Faith Healing and Holy Feelings

Question from Jesper:
Hi, I really hope you guys can help me with this. I’ve been talking to some Christians from a local Christian youth group. They told me their reasons why they were Christians, I was a bit unsure of what to say to them, and I’d hoped you guys can give me some rebuttals to these arguments.

1. One that they all pointed out was faith healing. For example one had his hand injured at one time, then 5 others came to him and asked if they could pray for him, afterwards he could no longer feel the pain. Another guy came with the story about a 10 year old who had broken his legs, I don’t know for how long they had been broken. But after a prayer he no longer needed his crutches to walk.

2. The second one I heard was that millions of people around the world had felt and experienced God.

Hope you guys can give me some rebuttals for them, that would be most appreciated.

Answer by SmartLX:
For starters, the reasons they’ve given you are not actually the reasons why they’re Christians, or at least #1 isn’t. They were already in the youth group when they prayed for the guy’s hand, and you don’t join a group like that unless you already believe. Chances are they learned about the “millions of people” while in the group as well. This is stuff they use to convince others, but it’s not what convinced them in the first place; all it did was reassure them that they were right. I don’t think they’ve really told you anything at all about their own journeys to faith, so it’s still something you could pursue with them.

Anyway, let’s look at faith healing first.

Pain fades if the issue causing it is resolved or mitigated, regardless of whether it’s resolved by medicine, painkillers or the body itself. All pain that isn’t chronic goes away at some stage. If the guy’s hand pain went away too quickly for ordinary bodily functions to explain, it’s possible that the communal prayer session had a hypnotic and/or a placebo effect. Same with the leg guy; if pain was the only reason he walked with crutches, he might not need them after convincing himself he’d received divine relief.

Pain is highly subjective, given that it’s nothing more than a feeling. Not until 2011 were scientists hopeful of finding a reliable method to measure the amount of pain a person is in without being told, and there’s been little or no news since then. Therefore, any medical recovery which boils down to pain relief literally cannot be proven to any decent standard. It’s not really evidence for anything, especially when it’s part of an undocumented anecdote.

More generally, faith healing and specifically the healing power of prayer have not shown any significant beneficial effect, and can in fact be harmful. In one major study, patients who knew they were receiving prayers did worse than either those not receiving prayers or those receiving prayers unknowingly, perhaps because they felt there was pressure on them to “perform”. A well-known study which did support faith healing turned out to be co-authored by a man posing as a doctor.

All too regularly there are reports of people, mainly children, dying of treatable illnesses because they received prayers instead of treatment. If faith healing is real, God’s selection criteria suck. And if you’re not supposed to rely on it in place of real medicine, then what is it for?

Finally, most of the devastating sarcasm in Tim Minchin’s wonderful song Thank You God can be applied to any faith healing anecdote, including these two.

As for the second claim, I can sum up my response by adding a few words to it: Millions of people around the world have felt and experienced what they believed to be God. This feeling or experience can be anything from a full in-person conversation with God incarnate on the chair opposite them…to a voice in your head…to an inexplicable feeling of power or happiness…to practically nothing, remembered later as more than it was. The possible natural causes for each of these experiences are countless, which is probably why there are so many of them.

Another reason why they seem so common is that people only talk about them when they happen. If people mentioned every time they had prayed and not had a religious experience, the times when something did happen would seem like a drop in the ocean. Think about it: if a billion Christians each prayed three times a day, that’d be a trillion prayers a year, and that might not be too far off the actual number. A few million strange experiences hardly register on that scale.

One more point is the fact that these experiences can apparently be caused by mutually exclusive gods. Tribesmen all over the world have extraordinary experiences while dancing and praying around campfires, with and without the use of hallucinogenic drugs. Hindus have ceremonies where they put themselves into trances to be possessed temporarily by gods like Shiva. If only one true god is really causing these feelings and experiences, why is he/she/it using them so often to convince people that rival gods are real?

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