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.


Fundamentalism in the UK

Here in the UK, we’re often inclined to think that Christian Fundamentalism is something which happens in the US, whereas the Church in this country is all tea and cake with the woolly-minded but good natured vicar. That stereotype is not without foundation, but the attitudes of many Christians in this country are changing.

While the UK has an established religion, the Church of England, an attitude of tolerance has been prevalent for some time and even the now abolished blasphemy law has not been used since 1925. The taboo among most people in Britain seems to be to express any strong opinions on religion one way of the other. Lately however, I think opinions are polarising.

I recently spotted this Channel 4, Dispatches documentary on Christian Fundamentalism in the UK via The T.R.A.S.H. BIN website. The programme can be found in several sections on the T.R.A.S.H. website. It makes quite alarming viewing. For the most part, the interviewer allows the people he’s recording to speak for themselves and they do so eagerly. Only when he questions their motives and beliefs more deeply do they start to stammer, turn off their microphones or ask that the camera be stopped.

I’m sure the moderate, reasonable UK Christians I tend to meet will protest that they don’t think like this and that these bigots and that anyone so full of hatred has totally misunderstood the Bible. But the fundamentalists would probably claim the opposite.

From a humanistic perspective it’s easy to choose between these two outlooks. I’d rather have Rowan Williams living next door to me than any of the Christians featured. A moderate and tolerant society is obviously better for everyone to live in. However, if you limit yourself to theological and Biblical reasoning it’s hard to give any good reasons to choose one attitude over the other. The Bible contains plenty of hatred and intolerance which is less often quoted than “Love your neighbour as yourself”. Take for example, what Deutronomy 13 (KJV) has to say about prophets who suggest worshipping other gods:

And that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams, shall be put to death;

Before you cry “context”, please read the rest of the chapter.

So I can see where the Fundamentalists get their inspiration and their Biblical beliefs should serve as an example of why the Bible is not much use as a moral guide. No more so than any other anachronistic work of fiction, anyway.

Divine injustice

Confusing signsA common atheistic argument is that any kind of divine judgement which requires people to have heard and believe a particular religion is unfair. This was in fact the first argument against religion that occurred to me as a teenager and set me on the road away from Christianity.

In response to this, in the plethora of comments which followed an article on, a Christian called Joe advanced the following argument by analogy.

…if you won free tickets to Hawaii, but were told some others will not be going there because they refused the free tickets, would you give up your free ticket? Would you reject the free trip to Hawaii, even though you knew that the other people had been “offered” the same thing but rejected it? How lame and stupid would that be?

His analogy differs slightly from the commonly accepted ideas of the Bible. The tickets are offered but not accepted. This is different from Christianity, and most religions, which are not offered to everyone, because not everyone gets to hear about them.

During a discussion in a pub a Christian friend of mine recently made a similar argument. His version imagined the protagonist bobbing around in the water as the Titanic sunk. As a helicopter approaches and offers to pull them from the water, they wouldn’t say, “Hey, why aren’t you saving that guy too?”.

As is often the case in face to face debates, that sounded wrong to me, but I didn’t have an answer ready off the top of my head. However, on later consideration, the analogy of the helicopter rescue is flawed for a different reason. It would be unreasonable to complain that the helicopterHelicopter rescue is not rescuing everyone because the helicopter:

  1. Does not have the ability to do so.
  2. Does not claim to provide perfect justice.

Now it seems obvious that neither of those apply to any judgemental deity. Most monotheistic deities are generally considered omnipotent and at least in the case of the Christian God, having perfect judgement is reputedly one of his qualities. So when people question a doctrine that requires belief in a particular god for salvation, they’re asking “What kind of justice is that?”. They’re not just saying it’s unfair, they’re saying it’s unfair and yet it claims to be fair.

Responses to this usually invoke the ineffability of God – “God’s ways are not out ways” or “We cannot know the mind of God”. The trouble with those answers is if you go down that route then all bets are off. You might as well give up trying to understand anything about what God thinks or wants from us. Your guess would be as good as mine.

Neither of these contemporary examples are the first to use this line of reasoning. In Mere Christianity, C.S.Lewis says:

Here is another thing that used to puzzle me. Is it not frightfully unfair that this new life should be confined to people who have heard of Christ and been able to believe in Him? But the truth is God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him. But in the meantime, if you are worried about the people outside, the most unreasonable thing you can do is to remain outside yourself.

C.S. Lewis statueThere are several problems with this. I’m going to gloss over the “We knows” which assume the Bible’s accuracy. For the sake of brevity I’ll even ignore the Bible verses which do explain what the arrangements for the ominously-named “other people” are. In my opinion, the important issue here is this: A being claimed to dispense perfect justice appears to be monstrously unjust. It’s not justice to require that people chose the one true religion out of the many that exist and have existed, some of which many people will never hear about. Worse still the choice is made on pain of death or eternal damnation (depending on how you interpret the scriptures). Yet this being is supposed to be loving, just and omniscient. It casts doubt on the whole idea.

By saying it is unreasonable for us to worry about the people outside, Lewis seems to be trying to appeal to our selfish side. You don’t want to be on the outside, do you? It’s dark out there and well, we just don’t know what happens to people who get left out there. Stop fussing and come inside.

If this used to puzzle Lewis did he resolve it merely by ceasing to think about it? This doesn’t strike me as very intellectually honest. Simply suggesting that people should stop worrying about this issue is not addressing the argument.

Not Scaring Them Off

I was visited a few months ago by some Jehovah’s Witnesses. They don’t actually introduce themselves as JW’s, perhaps because of the reputation they’ve gained as pushy porch preachers. Instead they simply ask if you’ve read the Bible and indicate how important they think it is.Watchtower Buildings in Brooklyn, New York

Most of the people I’ve told about their visit respond with imaginative suggestions for getting rid of Jehovah’s Witnesses, such as pretending to be part of a completely different and obscure religion or opening the door stark naked. I can see some of these being quite amusing, but unnecessary. I think if I politely asked them to leave, they would. In any case, I’d like to try to understand what they believe and why. I don’t want to scare them off.  Luckily for me, JWs are only too keen to talk about their beliefs and debate theological questions.

They seemed a little surprised when I invited them in and offered them a hot drink. I noticed that while they are trying to get their message about the Bible across, they are also happy to make friendly small-talk and ask questions. It’s pretty clear they’ve been coached in witnessing (evangelism), so I found it interesting to try and work out the thinking behind their methods. My guess is that asking questions of the householder makes their visit seem less preachy and more like a conversation, which people are generally more responsive to than receiving a sermon.

Secondly, it allows them to assess their host to see what chance they might have of being convinced by the JW’s message. For example, it came up in conversation (I think they saw a photo) that my wife and I were recently married. Not long after, the woman asked if we’d lived here for long. I replied that we’d been here a couple of years. Only later did I wonder whether premarital cohabitation is something they disapproved of and that her indirect question might have been a way of working out how sinful we were. I could’ve been reading too much into it, but Jehovah’s Witnesses are quite professional and deliberate in their actions, so maybe not.Awake! magazine

We chatted for well over an hour about their beliefs. I tried to ask as many searching questions as possible. I expected to get somewhere as they are Biblical literalists. However they have a variety of justifications for the contradictions and immoral statements in the Bible. For instance the old testament law books are “Mosaic law”. Apparently this is not about the moral implications of arranging coloured tiles to form a picture, but the law from Moses’ time. Their reasoning is that when Jesus said, “I fulfil the law” he wasn’t mis-quoting Judge Dredd – what he meant was, “All that really nasty stuff from Deuteronomy and Leviticus (Mosaic Law) doesn’t apply from now on”.

How could anyone have misunderstood that? Well, quite easily. Which leads them neatly into their central doctrine that no one can properly understand the Bible without the official interpretations of the Jehovah’s Witnesses Watchtower Society. They are apparently the sole (self-appointed) authority on such matters, and their regular publications (Watchtower and Awake!) are seen as infallible.

Unlike Christians of many other stripes, the Jehovah’s Witnesses do know the Bible very well, and will quote their subtly reworded version at every opportunity. So my unprepared questions didn’t worry them. Likewise they seemed quite satisfied with their fairly unconvincing responses to the traditional arguments against religion such as the argument from evil or from religious confusion.

On a later visit, I was more prepared and had refuted an article from the Awake! magazine they had left with me regarding the respect for women as found in the Bible. They seemed to apreciate the effort I’d gone to, and while most of it seemed acceptable to them, I was satisfied that my questions about Genesis 19:5-8 (In which Lot allows a mob to rape his daughters) were something for which they’d have to get back to me.

The one thing I pointed out to them which really seemed to throw them was my commentary on their publications. One issue had said clearly that nothing in the Bible contradicts science, while a subsequent issue had a long article explaining how evolution was not compatible with the Bible. This seemed to worry them and they were at first uncharacteristically lost for words. After a few moments the woman said, “I wouldn’t call evolution science.”. I disgreed and told her that it wasn’t enough to redefine what you consider science to suit your argument, but they were unable to offer a proper explanation and seemed genuinely unsettled.New World Translation

So I think this approach might be the best one with Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their publications are something very important for their beliefs. They are carefully worded and accessible if tiresome in their preaching message. They also contain enough factual errors or inconsistencies that a thorough read could pick a few out, particularly when compared against current scientific knowledge or previous publications.

They’ve now visited three times, and left me with a copy of their New World Translation of the Bible. Each time I’ve been better prepared and made more effort to show the problems with their beliefs. They haven’t returned recently, so I hope I haven’t scared them off. I have plenty more (awkward) questions for them.

An offer of prayer

I have a colleague who is a big fan of prayer. He’s an Evangelical Christian and regularly makes friendly offers to pray for people’s family and friends who might be sick. He seems completely sincere and I believe the gesture is well-intentioned.

However, many who receive his offers find them… not exactly offensive, but certainly irritating. Perhaps they’ve heard this kind of thing before and are anticipating the little sermon that so often forms part of the package of such offers. One person told me they felt like they were being “sold to”. I don’t know if anyone has actually taken him up on these offers, but I’m sure some were more receptive than those I spoke with.

My first thoughts were along these lines. The recipients of this kind of offer could be crudely divided into two categories:

  1. The ones who believe that intercessory prayer will work.
  2. Those who don’t believe it will work.

Now surely those in the first group would already be praying if they had a sick relative? It seemed strange to me that any god would be unable to hear a single prayer, but a chorus of prayer – well, that’s different, is it? Surely God doesn’t need a critical number of prayers before he’s willing to take action? As for those in the second group, well they’re not likely to take up the offer if they don’t think it will have any effect.

All of which lead me to wonder whether my Evangelical colleague’s motivation was rather more evangelical (small ‘e’). Perhaps he had that sermon up his sleeve ready to spring on a polite and unsuspecting enquirer. On the other hand it could have been an attempt to show (either to us or to his god) what an amazingly altruistic Christian he is.

Perhaps more likely is that he anticipated a third group, somewhere in between the other two. People who were perhaps desperate for the health of their loved-ones and willing to try anything.

So I questioned him about it and we ended up going for a drink and having a long discussion on this and related topics. Well, if I’m honest I mostly listened. Before that discussion I did some reading and thinking and managed to crystallize my thoughts on prayer. The main issue I had is outlined below.

(Disclaimers: IANAL (I am not a logician) and this might be full of holes, but I think my meaning is clear enough. Secondly, it borrows the idea from Ebonmuse’s thorough discussion of the Problem of Evil):

Assumption (1). The patient currently has a medical problem.
Assumption (2). Praying for the patient to be healed can cause miraculous healing of that patient.
Assumption (3). The god to whom the prayer to heal the patient is directed :-

a) Exists;
b) Is all-powerful (omnipotent);
c) Is all-knowing (omniscient);
d) Has perfect judgement;
e) Will only do what is right;

Conclusion (4). An omnipotent being would be able to heal the patient (from 3a, 3b);
Conclusion (5). An omniscient being would already know about the patient’s problem. (from 1, 3a, 3c);
Conclusion (6). Any patient whom the god deems it right to heal will already be healed. (from 3d, 3e, 4, 5)
Conclusion (7). It is not right to heal the patient (from 1, 6).
Conclusion (8). Praying for the patient to heal will not cause miraculous healing of that patient (from 6, 7)

Contradiction : ( 2 & 8 )

So I ask: What makes you think you (in your less-than-infinite wisdom) can change God’s mind about healing this patient?

That’s not the only problem with the idea of praying to a god to ask for things. As Greta Christina points out if a prayer doesn’t work the answer always seems to be:

“You did something wrong. You didn’t pray hard enough. You didn’t pray right, with the right kind of feeling or faith. You didn’t get enough people to pray for you. There’s something wrong with you. It’s your fault.”

Even more perniciously, any unreliable offer of healing can cause those most in need to abandon genuine treatments which might actually help them.

I’m going to continue asking awkward questions and challenging my colleague’s ideas about prayer. He tells me he’s keen to question and test his beliefs, so I’m hopeful I may be able to encourage him to try some kind of formal test or experiment. Maybe I’m too optimistic…