I’ve always been fascinated by faith healing. It relies on such obviously transparent shams that it’s a bit astonishing to me that people believe it, but I know enough about human psychology to know why those shams work. The BBC has an article about the resurgence of faith healing.
“Can I put my hand on your face?”, asks Alun Leppitt.
Alun is the pastor of a Pentecostal church in Southampton. He’s a burly man who works as a video editor to pay the bills, but his passion is curing people through the power of prayer. I don’t have much wrong with me apart from a nagging mouth ulcer, but he’s willing to give it a go.
“We command this mouth ulcer to go, in the name of Jesus,” he says, palm on my cheek. “We command any pain, infection or trauma to go.”
I don’t like to disappoint Alun, but I can’t feel any difference. He has two more attempts but there’s no change.
But mouth ulcers are small beer for him, and he’s not interested in small psychosomatic effects. He and his wife Donna tell me of a woman who had a child despite having had a hysterectomy – of people with advanced cancer who suddenly become well after prayer.
From another healer, Ian Andrew in Somerset, I heard of a woman who got a new heart as a result of prayer.
“Literally, a new heart?”
“What happened to the old one?”
“It was replaced.”
These claims are, by any standards, implausible. But in the world of Pentecostal healing, no-one worries about that. In fact, the more impossible the miracle (and they use the term without embarrassment) the better, because it’s more effective for spreading their message.
Tyler Johnson runs a ministry called the Dead Raising Team in the US. He claims to have brought several people back to life. He says he even persuaded the authorities in his state to issue him with an official photocard which lets him through police lines at car accident sites.
Johnson appears in a new documentary film called Deadraisers, which follows enthusiasts as they trail round hospitals and mortuaries trying to bring people back to life. Sadly, those they pray for in the film remain resolutely dead.
Johnson is unwilling to provide successful case studies. And in general, the proof that believers cite is a bit unconvincing – for example, there is an American heart surgeon who allegedly brought a heart attack patient back from the dead with prayer. But he was also using a defibrillator, and other doctors find the story entirely unremarkable.
PT Barnum was an optimist.