fatal would happen to her.  She was given all the care in the hospital.  Yet she died in the hospital bed.  There was no rational explanation for her death.

This is not a story, but a real incident described by psychologist M E P Seligman in the book, Helplessness: On depression, development, and death.  What killed the woman on her 23rd birthday was nothing but fear, fear engendered by her belief in the power of the voodoo curse.  The fear was reinforced by her knowledge of the fate of the other two persons whose death had seemed to comply with the curse.  The woman was not a follower of the voodoo cult, but she feared its curse.  She feared it because she believed that it was powerful enough to affect her life.  It is that belief which killed her.


BELIEF is a terrible thing.

There is something that lies in the human mind that is still beyond the grasp of science. 

That something is what attracts people to religion.  That something is what creates the arts, poetry, and madness of all sorts including terrorism.

While the arts and poetry (and other creative expressions of the perception of that something) are the sane ways of perceiving that something, madness is (obviously) the insane way. 

Terrorism is one of those insane ways.

But what about religion?

As a student of psychology, I’m placing religion in a no-man’s land now, a neutral ground.  Because it seems to be capable of both killing and saving (as my examples above prove). 

Personally I have not had any positive experience from religion.  I have seen a lot of negative effects of religion – the various hues of fundamentalism. 

My hypothesis so far is this: people who cannot rise to the arts and poetry succumb to the no-man’s land of religion where they may survive or perish. 


Rise, I said in the above sentence.  Rise from where?  From science?  I think so in spite of Stephen Hawking’s latest pronouncements.

[Note: This blog is a product of my thinking provoked by the request of an acquaintance to write a preface to a collection of his poems.  I wondered what place poetry has in today’s world and this blog was the result.]


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8 Responses to The no-man’s land of religion

  1. Siddharth Gupta says:

    Sir, what I inferred from this is that if your mind weighs down your heart you’ll flourish and vice-a-versa you’ll perish. I know I oversimplified it but still sir I feel – It’s all in the mind !

  2. matheikal says:

    Sid, yes, that’s a rather oversimplified way of putting it.

    I’d rather say that the heart and the mind, both, have their own relevant and valid functions [in the meanings you have given to the terms]. Science, for example, works with the mind, the reason, and understands the tangible, experiential, experimental aspects of reality. The tangibility may be enhanced with the help of machines like the telescope or microscope.

    The heart, on the other hand, deals with human emtoions and attitudes, which are also relevant and valid. My argument is that poetry, arts and the like are the creative ways of dealing with those.

  3. Blognostic says:

    Too much religion and Too much science is not good for the society. 😉

  4. Raghuram Ekambaram says:


    I have a number of problems.
    1. Almost nothing about the human mind is within the grasp of science. We may know the HOW of the mechanism of a rare few perceptions of the mind but even these have been gleaned only from the workings of a dysfunctional mind! Read V S Ramachandran’s book “Phantom in the mind” (?) or Steven Pinker’s “How the mind works”. AND, WE DO NOT KNOW WHY THE MIND WORKS THE WAY IT DOES.
    2. Science is also the source of joy and fear, as much as religion is. The only reason science stands above religion is it allows the evil to be discerned even if not eradicated. Religion enjoys the company of evil and tolerates good only as an inadequate balance to it.
    3. You say, “The US Centre for Disease Control investigated these deaths and could not detect any natural cause.” I take exception to this statement. We cannot detect all natural causes, in fact at the level of quantum actions, we CANNOT detect ANY causes. However, to conclude then that there are no natural causes …


    Thanks for leading me onto this.

    Raghuram Ekambaram

    • matheikal says:

      Yes, Raghuram, I’m very much aware of the difference in our perspectives. That’s one reason why I led you on to this: just to hear your opinion knowing it would be different. I’m not going to argue with you at all.

      In fact, my ultimate aim is to argue how poetry (the arts in general) is still relevant and what function it serves, etc. But I’m writing about that in the preface I mentioned.

  5. Jose Kottooran says:

    Tomichan,can you define the word “Religion”? Want to know what you mean about that word.

    • matheikal says:

      Jose, I normally use words in their very ordinary and plain meaning. Religion here refers to organised religions, which is what the word means for most people. It doesn’t mean here religiosity/religiousness or spirituatlity.

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