The ethical dilemma of faith healing

Those people who read the Plain Dealer would be aware of the sudden rise to fame as a faith healer of Dr. Issam Nemeh, a general practitioner (and Catholic) in the Cleveland area who also practices faith healing, in the form of using heated acupuncture-type needles, the passing of hands, and prayer.

The Plain Dealer has given him considerable coverage in the past, leading up to well-attended faith healing services held earlier this year in a Catholic Church and at the HealthSpace Cleveland Museum. He is now said to be the area’s most sought after physician, booked through 2006, and patients often wait until midnight to get to see him, paying $250 for appointments.

But not everyone is happy and a recent article reports on those who feel they have been had. They say that he made claims about their cures that were not substantiated, and that his assistants seemed to be overly concerned with getting their money and made outlandish claims that angels visited him regularly.

Is Nemeh a fraud? It is tempting for those of us who are not religious to think so, since we do not believe that supernatural forces exist. After all, a recent study in the medical journal The Lancet (free registration required) finds that prayer and touch have no effect and Bob Harris argues on other grounds why such claims are unlikely to be true.

This is not the first time that claims that prayer leads to successful healing have been found to be wanting. The December 3, 2004 issue of the newsletter What’s New said:

PRAYER STUDY: COLUMBIA PROFESSOR REMOVES HIS NAME FROM PAPER. We have been tracking the sordid story of the Columbia prayer study for three years (WN 05 Oct 01). It claimed that women for whom total strangers prayed were twice as likely to become pregnant from in-vitro fertilization as others; it was published in the Journal of Reproductive Medicine. At the time we were unaware of the background of the study, but knew it had to be wrong; the first assumption of science is that events result from natural causes. The lead author, Rugerio Lobo, who at the time was Chair of Obstetrics, now says he had no role in the study. The author who set up the study is doing five years for fraud in a separate case, and his partner hanged himself in jail. Another author left Columbia and isn’t talking. The Journal has never acknowledged any responsibility, and after withdrawing the paper for “scrutiny,” has put it back on the web. Nor has the Journal published letters critical of the study. Columbia has never acknowledged any responsibility. All of this has come out due to the persistence of Bruce Flamm, MD. The science community should flatly refuse all proposals or papers that invoke any supernatural explanation for physical phenomena.

While it is natural for religious believers to think there could be some healing effect of prayer, it is possible for non-believers in a supernatural power to accept it too. Even if there is no god, the mind-body connection makes it possible that a person’s will and attitude can influence the biochemical processes in the brain and body and produce actual physical effects. As the Plain Dealer article on Nemeh states “Even skeptics agree that faith and prayer can improve one’s mental state, which can in turn promote physical health. Some also suggest that people who report being cured by faith healers are probably experiencing a placebo effect, a powerful phenomenon in which symptoms improve on the mere belief that a remedy is at hand.”

And it is this possibility that causes the ethical problem. Here is a hypothetical situation. Suppose that a small number of people (say about 1% of those who are sick) respond favorably to “faith healing” this way via the mind-body connection or placebo effect. The catch is that we do not know a priori which ones will do so. Since it seems essential that people have faith in order for this method to work on them, everyone has to maintain the illusion that god is acting through prayer.

So here is the dilemma. If someone believed that there was no god but still wanted to help people, is it unethical for them to pretend to be a faith healer and treat people? After all, even if just 1% get better and nothing bad happens to the rest, isn’t that still a positive result? I am assuming that everyone is acting on the best of motives and that the “faith healers” are not con artists preying on desperate and gullible people and swindling them out of their money. Let us assume they are pretending to be faith healers for purely altruistic reasons.

And as for the rest of us who have no ambitions to be faith healers but are simply skeptical observers, should we go all out to debunk faith healers in the name of truth and because we feel it is bogus or should we just stay out of the whole thing because of the benefits it might be having on a few people? If you were the faith healer’s friend and knew that he/she was faking belief, would you feel obliged to expose him/her in the cause of truth?

One negative that immediately comes to mind is that people who believe in faith healers might neglect taking conventional treatments that might help them. Another is that the disillusionment that comes with failed faith healing efforts might make these people despair and think that god either does not care for them or wants them to die, creating a negative mindset that surely cannot be helpful.

I think this question illustrates the dilemmas that often occur when abstract principles of truth and honesty come into collision with the needs of real people in desperate need.

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