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In my most recent post, Ugandan Doctors – Balancing Medical Science and Magical Thinking I discussed how medical professionals in Uganda, while advocating the importance of using science-based medicine, nonetheless, implicitly and often explicitly endorse the viability of prayer induced miracle healing. They do this by sending mixed messages, in utterances such as:

"While we believe in God and his ability to perform miracles, we also encourage our clients to adhere to their medications."

Robert Ochai, the executive director of The Aids Support Organisation (TASO) who made the above remarks back in 2008, reiterated similar sentiments while criticising the recent comments by the Minister of Health where she claimed that prayers can cure AIDS. From the Daily Monitor of 2nd August 2011 :

The Head of The Aids Support Organisation (TASO), Mr Richard Ochai, who refused to believe that a minister could say such a thing, said such statements, most especially from born-again churches, are continuously curtailing TASO efforts to fight against HIV/Aids whose prevalence in recent years is said to have increased in the country.

He said science has proved that if one takes ARVs the viral load will become low such that they may not be detected but once they stop taking the drug, the virus will definitely be seen again. “We know God can do miracles if he so wishes but these many possibilities still need scientific prove,” Dr Ochai said.

Note: He is Robert Ochai, not Richard – Daily Monitor made an error

People are opting for miracles over medication precisely because they believe in ‘God’ and his ability to perform miracles. It is therefore difficult to see such a statement, while well intended, as not exacerbating the problem it seeks to solve. On one hand he’s conceding that ‘God’ can do miracles – on the other hand he’s castigating the Minister of Health for claiming that ‘God’ had done miracles. All in the same speech. That’s what they call sending out a mixed message. Once Ochai grants that there exists a ‘God’ and that this ‘God’ can do miracles, well of course believers are going to try to obtain one!

mixed Mixed messages

This led me to suggest that the onus lies on we who are non-religious to be the voice of reason on this matter:

It thus appears that it will be the job of we freethinking atheists, rationalists, skeptics and humanists in this country to keep voicing our views in the public domain about the inefficacy of prayer induced miracle healing. We are the only ones able to speak out candidly on this matter without sending mixed messages, and without being put in a position where we have to explain where a ‘God’ fits into all of this if we say there are no miracles (after all, we contend that there’s no reason to think a ‘God’ exists in the first place). We are the only ones who are able to say, without mincing words, that MIRACLE HEALING IS A SHAM.

So let’s say it, and let’s not be silent about it.

But maybe I’m being harsh.

Most doctors in Uganda are probably true believers and DO believe that prayer induced healing miracles happen. But then maybe there are those who are skeptical of such a notion, such as the those that think the ‘age of miracles’ ended with Jesus and the apostles, or those that believe that a ‘God’ exists but does not interact with the world. There might also actually be some who are atheists.

Perhaps, a medical doctor belonging to the latter category (skeptical theist/deist/atheist), faced with the crisis of an increasing number of people opting for miracles, needs to find a way to get them to stick to medicine, without appearing to mock their beliefs.

Accomodationism:

In a society in which almost 98% are religious – it might probably difficult for a doctor to openly say “look, guys, your pastors are quacks, and healing miracles  don’t happen… so please stick to your medication” even if that’s what he believed. Out of politeness, he might want to down play the ‘miracle’ part without appearing to rule it out, while reminding people about the importance of taking their medicine. The concern being that ruling out the viability of prayer induced healing miracles will offend believers and make them reluctant to accept the medical advice being offered.

This approach discourse is called accomodationism, and there is much discussion about it, particularly on how it pertains to getting more religious believers in America not to reject the theory of evolution in favour of creationism. But unlike the rejection of evolution, rejection of medication by HIV positive Ugandans in favour of miracles is by far more dangerous and has more immediate and devastating consequences. An HIV positive person who rejects anti-retroviral drugs and visits a pastor for a miracle instead is more than likely to die of AIDS – whereas the conservative Christian in America who rejects evolution will be little more than a nuisance to secularists who prefer to see the wall of separation between church and state respected in the US education curriculum. Might this suggest that an accomodationist approach to discouraging miracle healing (e.g. saying “Yes, God performs miracles BUT do take your medicine”) is, realistically, the better option for Uganda – than the rationalist approach (e.g. saying “Healing miracles do not happen)?

I don’t think so.

The importance of speaking bluntly:

I’m inclined to think the rationalists need to keep speaking up, with bluntness and clarity. The rationalists need to keep raising awareness about the inefficacy of prayer induced healing miracles. Indeed, some believers will be offended, but then others will be given something to think about – the very strong possibility that praying for miracles will yield no cures for HIV infection. And whether they accept it at first or not, at least it will be a view point that ends up being part of the national conversation on healthcare issues. There will be more discussion, with more questions asked – and just like the persistent barrage of reasoned secular view points during the Enlightenment helped drag Medieval Christianity from its murderous past into its currently more tolerant and peaceful present, so will our persistent open criticisms of claims of miracle healing drag the gullible into having a more skeptical mindset. From a long term perspective, the blunt approach is definitely more beneficial.

Another reason medical professionals (those that are skeptics) may feel shy to speak honestly about these matters – and prefer to tow the accomodationist line – is that they feel that views critical of claims of miracles will be greeted with hostility from the general public. They might lose clients (many of whom are religious – it is Uganda, after all). Those who work in government hospitals may also be afraid losing their jobs for publicly criticising miracle prayer healing (considering we have a PASTOR as the national Minister of Health, and a highly influential First Lady who hobnobs with some of the most famous quacks in the faith-healing business).

The only way such medical professionals will be empowered and encouraged to speak up openly is by we rationalists, freethinkers, skeptics, atheists, and humanists helping to create an environment that accepts the expression of such view points. And the only way that is going to happen – is by us continuing to speak loudly, bluntly, and consistently, until the rational and skeptical view point as applied to claims of miracle healing becomes a respected and integral part of the national conversation on health matters.

doctor 1It must be a strange experience being a doctor who believes in ‘God’, in light of the advances that have been made in modern medial science.

On one hand, they’ve been trained to understand the way biological systems work, and the importance of repeated testing and finding corroborative evidence before making judgements. On the other hand, for those who are conservative believers, they’ve been raised from childhood to believe that a ‘God’ exists and that this ‘God’ performs healing miracles – in complete violation of everything they know about biology.

I suppose there are a few religious doctors who might be of the view that ‘God’ heals through medicine, and does not intervene miraculously to heal the sick. Then there are those who might hold the view that miracles ended with the “Apostolic Age” of Paul and Peter in the first century. Many, if not most, doctors in Uganda seem to be of the view that ‘God’ is active in this world and is performing healing miracles every day.

Charismatic Christianity (Born Again, Pentecostal, etc) is very popular in Uganda and they specialise in the business of healing miracles. On their various programmes on television, or during their crusades or services, the pastors who lead these churches engage in elaborate rituals of ‘casting out demons’ from their flock. These ‘demons’, according to their doctrine, are responsible for everything from poverty, misfortune, unemployment, dysfunctional families, marital problems, and sickness. This kind of Christianity has come packaged in modern Americanized flash, dazzle and music that has made it hugely popular among upper middle class Ugandans, especially those in urban areas. Benny Hinn (below) one of the most prominent international marketers of this kind of Christianity, is a household name in Uganda.  The 'Magic Jacket'

Benny Hinn ‘performing miracles’ with his jacket.

Assuming one was a doctor who subscribed to this form of Christianity, It would be interesting to see how such a person might opine on claims of miracle healing that come courtesy of these types of churches.

In September 2008, the Daily Monitor ran a story called “False Spiritual Healing Threatening Fight Against HIV and AIDS”. In that article, The Aids Support Organisation (TASO), the pioneer AIDS care organization in Uganda announced that such unverified faith healing was posing a threat to adherence to antiretroviral therapy by persons living with HIV/Aids. Robert Ochai, the executive director added that some of their clients had been misled into prematurely stopping their medication, having been told that they had been miraculously healed by ‘God’. He then appealed to them to adhere to their medication – but not before reminding them that God performs miracles. He was quoted as saying "While we believe in God, and his ability to perform miracles, we also encourage our clients to adhere to their medications."

This is indeed bizarre. Here you have a crisis that has erupted precisely because people believe that they can be miraculously healed, and then the TASO boss goes on to tell them that ‘God’ indeed performs miracles. How does this not reinforce the view that miracles can cure AIDS?

And this is the kind of doublespeak coming out of the mouths of Ugandan medical professionals regularly. Promoting medicine on one hand, and in the same breath endorsing some superstition or other.

Then just over a week ago, the current Minister of Health, the newly appointed Dr. Christine Ondoa Dradidi suggested the same, when she alleged that she knew three people who were once positive but turned negative after prayer for deliverance. 

Her thoughts on the matter were elucidated in an article appearing the Observer called “Prayer can heal AIDS, says health minister”:

The newly appointed health minister, Dr Christine Ondoa Dradidi, has told The Observer that prayer heals HIV/AIDS, and that she knows three people who were once positive but turned negative after prayer for deliverance.

[…] “I am sure and I have evidence that someone who was positive turned negative after prayers,” Ondoa told The Observer on last week, promising to ask colleagues in Arua hospital, where she once worked, to find the relevant documentation.

She also warned against people who make claims about having been healed of HIV:

She, however, said medical workers and the general public should be cautious about people who claim they were healed of HIV.

I was intrigued by her audacious initial claims, so I called the author of the story to find out whether the minister was able to give her any details about the 3 alleged former AIDS sufferers. She said she had not received any information, but that the Minister promised to send it to her – but was not clear when she would. I figured it was probably going to take the minister forever to get back to her, if at all (which I doubt) so I decided to call Arua Regional Referral Hospital where she used to work, and tried to follow up on those cases myself.

When I called Arua Regional Referral Hospital I was able to talk to the Hospital Director/Superintendent, Dr. Bernard Odur, who told me that he’s never heard of anyone ever getting cured of AIDS at the hospital. He added that if it had actually happened, it was not the kind of thing that would be so easily forgotten among the staff at the hospital – certainly not so forgotten that it would never have been brought to his attention. He ended by telling me that he was not trying to refute what the minister said, only that he was personally unaware of the cases she was referring to.

Of course, it is highly unlikely for people to have actually been cured of AIDS in the recent past (through prayer or otherwise) and for the director/superintendent of the hospital handling their cases not know about it, even if it may have happened before his tenure. A person getting cured of AIDS at that hospital would certainly be a BIG deal – and would be the subject of many official inquiries, and scholarly research, of which there was and is none. But no, all we have is the personal anecdote from the minister. And while paying lip service to how we should be cautious of miracle healing claims, and how rigorous testing should be done, she is unable to present a shred of evidence to back up her claim that 3 people were cured of AIDS through prayer.

Might there be any reason as to why she might tell such a story?

Yes.

The Wikipedia page about her reveals some interesting facts, which may be relevant:

She is a Born-again Christian, and was ordained as Pastor, on April 23rd 2011, by by Bishop Julius Peter Oyet in LifeLine Ministries at Mbuya, Nakawa Division, in Kampala, the capital of Uganda.

This is confirmed here.

So, she is a pastor – in LifeLine Ministries, a church that advocates, among other things, “divine” healing:

Divine Healing: We believe in divine healing of the human body as wrought by the power of God through the prayer of faith and by laying on of hands. (Mark 16:18; James 5:14-16; 1Peter 2:24;Matthew 8:17)

Apparently the ‘efforts’ of this church have seen thousands of barren women give birth!

Hope For The Barren: Through the commission of the Lord to Julius to “Take the Healing to his generation…” and with the reputable gift of teaching the word of God and the gifts of the spirit, Life Line Ministries has seen well over 2,000 barren women give birth.

Our Health Minister, as a pastor in this church, actually believes this. Its therefore no surprise that she would make claims about how prayers healed people of AIDS – without being able to recall the names of these people in an interview with a journalist. This is typical of the kinds of personal testimony you frequently hear coming out of ‘born-again’ churches – where miracle claims are made with no corroborative evidence, to an non-critical thinking audience who are only too happy to have their beliefs bolstered.

It is difficult to envisage a scenario in which doctors will denounce miracle healing claims as shams, without calling into question their commitment to their religious beliefs. So we what are, in effect, left with, is an either or scenario: either doctors are going to openly evangelise about healing miracles, or they will implicitly endorse the possibility of prayer induced healing miracles, by granting the idea of a healing ‘God’. The problem is, in countries like Uganda where a largely illiterate, undereducated, and superstitious populace is actively being made to believe that demons are the cause of illness, even implicit endorsements of miracles from medical professionals will prove to be as disastrous as those made by open evangelists. Such people will forgo modern medicine in favour of the quackery of pastors – and this is precisely what we are seeing today in Uganda – not to mention how witchcraft ties into all of this and benefits from this kind of magical thinking.

I have encountered similar implicit endorsements of healing miracles from my moderate ‘educated’ Christian friends. They, like me, scoff at the miracle healing claims coming out of Pentecostal Churches – but they are reluctant to concede that miracle healings do not occur. Why? Because to question whether or not prayer induced healing miracles ever occur is, for them, more or less equivalent to questioning the very existence of ‘God’. They believe in a theistic ‘God’ that interacts with nature every single day – and many of them cling to anecdotes of how, after a quick prayer, they miraculously found missing keys or passed a job interview, which they will insist ‘cannot be explained’ however inane those anecdotes may be – and will attribute their occurrence to ‘God’. What they don’t realise is that by sharing such stories, they unwittingly end up not only enabling the belief that healing miracles are actually possible, but they are also to be expected.

praying man

It thus appears that it will be the job of we freethinking atheists, rationalists, skeptics and humanists in this country to keep voicing our views in the public domain about the inefficacy of prayer induced miracle healing. We are the only ones able to speak out candidly on this matter without sending mixed messages, and without being put in a position where we have to explain where a ‘God’ fits into all of this if we say there are no miracles (after all, we contend that there’s no reason to think a ‘God’ exists in the first place). We are the only ones who are able to say, without mincing words, that MIRACLE HEALING IS A SHAM.

So let’s say it, and let’s not be silent about it.

We must publicly hold health officials and practitioners accountable as and when they actively publicly promote or make insinuations about the viability of prayer induced healing miracles, yet there is no empirical evidence to back up such claims. Such insinuations can cost lives.

See also: Why Claims of Miracle Healing Aren’t Believable


Related Post:

For the last two weeks or so the talk of the region has been the magical Loliondo herbal concoction of retired Lutheran pastor Ambilikile Mwasapile.

Loliondo1

Mwasipile has, for the past several months been serving his herbal concoction to multitudes of people, estimated at over 10,000 every day, in the village of Loliondo (about 400km from the town of Arusha, north-eastern Tanzania).

Loliondo5

The sick, accompanied by relatives and well-wishers, have been seen by the cleric, who dispenses a cupful of herbal medicine he claims cures HIV/Aids, cancer and diabetes.

According to Rev Masapila, the cup of mugariga he administers, in addition to special prayers, was able to cure chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancer, TB and Aids though there is no scientific proof so far.

loliondo2 (1)

The Loliondo story has been covered extensively on local/regional television in recent weeks:

 

 

Not everyone is excited about this, particularly the Kenyan Health Minister:

Public Health and Sanitation Minister Mrs. Beth Mugo has dismissed so-called traditional and faith healers saying the government would not allow them to mislead the public that they can cure all sorts of illness.

Speaking in Machakos in celebrations to mark the World Tuberculosis Day Mrs. Mugo said the faith and traditional healers posed a threat to the health of Kenyans.

She said claims that the healers could cure all manner of diseases including known epidemics like HIV/Aids and Tuberculosis by praying facilitated transmission of the illnesses to other people.

"It is bad for pastors and traditional healers to tell people they can heal all diseases and ask them to quit drugs. Get prayed for but continue taking your medicines. This is a lie that is causing confusion among people", said Mrs. Mugo.

Mrs Mugo dismissed reports in a section of the media that a doctor in Loliondo, Tanzania was curing all illness by giving some herb from a poisonous tree to the patients and asked the Tanzanian Government to close down the place and ban people from visiting the "healer".

[See: Kenya's health minister dismisses faith and traditional healers]

 WHAT SCIENCE HAS TO SAY:

In a story called “‘Magic herb’ is well known to Kenyan scientists” the Daily Nation on Tuesday brought to light an interesting study conducted back in 2006 which might shed light on what this ‘magic’ herb of Loliondo actually does:

The ‘magic herb’ that has made thousands of people flock to remote Loliondo village in Tanzania was identified by Kenyan scientists four years ago as a cure for a drug-resistant strain of a sexually transmitted disease.

An expert on herbal medicine also said yesterday the herb is one of the most common traditional cures for many diseases. It is known as mtandamboo in Kiswahili and it has been used for the treatment of gonorrhoea among the Maasai, Samburu and Kikuyu.

The Kamba refer to it as mukawa or mutote and use it for chest pains, while the Nandi boil the leaves and bark to treat breast cancer, headache and chest pains.

Four years ago, local researchers turned to the plant for the treatment of a virus that causes herpes. Led by Dr Festus M Tolo of the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri), the team from the University of Nairobi and the National Museums of Kenya found the herb could provide alternative remedy for herpes infections.

“An extract preparation from the roots of Carissa edulis, a medicinal plant locally growing in Kenya, has exhibited remarkable anti-herpes virus activity for both wild type and drug resistant strains,” they reported in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology.

Also:

Further studies have shown the plant to contain ingredients that make it a good diuretic. Diuretics are drugs used to increase the frequency of urination to remove excess fluid in the body, a condition that comes with medical conditions such as congestive heart failure, liver and kidney disease.

Some diuretics are also used for the treatment of high blood pressure. These drugs act on the kidneys to increase urine output, reducing the amount of fluid in the blood, which in turn lowers blood pressure.

It would appear that the herb does have certain specific medicinal properties. Of course, this does not justify its use and promotion as a ‘cures-it-all’ panacea, as Ambilikile Mwasapile purports it is.

Things are made worse by his allusions to ‘faith healing’ and ‘miracle’ which will actually have the unfortunate effect of lending credence to mysticism.

Why is this significant?

Because if tomorrow a witch-doctor claims to have powers to change your financial/romantic fortunes for the better, you would be more susceptible to exploitation if your understanding of the Loliondo spectacle has led you to think mysticism is in some way efficacious. You will also fall prey to exploitation of all manner of quack pastors, of which Uganda has absolutely no shortage.

Way forward?

Further study on this herb should be done. Pharmacologists should then try to isolate the active ingredient of this herb, synthesise it, mass produce it, and make this medicine available to all in a way that can be regulated. We would also have a better idea of exactly what diseases the active ingredient of this herb actually cures, and what it doesn’t. In so doing, the treatment would be stripped of its mystical veneer, and enter the realm of medical science.

As it is, it is difficult to tell which of the alleged recovery stories from Loliondo are due to misreporting, exaggeration, wish-full thinking, the placebo effect, or the actual medicinal effects of the herb.

Don’t forget to check out their marvellous website.


Related posts:

prayer1

Intercessory prayer is prayer which is undertaken on behalf of others. The intercessor uses prayer to communicate with ‘God’, making a request on behalf of someone else or on behalf of a group of people.

Anecdotes (hear say) abound within religious circles about how certain people have been healed miraculously as a result of people praying for them. Since they are anecdotes, most people in the medical community generally remain sceptical of such claims.

A number of attempts have been made to evaluate the success rate of prayer in controlled conditions. Ideally, if praying for someone actually works, it ought to be demonstrable in a way that can be independently corroborated without being influenced by the bias of the person reporting the miracle.

To this end, a number of scientific studies have been conducted to test the efficacy of intercessory prayer.

Here are examples of such studies (click the links to read the abstracts of those studies):

The result…

NO, it does not work.


Related posts:

Many people are convinced that ‘God’ heals people. They have attended miracle crusades and seen people who are allegedly ‘lame’ be prayed upon by a pastor, and gotten ‘healed’. Maybe they prayed for a sick loved one, and this person got well.

Several anecdotal accounts of ‘miracle healing’ permeate through churches and religious households throughout the world, leading many believers to conclude that ‘God’ must exist, and is the one performing these ‘miracles’. In Africa, thanks to the proliferation of charismatic, or born-again churches, miracle healing stories have have become so common that today they are a staple part of everyday conversation between people. People now accept it as a given that ‘God’ heals miraculously, to the extent that many would sooner go to church to receive a ‘healing’ than go to a hospital.

But are these really miracles? Are stories of people getting miraculously healed even true, and are they evidence that ‘God’ exists?

In the Does God Heal series, we explore why the conclusion that ‘God’ is healing people is unjustified, and why a good understanding of medical science and critical thinking makes it difficult to take miracle healing stories seriously.

This series page will be updated as an when new posts pertaining to the subject matter are generated.

Does ‘God’ Heal?:


Related Posts:

In my previous post (Believers’ Prayers Fail to Bring 2 Dead Pastors Back To Life) we saw how some evangelical Christian groups were urging believers to visit mortuaries and pray for the dead to come back to life. (Hmm..why mortuaries, I wonder, and not CEMETERIES?) To date, this group has not claimed a single successful resurrection. In the same post, we saw how thousands of believers in Kenya tried in vain to pray for the resurrection of two of their pastors who had died in a car accident.

By now it should be clear to any sensible person that resurrections do not occur. Once you’re dead, you stay dead.

For the last few years, Chauncey Crandall, an American cardiologist, has been peddling a particular story in which he claims a 53-year old man who suffered a massive heart attack and was declared dead after attempts to resuscitate him failed, miraculously came back to life after he was prayed for.*

 

Speaking at the 4th Annual World Christian Doctors Network conference in Miami, Florida in 2007, he narrates the story:

They called me in to evaluate the patient towards the end of his treatment where they had unsuccessfully tried to revive him. The nurse was preparing his body to be taken down to the morgue when the Holy Spirit told me to ‘turn around and pray for that man.’ When the Holy Spirit talks to you, you have to respond. It’s sometimes a quiet voice and this was a quiet voice and to honor the Lord I did turn around and I went to the side of that stretcher where his body was being prepared.

There was no life in the man. His face and feet and arms were completely black with death and I sat next to his body and I prayed, ‘Lord, Father; how am I going to pray for this man? He’s dead. What can I do?’ All of a sudden, these words came out of my mouth, ‘Father, God, I cry out for the soul of this man if he does not know You as his Lord and Savior, please raise him from the dead right now in Jesus name.

It was amazing as a couple minutes later, we were looking at the monitor and all of a sudden a heart beat showed up. It was a perfect beat; a normal beat; and then after a couple more minutes, he started moving and then his fingers were moving and then his toes began moving and then he started mumbling words.

There was a nurse in the room — she wasn’t a believer — and she screamed out and said ‘Doctor Crandall, what have you done to this patient?’ And I said, ‘All I’ve done is cry out for his soul in Jesus name.

We quickly rushed the gentleman down to the intensive care unit, and the hospital was by now buzzing about the fact that a dead man had been brought back to life. After a couple of days he woke up. He had an amazing story to tell after I had asked him, ‘Where have you been and where were you on that day that you had that massive heart attack? You were gone and we prayed you back to life in Jesus’ name.’

“We prayed you back to life in Jesus’ name…”

Yeah, right.

There is a phenomenon well known in medical science called the Lazarus Syndrome, in which people who initially had been pronounced dead were found later to be breathing in the morgue. In order to avoid such scenarios from occurring there is currently much debate within the medical community as to how long after failed attempts at resuscitation a patient should be pronounced dead.

Some useful technical information related to the Lazarus Syndrome can be found here:

Resuscitation of victims of cardiac arrest happens routinely, and regularly, in emergency rooms across the globe. In very rare cases the doctors in charge prematurely pronounce the patient dead and shortly after this pronouncement, or while the patient is being prepared for transfer to the morgue, or while the patient is at the morgue already, they realise that the patient is actually still alive. There is nothing at all miraculous about this.

If believers really want to convince we non-believers that people can miraculously rise from the dead, then they better start pointing us to cemeteries in which people that are known to have been dead and buried for decades returned to life after being prayed for, and came out of their graves.

Jimi Hendrix (November 27, 1942 – September 18, 1970) They could start with this man, for example.

Until then, sorry, we’re not buying it.

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*In the April 23rd 2008 episode (#144) of the Skeptics’ Guide To The Universe (please subscribe to this podcast – it is awesome), neuroscientist Steven Novella and his team of skeptics discussed the Crandall story in detail, and found it to be absurd and grossly misleading. Download this episode here.

Claims of miracles are often presented by believers as evidence that ‘God’ is real. During the second Freethinkers’ Night, one of the Christian attendees assured us that nothing else but there being a ‘God’ could explain the miraculous recovery of his younger brother from asthma. Although there are a few of Christian schools of thought in which it is believed that  miracles, signs and wonders ended in the apostolic age, by and large most Christians believe ‘God’ is actively performing miracles today – particularly with regards to healing people from illness – even when there is no good evidence to warrant such beliefs.

Perhaps the most outrageous modern Christian miracle claims are the claims that prayer can cause dead people to miraculously come back to life. Not surprisingly such claims are quite common, but none of them have ever been found to be valid by medical professionals (and thereafter independently corroborated and which findings were analysed in peer-reviewed medical literature.. this has not happened). This, however, has not stopped many Christian evangelists from trying to convince people that it can be done:

Are these people really serious?

Towards the end of the video the lady evangelist above actually admits she is yet to see any dead raised yet – but she and other preachers like her do a disservice to society by giving people the false impression that it can be done.

As it is, there are lot of people in Africa who also think it can be done. Two weeks ago, in Kenya, a group of worshippers led by their pastors actually attempted to do just that.

During the final week of February this year 2 pastors lost their lives in a fatal motor accident in Kenya. Grief-stricken members of the church, as well as well-wishers from neighbouring towns and even as far away as Uganda poured into the church compound where the caskets containing the remains of the pastors lay and began praying earnestly for the two deceased to be resurrected, as reported by The Nation:

They came from the four corners of the country and even neighbouring Uganda with one mission — to pray for a miracle.

Two pastors in the Kingdom Seekers Fellowship International church were killed in a road accident on Monday last week and the faithful believed that God would resurrect them if they prayed hard enough.

Their death in a car that rolled on the Nairobi-Nakuru highway, the faithful believed, was the work of the devil and the miracle was to shame the evil one.

“Our pastors have been perishing in road accidents and it is time for us to shame the devil, who is behind the tragedies,” Pastor John Kamau William, the church’s general overseer, announced to the congregation outside their church in Nakuru.

There was a large congregation of faithful and curious onlookers who were eager to witness the resurrection.

Word had gone round the town that a miracle was to happen during the requiem mass for pastors Patrick Wanjohi Wanja and Francis Kamau Ndetei.

So, when the caskets carrying the remains of the two were taken to the church, crowds of people milled around to see what would happen.

The neutral people in the crowd were amazed by the aggressive and drawn out prayers that the believers engaged in.

Even a heavy downpour that pounded Nakuru as the prayers went on did not dampen their spirits. In fact, the sudden rains were seen as a sign that the miracle was about to happen. The prayers continued with even more vigour.

Scores of pastors surrounded the caskets and cried out to God for more than an hour.

At one point, Pastor Ndetei’s widow, went to the tent where the coffin was placed and shook it as she hysterically pleaded with God to raise her husband.

Another worshipper pushed the coffins in an attempt to stir the dead pastors to wake up from their “deep sleep.” Nothing happened.

By this time, one could sense doubts creeping into the minds of some of the faithful. To banish any such thoughts, Apostle Steven Bulungi from Uganda chased away the doubting Thomases.

He kept on telling the congregation that they were not being “fanatical or emotional” enough. ‘‘You are practising the word of God,” he exhorted them.

Nevertheless, the worshippers eventually lost hope. One of the pastors announced: “Some miracles do not happen instantly, as was the case when Jesus cursed the fig tree.”

Nothing happened..hmm.. and again, the ‘devil’ is blamed for a tragedy..

A part of me feels like laughing at this kind of silliness, but is SHOCKS ME to see that people actually believe it is possible to bring dead people back to life.

I feel really bad for the relatives of the deceased who are mourning the loss of their loved ones. I just think it does no good to offer them false hope that they’re beloved will come back to life. Death is part of life. It is inevitable. It will happen to all of us one day.

Here is the televised report, from Nation TV:

 

In Part 2 of the Does God Heal series, we saw how there wasn’t sufficient evidence to justify belief in the notion that ‘God’ can heal.

You can now add resurrection to that list.

(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.

Benny Hinn in India

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.

Psychosomatic Diseases

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.

crusadeIt 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.

Pain Perception

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 The_Faith_Healers(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:

  1. The disease must not be a self-limiting disease
  2. The recovery must be complete
  3. The recovery must take place in the absence of any medical treatment that might normally be expected to affect the disease
  4. There must be adequate medical opinion that the disease was present before the application of whatever means were used to bring about the miracle.
  5. 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.

BULLSHIT.

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.

Freethought Kampala

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