Articles

Faith Healing

Faith healing is based on belief and is about as far as you can get from science-based medicine, but it is not exempt from science. If it really worked, science would be able to document its cures and would be the only reliable way to validate its effectiveness. Miraculous cures continue to be reported on a regular basis: what are we to make of them? In the Healing Rooms Ministry of Bethel Church in Redding, California, people regularly claim to be healed of cancer, broken bones, multiple sclerosis and many other ailments. Page after page of testimonials of cures are listed on their website. Are these cures real? If not, what is going on?

Amanda Winters, a journalist doing a series of articles on Bethel Church, interviewed me for a scientific view of these faith healings. She asked me some very incisive questions and understood my answers. She wrote what I thought was a balanced article, quoting me fairly and at more length than reporters usually allow.

Her article features a patient who believed his flat feet would be healed (bones would crack and form an arch). Healers poked him, blew a shofar at his feet, and covered him with a blanket when he collapsed on the floor. When he got up, his feet were unchanged. But

his faith was not shaken, he said, because he felt so loved and maybe the physical healing was secondary to the spiritual experience he had.

Multiple Sclerosis Healed

One impressive testimonial was of a woman who had had multiple sclerosis for 30 years and whose symptoms and impairments apparently vanished during a healing session. The reporter asked me what I thought of the situation and the testimony. What medical, scientific explanations could there be for the perceived healing?

In the first place, stories like these are notoriously unreliable. They are layman’s testimonials that amount to nothing but hearsay. How can we know they were not invented, exaggerated, misunderstood, or otherwise misrepresented? They fall far short of the kind of case reports that are published in medical journals with x-ray, lab and other documentation and the opportunity for peer review.

In the second place, multiple sclerosis is a notorious quack magnet because its symptoms come and go erratically. It is a disease with a wide variety of symptoms. It is characterized by remissions and exacerbations: to make the diagnosis you have to show that the symptoms go away and come back over time. It is very difficult to tell if any treatment has “worked” or if the disease was simply following its natural course and happened to be improving on its own at that time. We don’t have any objective report from a doctor about this patient’s condition before and after the “healing” episode. Some of the improvement could have been because she was trying harder: muscle strength is particularly effort-dependent. We don’t know what happened after the “healing” or how long the improvement lasted.

There are many, many similar reports where follow-up found the patients still just as sick or worse off. Patients who “get up and walk” may not be healed. In one unfortunate case a woman was encouraged to get up out of her wheelchair and discard her braces at church. The faith healer proclaimed her “healed.” Unfortunately her cancer of the spine had weakened her bones, and the activity caused bones in her spine to collapse; she died not long after. The faith healing hastened her death and caused her unnecessary agony. For the faith healer and the witnesses at church and for the patient herself that day, it appeared to be a miraculous healing: they couldn’t have been more wrong! Incidentally, many of the faith healing patients who get up out of a wheelchair and walk had actually walked into church and had been offered wheelchairs they didn’t really need.

Cancer Cures

The reporter asked me about a woman with brain cancer who was healed and a subsequent doctor’s visit showed the brain cancer was gone. Are there cases of cancer where it simply goes away?

There are cases of spontaneous remission but they are rare. There are other explanations that are more likely. Many “cancer cure” claims involve cases that were never proven to be cancer by biopsy. This story is particularly unbelievable because the “healing” supposedly relieved her tunnel vision and then produced a discharge from the ear. The vision and ear parts of the brain are in different locations — where was her tumor supposed to be? One report I saw on the website (not sure if it was the same patient) reported that the size of the tumor had decreased but it had not gone away. Release of liquid and a lesion that became smaller sounds more like some kind of cyst or abscess might have spontaneously drained. Where are the medical reports? Where are the x-rays? Why was this case not written up in a medical journal? What happened to the patient afterwards? There are too many unanswered questions for anyone to even make an educated guess.

Many years ago the Journal of the American Medical Association used to have a regular feature where there would be a testimonial on one page describing how a patient was cured of cancer. On the opposite page, they would print the patient’s death certificate showing that he had died of that cancer shortly after providing the testimonial.

The explanations for most alleged cancer cures are:

  1. The patient never had cancer. (Was a biopsy done?)
  2. A cancer was cured or put into remission by proven therapy, but questionable therapy was also used and erroneously credited for the beneficial result.
  3. The cancer is progressing but is erroneously represented as slowed or cured.
  4. The patient has died as a result of the cancer (or is lost to follow-up) but is represented as cured.
  5. The patient had a spontaneous remission (very rare) or slow-growing cancer that is publicized as a cure.

Raising the Dead?

Bethel even reports resurrections: one patient began to move shortly after she was declared dead, and she made a full recovery. This is uncritically accepted as a triumph of prayer and faith healing, without even considering other possible explanations. Which is more likely: that the doctor who declared her dead made a mistake or that a dead person returned to life? I know which I would bet on.

One of their students has formed a Dead Raising Team that is attempting to help the police in Mason County, Washington in cases of accident or fatality. The manager of the county Department of Emergency Management reports there have been no resurrections so far.

Bethel is part of a larger movement known as the Word of Faith movement, which teaches that faith is a force through which anything can be done. They believe they can train people in the supernatural ministry and they can go out and heal people and raise the dead. Other Christian denominations condemn this as a false teaching, because in the Bible healing ability was limited to Jesus and the apostles.

Their questionable claims are not limited to healing. They say angel feathers have floated down into their church. Ornithologists identified these as common bird feathers. They say diamonds and gold dust have also mysteriously appeared.

The Evidence for Faith Healing

There are lots of reports describing the emperor’s new clothes, but investigations consistently show he is naked. There is a good review of faith healing on Quackwatch. When faith healings have been diligently investigated by qualified doctors, they have found no evidence that the patients were actually helped in any objective sense. Even at Lourdes, the Catholic Church has only recognized 4 cures since 1978, out of 5 million people who seek healing there every year.

There simply is no evidence that faith healing heals. Not what science considers evidence. And the true believers don’t value evidence or the scientific method: for them, belief is enough.

The Psychology of Belief

Winters asked about healers who “feel someone else’s pain” and are led to a patient because God tells them words like “baby” and “blue” and “foot” and they use those correlations to find a baby with a foot problem and some association with the color blue who needs healing. What could cause someone to feel a pain they believe isn’t theirs? Are there neurological reasons why someone could think they hear prophetic words that are from God?

People have wonderful imaginations, and they are great at finding patterns, real and unreal. They can find ways to connect words to a patient, just as they can see the Virgin Mary on a toasted cheese sandwich, just as numerologists can find imaginary connections everywhere. People can convince themselves of almost anything if they want to believe. There are neurologic conditions that make people hyper-religious. Temporal lobe epilepsy can present as a religious experience. Experiments with magnets have created religious-like experiences of a higher presence. And hallucinations are not uncommon even in normal people. According to one study, 39% of people report having experienced hallucinations when they were neither sick nor on drugs. There are even mass hallucinations where one or a few people insist they are seeing something that is not there and they get a whole group of people to believe they can see it too.

These faith healings are never documented properly or investigated, because the people involved want to believe, need to believe. If you challenge the pastor to participate in a formal study to establish that these healings are really occurring, you will get lots of rationalizations and backpedalling with no understanding of how science can go about testing for the truth of a claim. They have no interest in finding out if the healing is “real” because they already “know” it is real for them. (Winters’ article confirmed my prediction: she says the pastor “doesn’t feel he needs to provide any documentation or hard evidence to inquiring minds. He also said he doesn’t check up on people who come to Bethel for healing – he doesn’t have the time.”) Some people who have had recurrences of cancer after faith healing have continued to claim that they were “healed” in some nebulous psychological or spiritual sense even though they know they are dying.

For more insight into the psychology behind faith healing, see this article from the Skeptic’s Dictionary.

Faith healers run the gamut from cynical con artists to well-intentioned but self-deluded true believers, with some in the middle who know they are cheating but whose exposure to grateful patients allows them to convince themselves there is something happening beyond the con. “Healing” may not mean objective cure of physical disease; it may mean a subjective feeling of wellbeing or a coming to terms with a disease.

Faith healing can comfort, but it can also cause suffering if patients believe a failure to heal was their fault due to insufficient faith. It can be deadly when patients are led to believe they don’t need conventional medical treatment.

Posted in: Faith Healing & Spirituality

Leave a Comment (25) ↓

25 thoughts on “Faith Healing

  1. DevoutCatalyst says:

    If your arm is removed in a corn picker, you’re out of luck with most Gods — even all-powerful deities won’t attempt a replacement for fear of a malpractice claim. Note too that CAM will claim to heal even when they don’t cure, which is to say, let the healing begin…

  2. provaxmom says:

    Devoutcatalyst–a friend once sent me the link to a website–why won’t god heal amputees? Good question, isn’t it?

  3. windriven says:

    I guess omnipotence just ain’t what it used to be.

    There have been reports of Scientologists (can’t they be prosecuted for felonious assault on the word science?) claiming to be ‘healing’ Haitians in the aftermath of the earthquake.

  4. yeahsurewhatever says:

    http://www.skepdic.com/piousfraud.html

    “A pious fraud is someone whose fraud is motivated by misguided religious zeal.”

    There’s really nothing else one needs to know about faith healing.

  5. Harriet Hall says:

    Re amputations:
    There are claims of partial regeneration: growth of bone, elongation of amputated limbs. No such claims have been properly documented. No complete regeneration, but people believe they are able to measure partial regeneration and they continue to hope for the whole thing. Meanwhile, they can’t consider a prosthesis because they think it is still changing. Is their hope better than acceptance and recovery of function with rehab? In their minds, yes; in mine, no.

  6. cervantes says:

    There are of course people with factitious or psychogenic symptoms. I suppose they could be healed by faith. Actually it’s a bit surprising that we don’t encounter some clear examples of this.

  7. “Faith healing can comfort, but it can also cause suffering if patients believe a failure to heal was their fault due to insufficient faith. It can be deadly when patients are led to believe they don’t need conventional medical treatment.”

    Another tragic and substantial risk is that the faithful often give money to faith healers, and often far more than they can afford. Poverty and bankruptcy add great insult to the injuries of false hope and neglected medical care.

  8. @cervantes, for those with well-established psychogenic symptoms, the internal battle between “faith in the almighty” and “faith in my symptoms” must be quite fierce! Both are worshipped, but who wins? I’d put my money on the psychogenic symptoms: something tells me that they are more compelling even than God.

  9. Calli Arcale says:

    Of all the forms of medical fakery, the one that infuriates me the most is faith healing. People lie in the name of God, hurt people (there have been stories of faith healers actually striking their “clients” so as to provoke suitable gasps and such at appropriately dramatic moments in the act, sometimes hard enough to cause injuries), keep them from getting proper care, and in most cases, drain their finances all for their own personal enrichment. It’s so wrong that even I cannot think of a remotely charitable interpretation of it.

    I know there are some who really believe they can heal people, usually in small ways or as parts of small cults (e.g. the snake-handlers). But many are outright frauds. They won’t admit it, but given the predatory way they run their “healing ministries” and the careful maneuvers they take to avoid legal prosecution, it’s clear that they know perfectly well what they are doing, and just don’t care.

    That’s bad enough.

    But they do all this evil explicitly in the name of God (whether my god or another — the ones I’m familiar with are Christian, but I’m sure there are ones who exploit the structures of other faiths) makes it worse. Not merely because they are committing blasphemy, but because they are exploiting these people’s religious belief. These people believe they must trust in their deity. The charlatans are using that, telling them that if they trust in their deity properly, they will be healed. This is worse than saying “if you just live right, you’ll be healed,” or “if you can just rid yourself of negative thoughts, you’ll be well,” because it means that if they don’t recover, they’re not just letting down themselves — they’re betraying God. Massive guilt-trip.

    I’m a Christian, so to me, there is also the issue of blasphemy. They are lying in God’s name. But the reason this is wrong is because of the preceding paragraph, not because of the Ten Commandments alone. It’s wrong, in and of itself, because it’s exploiting someone’s trust in something else. It’s right up there with parents who abuse their children, saying that if they don’t enjoy it, it means they don’t love them.

  10. tgobbi says:

    Dr Hall writes: “Even at Lourdes, the Catholic Church has only recognized 4 cures since 1978, out of 5 million people who seek healing there every year.”

    I’m curious about those 4 cases of cure. How, if ever, have they been authenticated. Was the church alone involved in the verification process? Were doctors consulted? If so, were they church appointed or independent outsiders? Do these four “recognized” cures sound as fishy to everyone else as they do to me?

    By the way, “The Faith Healers” by James Randi and Carl Sagan is still available. It’s a terrific exposé of this huge scam.

    Kurt Youngmann

  11. stb says:

    Regarding the “dead raising team” in Mason County: It so happens we have a family summer cabin in Mason County, WA and one of our pasttimes there is listening to a police/fire scanner so I have heard many emergency call responses. Mason County is large and sparsely populated and much of it is quite rugged terrain. The dead raisers would be better off staying home and praying that skilled help can even reach the victim in time and that a helicopter will be available for evac. I can’t imagine that police, fire, and EMTs would want these yahoos around getting in the way and clogging up one-lane roads.

  12. cervantes says:

    I recall as a youth reading one of those “News of the Weird” stories about a beggar in Brazil who was insulted by the small size of a contribution, so he stood up on his two feet and started beating the donor with his crutches.

    They were immediately surrounded by a crowd yelling “A miracle! A miracle!”

  13. Lawrence C. says:

    One of their students has formed a Dead Raising Team that is attempting to help the police in Mason County, Washington in cases of accident or fatality. The manager of the county Department of Emergency Management reports there have been no resurrections so far.

    I never thought I’d see the “ambulance chasing lawyers” topped, but lo! once again the wacky wonderful world of reality has trumped fiction again. (Unless, of course, they got this idea from a Tim Burton movie or a hazily remembered college class on comparative mythology.)

    So along with county EMTs responding they will also have a DRT? Will the health insurance reform bill in the House pay for this service? Will a crew from Comedy Central film it all? Please?

  14. David Gorski says:

    A friend’s take on the “Why doesn’t God heal amputees?” question:

    http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2007/10/jesus_is_growing_her_a_new_leg.php

  15. micheleinmichigan says:

    Years ago, I heard a report on the radio that cancer patients that were prayed for had a higher recovery rate than ones that were not.

    Around the same time I also saw a PBS show about mind/body connection that showed a study on how people’s health is affected by stress. The study followed the time it took a small wound to heal in women who were caring for elderly parents vs women of the same age who were not caring for elderly parents. The report said that the caregivers generally healed slower than non-caregivers.

    In my mind, I put these two reports together to come to the conclusion that people with a strong social support network (such as a church or close family) may have some advantage in disease recovery due to lower stress levels.

    So, here’s to the churches (temples, synagogues, mosques, chanting circles, book clubs, car collector clubs, etc) that stay in the social support and caring business and stay out of the faith healing business.

    Apparently other studies on prayer have different results. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/06/090617154401.htm

  16. cervantes says:

    There is a lot of interest these days in so-called “allostatic load,” mostly the long-term impact of stress hormone levels — cortisol, catecholamines — and there is evidence that the burden does affect people’s physical resiliency and susceptibility to environmental insults. Lower blood pressure is one very obvious and direct mechanism, but there are others.

    It is plausible that people who find solace in religion and are calmed by prayer could, over the long term, see health benefits, but other forms of calming and consolation would presumably be just as good. However, this is entirely unrelated to healing of existing chronic conditions, or curing cancer, or anything of that nature.

  17. micheleinmichigan says:

    “However, this is entirely unrelated to healing of existing chronic conditions, or curing cancer, or anything of that nature.”

    Certainly, hope I didn’t come across as believing otherwise.

  18. pmoran says:

    “Dr Hall writes: “Even at Lourdes, the Catholic Church has only recognized 4 cures since 1978, out of 5 million people who seek healing there every year.”

    “I’m curious about those 4 cases of cure. How, if ever, have they been authenticated. Was the church alone involved in the verification process? Were doctors consulted? If so, were they church appointed or independent outsiders? Do these four “recognized” cures sound as fishy to everyone else as they do to me?”

    ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
    I accept that the Catholic church has been fairly rigorous in its evaluation of “miracles” in recent times. One of an Australian saint-to-be’s miracles is a well-documented case of presumed spontanous remission of advanced cancer.

    I read a book some years ago that described a dozen or so of the miracles attributed to Lourdes pilgrimages in the last century . Most were very difficult to explain, if the information provided is accurate — which is, of course, why they are regarded as miracles by those so inclined.

    And not having an immmediate alternative explanation does not require us to accept the first explanation offered.

    Lovely piece, as usual, Harriet.

  19. qetzal says:

    If you challenge the pastor to participate in a formal study to establish that these healings are really occurring, you will get lots of rationalizations and backpedalling with no understanding of how science can go about testing for the truth of a claim.

    This can also be a manifestation of what Dennett calls “belief in belief.” IOW, the pastor believes he should believe in faith healing, because that’s what his worldview, community, etc., require. Since he should believe in faith healing, he actively avoids situations that might reduce his ability to believe.

    Interestingly, that implies that on some level he understands that faith healing might not be true.

  20. woofighter says:

    Faith healers remind me of another black sheep (IMO) of organized Christianity. In this case, I’m referring to those who promote the “prosperity gospel”. They preach that God rewards his followers, that he WANTS his followers to be rich and materially successful (source?) and that if you give them a “faith offering” God will multiple that gift and reward the giver many times over. It allows wealthy Christians to sit back and feel smug that they actually deserve their prosperity (instead of realizing how fortunate they are to be born in this country, to have an opportunity for education that many or most in this world won’t have, etc.) and to look down on the poor as deserving of their fate because the poor have either pissed God off or are lazy.

    If you go to a faith healer and are still sick or die – wow, obviously you didn’t have enough faith (or maybe you did something bad). If you are a Christian and poor – well, obviously you haven’t been obedient in some way b/c God WANTS you to be rich.

    It also reminds me of certain alt med types. My mother-in-law promotes Sunrider (a Chinese “whole food”, “regeneration” MLM business) as the cure for everything – even cancer. When my father-in-law was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer we had a discussion about how to pursue treatment. She whipped out a testimonial that SR cured cancer. When I asked how the person was doing now, instead of just the 6-12 month period following their adoption of the SR products, she said “Well, he went back to his old eating habits and he died a few months ago.” GEEZ! What pressure, what guilt! If you would only eat and do what I’m telling you to do you’ll be cured. If you die, you failed somehow to follow directions. (BTW, my father-in-law died of his cancer almost 2 years after his diagnosis. She is convinced it was due to the peanuts and chocolate he had been sneaking and the brats he ate at the Notre Dame football game with us. She learned all this from his deathbed confession.)

  21. LovleAnjel says:

    woofighter

    That sounds like a messed up version of Calvinism (because real Calvinists realize their wealth could disappear at any time and are terrified that they may not be of the elect).

    And how bad did your MIL feel, that she had failed at keeping her husband alive? The guilt gets spread all around.

  22. woofighter says:

    LovleAnjel – She felt VERY guilty. She also gave us the third degree. My FIL and I would go out for breakfast just the two of use when they came to visit or on family vacation. Suddenly she’s quizzing me on what dad had for breakfast last summer.

    She really did her best. She subjected him to applied kinesiology 3-4 times a day to determine which capsule or “food” he should or shouldn’t take (and how much). They stopped seeing the oncologist but went regularly to the reflexologist. That she couldn’t save him was devastating but his deathbed confession and heartfelt apology (although he was an engineer and an educated man he seemed to buy into her view of medicine) helped ease her mind that it wasn’t HER methods that failed. He made bad choices and wasn’t able to defeat the cancer. All around, very sad.

  23. Calli Arcale says:

    Faith healers remind me of another black sheep (IMO) of organized Christianity. In this case, I’m referring to those who promote the “prosperity gospel”. They preach that God rewards his followers, that he WANTS his followers to be rich and materially successful (source?) and that if you give them a “faith offering” God will multiple that gift and reward the giver many times over.

    Tip: don’t mention that to my pastor. You’ll be stuck listening to a ten-minute rant about those people. It pisses him off too, because they are lying in the name of God, and totally misrepresenting Christ’s message.

    I do believe that if you donate (time, money, whatever, to any agency), God will multiply the gift, but not for the benefit of the giver directly. It will be for the benefit of the recipient, and perhaps humanity as a whole. The giver should give the gift with no thought whatsoever of themselves, or they are being selfish. Therefore, those who preach “give so you can get stinkin’ rich and go to heaven while those jerks burn” are especially selfish.

    And why do they not consider this passage from the gospels: “truly, it is harder for a rich man to enter Heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle” (a common expression in the Mideast at the time to say that something is utterly impossible).

    That’s very sad to hear about your mother-in-law’s situation. Sad all around. And unfortunately, probably not unique.

  24. Bill says:

    Calli Arcale,

    How is this blasphemy? Isn’t it just an exaggerated form of prayer? Doesn’t the bible explicitly say that if you prayer for something (anything) you can have it?

Comments are closed.