Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
I am a lifelong atheist in my mid-twenties. I have always been in favor of respectful interfaith dialogue. My idea of what “respect” looks like has changed somewhat since high school, as I have learned more about the scary things that some religious people actually believe and actually do in the name of their deities. I think it’s valuable to debate religious beliefs with believers, generally with the caveat that they are interested in and open to the debate.
I recently got back in touch with a middle school friend of mine via Facebook. Let’s call her Mildred. We used to be much closer than we are now. Partway through high school, Mildred became a born-again Christian. Shortly after graduating, I realized that we had grown significantly apart. I mostly lost touch with her after that.
It turns out that in the intervening years, Mildred’s husband has become an itinerant minister with a nondenominational, mystical bent, and she has worked in his ministry and others. She is an active participant in faith healing missions. I wish I didn’t know about this, but she posts about it on Facebook constantly. I could maybe ignore it if it was just stuff about curing people’s headaches and aching backs, but every time I sign into Facebook I am greeted with a pronouncement that her organization has cured someone of AIDS, or of cancer, or some other such serious illness that they really should be getting treatment for. It’s very, very hard for me to keep quiet.
I’ve thought about just blocking Mildred so that her posts never show up on my home page, and that might reduce the problem but it wouldn’t eliminate it. Now that I know this is her full-time job, I feel like not speaking up is complicit in her actions, in a way. I feel a responsibility to at least ask a relatively non-confrontational question or two. “Welcome back from your trip! Did you ever see the test results of that person you saw cured of AIDS?” would be one real possibility, because in that case she herself mentioned that they were waiting on the tests but never followed up.
Obviously, this is very likely to make her upset no matter how nice I try to be. It’s just that it seems so unfair that she is comfortable littering Facebook with posts that are offensive and upsetting to me, while I force myself to sit in silence out of fear of offending her. I don’t think that she is knowingly scamming people; I think she believes in what she does — but real people are being hurt by it nonetheless. And part of me feels like, by posting in a public way, she is inviting feedback from everyone who can read it.
I’m really torn about what to do. Should I write to Mildred, to ease my conscience? Publicly or privately? It wouldn’t be so bad to show all her born-again friends that some people out there doubt their claims, but obviously that comes across as more confrontational. Do you have any suggestions for how I might broach the topic? If you think I shouldn’t write to Mildred, how can I stop feeling so bad about it?
Thanks for any ideas,
I don’t really understand what holds you back from asking Mildred either publicly or privately, either bluntly or with an innocent sounding question. You’re afraid you will upset and offend her. …So? What do you have to lose? The friendship? From what I gather in your letter, whatever tattered scraps of your middle school friendship remain seem not worth saving. The only thing you have in common with her is a past that is long gone, more from diverging values than from the passing of time. Don’t mistake nostalgia or sentiment for a responsibility to be loyal to this person who is no longer your friend in any real sense. The fading picture of Mildred in your eighth grade yearbook is not the Mildred of today, and your relationship is not at all the same either.
I commend you for having a strong ethical instinct and a strong sense of social responsibility. I like people who are ethical sticklers. But that means that you have given yourself an ethical dilemma by deciding that you cannot just block her Facebook and not think about what she’s doing. You know about it, and you think it’s likely that people are being harmed, so you can’t look the other way and try to forget about it.
It sounds like you will have to take some kind of action in order to feel comfortable about this. Of the four combinations, public vs. private, blunt vs. seemingly innocent question, I like the public, innocent question on Facebook just as you described. As you pointed out, Mildred is publicly cheering “hallelujah” about all this miraculous stuff, so she’s inviting public reaction. Ask her about the test results in the same effervescent tone that she makes her claims, and then sit back and watch.
Not that you’ll get an honest response, if any at all. She might simply delete your question, or ignore it, or say she’s still waiting for results but they’re “still prayin’ an’ praisin’ the Lord,” or she might just make stuff up. “Oh yeah! the doctors were amazed! the (AIDS/cancer/multiple sclerosis/lupus/rheumatoid arthritis/whatever the hell disease) has disappeared! It’s a miracle!” Uh huh. But you’ll see no actual names of patients, clinics, or doctors. Nothing anyone could actually check.
If she is genuine, why would she be upset by your asking about something that would prove the healing works? If she takes the stance that by asking about follow-up tests, you are showing a lack of faith, then she’s tipping her hand. Asking for confirmation might indicate a lack of faith in her, but the basic manipulation of all faith healers is to imply that faith in them equals faith in God, and faith in God equals faith in them.
Stephen Barrett, M.D. in “Some Thoughts about Faith Healing” succinctly lists three criteria for determining if faith healing has actually been responsible for healing someone:
(1) the ailment must be one that normally doesn’t recover without treatment; (2) there must not have been any medical treatment that would be expected to influence the ailment; and (3) both diagnosis and recovery must be demonstrable by detailed medical evidence.
Faith healers are usually very careful to keep their promises vague or conditional on the “grace of God,” and they basically never provide actual documented follow-up showing empirical proof of their “cures.” They’re also usually careful to target adults rather than children. There are laws prohibiting making bogus claims for medical cures even for adults. BUT there’s the law, and then there’s the willingness of prosecutors to enforce the law. That is often the weak link. For political reasons, a local D.A. might not be willing to go after a popular Christian faith healer if some grandmothers are still limping around, or some prostate tumors have not actually disappeared after the God Circus has folded its tent and moved on. Generally, kids have to die before the law finally comes down on the perpetrators.
The question of whether or not Mildred sincerely believes in her faith healing is irrelevant. The psychology of the practitioners of this kind of thing is complex. I think the longer they do it, the more their belief in it wears thinner, but the more their rationalizations for why it’s still okay to do it become thicker. Just like the conflating of faith in God and faith in them, it all gets muddled into a soup of ego, good intentions, greed, faith, excuses, hope, obsession, and perhaps many tangled emotions.
It’s fraud, period, and it’s not harmless. People, whether adults or children are likely to be neglecting getting proper medical care in lieu of this quackery. There will probably be unnecessary suffering and possibly death as a result.
So with that in mind, will asking Mildred frankly or coyly for proof of her claims really be enough for you to feel that you’ve done your ethical duty? It’s not likely she’s going to suddenly shut down her and her husband’s lucrative business just because you asked an embarrassing question. She’ll continue regardless.
If that won’t be enough for you to feel complete about this, then perhaps you should bring this to the attention of the authorities.
The most direct way might be to write a letter describing Mildred’s activities and documenting her most over-the-top claims, and send it to your state Attorney General. You can do it anonymously if you wish. Then it is in their laps, with the responsibility to investigate or not. You’ve done what you can. The A.G. may not be interested yet, or may not be able to yet, but you might be adding to a file of complaints that will eventually tilt the balance.
Or visit the website, Quackwatch. It has a huge collection of articles and information. Click on “Report a Fraud” near the top of the home page, and they will show you how to report quackery to them. They can take a look at Mildred’s Facebook page themselves, and decide from their expertise if this is reportable. Give them the URL of any other website that she has about these activities.
Also, the National Council Against Health Fraud (NCAHF) has a great deal of helpful information. Type “faith healing” in their onsite search box and you’ll find a wealth of eye-opening material.
Clarisse, how much you must do to feel that you have done the right thing depends on your own conscience. There are probably good arguments for responses ranging from doing nothing at all, to doing even more than I have listed. It’s up to you. Having a healthy conscience and ethical instinct means you are more often in awkward predicaments than people who are more oblivious to such things, but I think the more conscientious people are the ones who make the world better. I wish you the very best, and I thank you for caring so much about the well-being of people you will never meet.