Religion and the Medical Luddite

The Faith Healers are out in force in Nigeria. There is a problem with medicine. Medicine is so far removed from the understanding of most people who it appears to be medicine.

When discussing a terminal disease many people are desperate for a solution. It’s the same for Chronic Disease. You just want it to stop. Even something as minor as myopia is an annoyance and many people fall for scams to get rid of their glasses. However you see this at it’s deadliest in the hands of the cures for diseases such as cancer, HIV/AIDS and diabetes.

I have seen a fair few signs of alternative medicine practitioners who insist that thee can cure these diseases. Maybe not AIDS, in India people still fear the HIV/AIDS patient and believe all sorts of superstitions about how the disease transmits but I have seen signs promising a cure for diabetes. This is not out of the goodness of their hearts or the willingness to do good but because either they are unscrupulous charlatans who hope to make some money at the hands of people who are desperate, or who genuinely believe that they have the power to cure these diseases.

This is where religion comes in. The faith healers genuinely may believe that they are capable of healing people through mechanisms of the spiritual. In the USA this takes the form of these immense revival meetings where slick production values allow these faith healers an impressive audience to prove their powers. We know this is merely an extension of the placebo effect. We know that the drama and pageantry play an integral role in treating patients and that in our more ethical medical practices we are no longer to be unscrupulous with claims about medicines.

But there is a large and significant group of people who are anti-medicine. A lot of them are incredibly well linked, often garnering millions of followers many of who believe in faith healing.


And this phenomenon is exported across the world. I have seen faith healers in places as diverse as the USA, UK, Haiti and India and in each and each one it’s generally a social event where the sick and ill are put upon the spot to GET cured. The cure is literally instantaneous and people act like (omit) a genuine cure. That the powers of holy spirits enters them and fixes all their aches and breaks in a jiffy. These people go home cured, but the cure never lasts as long as they think it does. The adrenaline and the excitement having down, the symptoms of disease reappear. Often the healer blames the reappearance of disease on the lack of faith or the sins of the sufferer.

In places like Nigeria? Pentecostal church pastors have started faith healing HIV. They claim that they can be healed through prayer. The pastors invite people with HIV to come to the pulpit where after a ceremony they burn the person’s anti-retroviral medications and declares them cured. It’s not just there. In Africa many people also have their traditional beliefs which exist hand in hand with Christianity and Islam. And these faith healers also have similar rituals where they declare sick people to be healthy and destroy their medication.

Now this is bad enough without us realising that this isn’t free. People often hand over their life savings in the euphoria of thinking they are cured. But soon their condition worsens.

The dialogue of anti-HIV and AIDS treatment has suffered often at the hands of religious Luddites in Africa. Whether it is the dialogue with the Catholic Church over condoms, or the use of traditional medicine to treat HIV/AIDS, the big stumbling block seems to be religion and superstition.

So why is this a big deal? Well, the major problems involve the patient regressing and the disease progressing. The second issue is that the patient may become resistant to the drug and so be unable to control the disease. And finally, patients who think they are cured may stop taking precautions and spread the disease and infect others.

In Nairobi alone roughly  10 people a month fall victim to these predatory churches. Over 2000 people have been recorded as having thrown away their medication before worsening and gone back on the drugs. In one case a young woman paid (to her) a whopping $12 to be healed. She later paid a further $24 in thanks for her new chance at life and her new future. The pastor then confiscated her medicines and burnt them in a symbolic gesture in front of the audience. And she was told that she was healed. And he proved it! He told her to get tested and even graciously took her to a clinic which declared her free of HIV/AIDS.

She was cured by faith. Overjoyed she pledged her life to the Church and to cure HIV/AIDS and became a strong advocate for faith healing.

Within two weeks she was sick with a cough that would not go away. A test at another clinic showed that she was not only HIV Positive but also her viral load had increased. Among the others who were “healed” with her, four had died within a month. The pastors were not jailed.

Another victim pointed out that it’s the stigma, rejection, loneliness and fear of death that drives people to these sham cures. Particularly in women who are often lied to by their partners and who have HIV through little fault of their own. The irony of these snake oil merchants tempting women while being Christians is not lost on me.

When confronted these pastors fight back and claim that the healing does not work unless you are pure of heart. Or that it’s due to a lack of faith. After all if you had faith in the divine healing power of these pastors then you would not have second guessed them by testing your blood again.

The fact that there is a clinic that is willing to give fake reports shows how organised this system is. And the system is ideal! It perpetuates both faith in religion and the disease used to create the despair needed to believe in faith healing. Those who are not HIV+ have their faith affirmed and strengthened. The pastor also makes a lot of money out of this since word of mouth spreads about his “good” work.

The HIV/AIDS patients who give up their drugs are easily taken care off because they either die (and may even spread the disease to others ensuring more people to take advantage of) or if they do survive, they can be easily ostracised since HIV/AIDS patients already are ostracised and the disease’s link with immorality means it’s easy to character assassinate any angry victims of this scam and simply ignore them. After all, they got HIV/AIDS because they were immoral once. If the healing failed it must be due to the fact they never really accepted the power of god in the first place.

And all that happens is the pastor gets richer and more people fall into his flock and more HIV patients are sacrificed to drive his greed.

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