The Wondrous Stories of Faith Healing


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?”

“Yes.”

“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.

Pretty standard on the absurdity scale. But this is new:

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.

Comments

  1. Chiroptera says

    “Can I put my hand on your face?”, asks Alun Leppitt.

    Okay, that’s kind of a deal-breaker for me right there.

  2. raven says

    The Wondrous Stories of Faith Healing

    There are a lot of not so wondrous stories of faith healing.

    It is estimated that the fundie xian ritual of human child sacrifice by faith healing kills around 100 children a year.

    Death by faith healing is legal after age 18. No one knows how many adults are killed by faith healing but it is likely to be many times higher than this.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    Just in case: keep him away from Jerry Falwell, and Sun Myung Moon, and Ronald Reagan, and …!!!

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    Oh, and I gather that PT Barnum strongly approved of the sucker birth rate during his time.

    He would certainly thrive today.

  5. says

    While faith healing obviously doesn’t work on people, I once faith healed a Macintosh SE20 (IIRR) that wouldn’t boot!!

    I thwaked the poor little thing on its little top saying (in my best, though not very good, Southern Baptist accent) “Yew wull be will!!” (I said the accent wasn’t very good) and it promptly booted and worked from then on! It may even be working today (I lost touch with it over the years).

    Sadly I have never managed to raise that much faith since.

    But I do still bask in the glory of that moment.

  6. dugglebogey says

    Didn’t anybody see the Steve Martin film “Leap of Faith?” It’s a great example of how these “faith healers” work. Shills, planted audience members and “your faith just isn’t strong enough.”

  7. grumpyoldfart says

    They can cure cancer with faith, but if you’ve got a splinter in your finger they need a pair of tweezers.

  8. jesse says

    @dugglebogey — there’s a funny story about that film and James Randi. Evidently the movie was based in no small part on one of Randi’s books. Randi wasn’t happy about it and never had much good to say about the film.

    I always felt that was a bit churlish, because so much of the film celebrates what Randi is about, and it really is a statement about rationality at many levels and (spoilers) the whole subplot about the kid who might really have experienced a miracle makes it clear that the child could have a psychosomatic problem — yet one that drives the faith healer out of business. Not because he finds the real god, but because he finds the courage to be himself.

    (one of the last lines of the film is a classic IMO).

    Anyhow, while I understand Randi being miffed that they lifted his ideas (or at least his journalism) I always wondered why he was so upset afterwards. I guess in his position I’d have been happy that the movie, unlike so many others, didn’t take the position that faith is better than reason.

  9. nrdo says

    @dugglebogey
    It’s not always shills though. Shills/plants who are, for example, able to walk but in wheelchairs do play a role but some other tricks are accomplished by other means. The mentalist Derren Brown also did a “stunt” documentary called “Miracles for Sale” where he exposed a range of faith healing tricks, some of which would would work on people who are, for example, legally blind. It’s evident that some faith healing tricks can be performed intuitively by self-deceiving believers while others require conscious fraud.

  10. DaveL says

    A perennial favorite is the “healing” of a newborn baby with a “hole in their heart”. This sounds really dramatic and impressive to laypeople, but when people talk about a “hole” in a newborn’s heart, they’re almost always talking about one of two things – patent foramen ovale or patent ductus arteriosus. Both the foramen ovale and ductus arteriosus are normally occurring bypasses around the lungs’ portion of the circulatory system that are open during fetal development, when there’s no air for the lungs to breathe. Both typically close on their own shortly after birth. When one of them fails to close on schedule, it’s termed as “patent”.

    The normal course of initial treatment is no treatment, waiting to see if it will close on its own, which it usually does. Voila! A miraculous healing of a hole in a baby’s heart!

  11. Attila says

    I ran across a real example of faith healing. I had a girlfriend who claimed to be an atheist and then supposedly had a “deliverance” experience at a local Pentecostal church. After which she was claiming to be Christian. To play on their sympathies she claimed to have some type of brain cancer, In the 9 months I dated her she never mentioned anything and at no time ever went to see a doctor about it.

    The church had a big revival meeting and the faith healer called her out by her appearance, and said she was healed. I heard the audio on a YouTube video she did. She also stated that the healers did not know her and they must have miraculously known.

    At a later time I went to the church to warn the pastor about her. He stated he had been the one to tell the “healers” about her “cancer.” She would not have known this fact. So I said “you lied to your whole congregation.”

    So a common person would see someone in their church who they believed to have cancer “miraculously” called out by the healer, not knowing the healer had been told about them and of course later the person could then say they are miraculously healed. This could sound impressive if you didn’t know the back story.

    The pastor did not head my warnings about her and spend more time either trying to save me or explain to me why evolution is false and young earth creationism is true, At this point I figured she and the church deserved each other

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