In a past post, I wrote about how it is not in the nature of science to analyze or comprehend God or any claim to theistic (related to God) intervention. I subscribe to the notion championed by the late Harvard paleontologist, Stephen Jay Gould, who argued that science and religion work within two different areas of expertise that he labelled “non-overlapping magisterial”. However, sometimes it is difficult for society to agree on where the boundaries of these areas are and whether one discipline is intruding into another. One such problematic situation is faith healing.
Faith healing is the notion that people with a disease or injuries can be healed by appealing to a deity. While it is possible that incorporating the patient’s religious beliefs into the process of the medical treatment may lead to a better outcome, the most extreme forms of faith healing claim that the medical component is not necessary for a cure. This modality of faith healing normally involves a person such as a televangelist who carries out the alleged healing act, or groups of people such as parents of a diseased child that pray for healing to occur.
From a mechanistic point of view, whether faith healing works should be easy to determine. You just compare the claims to the results. However, faith healers are unwilling to have their claims openly investigated. The few people who have investigated the claims of faith healers have found that the claims for spectacular cures were either false, exaggerated, based on faulty diagnoses, or involved diseases prone to be affected strongly by the patient’s psychology. However, if the healing does not work, it can always be asserted that the faith of the person being healed, or that of the healer’s, was not strong enough, that God will refuse to be tested, that the failure of the healing was part of the divine plan, or any other ad hoc explanation with a religious component. This is why science, in principle, cannot test these claims: it cannot be stated a priori in a manner in which everyone agrees what will constitute success or failure of the claim when put to test.
This ambiguity contributes to shielding faith healing from scrutiny, and if you couple this to the fact that politicians, especially those representing conservative districts, are loath to deal with this issue, you can see why the faith healing universe is a breeding ground for liars and cheats.
Consider televangelist Peter Popoff. He rose to prominence in the 1980s as a faith healer. People would flock to his sermons and he would reveal to them specific information about where they lived and what illnesses they had despite never having talked with them before. He claimed that he received this information from God, and he also claimed to be able to “heal” people of their ailments. In 1986 the magician and debunker extraordinaire, James Randi, figured out that Popoff’s wife, not God, relayed this information to Popoff by electronic transmission to an earpiece he was wearing. The way this worked was that his wife would gather the information from the crowd assembled outside, and during the sermons she would tell Popoff the names, addresses, and ailments of people that then he would proceed to call out and “heal”. After being exposed as a fraud, Popoff was forced to declare bankruptcy. You would have imagined that his career as a faith healer would be over, but not so. He has made a comeback, and he is once again raking millions of dollars from people that believe in him as shown in the video below.
Popoff was perhaps the easiest faith healing scammer to expose because he made himself vulnerable by using forms of deceit that could be convincingly uncovered. Unlike Popoff, however, most faith healers are careful to employ more subtle tricks that leave a lot of wiggle room for ambiguity, and they are therefore much harder to pin down.
The most disturbing aspect of faith healing involves children. After all, if adult people choose to send their money to a healer or to forsake valid medical treatment for an ailment, that is their choice. But you would think that a child is another matter. As it turns out there are many cases in the U.S. where children have died because their parents did not provide them with valid medical treatments choosing instead to subject them to religious rituals. In some states, parents whose children have died as a result of these practices have been convicted of manslaughter. However, in other states there are laws that shield parents if their children die as a result of having forgone medical treatment in favor of faith-based healing alternatives. The distressing thing about these cases is that they often involve diseases that are readily treatable by modern medicine, and the afflicted children die slow painful deaths.
One of the factors muddying the waters in any discussion of the effectiveness of faith healing is that most human maladies are either self-resolving or have strong psychological components. This means that in a certain amount of cases faith healing will appear to work or at least do so temporarily, and this will reinforce its perceived effectiveness among the ranks of the believers. However, when faith healing doesn’t work (which is the case in most serious diseases), one cruel by product is that the patient or their loved ones tend to blame themselves for the failures (e.g. not having strong enough faith) thus adding another level of suffering to an already dire situation.
For some people, the specter of government stepping in and thwarting religious freedom and the right of parents to decide what is best for their children trumps any possible arguments against faith healers. For others, witnessing the spectacle of thousands of people being milked of their hard-earned cash or dying as a result of not choosing medical treatment for their diseases makes them cry out for justice. I believe that we must decide as a society once and for all how to assess these practices. In my opinion, establishing scientifically whether faith healing works or not is irrelevant. The issue should be viewed from a consumer point of view. If faith healers or religious leaders advertise to their followers the notion that they should forgo medical treatment for potentially life-threatening but treatable diseases in favor of faith-based approaches, then they should be held accountable for the dependability of the product they are promoting and made responsible for the outcome.
Image by Russell Lee is from the National Archives and Records Administration, and its use is unrestricted.