I have spent a lot of time recently reflecting on my time in various charismatic churches. When I first dipped my toes in the waters of Pentecostalism/Charismania years ago I was very much open – hoping and willing – to see evidence of the supernatural in terms of healings, prophecies or other supernatural events. I withdrew from this form of Christianity entirely after 10 years, perceiving a patent lack of any such occurrences. My charismatic friends will be disappointed and perhaps angry with what I write here; but, I’m simply reflecting honestly on my experiences and subsequent research.
If I could point to evidence of the almighty in the world of charismania I would do so. But after a decade I found precious little to point to that amounts to a genuine case of miracle, healing, or prophecy. I have no desire to credit God with phenomenon that either hasn’t actually occurred or for which He is not responsible.
I want to focus here on divine healings. The conclusion I came to was this: God doesn’t seem to answer prayers for healing, or if he does it’s incredibly rare and undetectable. Let me make one thing completely clear from the outset: I’m not saying God can’t heal. God – being omnipotent – can strike us down or heal us at will. I’m simply making an empirical observation: God does not seem to heal. Or, as I’ve said, if God does heal he does it in such a way as to be virtually undetectable. He certainly doesn’t heal people day-in-day-out as a matter of course, as many charismatics would have us believe.
The charismatic movement is full of rumours of the supernatural. Talk to any charismatic and he or she will almost certainly have an anecdote about something supernatural, like a divine healing. You get the impression that divine healings are dime-a-dozen in charismatic circles. Healing are regularly reported and “praise reports” of healings given. However, I’ve discovered that most people who believe in divine healings do so largely on the basis of anecdotal evidence: evidence which is incredibly weak.
To illustrate: here’s an account of a Twitter conversation I had recently with one charismatic Christian who works in his church as a youth worker and musician.
SG: “Funny how the “gift of healing” is more at work amongst Christian hipsters than, say, the third world, cancer units, or old people’s homes.”
CY: “Unless you’re @HeidiIrisGlobal and it’s a daily occurrence in Mozambique.”
[I gather than @HeidiIrisGlobal is some form of missionary in Mozambique that CY knows]
SG: “Really? Cancers healed every day? Paraplegics? Burns victims scars removed? And we never hear of it??”
CY: “I don’t know about them, not that I’ve read, but deaf hearing, and blind seeing, disabled walking.”
SG: “Really? Where’s your evidence for this?”
CY: “I’ve not been to Mozambique and documented evidence with doctors notes and medical tests. I trust what they say.”
SG: “Well, that’s hardly good enough reason for me to believe something like that.”
CY: “You can pay for my flights and I’ll get some evidence for you?”
SG: “Ha! Aren’t you suspicious that they claim daily miracles but no confirmation comes?”
CY: “Not with this. Others, like Benny Hinn, I am. I know people who’ve been with Heidi and told me healing stories.”
SG: “But if it was a daily occurrence surely there’d be some evidence. Journalists, doctors, scientists would catch on and investigate. If such things happened We’d have more evidence. So, I’m very sceptical.”
CY: “I know what you mean, but we’re talking about tiny villages in Africa not the UK.
SG: “Sure, but the world is a small place, so if this happened daily we’d have reports and investigations and evidence.”
CY: “Hmm, possibly. What do you believe about God?”
SG: “God can strike down or heal whoever he wants. My point is purely observational: people don’t seem to get healed that way.”
After changing the subject, CY didn’t respond again. Perhaps I made him think. Of course, it was rather easy to make him think: his evidence for daily miracles was entirely anecdotal. None of it was either direct or confirmed in any objective way. He just believed what someone told him. And thus the conversation ended before I got out of second gear.
CY is not atypical either. People tend to be attracted to anecdotes. Humans love stories, and if stories have elements of the extraordinary or supernatural then so much the better! However, anecdotal evidence is an incredibly flimsy basis on which to believe in miraculous healings, and I’ll explain why – hopefully helping you see how I came to my conclusion.
Lets take the example of terminal cancer. Some people who have been prayed for spontaneously get better. I’ve heard lots of anecdotes along these lines. Isn’t this proof of divine healing? Well, no. Here’s the problem: cancer specialists are well aware that spontaneous remission is simply a natural fact about cancer. It happens in a small number of cases – more so in some cancers than others – though we don’t fully understand exactly what happens. Now, I don’t think it’s far-fetched to suggest that virtually every single cancer patient receives prayer. Most people have Christians amongst their friends or families or work colleagues and I’ve personally lost count of the number of times churches ask people to pray for someone who has been diagnosed with cancer. A small number will spontaneously recover, but of course we know that a small number will spontaneously recover anyway! So the fact that Bob was prayed for and recovered doesn’t mean he recovered because he was prayed for. In fact, to claim that Bob recovered because he was prayed for would be an example of what philosophers call the “post hoc fallacy.” Just because B follows A does not mean A caused B. B could’ve happened anyway, and in the case of cancer we know it sometimes happens anyway.
Since we know that some cancers will go into spontaneous remission we cannot conclude anything from the fact that some given person experiences remission after being prayed for. That some people will get better is entirely to be expected given what we know of the natural behaviour of cancer.
Contrast cancer sufferers with amputees. In contrast to cancer, limbs growing back IS contrary to what we know about the natural function of human bodies. However, notice that this never happens. There is not a single medically confirmed case of a limb spontaneously growing back. Interestingly when we study the literature on reported cases/stories of divine healing what we find is almost always the reports are restricted to those ailments where we already know spontaneous remission can occur: cancers, back pain, improved eyesight etc. But we never find reports – or anything beyond the level of rumour – of healing for those things which run against what we know about the natural function of our bodies.
Which brings me to a second powerful point against believing in regular divine healing: confirmation bias. I’ve discovered that many people who believe in divine healings can recite a few examples of a person recovering from some disease or disorder. However, what they tend to forget are the many – vastly superior number – of occasions where the person prayed for does NOT get healed. Believers naturally remember the times when prayer has been “successful” and, forgetting all the “unsuccessful” prayers, they seem to have a tendency to think that they therefore have some powerful evidence for the efficacy of healing prayers, when in fact it’s a combination of coincidence and forgetfulness.
Suppose I told you that just yesterday I got three bulls-eyes in a row while playing darts. You might be impressed with my abilities, perhaps not willing to take me on in a £100 winner-takes-all match. However, what you don’t realise is that I’m actually terrible at darts, spending most my time getting low scores and being beaten by everyone I play. I might show you my competitive record and you are rightly unimpressed and more than willing to put £100 on the line to play me. My 3 bulls-eyes happened by chance – such flukes are to be expected from time to time – but when we take into account the total evidence then the picture changes dramatically. Those who believe in regular divine healings because of a small number of “hits” are guilty of not taking into account the total picture. The total picture shows that I’m not a great darts player. It also shows that divine healings don’t appear to happen very often at all.
Thirdly, we should also factor in the power of suggestion in healings, or what is commonly known as the “placebo effect.” In World War 2 an anaesthetist called Henry Beecher found himself without the morphine required to tend to soldiers in pain. He decided to inject the soldiers with a weak saline solution and told them that it was a powerful painkiller. The funny thing is, it worked! The same treatment was used on many others, and today the placebo effect is well-documented. An incredible number of reported healings are of the sort that are well within the scope of the placebo effect: in particular pain related conditions. We also know that the emotionally charged atmosphere of a healing crusade is a perfect arena for the placebo effect to work.
Lastly, the case for skepticism is made by many supposed faith-healers themselves. There is, alas, no shortage of frauds, fakes and conmen around. Some of these men and women gain a reputation through the telling and retelling of stories of their supposed powers. Anecdotes pass from person to person, get edited (consciously or unconsciously), dramatic details get amplified, situations and events are exaggerated (as tends to happen with any good story), and suddenly we have a powerful myth on our hands which people find believable.
And yet so many of these stories end up with a less than happy ending. For example, Peter Popoff was exposed as a fraud by James Randi. One of Popoff’s little tricks was to wheel people up on stage in wheelchairs – people who could walk – and then miraculously heal them in front of everyone. In the sort of emotionally charged context in which such displays are typically given, critical faculties are lowered, people are more open to the power of suggestion, much more easily manipulated and carried along in the whole swirling tempest of the moment. They leave and tell their friends that they saw the lame walk. They didn’t. They saw a fraud, a trick anyone could pull on their friends. It was also Popoff who told members of his audience things about themselves that he couldn’t possibly know except by divine lights. Well, either divine lights or his wife feeding him information (via a hidden earpiece) about people that she gleaned from mingling with the audience beforehand. Randi’s book “The Faith Healers” is an excellent account of the many scams in the faith-healing movement.
We could add to this the results of a number of studies that have shown that intercessory prayer for healing does not seem to produce notable results. This doesn’t prove that God does not answer prayer for healing. However, it does suggest that such prayers are rarely answered and when they are they are answered in such a way as to make it impossible to know that the healing was due to prayer. For instance, let’s say 10,000 are diagnosed with cancer today. Let’s say 45 of them will experience spontaneous remission. Now, it’s possible that in the absence of prayer only 42 would have gone into remission. Perhaps God answered the prayers in relation to three of the patients. But how could we ever know?
To conclude then, it is the combination of these factors that should make us very sceptical when encountering tales of divine healing. My charismatic friends will tell me that they know God heals and does so all the time. Regrettably, the evidence suggests otherwise. I wish it didn’t, but it does.
Stephen J Graham