“”You don't see faith healers working in hospitals for the same reason you don't see psychics winning the lottery.
Faith healing is a form of medical woo that attempts to cure a wide range of ailments primarily through personal prayer and intercessory prayer, sometimes augmented by faith-based rituals. God is capable of curing all diseases and injuries that could ever affect anybody, assuming He is willing.
Faith healing is a somewhat distinct form of alternative medicine, relying entirely on faith (e.g. as the case with psychic surgery). This can be contrasted with other alt-med practices that rely on some manner of supposedly medically active ingredient (as is claimed in homeopathy and Ayurveda).
Occasionally, faith healing pops up in the peer-reviewed literature — usually focused around whether intercessory prayer for a patient can improve their health or recovery (which the same studies show it can't). Like with hypnosis, it is difficult to define both a placebo and a control group against faith healing (considering the whole practice is the placebo), and as such, the falsifiability of the practice of faith healing is notoriously unimpressive.
Testemonials are central to the faith healing industry — this, despite being of very limited use to science, partially because most people who turn to faith healing are already using (or have tried) other treatments, are likely to improve without intervention, or suffer from a condition which is psychologically induced (often exacerbated by the believer until "faith healed").
“”Roomy loomy, lama nama noomy! This boy is healed! (eh?) Now, to the naked eye it would appear that this boy has not been healed; but I can assure you, this boy's spirit has been healed! Inside this tangled, mangle frame is a healed little boy. His spirit is healed! Hallelujah!
|—"Hellalujah", Insane Clown Posse|
If your god is in the mood to heal you, faith healing is 100% effective. If you are unworthy, for whatever reason, then it is still effective because it is God's wish you don't get well. This is, empirically speaking, no different than the statement "faith healing doesn't work", but it forms a convenient excuse for proponents and practitioners.
Comparison to placebo effect
“”If you are that person [who received a diagnosis of 6 months to live, but whose cancer went into remission], you are more likely to believe that God cured you, this invisible force, creator of the universe, cured you, than that you had three idiotic doctors diagnose you. […] I taught physics to pre-med students who became doctors. Not all of them are smart, I assure you.
|—Neil deGrasse Tyson|
Faith healing is obviously not what you would consider science. The actual causal effects are limited to the placebo effect. However, since the placebo effect produces testable and reproducible results pertaining to faith healing, studies have been done on the subject, showing that it has little effect other than to increase one's spiritual health. So, when properly controlled for, and when confounding factors such as cherry picking and selective reporting are removed, faith healing does pretty much nothing. In this regard, faith healing performs exactly as well as any other form of alternative medicine and fails the meaningful definition of a working treatment.
It may be possible that faith healing works as a placebo (much like other non-active forms of alternative medicine such as homeopathy or Reiki), causing the patient to truly believe that they are being healed. Placebo treatments work in a complex manner — someone receiving a treatment may consciously or subconsciously alter their habits and improve their health or the treatment will just cause them to think positively and at least feel much better until the illness disappears on its own. Beyond this effect, which can be extremely powerful, there is no evidence to suggest that faith healing works. In particular, experiments on prayer have found no increase in people's recovery from surgery despite prayers being said for them. With regards to serious illnesses, the placebo effect may not be as much use.
Christianity is by and large the religion most often associated with faith healing, to the extent that an entire denomination (the Christian Science denomination) is devoted to the idea of faith healing. Often, faith healing in Christianity accompanies Biblical literalism. However, that mainly applies to Protestant denominations, as one biblical passage that was scrapped out of protestant denominations, Sirach 38:1-15, which is still read by Catholics, clearly states that belief in God and belief in medicine are compatible. After all, he allowed the creation of the doctor and the plants that heal the sick.
Christian Scientists believe that faith healing was proven when Jesus healed a sick woman by faith alone, the logic apparently being "If the Omnipotent God can do it then so can I." They also believe that the material world is an illusion, and that this will ultimately lead to a true spiritual understanding of God, and that fear, ignorance, and sin are the causes of all illness.
If any be sick, call for the elders of the church, let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.
The organization Children's Health Is a Legal Duty (CHILD) estimated that since 1976, at least 82 children linked to the Church of the First Born have died from lack of medical treatment.
Faith healing is most closely linked to televangelists, who often use it to fleece millions of dollars from vulnerable people. Almost all of the major televangelists make faith healing a major component of their "services". Pat Robertson talks to God on his show the 700 Club and announces miraculous and spontaneous healings right before asking for donations. Benny Hinn's whole ministry is based around his "miraculous" healings with full-blown stage shows where he brings up sick people and pushes them to the ground, screaming "be healed." Hinn also offers the chance to the television audience by placing his hands up in front of the camera and asking people to touch their hands to the screen and be healed. Peter Popoff had a neat trick of being able to announce the address of his
patients victims before "healing" them. He was able to milk millions from his followers until James Randi revealed that Popoff was using a radio earpiece to pick up prompts from his wife instead of God.
Despite eschewing evidence-based guidelines for tackling the recovery process, Twelve Steps has become one of the more popular rehab programs in America. As of 2016, about 74% rehabilitation centers were using Twelve Steps in their recovery programs.
Dangers of faith healing
“”You’ve killed two of your children… not God, not your church, not religious devotion — you.
|—Judge Benjamin Lerner|
Faith healing may seem like a joke when televangelists practice it, but in the real world it is deadly.
Not getting help
The primary danger is that people will outright reject conventional and proven treatments so will instead stick only to faith healing. This can prove deadly in some circumstances where the illness is serious and medical attention is ignored completely.
Travis and Wenona Rossiter were convicted of first- and second-degree manslaughter in the death of their daughter, Syble after the 12-year-old died from untreated diabetic ketoacidosis; the Rossiters assumed Syble had come down with the flu. The conviction has a 10-year minimum sentence. Wenona Rossiter stated:
I always prayed that God would allow the body to naturally take care of itself. […] I had no idea – the day my daughter died – that the body was destroying itself. […] It's been hard. Especially hearing from the doctors. It just tore me up inside that as a mother, I had no idea that that was going on.
“”Many histories revealed that symptoms were obvious and prolonged. Parents were sufficiently concerned to seek outside assistance, asking for prayers and rituals from clergy, relatives, and other church members. For example, a 2-year-old child aspirated a bite of banana. Her parents frantically called other members of her religious circle for prayer during nearly an hour in which some signs of life were still present.
Innumerable examples of children dying to faith healing exist.
The organization Children's Health Is a Legal Duty (CHILD) estimated that around 300 children have died in the US since 1975 due to people putting too much faith in faith healing. CHILD identified 172 cases between 1975 and 1995 in which a child died and evidence suggested medical care was exempted for religious grounds; of these, CHILD estimated that 140 would have had a 90% survival rate with medical intervention and an additional 18 would have had a 50% survival rate.
A study of child fatalities from faith-healing sects found that there 172 reported deaths between 1975 and 1995. Of these 172, 23 were attributed to the Church of the First Born, 12 to End Times Ministry, 64 to Faith Assembly, 16 to Faith Tabernacle, 28 to Christian Science, 18 to other denominations, and 11 were unaffiliated.
Idaho is one of the most lax states for laws on faith healing, which amounts to shielding parents from felony charges of negligent homicide, manslaughter or capital murder when their children die from medical neglect. A count of graves in the Peaceful Valley Cemetery, which is owned by the Followers of Christ sect, a church with only about 1000 members and which opposes modern medicine and encourages faith healing, found that 35% of graves from 2002-2013 were from children or stillborn babies. In Oregon, five pairs of parents from the Followers of Christ have faced criminal charges over failing to secure medical attention for their children over a period of 9 years, at least two of which involved deaths of children.
All of these numbers, of course, don't include adults who may have intentionally kept themselves from medical treatment and certainly don't include the probably tens of thousands more worldwide in places where culture hasn't necessarily caught up with the medical technology available.
“”Parents may be free to become martyrs themselves. But it does not follow they are free, in identical circumstances, to make martyrs of their children before they have reached the age of full and legal discretion when they can make that choice for themselves.
This doesn't seem to bother most faith healers and those who trust them, however. Charges and sentences given to people "acting in faith" - or more specifically, acting in a religious faith, or even more specifically, a fundamentalist Christian faith - are often far more lenient compared to comparable neglect, manslaughter and even murder charges. The position of the law when dealing with people who are "acting in faith" has been tricky due to the difficulties in striking a balance between objective and universal application of the law, and "respecting" people's religion and their rights to practice it.
After a series of incidents with a local religious group resulting in deaths, the state government of Oregon decided in March 2011 that faith healing is not an acceptable defense against neglect charges.
In 2009, Herbert and Catherine Schaible lost a two-year-old to pneumonia and were sentenced to ten years probation, which stated that they must seek medical care if another one of their children became sick. In 2014, their 8-month-old son Brandon died from pneumonia. The Schaibles were sentenced to between 3.5 and 7 years in jail. Herbert Schaible stated:
We believe in divine healing, the Jesus shed blood for our healing and that he died on the cross to break the devil'’s power.
Given the above, it is worth noting that, by referencing a certain old joke, the core concept of Faith Healing can be refuted without even leaving the realm of Christianity:
There was once a devout man, let's call him Bob, whose hometown was being flooded. While treading water, another man on a raft floated by and offered to give Bob a lift. Bob said "No thanks, God will save me." Bob later drowned. When he arrived at the pearly gates, Bob asked God "Why didn't you save me?" God replied "Well I sent you a raft, didn't I?"
- Church HIV prayer cure claims 'cause three deaths' At least three patients with AIDS died because Evangelical Christian pastors told them to stop taking their medication and pray instead.
- 6 Tricks I Learned as a Faith Healer (for Scamming You) -- Cracked article, September 1, 2014
- Biblical Literalism Kills -- Literally, Time
- Tim Minchin's song about faith healing
- Pseudoscience quotes, Hayden Planetarium.
- Byrd RC. Positive therapeutic effects of intercessory prayer in a coronary care unit population. South. Med. J. 1988;81:826-9.
- Harris WS, Gowda M, Kolb JW, Strychacz CP, Vacek JL, Jones PG, Forker A, O'Keefe JH, McCallister BD. A randomized, controlled trial of the effects of remote, intercessory prayer on outcomes in patients admitted to the coronary care unit. Arch. Intern. Med. 1999;159:2273-8.
- Aviles JM, Whelan SE, Hernke DA, Williams BA, Kenny KE, O'Fallon WM, Kopecky SL. Intercessory prayer and cardiovascular disease progression in a coronary care unit population: a randomized controlled trial. Mayo Clin. Proc. 2001;76:1192-8.
- The Deity in the Data
- Mark 5:25-29
- James Randi busting Peter Popoff
- Twelve-Step-Based Programs
- Police: Girl Dies After Parents Pray for Healing Instead of Seeking Medical Help This example is an 11-year old girl who died after her parents refused to provide her medical treatment for her (treatable) form of a diabetes-related illness.
- Child Fatalities From Religion-motivated Medical Neglect by Seth M. Asser and Rita Swan (1998). Pediatrics vol. 101, no 4., 625-629.
- Idaho protects the rights of faith healers. Should it? A debate rages over the extent of religious freedom in the face of preventable deaths. by Leah Sottile (Jan. 8, 2018) High Country News.
- A religious Oregon couple didn’t believe in medical care. After newborn’s death, they’re headed to prison. by Kyle Swenson (July 10, 2018 at 5:35 AM) The Washington Post.
- When Parents Call God Instead of the Doctor
- The Washington Post - When a child dies, faith is no defense
- March 24, 2010. Faith-healing a First Amendment dilemma. Retrieved December 9, 2014.
- Oregon House unanimously votes to end faith healing exception