In yesterday’s post and earlier I have expressed my fury with parents who let their children suffer and die because they withheld medical care, believing that their faith will heal the child. P. Z. Myers documents some other abuses inflicted by parents on children. Such acts are nothing short of criminal because they sacrifice the health and even the life of a child on the altar of parental superstition. There is no evidence that faith healers can do what they claim to do and plenty of evidence that they are at best misguided and self-delusional or outright frauds preying on the gullible.
Some believers in faith healing have asked me whether my skepticism is because of my lack of experience with it and urge me to check it out. Actually I do have some experience with faith healers. I had polio when I was six years old that resulted in some serious physical handicaps, though it has not prevented me from having a very full life. My parents were Christians and they did everything they could to improve my life, and that included taking me to faith healers.
I recall a faith healer named Brother Mandus coming to Sri Lanka as part of a world-wide crusade and my mother took me to the church where he was preaching and at the appropriate time told me to walk up to the altar with the others who were seeking cures for various ailments. Although I was a child then (around eleven or twelve) and it was a long time ago, I recall going up and praying fervently and remember him placing his hands on my head and praying for me to be healed. It was all very sincere (at least on my mother’s and my part, though I cannot vouch for Mandus) but, of course, nothing happened.
Sometime later, we were in another town away from the capital city and my parents must have heard of another faith healer, a local man this time, and they took me to him. This was a very different experience. This man was not a Christian but more like a witch doctor and it was a private affair just for us. It was night time and I remember lying down on the floor in a candle-lit room that threw long flickering shadows everywhere while this wild looking, long-haired, bare-chested person wearing long chains around his neck chanted and flailed and waved all manner of things around in the air just above me, including swords. It went on for quite a while but again, nothing happened.
This experience was quite spooky and should have terrified me but I was not scared because I must have implicitly trusted my parents, who were also present, that they would never let me be harmed in any way by this wild and crazy guy. I recall only being curious as to what the hell was going on.
What were my parents, pillars of the Christian church, doing dealing with what could be considered black magic? Many Sri Lankans, like people elsewhere (other than religious chauvinists and fanatics), are somewhat eclectic and relaxed in their attitudes towards religion. It is not uncommon to find icons of Jesus and Buddha and the Hindu gods in the same location and people worshipping all of them. While my parents were religious, they were also practical and open-minded people who had their priorities right. For them, having me get better was top of their agenda and they were willing to do whatever it takes. Having me get better would have trumped any allegiance they might have felt towards any religious dogma.
My parents were pragmatists and if they had been Edgardo Mortara’s parents, I think they would have converted to Catholicism in a heartbeat if that was the only way that they could have got their child back from the Pope, arguing that a god who would not excuse an act that arose out of pure parental love was not a god worth worshipping. Fortunately for me, their primary efforts were directed towards making sure that I got the best possible medical treatment. They would never have gambled with that. I suspect that their ventures into trying to find supernatural healing were seen by them as extras, done on the off-chance that it might work. In this, they were totally unlike those religious people who will let their children suffer and even die because they think pleasing their god is more important than anything else.
Believers in faith healing will never be convinced that there is nothing there. They always have the option of blaming any lack of success on people having insufficient faith. They would say that the reason why god did not heal me was likely because of my parents’ lack of sufficient faith in the Christian god, as evidenced by their commitment to getting the best possible medical treatment for me, as well as their willingness to try non-Christian faith options. Or maybe because ‘god could see into my heart’ (a phrase Christians love) and discern that although I thought I was a devout Christian, the seeds of my future atheism had taken root and so I was not to be rewarded. Of course, this whole concept of a god who holds back from healing children just because they or their parents are insufficiently devout is truly horrendous, but religious people never seem to see that aspect of it.
When it comes to faith healers, people like the Pope and all other major religious leaders who do not denounce faith healing as a total fraud are also culpable. By encouraging people to think that god can and will heal those with sufficient faith, they are accomplices to all the faith healers who prey on the gullible.
Because religious leaders are shirking this task, we have to delegate the responsibility of debunking these frauds to comedians like The Chasers.