This post is part of a series of guest posts on GPS by the undergraduate and graduate students in my Science vs. Pseudoscience course. As part of their work for the course, each student had to demonstrate mastery of the skill of “Educating the Public about Pseudoscience.” To that end, each student has to prepare two 1,000ish word posts on a particular pseudoscience topic, as well as run a booth on-campus to help reach people physically about the topic.
Faith Healing is Fake Healing by Tim Harvey
A common feature of gods is that they are omnipotent. And since gods are omnipotent, they have the power to cure diseases and are often mentioned doing so within religious literature and teachings. It is no wonder then why so many religious people believe in faith healing. Many cultures have faith healing but modern faith healing in the United States is based on the New Testament. In the New Testament, Jesus performs miracles including healing the sick and even bringing the dead back to life. Jesus does this by channeling the power of God through prayer and touching them. Faith healers attempt to do the same by claiming to be able to channel the power of Jesus, Baby Jesus, and God. Faith healers cause much more harm than good. The results of these treatments are at best a reduction in stress and short-lived placebo effects. At its worst, faith healing can kill people.
Many faith healers are con artists that steal money from sick people. Larry Maxwell was a faith healer arrested by an undercover police officer for claiming to be able to cure AIDS in exchange for $5,000. Joe Alvarez was arrested for charging $100,000 to cleanse people of evil spirits and impurities. Dr. Hobart Freeman was a religious leader that told his congregation to stop taking their medication and instead pray for god to cure them. This led to the deaths of 90 people and Freeman being charged with negligent homicide. Most faith healers who are simply conning people out of their money are never caught because instead healers ask for donations or sell tickets to their events instead of explicitly demanding money in exchange for their healing services.
The remaining faith healers who are not explicitly conning people engage in cooperative magical thinking with their patients in which both the healer and patient believe the treatment works. Even if the healer believes that they actually possess magical powers, they can still cause serious harm. James Arthur Ray‘s healing sweat lodge retreat led to him being was convicted of three counts of negligent homicide from dehydration. The more common harm of faith healers is that after a treatment, patients stop going to doctors or taking their medications. Todd Bentley is a popular faith healer who was banned from touring the United Kingdom because he kicks and punches sickness out of people and he also claimed that the death of a Parliament member was “the Lord’s Justice” at work. After a treatment with him, several people believed that they were cured and stopped seeking treatment. This has led to the deaths of approximately 12 people. Kathryn Kuhlman claimed to heal a woman of her spinal cancer and told her she no longer needed her crutches. The next day the woman did not use her crutches causing her to collapse. She then died of her subsequent injuries from the fall.
Some extreme religious leaders even ask their congregation to stop all medical treatments and give themselves over to God entirely as an act of faith that may persuade God to help them. One of the first modern faith healers, Oklahoman Jack Coe claimed that he could heal the sick and that all medical treatments were useless. Coe was finally stopped from performing his divine miracles when he was arrested for practicing medicine without a license after he advised parents of a child with polio to take off his leg-braces. Removing of the braces caused the boy to be in constant pain. However, the judge dismissed the charges because divine healing is exempt from the law. Not long after the case was dismissed, Jack Coe died of bulbar polio. Below is footage of Coe from the 1950s, at the height of his fame.
Dr. Hobart Freeman told his congregation to stop taking their medication and instead pray for god to cure them. This led to the deaths of 90 people and Freeman being charged with only one count of negligent homicide. Charles Meade believed that sickness was caused by “unbelief” and told his congregation to stop using medicine. This led to the deaths of 19 children from treatable illnesses. Most recently, a religious couple in Philadelphia was charged with third-degree murder for refusing to seek medical care for their 8-month-old. This is their second child to die from untreated pneumonia.
Another harm of faith healing is that some verses from the Bible suggest that all sickness is caused by wickedness and a separation from God. This interpretation leads to sick people being viewed as sinful. When religious people view homosexuality as a disease, they also are viewing homosexuals as evil. The view that homosexuals are sinful has led to most, if not all, discrimination against homosexuals. Although the World Health Organization and the American Psychological Association have stated that homosexuality is not a disease, it has not stopped faith healers from trying to cure it. Prayer is the most common form faith healing for homosexuality but in more extreme cases, exorcisms of gay demons are performed. Exorcisms can be mild spiritual affairs in which a congregation prays for the demon to leave the host or extremely violent and dangerous rituals that can kill people. There is no scientific evidence that any of these treatments are effective at curbing homosexual desires, however there are numerous testimonials that claim faith healing has worked miracles.
Probe ministries speaker and professional calligrapher, Sue Bohlin, believes that through God, all things are possible. In an article she wrote for herwebsite, she lists many second-hand testimonials from individuals who were cured of there homosexual desires by God. Testimonials are not scientific evidence, especially when there is no proof that the people she mentioned actually exist. The internet is filled with testimonials. There numerous testimonies of God curing not only homosexuality but AIDS, asthma, cancer, anxiety, and drug abuse. The Internet is a wonderful place where anyone can freely exchange ideas. Unfortunately, the Internet is also a terrible place where ANYONE can freely exchange ideas.
The United States is ranked above average in education and yet faith healing continues to exist on television infomercials, in self-help books, and in churches. India has displayed more intelligence on this issue than the United States. After a mass faith healing performed by American Morris Cerullo, audience members stormed the stage and declared the man to be a fraud. As a result, Morris Cerullo was declared “persona non grata” by the Indian government and barred him from ever returning to India. Still, it is difficult to end faith healing completely. People will always seek quick and easy fixes to all of their problems. Chemotherapy, when compared to faith healing, is a brutal and painful treatment. Faith healing involves only a quick smack to the forehead. Below is a short video showing how noted skeptic James Randi debunked one of the most popular faith healers of the 1980s, Peter Popoff.
Despite this, and the fact that Popoff declared bankruptcy as a result, he nonetheless made a comeback over the past decade, even thought the Better Business Bureau had this say:
Since making his comeback to television, Popoff appears to have resumed his faith healing sessions in a manner identical to his method prior to his exposure as a fraud. If you feel you have been victimized by this organization, please report your experience to the California Attorney General’s office or the US Postal Service.
Faith healing is so intertwined with religion that is can be difficult to pry the two apart. It can be difficult to explain to a religious person that faith healing is garbage and the rest of their religious beliefs are valid. The belief that fuels the faith healing movement is that through God, all things are possible. This belief comes from several quotes in Bible that suggest that God is all-powerful and always correct and humans are less-than. This belief promotes the view that religious faith is superior to science because religion is the creation of Almighty God and science is the creation of flawed and dirty humans. For religion and science to co-exist, it is necessary to either modify religions or come to the understanding that since humans are the creations of God, all creations of humans are in part the creations of God. The only other solution to end faith healing would be to abandon all religions and live in a god(s)less world.
(And now, on a less somber note, I present “noted” faith healer Benny Hinn)