Free will, miracles and the BBC

“In miracles we are dealing . . . with the unreal world of fairy-tale,” Matthew Arnold wrote over 125 years ago in God and the Bible. An observer of the BBC’s religion reporting would not be wrong in concluding the Corporation follows this general line, treating faith with a modicum of skepticism.

However, a recent story on faith healing and HIV crosses over the line of healthy skepticism that all good reporting should display into pamphleteering — offering an opinion as news and marshaling facts to support the argument.

The author of Church HIV prayer cure claims “cause three deaths” means well and his intentions of exposing a religious charlatan are good. Intentions aside, this BBC piece is bad journalism. It is poorly sourced, offers inferences as facts — repeat after me  correlation does not imply causation — displays an ignorance of religion and lacks context, balance and tone. On a philosophical level it also breaks with the BBC’s stance on free will — which is not such a bad thing, by the way.

But let’s first jump into the story and see if you see what I see. It begins thus:

At least three people in London with HIV have died after they stopped taking life saving drugs on the advice of their Evangelical Christian pastors.

The women died after attending churches in London where they were encouraged to stop taking the antiretroviral drugs in the belief that God would heal them, their friends and a leading HIV doctor said.

Sometimes I think I will die after attending church, but setting aside faulty syntax let’s return to the story. It continues with a critique by a former government health minister of the general principle of stopping one’s medicine in such circumstances before moving back to substantiate its opening sentences.

Jane Iwu, 48, from Newham, east London, described one case, saying: “I know of a friend who had been to a pastor. She told her to stop taking her medication — that God is a healer and has healed her.”

“This lady believed it. She stopped taking her medication. She passed away,” said Ms Iwu, who has HIV herself.

BBC London spoke to a second woman from east London who told of a friend who died after taking advice from her pastor who told her to stop taking her antiretroviral drugs.

Meanwhile, the director of a leading HIV research centre in east London said she had dealt with a separate case in which a person with HIV died as a result of advice from a pastor.

The story then moves to the experts, who say such practices are harmful.

“We see patients quite often who will come having expressed the belief that if they pray frequently enough, their HIV will somehow be cured,” she added.

“We have seen people who choose not to take the tablets at all so sometimes die,” [said Prof Jane Anderson, director of the Centre for the Study of Sexual Health and HIV, in Hackney.]

The culprits are then identified.

HIV prevention charity African Health Policy Network (AHPN) says a growing number of London churches have been telling people the power of prayer will “cure” their infections.

“This is happening through a number of churches. We’re hearing about more cases of this,” AHPN chief Francis Kaikumba said.

AHPN said it believed the Synagogue Church Of All Nations (SCOAN), which has UK headquarters in Southwark, south London, may be one of those involved in such practices.

The church is headed by Pastor T B Joshua, Nigeria’s third richest clergyman, according to a recent Forbes richlist.

When approached by BBC London, leaders of the church described themselves as Evangelical Christian pastors.

The church’s website, which was set up in Lagos, Nigeria, shows photos of people the church claims have been “cured” of HIV through prayer.

The article offers extracts from SCOAN’s website about its healing ministries and quotes a London resident who said that when she spoke with a representative of the church on the telephone she was told prayer can cure HIV.

At this point a SCOAN representative appears on the scene, but he doesn’t appear to be on the same script as the BBC.

However, when asked by BBC London if it claimed its pastors can cure HIV, SCOAN responded: “We are not the healer. God is the healer. Never a sickness God cannot heal. Never a disease God cannot cure.

“We don’t ask people to stop taking medication,” the church added. “Doctors treat; God heals.”

Let’s go through the problems in the order they appear in the story. The story claims that three people have died after they were told to stop taking their HIV medications by “Evangelical Christian pastors.”  The evidence for this claim comes from friends of the deceased (whose names have been changed for the story, the article reports in a footnote). In other words, there is no credible evidence for the claim. No one in a position of authority — police, doctor, coroner — is suggesting the deaths were caused by having stopped taking medications.

We don’t know who has died; we don’t know what they were told; we don’t know when they were told; we don’t know who told them; we don’t know if what they were told led to their deaths; we don’t know how they died. No evidence is presented that the three deaths were linked in any way to their church-going, or to their religious beliefs. Rather friends of the deceased think this might be so.

And on a lesser point, but one that particularly irritates me, we have the claim of Evangelicals being behind this, based upon someone from the church in question self-identifying as evangelical. However, Pastor T.B. Joshua and his Synagogue Church Of All Nations (SCOAN) is not an evangelical church, but comes out of the Pentecostal tradition. And a review of the literature about SCOAN finds that Nigerian Christian leaders have denounced it as a cult. Possessing a Christian overlay of vocabulary and symbolism, SCOAN is better described as an African Indigenous Church that combines elements of Christianity with Nigerian traditional beliefs — others argue TB Joshua is a charlatan. But I’m jumping ahead in the narrative.

The group that fingers SCOAN as the villain, said it “believed” the church “may be one of those involved.” In other words, we only have conditional language linking SCOAN to the deaths, and that is not enough to convict.

When the SCOAN spokesman appears, the statements he makes about prayer and healing are so anodyne they could have been offered by the Church of England. If this was meant to shock the reader, I’m afraid the author will be disappointed.

The bottom line here is that there is no evidence to support the statements made in the lede. There is nothing in this story other than the author’s opinion that it is wrong to stop taking antiretroviral drugs and the statements of experts who support this view. Now I happen to agree with this view. But this story as journalism is junk.

However, if we take all of the inferences and assumptions laid out in the story as being true, I was struck by the shift in the BBC’s views on human autonomy this would imply. The Corporation has long championed the cause of euthanasia and has been accused of supporting the right to die through biased news reporting. To be philosophically coherent, I would have assumed the BBC would have supported the choice of the three HIV patients to have stopped taking their medication. The Corporation’s support of human autonomy, of freedom conceived as the faculty of acting spontaneously according to the representation of ends (the will), is rejected in this story and has been replaced with a censorious moralism. “What these people have chosen to do with their own lives is bad,” is how I understand the author’s point of view in this story.

I should say I do not disagree with this sentiment, yet though we have arrived at the same destination I came on a different train. Free will, when it is expressed in secular terms is a moral good for the BBC. Free will when expressed as a choice to believe in miracles and hope for God’s intervention in your life is treated with scorn by the Corporation.

It may have been his sweet reasonableness or Victorian sensibilities, but Matthew Arnold tried to coat his unbelief with with a gentile wash of regret.

The reasons drawn from miracles on cannot but dismiss with tenderness, for they belong to a great and splendid whole, — a beautiful and powerful fairy-tale , which was long believed without question, and which has given comfort and joy to thousands. And one abandons them with a kind of unwilling disenchantment, and only because one must.

The BBC, unlike Arnold, doesn’t do sympathy for the Christian world view and as such misses the deeper story here. The question why someone would do what the BBC is claiming they have done is glossed over — yet the why is the most important question.

John Henry Newman stated that “Catholics believe that [miracles] happen in any age of the Church, though not for the same purpose, in the same number, or with the same evidence, as in apostolic times.” The question for the believer is not whether miracles can occur—of course they can, if God is God—but why they should occur so randomly, why this person and not that should be their recipient.

As he explained to Charles Kingsley in his Apologia pro vita sua, miracles “must be clearly proved, because perhaps after all it may be only a providential mercy, or an exaggeration, or a mistake, or an imposture.”

Here is the heart of the story — a Nigerian pastor has been promising miracles to those who believe (in him?) and three of his followers have died after following his council. This story is inferred but not told, and as such fails.

The article does appear to have legs, however, with the Guardian, and the Sunday Herald in Scotland among others picking it up. I do hope though that those who follow in the reporting do take the time to get to the heart of the matter and answer Newman’s question. What is going on here: providential mercy, an exaggeration, a mistake, or imposture.

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About geoconger
  • Martha

    I would have to disagree with your point about the BBC and free will, George.

    Euthanasia (whatever one’s own position on it) is a demand to be given autonomy in death; the person claims to be either terminally ill and not wishing to enter the final stages of suffering, or to be labouring under unbearable burdens of life, so that they wish to die.

    These cases of the alleged HIV deaths, however, are different in that the persons want to be cured and do not stop taking medication because they want their disease to run its course, but because they believe they will be miraculously healed.

    And the poor old Beeb seems to be getting it from all quarters; you are unhappy with them accusing the Nigerian churches, and Damian Thompson is unhappy with them not being accusatory enough!

  • Daniel

    The question is, are these people who believe they will be miraculously healed mythological, or are they real people? The task of journalism, I think, is not to create new fairytales in place of the ones it is trying to dispel.
    Trying to follow in the new school of All the President’s Men, this unsourced article ought at least to establish the fact of whether there are characters, such as Charles Colson or Pres. Richard Nixon, to discuss. Then we can discuss who said what about them, or the reasons that caused their actions. Please don’t let this point escape you.

  • tbjoshuawatch

    Interesting article, and thanks for the link to our site. I agree with most of your points, but knowing SCOAN as I do, I believe the issues are a bit too nuanced to adequately address in a short news article. We are aware of several other deaths under similar circumstances, all involving SCOAN. The problem is, it’s not about direct advice “Stop your medication!”, it’s far more insidious than that. It’s a culture of “You have been healed, but you must maintain your healing through faith. A great way to do this is to live in your healing by refusing the drugs which treat your (now) nonexistent illness.” This puts immense psychological pressure on people who are already suffering, not to mention their families too.

    This I think helps explain the differing scripts between the SCOAN spokesperson and the article.

    As for the articles dubious link to SCOAN. SCOAN has a zero tolerance policy on critisism. Those who question or speak out against the church are ostracised and labeled blasphemers, prostitutes, insane, possessed, uncircumcised baboons (really!). They record confessions of many of their disciples and visitors which they use as blackmail material if they ever speak out. I suspect that these family members were unhappy to implicate SCOAN “on the record”, so the BBC had to find another way to implicate them. It’s not ideal, but I can readily believe they were in a very difficult situation.

    • geoconger

      Thank you for your comment tbjoshuawatch — your voice was sadly lacking in the original BBC story and its inclusion would have improved the article.

  • sari

    This article may be a veiled public health announcement. Preventable disease has been on the rise in the U.K. and elsewhere as parents followed the faulty science of Andrew Wakefield and refused to vaccinate their children. His science became something akin to a secular religion, and the media helped fan the flames before his research was fully and completely debunked.

  • Jeremy

    Your “editorial” here simply confirms that Evangelical Christians do not believe in science. Instead of blaming the BBC, why not question the hucksters who prey on frightened and ignorant people? Are journalists supposed to take hucksters at their word?

  • Ray Ingles

    To be philosophically coherent, I would have assumed the BBC would have supported the choice of the three HIV patients to have stopped taking their medication.

    Is supporting the right to choose something the same thing as supporting the choice itself? Is it possible to disagree with a choice someone makes while granting that the person has the right to make that choice?

    From the article: leaders of the church described themselves as Evangelical Christian pastors.

    And on a lesser point, but one that particularly irritates me, we have the claim of Evangelicals being behind this, based upon someone from the church in question self-identifying as evangelical.

    Now, the article’s author specifically notes they ‘described themselves’. Is your point that the author should have gone on to point out that “SCOAN is better described as an African Indigenous Church that combines elements of Christianity with Nigerian traditional beliefs”? Just so I’m clear…

  • Hector

    Looks like these folks could profit by reading their Bibles:
    “The Lord hath created medicines out of the earth; and he that is wise will not abhor them.” (Sirach 38:4).

  • wrf3

    What is a “gentile wash”? Does it involve soap made from lard?

  • Steve

    Am I dense or are the only “evangelical Christian churches” doing this black African…and maybe even just Nigerian? If so, why is this irrelevant to the BBC headliners? (Rhetorical question.)

  • Watch Prophet TB Joshua

    As tales of the gruesome slander propagated by our critics continue to evoke emotions from scoan supporters on the internet, their hidden agenda is becoming all the more obvious to everyone, Just like the Biblical pharisees in Jesus day, they seem to be ever ready to tarnish the reputation of TB Joshua, using every cunning means, misinterpreting his best intentions and giving no single thought to the faith related crisis they may leave in their wake as long as their sinister purpose is achieved.

    They recently hatched another long nursed evil with a fiendish article titled: TB Joshua and SCOAN- a beginners guide! In which they sourced an article from the BBC Website claiming it was an article on SCOAN London, an excerpt from their article reads:

    “Today the BBC News website published a story by Andy Dangerfield on SCOAN London“.

    (particularly note the use of the words “…story… ON Scoan london”)

    We’ve spotted the oddity in this statement and found it thoroughly embarrassing that they would resort to Lies from the very first sentence in their post, as the article in question was never about Scoan London, but about how some churches HIV prayer cure caused three deaths, due to the advice by the churches evangelical pastors to stop taking their antiretroviral drugs. There was absolutely no reference in the BBC report linking the three deceased persons to Scoan London, this is just one of critics disgusting pharisees tactic of inferring stuff to back up their cynicism, rather than stating obvious facts.

    According to the BBC report, the HIV prevention charity African Health Policy Network (AHPN) only expressed concerns over the growing number of London churches that have been telling people to stop medication, that the power of prayer will “cure” their infections, and that the trend is becoming widespread across a number of churches of which they suspected the Scoan to be part of because of its HIV healing testimonies.

    Trying to join dots and connect the facts stated in the BBC report to the aspersions cast by TB Joshua watch, brings one question to mind;

    Just how does a baseless suspicion by AHPN that Scoan is one of such churches telling people to stop medication, get to mean that the three deaths occurred at Scoan London?

    Absolutely no way at all, yet these are two very separate and distinct ideas cunningly merged by TB Joshua watch to back up their instinctive cynicism, and such is the appalling deceptiveness they orchestrate on the internet on regular basis. On careful thought to the ANHP’S suspicion, We have more than enough reason to believe that the SCOAN could never be one of such churches as the ANHP suspected, being a ministry that boasts of a medical department in the church premises with doctors and nurses working tirelessly there, its unthinkable that they would reject or denounce any usage of medication. As the church itself was quoted to have said in the article:

    “We don’t ask people to stop taking medication,” the church added. “Doctors treat; God heals.”

    Another indication of whom they are behind their sly disguise is the way our critics seemed sinisterly eager to use the above report, quoted the report out of context, hurriedly posted a link to it on their site within several hours of the news release, and claiming they know four other deceased persons under similar circumstances to those stated in the BBC News besides the three reported. Thus they succeeded in a serpentine manner to come up with a total of seven deceased persons in Scoan, three of which weren’t in any way connected with Scoan London as seen in the BBC report and four of which are unverifiable allegations, Little wonder Jesus often referred to the pharisees as snakes, and a brood of vipers, (Matt 23:33), apparently due to their deceptive antics and tactics, no different from those employed by that old serpent- Satan, to beguile eve. As expected of the pharisees, they remain undaunted in their quest to fight TB Joshua to a standstill, but in all its nothing more than a fools errand, considering the more challenging battles TB Joshua has confronted and conquered, their precursors who brought all manner of allegations against Christ to condemn him would be proud of them in this regard, as they’re perfectly following their footsteps much to their shame and our utter disappointment.

    As one commenter said on critics site, this is just a disgusting attempt by Satan to stop many of his captives from going over to the strongest power that defeats him so that he can keep them in eternal bondage, even if Scoan has indeed fallen short of a godly ministry as they claim, it wouldn’t be the only one that has fallen amongst thousands existent in the Uk, the implications of all these rants about SCOAN alone just lends enormous credence to the fact that they are indeed the only ministry in the world giving Satan a hell of a heartache, and not being able to defeat the mightiness of God’s power in SCOAN leaves him with only one option, to use his agents to peddle lies to discredit the ministry in the eyes of the world and it would take a look of faith on the part of christian faithfuls world wide to see through this satanic duplicity.

  • Daniel

    “As for the articles dubious link to SCOAN. SCOAN has a zero tolerance policy on critisism. Those who question or speak out against the church are ostracised and labeled blasphemers, prostitutes, insane, possessed, uncircumcised baboons (really!).”
    As in the cases of Scientology, the Church Universal and Triumphant, and other sociological cults, with careful research these claims are eventually verifyable. Sheer speculation and rabble-rousing are not entirely helppful in this process. Let’s really examine the truth, and let the chips fall where they may. Have groups such as Personal Freedom Outreach or Watchman Fellowship looked into these claims?

  • Randy McDonald

    “Free will, when it is expressed in secular terms is a moral good for the BBC. Free will when expressed as a choice to believe in miracles and hope for God’s intervention in your life is treated with scorn by the Corporation.”

    Free will is something that requires agents capable of rational decision-making. The three people involved stopped taking their HIV medications on the recommendation of the church not because they wanted to die of AIDS but because they thought that ending their medication regimens was a prerequisite for their cure. The actions that they took, in other words, was not rational in respect to their goals–the very large majority (>95%) of people who don’t take ARVs eventually die of AIDS.

    To the extent that these people were pressured and/or misled to believe in such an irrational action’s good sense by SCOAN, said church deserves to be criticized. Did it? As described at multiple sites, the church’s website explicitly stated that it could heal people of HIV infection, going so far as to provide photos of individuals who supposedly were.

  • Martha

    Watch Prophet Joshua, or whomever you may be, on the SCOAN international site there are testimony videos up and personal stories of healing.

    I find some of these disturbing; the video of the woman being “delivered” from “Satan’s chains” for instance. (This may be found on the “Latest Videos” section of the website). She had attended because the doctors had diagnosed her with breech presentation of her baby and that she would need a Caesarean operation to deliver. She attended the Synagogue Church of All Nations for a cure instead, and is alleged to have given birth to her child with no problems right there in the “labour room”.

    If I take this at its bare word as the truth, then Wise Man Hari and the rest of the staff there got off very luckily. The woman was not writhing under demonic possession or obsession, she was in labour. And leaving someone with a medical problem to have a child assisted only by a midwife (if the women were indeed midwives) with nothing else except a man shouting the name of Jesus as if it were a magical charm – for the mother and child to come out unharmed was indeed a miracle, but none of your doing.

    Or the testimony of this familywhere after healing, they stopped giving medication to their children. If the children (in their 20s) were indeed accurately diagnosed with schizophrenia, I would not be sanguine about the results of stopping medication.

    These stories come from your own website, which I also note sells Anointing Water for many purposes. I do see that you (or the real T.B. Joshua) says that “It is not the Anointing Water that heals the sick but Jesus Christ Himself. There must be faith both in the person praying and in the person being prayed for. Prayer must proceed from and be accompanied with a lively faith. It is this that brings about the healing, not the Anointing Water” and as a Catholic, I cannot deny the usage of, for instance, Lourdes water by my co-religionists. But I would remind you that selling blessed water is simony, the sin for which Simon Magus sought forgivness (Acts 8: 18-23): “18And when Simon saw that through laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Ghost was given, he offered them money,

    19Saying, Give me also this power, that on whomsoever I lay hands, he may receive the Holy Ghost.

    20But Peter said unto him, Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money.

    21Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter: for thy heart is not right in the sight of God.

    22Repent therefore of this thy wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee.

    23For I perceive that thou art in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity.”

    Any Catholics selling holy water or water from a shrine, or relics, or charging for blessed oil, earth from the Holy Land, and so on, are in trouble. I note also that, on the SCOAN website, if I attempt to click on the “About”, “Ministries” or “Media” tabs, I am unable to open them, but there is no such problem with the “Give” tab.

    But perhaps my web browser is demonically possessed. Out, out, demons of iniquity!

  • dalea

    People do not die of AIDS or HIV; they die from complications of AIDS or HIV. In the early years of the epidemic, most first world deaths were the result of PCP pneumonia. I don’t know what it is now, but AIDS and HIV are not causes of death. This basic science is left out, which makes the story suspect. It would have been better to have stated that after stopping the anti-retrovirals, the person died of PCP or whatever.

    And, AIDS can take a very long time to wear down an immune system. Since the drugs in question help the body build up the immune system, a rapid death seems highly questionable. I have known PWA’s who lived for years without a functioning immune system. Just took sensible precautions and prompt treatment of symptoms. This story makes no medical sense.

  • tioedong

    The real story is that this is the tip of the iceburg and not just among Christians or believers.

    As a doc, I’ve seen psychotics relapse, infections get worse, cancers spread, seizures exacerbate, and babies die in home births because true believer types were convinced magical miracles (e.g. faithhealing, miracle cancer cures, vegan diets, back to nature remedies) were better than science.

    There is a nice course on youtube about this problem…The lecture course in the UBerkeley course on Science magic and Religion about the problem

  • Teleayo

    @ Martha

    I am a member of the scoan and happened to be in church on the day that the woman gave birth. Wise Man Harry prayed for her and said ‘Deliver your baby’ – meaning ‘give birth to your baby’ – there is no indication that the scoan is saying that the woman was being delivered from evil spirits.

    I also find it difficult to believe that you don’t think that this was a miracle. She had a breech presentation and after prayer, the baby turned around to be in the right position and then within minutes delivered normally and safely. Labour normally takes many hours!

    Regarding the family that came from the US, their case was also a big miracle. After receiving prayer they started talking normally, stopped being violent and calmed right down. when the family saw this change, they decided to stop giving them the medication and saw that they were still calm. They had this problem for more than 20 years.

    I don’t know why those buttons on the scoan website were not working for you before but I just checked, they are working now so please check them out. There are many videos of healing and deliverances.

    And the anointing water is not sold for any money but given out.

    @ geoconger

    Please take time to check out the scoan objectively and you will discover that it is not as you have heard. the article you quoted about church leaders believing it is a cult is over 10 years old.

    And the other website you quoted from are a site that are all out to slander and speak negatively about the scoan ignoring the many testimonies that come every single week at the scoan.

    I agree that the bbc article is bad journalism and does not provide any evidence or facts. It is a pity that some have chosen to twist this article to make it to say what they want to hear and imply that those people that died were attending the scoan. There is no evidence of that whatsoever. On the contrary, there are videos on the scoan website of those who have been healed from aids after receiving prayer. Jesus is a miracle worker and He is still alive today.

    Please all reading, don’t just dismiss the scoan as being fake. Take time to really check it out. It is true that Jesus said there will be false prophets but He also said that in His name, believers would do even greater works than He was doing.