Faith healing – What evidence would I need?

A Christian friend of mine (No, not that one, another one) recently mentioned in his Facebook status that he’d witnessed miraculous healings at a Christian gathering. Ever the sceptic, I responded by posting a video of James Randi’s investigation of faith healing. In this video, Randi exposes US televangelists Peter Popoff and WV Grant.

He responded to me by asking:

“… Ever wondered what evidence you would need…”

Which is a very sensible and reasonable question. If I couldn’t say what evidence would convince me that I’m wrong about faith healing, I could be accused of holding my sceptical position irrationally, dogmatically, “No matter what”. Adam Lee covered this idea in respect to religious belief in general and the result is his Theist’s Guide to Converting Atheists essay which I’d recommend to everyone.

For me it’s not enough to be able to say, “This could have been a miracle” – not getting rained on when you forgot your umbrella could have been a miracle, but it could just as easily be chance. I’m trying to find something which could only have been a miracle. Recovering from a particularly nasty cold might have involved divine intervention, but this also happens naturally, so we can’t be sure a miracle occurred in that particular case. So I’m not interested in evidence of improbable healings, but impossible healings. Impossible that is, without miraculous supernatural intervention.

The evidence has to be reliable and evaluated in a way that does not allow bias, whether intentional or not, to creep in. To start with, the patients should be carefully assessed to ensure that they genuinely suffer from the claimed illness in the first place. Then we need to be able to judge easily whether or not they have been cured.

Ailments such as back pain, migraines or depression are probably not worth investigating as it is too hard to independently assess them – you can only rely on what the patient tells you.

Ideally we should also be reasonably confident of what caused the healing. If the patient visited mystical healers of all stripes then a few weeks later finds themselves cured, we still have some unanswered questions.

So to summarise, the miraculous healing would need to be something which:

  • Could only occur due to a miraculous healing.
  • Can easily be judged a success or failure by all around.
  • Can be linked to a specific faith healing claim.

A good example of this would be an amputated limb regrowing. If a group of Christians gathered around a multiple amputee and prayed for him to regrow his limbs and it they did indeed regrow then you’d have a very convincing case. I’d like to witness this myself, but also have other independent witnesses there to check I wasn’t hallucinating or missing some sleight of hand (or leg). This idea is examined in detail by the website Why Won’t God Heal Amputees, which says on the subject of healing amputees:

Notice that there is zero ambiguity in this situation. There is only one way for a limb to regenerate through prayer: God must exist and God must answer prayers.

That may seem very stringent and a very narrow way to define faith healing, but I think it’s warranted. It’s the only kind of faith healing we could really be sure about. Furthermore, I’m just an ordinary person and I could easily be fooled. I’ve seen enough stage magicians do tricks I couldn’t explain, heard (and believed) enough tall tales and been swayed by enough anecdotal evidence to know that I’m as gullible as the next guy.

So I think it’s reasonable – prudent even – to ask that these standards of evidence are met. Incidentally, these ideas are by no means exclusive, I’m sure there are other tests which could potentially provide excellent evidence of faith healing. I’m keen to hear other people’s suggestions. If we could agree on a reasonable experiment that could discern real faith healing from false faith healing, I’d be happy to try it out and post the results here.


11 thoughts on “Faith healing – What evidence would I need?

  1. I think you could have less stringent requirements if you only want to show that faith healings occur with some certainty rather than with as-good-as-we-can-get certainty. That said, here are my requirements for believing in faith healing: I agree with you that the healing needs to be easily judged a success or failure by all around and can be linked to a specific faith healing claim.

    I differ in so far as I am willing to say that if, for sufficiently large samples of sufferers, those with a faith healing claim were healed with statistically significant greater frequency than those without (all else being equal), then faith healing is effective. This is similar to the standards used when prayer over sick people was shown to be ineffective.

    All that said, I do not think either set of criteria is likely to be fulfilled any time soon.

  2. Really, it should be a double blind trial. Two sets of amputees, both unaware of whether or not they are being prayed for, should be used. If the prayed-for group grow their limbs back (in a more statistically significant way than the control group), we can say with some certainty that the faith-healing works.

    Unfortunately, this will never happen. Not just because God isn’t real, but because charlatans like Popoff and the rest of his slimy ilk will never submit to proper scientific testing. The theatrical experience is a necessary part of the con – without the appropriate level of audience hysteria, they could never pull it off.

  3. giving that I went to a “christian gathering” and did then mentioned in my Facebook status that I’d witnessed miraculous healings. thought I’d see if it was me…

    could have been chance though :-)

    if during a game of chess I let you take back a poor move, we can still carry on playing if you can change all the rules all the time the game would be pointless. just a thought

  4. Erika, yunshui,
    Yes, both sensible suggestions. I guess I was thinking about the usual case where you’ve only got one subject, which isn’t ideal.

    Thanks for dropping by. Yes indeed it was your comment I was writing about – I sent you a message through Facebook, but I probably should’ve emailed you as well.

    if during a game of chess I let you take back a poor move, we can still carry on playing if you can change all the rules all the time the game would be pointless.

    If I understand your analogy correctly, then my point is that at the moment we don’t have any rules. When someone declares they’ve won their opponent says, “Won what?”. We’d need to agree on the rules before we started any game or test.

    Tell me if I’m getting the wrong end of the stick here.

    Are you perhaps saying that even if you showed me an amputated leg regrowing fully in front of my eyes, I still wouldn’t believe? That I’d simply find a way to shift the goalposts so I didn’t have to change my mind?

    That’s why with this post I’ve tried to think through the possibilities and make them public for scrutiny. My intention is that my criteria for evidence set out above could never be satisfied by plain chance, only by a miracle. Otherwise, if something merely improbable happened the plain chance explanation would seem the more likely explanation than the miracle.

  5. Not really I was actually talking about the universe as we know it with its scientific constants and parameters gravity, speed of light etc.

    The point I was trying to make, was that miracles by their nature must not be common other wise they are no longer miraculous. As an example imagine if all the world prayers for sunny days were answered it would never rain. Also what about conflicting and damaging requests. This seems like a cop out I know but I permits freedom of choice to believe or not believe. Imagine the loss of life and problems if God avenged just every blasphemy alone.

    The problem with scientifc testing on God/deity is the very assumption that God is predictable and constant. These are rather large assumption. Putting it another way, imagine you were an all powerful deity and some of creatures descided to put you aurothity to the test. On their assumption that your not real. The reaction would I imagine be that of ignoring the foolish creatures at best, revenge at worst smit smit smit

    The testing of dynamic relationships scientifically is very tricky… but not impossible. A simple double blind test are not effective, appropiate where the trial subject is all powerful and can descide to change behaviour or indeed muliple behiours (given diety status). Just imagine trying to predict what your friend might do or say in a given situation and you start to get at idea of the size of the problem.

    The very nature of the testing of a diety may be fundamentally floored if the deity does not wish to be discovered or tested.

    I will try and think of a way of look at this scientificaly

  6. Jonathan:

    The very nature of the testing of a diety may be fundamentally floored if the deity does not wish to be discovered or tested.

    Now that’s a good point – or it would be if we weren’t constantly being told by Christians that this particular deity wants a personal relationship with each and every one of us. A friend whom I’d never met, who never returned my phone calls, never updated his Facebook status, never wrote, e-mailed or made any other attempt to contact me or even let me know he was real would be a rubbish friend. If you’re now saying that God deliberately obfuscates his existence, then I call bullshit on the entire Christian message – he doesn’t want a relationship with his creation, and it becomes immaterial whether he does or does not exist.

  7. I realized something when reading Jonathan’s comment – miracles that are common are no longer miraculous, but when you look back through history, miracle claims are horrendously common. The Middle Ages alone were swimming in miracles. This means that we need clear, unambiguous guidelines for what constitutes a miracle. These standards have to be religion-neutral – they have to be accepted by people the world over of every belief. Since people of every belief make miracle claims, the only way to determine if any are real miracles is standards acceptable for all.

    For a bit more on Faith Healing, James Randi has a nice book out (probably out of print, IIRC), and I know that the Infidel Guy Show had at least one show devoted to Faith Healing. Point of Inquiry may also have had one or more, but I’m not sure.

  8. Jonathan,

    This seems like a cop out I know but I permits freedom of choice to believe or not believe.

    Hmm, I’m not sure that in the face of uncertainty people consciously choose to believe or not. Is that even possible? Could you choose to believe in Quetzalcoatl for a day?

    In any case, why does the crucial factor in being saved have to be belief? Why not following His Word, doing good works or so on? God could come out of “hiding” and make his existence obvious to everyone equally (not just a few people He favours). Only then could they make a completely informed choice, with all the facts laid out. Not a random guess or something based on where you live and the religion of your parents, but a genuine, free choice.

    Imagine if we had to vote for anonymous politicians who wouldn’t tell us their policies or even which end of the political spectrum they were on. In one sense our choices would be “free”, but they’d also be close to random. We might vote for candidate A because the rest of our family did or because of a gut feeling that it sounded good, but that is certainly an empoverished version of democracy.

    We couldn’t really claim that the public had voted for joining the European Union or whatever, because they were only guessing at what they might get.

    On the other hand, even if God did come out of hiding and say to everyone, “Love me or die”, it wouldn’t be much of a choice. To say that a believer had freely chosen this would be like a mugger defending himself by saying, “I told him – ‘Yer money or yer life’ and he freely handed over his wallet, guv!”. Adam Lee puts this well in divine blackmail.

    I will try and think of a way of look at this scientifically

    Thanks Jonathan, I feel there ought to be some kind of test we could agree on, which as Badger3k points out should work for any true religion without prejudice to any one in particular.

  9. The comment by yunshui on Sept. 26th is funny. A double blind test for amputees. What are afraid that the amputee might grow an arm back himself and create a false positive? That would really be something. I’m a firm believer in divine miracles, though I must confess I’d like to see an amputee grow another limb.

    Divine healing is not something I think that can necessarily be put in a test tube. This god who you’d like to see perform a miracle is does not have an on-off switch. He is the Soverign Lord. I don’t presume to speak for him, but a divine healing is not always his will. Were all going to die someday. Even Lazurus, who Christ raised from the dead, if you believe that, died and is now gone.

  10. I’m a firm believer in divine miracles, though I must confess I’d like to see an amputee grow another limb.

    If you are incredulous about certain kinds of divine miracles happening, why do you believe in them? Could God not do it? Wouldn’t he do it? Does it have something to do with limb regrowth being easily testable?

    Your second point makes sense, but I refer you to yunshui’s second comment, which was spot on, IMO.