Popular Delusions III: Faith Healing

A frequent point of contention in debates over religion is whether God’s existence is a topic that can be addressed by science. Interestingly, this is one of the few issues where various people on both sides take both stances. Some scientists, such as the late Stephen Jay Gould and his principle of “nonoverlapping magisteria”, hold that religion is in a separate realm from science and addresses different questions, and never the twain shall meet. Other scientists hold that God’s existence is a topic that can be scientifically investigated, though they go on to draw different conclusions from that premise; some, such as the indefatigable Richard Dawkins hold that theism has been tried and found wanting. Other groups insist that God’s existence can be proven by scientific study, most notably creationists, though they engage in precious little science themselves.

The best way to cut through the confusion is this: Science can address specific claims of religion, but not the general claim. It is true that the bare question of whether God exists or has any effect on the world is not a question that can be definitively answered in the negative by science; one can always postulate a deity sufficiently subtle that its influence can never be ruled out. (This, of course, leaves unanswered the question of what reason one could have to believe in such a deity.) However, there are many specific religious claims which can be used to derive concrete predictions about what we should see in the world if those religious beliefs are true, and these predictions can be put to the test. One such is the phenomenon of faith healing.

Faith healing takes two major forms: the carnival-like revival shows staged by famous preachers who promise dramatic and miraculous healings before the audience’s eyes (I have written about one such before), and the less spectacular phenomenon of intercessory prayer, in which the prayers of relatives or strangers are claimed to speed the recovery of the wounded and the sick. This post will address both.

First, consider the phenomenon of intercessory prayer. One of the most basic, and eminently testable, religious claims is that prayer has a measurable effect on the workings of the world, and many researchers – often theists seeking support for their own beliefs – have embarked on studies of this claim. The evidence is in, and the verdict is clear: intercessory prayer does not work. Large, well-controlled studies invariably find no measurable improvement in the recovery rates of patients who are prayed for. Studies that claim otherwise always turn out to have some methodological or statistical defect such as poor controls or cherry-picked data (as usual, Skeptico has the goods on these malfeasants).

As an example of the former category, take the 2003 MANTRA study, run by Duke University. 750 participants undergoing angioplasty were split into two groups, one receiving prayer from Christians, Jews, Buddhists and Muslims, one receiving no prayer. There was no statistically significant difference in outcomes between the two groups. A follow-up study published in July 2005, MANTRA II, replicated this result by finding no benefit to randomized intercessory prayer.

Similarly, an even larger study published in March 2006 in the American Heart Journal found no difference in outcomes among 1,800 coronary bypass patients who either did or did not receive prayer from three Christian congregations. No difference, that is, save for one: patients who knew they were being prayed for experienced a higher rate of complications. This is very probably due to a sort of performance anxiety among prayer recipients who felt that they were under pressure to do better.

Examples such as the above notwithstanding, what some studies have found is that people who are being prayed for and know it do sometimes do better. This is no surprise: it is another example of the placebo effect, where positive thinking and expectation can stimulate physical changes in the body that speed healing. But this effect can be explained without invoking God or miracles, and is therefore no proof of either. What would constitute evidence of the miraculous would be if intercessory prayer had a statistically significant effect in a randomized, double-blind trial, where participants do not know if they are being prayed for or not. This should not present a problem for God, if he exists, but it does prevent the placebo effect from biasing the results. Again, no such study has ever shown a reproducible, significant curative effect. As far as the evidence shows, intercessory prayer does not work.

Naturally, this result has provoked bitter complaints from many believers who assert that God should not be put to the test. In response to the MANTRA study, an English bishop said, “Prayer is not a penny in the slot machine. You can’t just put in a coin and get out a chocolate bar.” Similarly, in a New York Times article on prayer studies from October 10, 2004, Rev. Raymond J. Lawrence Jr. of New York-Presbyterian Hospital is quoted as saying, “There’s no way to put God to the test, and that’s exactly what you’re doing when you design a study to see if God answers your prayers. This whole exercise cheapens religion, and promotes an infantile theology that God is out there ready to miraculously defy the laws of nature in answer to a prayer.”

While I share the reverend’s opinion regarding the plausibility of miraculous suspensions of natural law in response to prayer (how could prayer convince an omniscient deity to do something he was not already going to do anyway?), I think these complaints are less than sincere. Had any of these studies produced significant positive results, I do not think that theists would dismiss them as unimportant. Quite the contrary, I have no doubt whatsoever that these theists and many others, in such a scenario, would trumpet this proof of God’s existence to the high heavens. When a preliminary study in 2001 (later refuted by the larger and better-designed MANTRA study) seemingly found some benefit to prayer, we saw just that. Similarly, churches such as the Anglican church have declared the evidence of prayer’s efficacy to be “overwhelming“. Yet when well-designed studies find no evidence that prayer works, these very same believers quickly retreat to excuses about how one must not test God. Tests are acceptable to these believers, it would seem, only if they produce the results that were desired in advance.

Despite their failures, at least these studies do no real harm: the participants always receive competent medical attention along with their ineffective dose of prayer, and no one is convinced to forsake their doctor’s care. The same is not true of faith-healing revivals, where evangelists deceive supplicants into believing their ailments have been cured, often encouraging attendees to abandon traditional medical care in the process and causing them to suffer terribly or even die as a result. One particularly horrifying case:

Helen Sullivan could walk only with a back brace, due to the cancer that had weakened the bones of her spinal cord. But when faith healer Kathryn Kuhlman told her that her cancer was cured, Sullivan threw off her back brace and ran across the stage several times as the audience applauded and Kuhlman praised the Lord. For the rest of the evening, Sullivan felt no pain, but by early morning, the pain had returned, only more intense than before. Without the support of her brace, one of her vertebrae had collapsed. Two months later, Sullivan was dead of the cancer that Kuhlman had “cured” her of.

Another example, from the powerful 2001 documentary “A Question of Miracles” by Anthony Thomas:

And one woman who we were very close to, suffering from lung cancer, so wanted to believe that she was cured that she never saw her oncologist again. He heard about her death through us.

A common trick used by religious con artists is to encourage people who do not really need them to use wheelchairs or crutches, so that they can dramatically rise at the appropriate moment and throw their paraphernalia away, to the amazement of the audience. Even when such blatant scams are not used, the intense emotional atmosphere of these circus-like events induces a kind of euphoria from the release of natural opiates – a placebo effect on steroids – often causing people with painful but non-crippling conditions such as arthritis to feel temporarily better. Of course, since faith healers invariably do not keep follow-up records, the fact that most of these people begin to feel worse again after the revival is never reported. Faith healers will sometimes claim that they have “healed” a completely internal ailment, such as cancer, so that there can be no evidence disproving their claim until the revival has ended and there is no chance to demonstrate its falsity. Some will even announce healings without even naming a specific individual (“Someone is being healed of cancer in this section!”), thus making their claim impossible to disprove and removing altogether the need for them to present any evidence. And in the rare circumstance that a healing can be shown not to have taken place, the evangelist can always blame it on the recipient’s lack of faith.

Their lack of medical effectiveness notwithstanding, these events often turn out to be very effective indeed at swelling the bank accounts of their wealthy evangelist organizers. Faith-healing rallies by famous preachers such as Benny Hinn or Reinhard Bonnke often draw thousands of attendees desperate for miracle cures, who are willing to hand over huge amounts of money in exchange for even the smallest bit of hope, and do. Again from Thomas’ documentary:

Preaching in Portland, Ore., Benny Hinn performs 76 ‘miracles’ on stage before an adoring, ecstatic crowd. In order to make an independent assessment of the results, the filmmakers ask for the names of the healed. Thirteen weeks later, the ministry produces five. None of these turn out have experienced lasting healing. Among the devotees who sought a miracle from Hinn that evening was 10 year old immigrant Ashnil Prakash, afflicted with two brain tumors. Although his impoverished parents pledge thousands of dollars to Hinn, Prakash dies seven weeks after the Portland event.

An interview with Prakash’s mother and father following his death shows the parents continued an undeterred allegiance to the faith healer. As the couple discuss their child’s succumbing to the tumors, no allusion of any measure is expressed of Hinn being culpable of perpetuating false hope. The couple sees themselves, not Hinn, as a possible cause that their son did not receive a healing. The father suggests his son’s death may be a result of generational curses or sin of either himself or his father. When the HBO interviewer asked where he arrived at such a notion, the father responded, “Pastor Benny.”

To people such as this, questions of theology and evidence are irrelevant. These people are desperate for hope; they want a miracle, and will go to any lengths to try to obtain one. It is heartbreaking to see these lost souls, many of whom are poor and needy, willingly hand over their money – millions and millions of dollars in total – to powerless charlatans who offer nothing in return but false hope and empty promises, when they could have given that money to the scientists and doctors who might actually be able to use it to find a cure for their afflictions. How many dread diseases could we have cured – how much human suffering could we have ended – if all the resources that have been wasted on faith healers and other popular delusions had instead been given to fund scientific research?

Other posts in this series:

Rosetta's Comet Rendezvous
Anti-Vaccination Fever Rages On
When Would You Rather Be Alive?
Weekday Coffee: Skepticon Edition
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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