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?


Question from Kaye:
I am doing a research on the concept of healing. I was wondering do atheists believe in the concept of healing? Not weird or religious or fanatic…just plain everyday healing that may or may not be explained.

Answer by SmartLX:
What heals a body, more often than not, is the body itself. Doctors can help, but in the end the human body is at the mercy of its own immune system and other regenerative processes, such as skin regrowth and bone knitting (no, that’s not the medical term for it).

Beyond the capabilities of the body alone, there’s a lot that physicians and “healers” can do to effect real healing. They can help physically by removing dangerous tissue, binding broken limbs, cooling a fevered forehead and so forth. They can help through chemistry by administering medicine and drugs, and regulating a patient’s diet. They can help psychologically by encouraging a positive outlook in the patient, which is known to affect internal processes.

The kind of healing which apparently falls outside of these two categories is the “miraculous recovery”, where a person recovers from an injury or illness normally beyond the body’s own capabilities without medical help. If it’s really happened (which, in many instances, is a question well worth asking), there must be a reason, and this is where different people are tempted to insert their favourite god or other supernatural entity.

To an atheist, the most likely reason for super-healing like this (again, once verified as having actually occurred) is something natural but unknown to the chronicler: some unique property of the subject’s physiology or body chemistry, prior treatments or preventative measures, added time for recovery, etcetera. Just thinking that there aren’t any supernatural agents at work doesn’t mean assuming that one knows every phenomenon that can affect a human body. Medical science may one day benefit greatly from what we presently don’t know, based on its progress so far.

If you have a particular healing story in mind, comment and re-tell it for us to discuss.

Paging Dr God

Question from Sumira:
I am a non believer. One topic that baffles me is when believers seek medical treatment. They spend so much time praying and thanking gods for good health or recovery. Why do they really even seek medical treatment then? Isn’t that admitting that praying isn’t enough?

I know some of these types believe that god works through doctors or prayers result in medical advances. I still don’t understand though. I know this is just one small inconsistency within the larger inexplicable delusion, but please help me. What are these people really thinking and how do you respond?

Answer by SmartLX:
Seriously ill people who don’t get medical attention are much more likely to die than those who do, and no amount of prayer changes that. Remember this anytime you’re baffled and it’ll help you, because the reasoning behind all this stems from it.

Because prayer by itself doesn’t apparently work, it becomes a liability for any religious group that says it does. Those groups who stick to their guns and leave everything to God, like the Followers of Christ or the Church of the First Born, are regularly in the news when the children of their followers die preventable deaths. Mainstream churches can’t afford that kind of ongoing embarrassment if they want to keep their millions of nominal followers. (See the recent decline in Catholicism as a direct result of the child abuse scandals.)

Thus, ideas emerge such as that God works through doctors or medical science, or that He leaves medicine up to us as a test, or that Satan somehow nullifies God’s influence…anything to establish theologically that despite God’s presence, it’s still necessary to properly tend the sick. These ideas might start from either the pulpit or the pews, and they might be official doctrines or just unspoken assumptions by the congregation.

These compromising concepts are useful to religious adherents whether or not they actually believe in them. They save the devout from having to confront the inefficacy of prayer, and give them legitimate reasons to take control of the care of their loved ones. Those who belong to a religion but also rely on medicine are able to reconcile the two to their more religious acquaintances.

Admitting that prayer isn’t all-powerful isn’t the same as admitting that God isn’t all-powerful. All a religion needs in order to ignore the poor results of prayer-based healing is a reason, any reason, why God doesn’t put all of His power into every prayer. Thus potential evidence for the absence of God is reduced to a simple absence of evidence for God, and faith does the rest.

Tackling Testimony

Question from Michael:
Hello I was wondering what your thoughts on this conversion story. I am an atheist, and for some reason this one is a headscratcher for me. I on a whim in a effort to appease a family member of mine and to be open minded watched the Its a new day Christian show. And they had a Muslim who converted to christianity and I first I thought big whoop, and then he got into his story and I honestly don’t have a really good reply for what he is claiming he did. Some of it is to me, obvious woo woo on par with things like being abducted by aliens, but some of it is well beyond my abilities at explaining things.

The closet thing I found in his own words to what he said on the tv show was these links

Another thing that was said on the show was that he went to Bangladesh and healed people in the name of Jesus and if he didn’t heal them he would have been killed by the people there. I at first thought of Peter Popoff and Benny Hinn and later people like Kathlyn Kulman. But still I would like to know what you guys think.


Answer by SmartLX:
I found his testimony on YouTube, where he says most of what you describe.

While it’s nice to be able to explain stories like Javid’s, and I’ll try to help with this, you are not obligated to explain away every story you’re told. Javid’s testimony is entirely unsupported except by appeals to Javid’s own character, and Javid makes money from people who believe it. If some evidence showed up, then there’d really be something to explain.

As you say, there’s plenty of woo in the account of his textbook “religious experience” in prison. The bulk of it, even if it’s true from his perspective, consists of him alone in his cell speaking to Jesus, a Muslim demon and primarily himself for weeks on end. It honestly sounds like a prolonged psychotic episode.

Notice that the “djinn” appears to him exactly as described in Islam, but Jesus’ words and behaviour match his Christian depiction perfectly. A New Testament demon or a Muslim version of Jesus might have been a surprise, but to Javid the two characters were as if ripped straight from two mutually exclusive texts. It’s like a comic book one-shot crossover where Superman fights a T-800 Terminator. (That happened, actually.)

The one other mortal in the story is the man who amazingly knew to give him a Bible – after he asked for one, possibly loudly enough that word got out into the prison population that a Good Book might calm the fanatic. As for the language aspect, firstly the man now speaks English so he learned it at some point, probably in prison since there was English reading material there, and secondly it wasn’t his first Bible so he might have projected it (probably badly) from memory.

The story of faith healing on pain of death (which isn’t in the linked video) does not give me pause even if he really was in that situation. Faith healers are extraordinarily effective in a way; while there’s no sign of any real healing, the sheer faith they generate is incredible. After a concert-scale faith healing by Oral Roberts or Benny Hinn, the genuinely sick and desperate people in the audience will go away unhealed, brokenhearted (or just plain broke) but convinced that a few people up the front received miracles. If Americans, Britons and Australians can be taken in by these performances, why should the Bangladeshi be any different? The ones with the guns just had to think someone was healed.

It’s worth pointing out to whoever pointed you to Javid’s story that Javid himself doesn’t expect anyone to be directly converted by his testimony. (Here’s the moment in Part 2 when he says just that. He challenges people to pray instead.) It’s funny, in light of this, that It’s a New Day had him on for this very purpose. (Hear the hosts talk about it in the promo.) Just spreading the Word doesn’t make it stick.