Faith healing

Let's consider these elements regarding "faith healing":

  • Mobilizationof healing forces by confident reliance on certain substances, rituals or procedures.
  • The power of religious faith, mobilized by rituals and prayer in putting to use those (or similar) forces.
  • Distinguishing sincerehealers from charlatans and frauds.
  • The points of interaction and points of conflict between faith healing and scientific medicine.

Faith-generated Healing Forces

When doctors try a new drug they generally divide the trial group into two sections. About half the subjects get the new drug and half get sugar pills (made to look like the hopefully-effective product). These inactive tablets arecalled "placebos".

They do this because patients often experience relief when a doctor or institution in whom they have confidence prescribes anything new and different. Inone study of a medication being tried for arthritis, for instance, 40% of thepatients who were taking totally ineffective placebo pills experienced substantial relief. Many of them had objective improvement increased range of motion, decreased swelling etc., not just diminished discomfort and pain.

What has actually happened in these cases? The best explanation seems to be that the patients have developed faith in the "medication" (because it was prescribed by someone in whom they had faith) and mobilized confidence-generatedhealing forces. No one really understands exactly what those forces are. Wejust don't know whether improvement from placebos has the same basis as thatgenerated by religion-based faith healers, medicine men in primitive tribes,(and perhaps some physicians incidental to their applications of science).

Actually, similar forces also seems sometimes able to keep you from getting sick in the first place. A few years ago a team of researchers in Michigan developed a promising cold vaccine. They arranged a substantial trial, dividingtheir subjects into three groups. One group got the vaccine, one got shots ofdistilled water (which they were told was vaccine), the third got nothing. Compared with the untreated group those receiving the vaccine got only one-third as many colds in the next season. But the researchers also found that thepeople who got the distilled water did just as well!

Sometimes similar forces seem even to add to the effect of potent medicines or treatments. Many drug companies today hire people to seek out treatments used by shamans and witch doctors in primitive areas. Often they find that theherbs, barks and other remedies discovered by trial and error over many generations have effective chemicals in them. In many instances the effective chemical can be isolated and manufactured as a drug. But that drug almost never proves quite as effective when administered without ritual as it had been whenaccompanied by the dances, laying on of hands, or other healer routines.

Religion's Place in Faith Healing

From ancient times, long before medical science achieved substantial cures, most healing efforts were associated with religion. Primitive cultures, for example, generally relied on medicine men, or witch doctors, to pray to the spirits for healing. The ancient Greeks and Romans also prayed to various gods to cure their illnesses and repair the body. For example, infertile couples who wanted to conceive a child would pray for intervention at the temple of Imhotep (ca. 2700 BC), who was a vizier to the Egyptian King Djoser and achieveddivine status after his death.

Healing by priests or shamans persists in many of the world's current cultures. From Navaho dances to Tibetan prayer-wheels, the variety of healing efforts based on various non-Christian religions is huge. This subject is too extensive for coverage here. If you are interested in healing efforts within any particular ethnic or religious group, you will need to seek information underits title.

One of the largest institutions practicing religion-based faith healing is the Christian Scientist organization. This organization was founded by Mary Baker Eddy, a dynamic leader who had experienced an unusual health phenomenon. Believing herself to be pregnant, she had all the usual bodily signs thereof.She ceased to have menstrual periods. She suffered morning sickness for the first two or three months. Her abdomen swelled substantially. But no fetus waspresent, and after nine months her body resumed its normal non-pregnant state.

Perhaps this proof of the extent to which belief could alter body function had something to do with the lady's later career. She became convinced that prayer and bible reading could resolve illnesses. She founded an organization which still has thousands of branches throughout the world, with healing through prayer and faith as its mainstay.

Although scientists have made phenomenal advances during the twentieth century in understanding and curing sickness and disease, faith healing associatedwith religion continues to flourish in modern society. Other examples are theevangelists who claim to heal through prayer and touch. While many believe that these evangelists "stage" their miraculous cures, the debate continues torage over the effectiveness of faith healing. However, the line of demarcation between "believers" and "non-believers" is not clear cut. A 1997 survey ofphysicians at a meeting of the Academy of Family Physicians found that 99% of them believed that religious faith plays a role in patients' recoveries. Not all of these physicians believed in divine intervention but rather that belief can reduce stress and have other psychological effects that help to improve patients' immune system and the ability to fight disease.

More than 200 scientific studies have focused on the role of faith and religion in health. One of the most noted studies took place at the San Francisco General Medical Center in 1982 and 1983. The researchers found that the 192 heart patients who were prayed for were five times less likely to develop further complications than the 201 who were not. In this study and others, patients were picked at random and not according to their religious beliefs, and they did not know whether or not others were praying them for them.

In 1998, researchers at Duke University also studied 4,000 people over the age of 65. They found that those who participated in religious activities were40% less likely to have high blood pressure and showed faster recoveries fromphysical illnesses and depression. Scientific explanations for statisticallysignificant better health and faster recoveries in religious people includehealthier lifestyles and a stronger social support that bolsters mental wellbeing However, none of these studies have proved that an individual "faith healer" has the ability to cure disease.

Distinguishing True Healers from Charlatans and Frauds

If any substantial number of people believe someone has healing power, that person has open access to the public purse. This attracts many unscrupulous people to the less selective healing professions. (There are still many more applicants for medical schools than can be admitted. Admission committees try to consider character as well as talent. They may not screen out every knave,but they certainly reduce the number.) Many faith healers and members of thesubsidiary health professions are sincerely dedicated to the patient's welfare. But a substantial minority are primarily interested in making money without regard to that welfare.

There is no doubt that charlatans of all sorts occasionally achieve relief ofsymptoms or even cure of disease. Some of that relief may stem from the patient's faith in the healer or in the measures he uses (like massage or manipulation).

In many instances it is hard to believe that the practitioners themselves canswallow the purported mechanism of action of their approach. Medical fraud investigators have found devices with flashing lights of various colors, various meters and gauges, elaborate means of attachment to the patient and absolutely no possible means of action. The fact that patients paid heavily for useof these machines might be thought mere evidence of public gullibility, buta more reasonable explanation is that, when accompanied by a convincing explanation of the machine's purported effects, the device mobilizes enough credence-generated healing force to make patients feel better. That keeps them coming back, recommending the process to others, and enriching the charlatans.

However many healers mobilize the healing forces generated by faith without any medications, massage or machinery. Faith healers and Christian Science Practitioners have a big advantage here: Most of them have deep and sincere belief in what they are doing, which conveys itself to their patients. Practitioners in many other health cults would seem to need either fabulous talent forself-deception or great acting skill. Just examine the tenets upon which theyare based objectively and you will realize that their "revolutionary ideas"are unbelievable malarkey.

To take one example, a member of one of the non-medical healing "professions"opened a "Cancer Clinic". His advertisements featured testimonials from patients who had been found to have no trace of cancer after a series of treatments with a machine of his devising. After people had paid him a great deal ofmoney for such care he absconded. His magic machine was found to have no possible healing effect. Investigation showed that the testimonials were from actual patients, but the complaints for which they had been treated seemed mostunlikely to have been cancerous.

This points up the fact that more than the public purse is involved in inappropriate "healing". The benefits of healing efforts which are not aimed at thecause of disease are often temporary. The "placebo effect" wears off after afew weeks. Relief stemming from faith in the healer often follows the same course. Meanwhile the disease process may be extending itself. Infections canbe spreading. Cancers can be reaching the incurable stage. Diabetes can be doing irreversible damage to the patient's eyes or kidneys. An infected appendix can burst.

Because of these substantial potential risks, the medical community has strongly opposed forms of healing not clearly based on scientific knowledge. Thatopposition makes it lean over backwards to assure that any treatment it recommends has a scientific basis. Since no one has identified the mechanism by which faith generates healing forces, people who legitimately invoke it have often been lumped with the charlatans and frauds.

As an example, a Maryland physician studied the various folk remedies for warts rubbing with the cut edge of a potato in a graveyard at midnight, for instance. He felt that this was a variety of faith healing faith in the ritual doing the job. So he developed a ritual of his own to see if it would work:

  • He wrapped a red string several times around the wart, saying that it would cut off circulation.
  • He covered the area with a bulky bandage. (Aheavy bandage always makes a wart accumulate moisture and turn white.)
  • "Leave the bandage on for 24 hours," he would say. "Then take it off. If the wart has turned white you'll know we've got it licked. But come back in three weeks, I want to see if it leaves any scar when it drops off."

Almost all of the warts were gone before the return visit! His cure rate wasalmost exactly as high as that of doctors who burned or froze off warts, withno pain and no risk of complications. But he never reported his findings inany medical journal.

"They would run me out of town on a rail," he said. "Brand me a quack. Even if I could find any journal that would accept the idea."

Warts which disappear after being wrapped with red string are just as fully cured as those burned or frozen off. Yet medical science spurns such results instead of seeking to understand the healing force involved.

This seems a harmful over-reaction. But scientific medicine needs your faith,too. At least part of its healing power presumably stems from that faith. And your willingness to use its other services--to take the medicine your doctor prescribes, have the operation he deems necessary etc.--depends on the confidence you have in him. In him individually and in his profession as a whole.Is that just an excuse or a real justification? What do you think?

Science vs. Faith: Must It Be Either/Or?

A few decades ago it might have been reasonable to surrender the rather sparse benefits of medical science for the credence-generated healing force mobilized by faith healers or charlatans. If you read about the care George Washington had during his last illness you conclude that he would have lived much longer if he had depended on the power of prayer. His doctors cut into veins toextract pint after pint of blood. They forbid fluid intake and made liquid pour from his bowel with purgatives. Practically every measure they prescribedwas opposite to what we now know should have been done.

Near the turn of the century the great physician Sir William Osler stated that medicine's main weapons were morphine, Epsom salts and pats on the back. The "pats on the back" were the reassurances and confidence-building measures we might call the ART of medicine. Those "pats" presumably mobilized the faith-generated healing forces we've been discussing, and they really were effective. By contrast, medical science at that time had no antibiotics, no hormones, no antihistamines, no specific cures for any disease whatever.

In that framework, a patient didn't give up huge benefits by choosing a faithhealer (or even a charlatan) rather than a physician. Today the benefits ofscience have greatly increased. It seems most unwise to surrender the advantages which have almost doubled life expectancy for credence-generated healingforce. But you can at least try to eat your cake and have it too: To pray that your doctors find the way to cure you instead of praying for the cure itself. To find physicians in whom you have enough the healing forces generated bythat faith works in conjunction with scientific care.

Unfortunately, you will find few doctors who deliberately generate and use this force. Most still deprecate it as "placebo effect" instead of trying to understand and mobilize it. But many doctors help patients with their "bedsidemanner" without doing so deliberately. They mobilize healing forces through their interaction with patients whom they are treating as people. They inspireconfidence by bearing and manner. You can enjoy some of these benefits if you choose a doctor in whom you have total faith.

Many physicians and lay people believe that religion-based faith healing hasa role in modern day treatment of illnesses and disease. A 1996 survey of thegeneral population by Time magazine found that 82% of the respondentsbelieved in the healing power of personal prayer. At the same time, only 28%believed in the ability of "faith healers" to make people well. If there isany scientific consensus on the matter, it is one of caution.

Perhaps that is why one of the most intense efforts to wed faith with sciencein medical care has been a dubious success. Oral Roberts, the TV evangelistwho founded a university in Tulsa, OK, made joint religious and scientific care the goal of his medical center. Many top medical scientists, even those ofdeep personal faith, have seemed reluctant to link their careers with that concept. This has been a barrier which even abundant funding has had trouble overcoming. But the project continues to develop, and may yet accomplish its goal.

While many physicians and scientists agree that faith can play a role in healing, most concur that relying on faith healing to the exclusion of modern medicine can be dangerous. A University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine study looked at 172 pediatric patients who had died over a ten year period. They found that 140 of the of these children would have had survival rates of more than 90% if they had received medical care for their illnesses, which included appendicitis, pneumonia, and diabetes. In some cases, parents whohave relied on faith healing alone to cure their sick child have been convicted of involuntary manslaughter due to medical neglect when a child died.

It seems a shame that such incidents occur. After all, medical scientists didn't create the remedies they use, or (if you believe in a Creator) their ownintelligence and talent. Can't one pray that his doctors will know and use the remedies God created? Can't one let faith in God and faith in medical science (which He also created) coexist? Does one really have to choose between the healing power of faith and that of science, rather than benefit from both?

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