(Continued from Part 1)
Everytime I watch a Christian channel in Uganda I regularly see programmes where people are getting thrown off their feet while all manner of ‘evil spirits’ are supposedly cast out of them. All of these people then claim they have been ‘healed’ miraculously. They give testimonies as to how they were sick before attending that miracle crusade (or prayer service), but that now they are miraculously healed. The crowd predictably gives glory to ‘God’, as the pastor triumphantly parades the ‘healed’ individuals around the stage.
On the face of it, it all does seem very convincing – and everytime a crusade is announced, tens of thousands of believers flock to attend them, and stories will always be told afterwards of how many were healed.
I just don’t buy it.
My skepticism towards miracle healing is informed by my understanding of modern medical science, and my knowledge about the psychology of human beings. All of the purported claims of miracle healing, when looked into, invariably have natural explanations that can adequately account for their occurrence, without the need to invoke the ‘supernatural’. Specifically, diseases that people often claim to have been miraculously healed from tend to be either self-limiting or psychosomatic, both varieties of which have sound medical reasons that can explain their sudden disappearance from a patient.
Self Limiting Diseases
A self-limiting disease is a disease that runs a definite limited course and resolves itself without medical intervention. What is not often appreciated is that by the time symptoms of an illness become noticeable to a person, the disease is at already at an advanced stage. For most people it is at this point that they seek treatment. Many believers, upon the onset of noticeable symptoms, might try and pray to receive a divine healing. By then, however, the disease has already run its natural course and is on its way out. When the symptoms predictably disappear, suddenly or after a short while (depending on the stage the disease had reached in its cycle), a believer who prayed might feel compelled to claim that a divine miracle has taken place – when in fact no such thing has happened.
Then there are Psychosomatic Diseases, which are diseases whose symptoms are often caused by mental processes of the sufferer rather than immediate physiological causes. In other words, the mind influences the body to create or exacerbate illness. Examples of recognized stress-related psychosomatic illnesses include: Hypertension, Stroke, Coronary Heart Disease, Ulcers, Migraine, Headaches, Cancer, Allergies, Asthma, Hay Fever, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Backache, Sinusitis, Arthritis, Constipation, Impotence, Infertility, Eczema, Psoriasis, High blood pressure, Muscle Pain, and Multiple Sclerosis.
Research has demonstrated that the mind can increase the body’s susceptibility to disease by reducing the effectiveness of the immune system, and also increase the healing of the body by increasing the effectiveness of the immune system. In cases where symptoms of the above listed illnesses have seemed chronic, usually certain changes in lifestyle, changing diet, exercise and stress management have been effective in causing the symptoms to diminish, or dissipate completely.
It might be useful to point out that a lot of people that claim faith healing are people who are usually already undergoing some form of medical treatment for that disease or illness. Response to treatment varies from person to person, and research shows that stress can impede the body’s response to medication.
Sick people undergoing deep religious experiences are unknowingly reducing their stress levels, thereby allowing the body to better respond to the treatment they have been receiving. The believer of course will attribute this sudden response to medication to a miracle, yet what is most likely is that it was stress alleviation that triggered it.
The Placebo Effect
A placebo is a substance with no medicinal properties which causes a patient to improve because of his belief in its efficacy. In medical circles, in cases where the disease is psychosomatic in nature, administering a placebo has been known to sometimes yield a complete recovery for a patient.
Miraculous faith-healing episodes can thus also be the result of the PLACEBO EFFECT – where in this case the placebo is the belief that ‘God’ can cure you.
One might ask at this stage, “but how about all those people we’ve seen throwing away their crutches, and begin running around on stage totally impervious to the pain they say they were feeling before? Certainly, you can’t say they have not been healed!”
This brings us to the subject of pain.
According to the Stanford School of Medicine’s Pain Management Center, pain is: “the way your brain interprets information about a particular sensation that your body is experiencing. Information (or signals) about this painful sensation are sent via nerve pathways to your brain. The way in which your brain interprets these signals as ‘pain’ can be affected by many outside factors, some of which can be controlled by special techniques.” (from What is Pain? – Stanford School of Medicine)
Our state of mind at a given moment heavily influences the degree to which we perceive pain. When a person is an excited state, for example, endorphins are released:
Endorphins are endogenous opioid polypeptide compounds. They are produced by the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus in vertebrates during exercise, excitement, pain, consumption of spicy food and orgasm,and they resemble the opiates in their abilities to produce analgesia and a feeling of well-being. Endorphins work as "natural pain relievers." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Endorphin)
In addition to decreased feelings of pain, secretion of endorphins leads to feelings of euphoria, modulation of appetite, release of sex hormones, and enhancement of the immune response. With high endorphin levels, we feel less pain and fewer negative effects of stress. from (from Endorphins: Natural Pain and Stress Fighters – MedicineNet.com)
Endorphins act to alter pain appreciation at many levels within the central nervous system including spinal cord, midbrain, thalamus, and cortex. The activity of this pain-suppressing system may play a role in individual differences in the experience of pain. (from Endorphins and Pain – Davis GC, Pub Med)
Believers at crusades who are typically seen throwing away their crutches and running around the stage are already in a euphoric state from the intense praying and singing they have been engaged in, and as a result their perception of pain has been significantly diminished. There are several documented cases of patients afterwards experiencing excruciating pain as a consequence of the physical exertion they subjected themselves to while on the stage with the pastor, believing themselves to have been healed at the time, yet in reality – they were not. Such believers seldom admit the recurrence of the pain after the euphoria wears off. This is because they fear that doing so would demonstrate a lack of faith on their part and thus compromise their ‘healing’ which they still believe is ‘on the way’. Some of them, out of solidarity are reluctant to embarrass their church or pastor with a failed faith healing. For this reason, many will shun medical treatment when the pain, predictably, returns. Such patients end up going back to hospital for treatment and therapy, with great reluctance, and often at the insistence of concerned family members.
Other reasons for being doubtful of miracle healing claims include:
Lack of good evidence. Most claims of miraculous healing come from believers themselves. It is essentially hearsay, and therefore not very reliable evidence. This anecdotal evidence is further compromised by the fact that these claimants have a vested interest in promoting this claim, and presenting it as a fact. They therefore cannot be relied upon to give an objective account of events pertaining to the healing. There is usually never an unbiased, independent observer to corroborate these healing claims. Who is to say the claimants are not mistaken? Or exaggerating? Or worse still, making it up? There are many reasons to think that any one of these three is highly possible, given what is at stake for those that claim it. Finally, given the extraordinary nature of what is being claimed, word of mouth even from a professed skeptic cannot be sufficient to establish that a faith healing took place. The evidence would have to be empirically verifiable, to be worthy of consideration.
Matters are not helped by recurring stories of fraud (quack pastors, of which Uganda has no shortage), which further adds to the skepticism towards faith-healing many of us have. It is no secret that in many churches, these healings are stage-managed in order to impress existing members of the congregation, and also to serve as a marketing gimmick to lure more people to join their church.
Different people seem to set different standards for what they will consider normal, and what they will consider unusual or miraculous. In the context of this article, the basis for determining these distinctions seems to depend on one’s familiarity, or lack thereof, with what has been discovered and established by modern medical science. Skeptics of faith healing have put these factors into consideration, and have determined that claims of miracles are unwarranted, given the variety of plausible naturalistic explanations that can account for seemingly sudden disappearance of symptoms of illness, or the illness itself.
WHAT WOULD BE CONVINCING EVIDENCE?
So, are skeptics of miracle-healing just a bunch of cynical people who won’t believe anything no matter what? Actually, no. James Randi (world renowned debunker of paranormal claims) outlines certain criteria that must be met for any claim of faith healing to be taken seriously, and in order for it to warrant further inquiry:
The disease must not be a self-limiting disease
The recovery must be complete
The recovery must take place in the absence of any medical treatment that might normally be expected to affect the disease
There must be adequate medical opinion that the disease was present before the application of whatever means were used to bring about the miracle.
There must be adequate medical opinion that the disease was present after the application of whatever means were used to bring about the miracle.
(from, The Faith Healers, pg. 45)
The above criteria set forth by Randi is a very basic control that seeks to eliminate natural or medical explanations that could account for the ‘miracle’ in question.There is no claim of miracle/faith-healing on record that has ever successfully met these criteria, which is why Randi and most in the scientific community doubt the validity and efficacy of miracle/faith-healing.
An example of a miracle, if one were to ever take place, that would be convincing to a critical mind would be IF AN AMPUTEE GOT HEALED. This is because there is no known natural mechanism that can plausibly explain the sudden restoration of a missing human limb. If such a miracle was to take place at the moment of the invocation of a specific prayer intended to bring about that effect, it would be compelling evidence that supernatural miracle healing has taken place. (Actually, it could also be evidence for a myriad of other logical possibilities such as space aliens with advanced technology, but anyway..)
The oft-touted miracle faith-healing claims suffer the problem of being too ambiguous in nature, because there are numerous natural explanations (such as those discussed above) that can adequately account for them. The healing of an amputee, however, leaves little room for doubt. Only a ‘miracle’ could make a missing limb grow back into its original form.
To date, there has been no medically verified case of a person having a missing limb restored.
So why don’t amputees get healed? The same question would apply also for restoring the skin of 3rd degree burn victims and acid attack victims. Why don’t these types of patients ever get healed at miracle crusades, or even at private prayer sessions? Why don’t acid attack victims, whose faces have been disfigured beyond recognition, ever get their old faces back – through prayer?
The answer to this question seems pretty obvious.
In response to this question, some believers say such people don’t get healed because they simply don’t have enough faith.
Others have responded that such a ‘miracle’ would be too obvious and would compromise our free will (or something along those lines). Ken Miller – Brown University biology professor renowned for his efforts to keep Creationism out of science classrooms in the US, and his public, nation-wide efforts in defending the theory of evolution by natural selection (he is a Roman Catholic) – in a recent interview with the The Boston Phoenix said, in response to the same question:
“Suppose that it was common knowledge that if you were a righteous person and of great faith and prayed deeply, all of a sudden, your limb would grow back,” he says. “That would reduce God to a kind of supernatural force . . . and by pushing the button labelled ‘prayer,’ you could accomplish anything you wanted. What would that do to moral independence?”
But this is a bizarre response. There are Christians today going around claiming they are resurrecting dead people in mortuaries. There are others who testify that ‘God’ brought them back to life through intercessory prayer. There are many more claims of recovery from blindness and deafness. Every Sunday believers share testimonies about how they prayed for a house and got it, how they prayed to pass exams and passed them, how they prayed to find missing keys and found them, etc. To believers all these claims are considered to be irrefutable evidence of ‘God’. (Of course, those who think critically would disagree). Ken Miller has also probably never heard of Prosperity Theology which holds that when you pray for things ‘God’ gives it to you. Indeed, his response is bizarre given what Christians are claiming ‘God’ is doing for them everyday. If what Miller is saying is true, then ‘moral independence’ is being thwarted by ‘God’ everytime ‘He’ answers a prayer – which believers are certain ‘He’ does (answer prayer). It is unlikely any believers would agree with Miller on this. Jerry Coyne, in his wonderful blog Why Evolution Is True, doesn’t mince words in his assessment of Miller’s response:
So let me get this straight. Some miracles are ok (Miller apparently believes in the Resurrection and the divinity of Jesus), but they can’t be too numerous? Or too obvious? It’s ok for Jesus to heal the lame, or get rid of Parkinson’s disease (see here), but growing back a limb? No, no, that’s WAY too obvious. Unlike healing the lame, regrowing a limb would completely ruin moral independence? How, exactly, is that supposed to happen? And what about the alternative explanation for why prayer can apparently cure paralysis, deafness and cancer but not excised limbs (no, it’s not that God hates amputees)? Could Miller’s ideas about amputation be making a virtue out of necessity?
Only a theologian could buy Miller’s argument. Any smart twelve-year old could see right through it.
Indeed, many of us have ‘seen right through’ such excuses for why ‘God’ cannot heal amputees or perform empirically verifiable miracle healings.
‘God’ simply does not exist.