Let’s say you’re sick. Could be anything: heart attack, broken leg, serious infection. Chances are, you want your doctor to prescribe a medical solution to your problem, like a prescription for antibiotics or a lifesaving surgery. But instead of or in addition to medicine, some people may employ the healing properties of religion through a practice called faith healing.
A person with heart disease may have a relative or friend that prays she recovers, or family members that ask people on Facebook to pray for her. Or instead of resorting to general prayer to help with her heart disease, she might visit a faith healer, a religious leader who claims to have powers granted by a deity that allow him to miraculously heal sick people. It’s possible she’s visited a faith healer because the medical procedures didn’t work, or she can’t afford them. When the healer places a hand on her head, she swoons and feels like she’s being lifted and the sickness is draining from her body. Even if her illness is terminal, she doesn’t have to worry — the faith healer claims to have brought people back from the dead.
Faith healing has deep cultural roots all over the world. The basic idea behind it is that the supernatural power of a divine being can cure health problems as well as or better than medical science. Faith healing is thousands of years old, comes in many forms and has even been studied by scientists.
What do faith healers claim to do?
One type of faith healing, known as intercessory prayer, is simple. The idea is that the prayers of the patient, and those of the patient’s friends and family or of total strangers, can positively affect the outcome of an illness, injury or disease. Sometimes the prayers appear to inspire an outright miracle, like a patient with advanced cancer suddenly going into remission. Sometimes the supposed effect is subtler, like a patient with a spinal injury regaining the ability to walk, or a commonplace operation going smoothly.
The other kind of faith healing, where a single charismatic preacher claims to have the divine power to cure disease and heal injuries, is a bit more complex. These faith healers maintain that they have a variety of supernatural powers. Some, like the evangelical preacher Todd Bentley and late evangelist Kathryn Kuhlman, perform by laying their hands on their followers, and thousands of people attend their services. They may charge a fee or ask for donations to attend an event and have a chance to be healed. Other faith healers claim the ability to heal at a distance or without personally meeting the followers who come to them for healing. John Alexander Dowie, for instance, set up healing ministries in San Francisco and Chicago in the 1890s and early 1900s, offering to pray for the healing of anyone who offered a sufficient tithe to his church.
The types of healing available from faith healers also range from more modest cures to seemingly miraculous recoveries. Eyewitnesses have recounted seemingly impossible feats of healing, like when a man missing an arm regrew it in front of a crowd. Multiple faith healers, including Benson Idahosa and Frank Sandford, have claimed they can “heal” death and bring a deceased person back to life. A few faith healers, such as Dowie and Rua Kenana Hepetipa, even claim to be Jesus Christ or some other divine being.
While faith healers differ in their specific methods, many of their services revolve around building energy in the crowd, which the healer may refer to as the Holy Spirit, faith energy or some other supernatural force. This excitement can be created with a high-energy sermon, musical performances or chanting and dancing. In the 1920s, faith healer Aimee Semple McPherson was one of the first preachers to hold highly produced religious services with all the drama and excitement of a stage show. Among her show props were giant ships, Trojan horses and a motorcycle. Healers who lay their hands-on people frequently incorporate a push or even a physical blow that seemingly causes the person to collapse, faint or simply fall down.
There are complex cultural reasons that so many people believe faith healers really can heal the sick, and they depend partly on the type of religion one believes in.
Why do people believe in faith healing?
If you watch video of a faith healer’s sermon, you could see people chanting, singing and dancing, and you’ll hear the preacher shouting with great conviction. There can be profound emotional outbursts, and when the healer lays his hands on a person, the person often falls or faints.
Belief in faith healing is so powerful in part because, before the development of rigorously tested medical science in the 19th and 20th centuries, faith and medicine overlapped much more than they do today. The ancient Greeks, for instance, venerated Asclepius (the god of medicine) and visited a place called an Asclepeion that functioned as a combination hospital, mental health facility and religious shrine. Hierophants, or priests, were also sometimes physicians, and they tended to the sick with both religious rituals and the rudimentary medical knowledge of the day.
The modern form of faith healing began in the 19th century and exploded in popularity in the early 20th century, with interest spiking every few decades since. This type of faith healing grew popular largely because of Charismatic Christianity. The word “charismatic” in this case does not refer to the personal charisma of the preachers. In a charismatic religion, adherents experience the power of their chosen deity directly in their daily lives — in other words, they believe that God chooses to interact with humans every day, creating frequent miraculous events.
Pentecostalism is the earliest modern form of Charismatic Christianity. Pentecostal churches sprang up in the early 20th century, and their ideas about faith healing and other direct religious experiences gradually made their way into more mainstream Christian sects, like other Protestant churches and even the Catholic Church. Charismatic Christianity surged in popularity in the U.S. again in the 1960s through the Charismatic movement, and has also flourished in sub-Saharan Africa.
The direct supernatural interventions of charismatic religion can take many forms — including followers speaking in tongues (known as glossolalia), believing they literally hear the words of God and claiming to see other direct signs of God’s will — but two forms are especially popular: being miraculously healed and gaining access to material wealth. There is a great deal of overlap between churches that preach a doctrine of faith healing and those that preach abundance or prosperity gospel — that is, the idea that truly faithful people will become wealthy.
Some Christian sects, notably Christian Science, believe that medical science is either sinful or not useful. (Christian Science rejects medicine because it is part of the illusory material world, and only the spiritual world is real.) Rather than relying on faith healing in addition to medical science or as a last resort, these sects rely on faith healing practices to the exclusion of medical treatments.
But people don’t pursue faith healing only for deeply religious and cultural reasons. People who are severely ill eventually run out of medical options, and in desperation turn to nonmedical possibilities. Faith healing is just one form of nonmedical treatment that appears to offer desperately sick people some hope of a good outcome.
The claims of faith healers do seem impractical, and skeptics have challenged them many times. Quite a few healers have evens been caught perpetrating outright fraud.
IS IT ILLEGAL TO REFUSE MEDICAL TREATMENT IN FAVOR OF FAITH HEALING?
In the United States, legal doctrine gives mentally sound adults full authority in deciding what can and can’t be done to them medically, with rare exceptions (like when an unconscious person needs critical, lifesaving treatment, or a patient presents a serious risk to public health). If the patient is not a competent adult, the legal question gets more complicated. In dozens of cases in the U.S., parents with Christian Science beliefs have refused treatment for their children, resulting in negative medical outcomes, including death.
Almost every state has some kind of civil or criminal religious exemption from medical neglect, and nine states have religious exemptions from negligent homicide and manslaughter of children. This makes prosecution of parents who let their children die due to their religious beliefs nearly impossible — the few cases of successful conviction have happened when parents have allowed multiple children to die this way. State legislatures continue to struggle to balance religious freedom with the needs of public health.
What do skeptics say about faith healing?
Skeptics note that faith healers’ performances are often carefully scripted to build excitement in the crowd, and that healers use techniques borrowed from stage hypnotists and other faith healers. Much of what the people at these sermons feel stems from their expectations and their openness to believing that some kind of spiritual energy is affecting them. They may faint because they’ve seen others faint (and some preachers actually slap or push people to make sure they fall). What skeptics see as a sort of group hysteria, believers feel is the hand of God.
Skeptics and investigative reporters have looked into the claims of faith healers, and in many cases have found concrete evidence of blatant fraud. Perhaps the most infamous is Peter Popoff, who made millions of dollars in the 1980s healing people and demonstrating his seemingly mystical knowledge of their names and ailments. Skeptic James Randi and a team of investigators used a radio scanner to intercept radio transmissions from Popoff’s wife, revealing she was simply reading information from prayer cards people had filled out prior to the show, and Popoff was listening to her through an earpiece. Despite being exposed by Randi on “The Johnny Carson Show,” Popoff continues to sell holy water and divine debt removal services on TV.
Another faith healer exposed for fraudulent practices is Benny Hinn, who would call out various ailments he could supposedly heal to a large audience, then invite those who felt he had healed them to the stage to give testimony of their miracle. No one with a visible disease or injury would approach the stage, since it would be obvious that no actual healing had occurred. Those who felt they had been healed had likely come to Hinn’s events with powerful expectations that they would be part of a miracle, and may have experienced temporary relief from symptoms. However, investigators who followed up on several cases of people who claimed Hinn healed them found no evidence that any actual healing occurred. Any regression or healing of illness in these adherents can often be explained by spontaneous remission, misdiagnosis or the potent effects of suggestion.
Some healers use other methods of fakery, such as paying an accomplice to pretend to be ill then experience a sudden cure. One of the most spectacular techniques is psychic surgery. When performing psychic surgery, healers, calling upon divinity, will either pretend to make an incision (that will shortly be magically healed) or make a show of pressing their fingers directly into the flesh of the patient. They carefully hide the entry point with their hands or a towel, the way a stage magician might hide a sleight-of-hand trick. Unidentifiable tissue, which is generally animal blood and organs from a butcher shop, is pulled from what appears to be a wound, usually with theatrical proclamations of pulling out the cancer or the demons. James Randi has documented and debunked this particularly insidious form of fraud. There is no actual wound, and the entire process is a stage trick.
Skeptics also describe the harmful effects of fraudulent faith healing. People who donate money to a fake healer are being bilked and might suffer some financial hardship as a result. But some people who feel as though they’ve been cured even though they haven’t will stop getting legitimate medical care, worsening their conditions and in some cases hastening their deaths. Investigators who followed up on some of Popoff and Hinn’s victims found multiple cases of people who had foregone medical care because they received a holy cure instead.
Also, the tenets of faith healing and abundance ministries put the burden of their own failures on their followers, tying financial success and healing outcomes to adherents’ intensity of faith. As a result, people who are poor or who do not experience healing feel as though they are at fault for their lack of faith. An idea similar to “if you’re sick or poor you’re just not praying hard enough” shows up in the popular Law of Attraction concept, which suggests that people get positive outcomes in situations by simply thinking about positive things.
Skeptics don’t have the final word on faith healing, however. Scientists have taken a hard look at the effect of prayer on illness as well.
What does science say about faith healing?
While skeptics have taken on individual faith healers, scientists have conducted research on the effects of prayer on health. Numerous studies and meta-analyses have been done, but their results raise more questions than answers. In general, a few studies have shown small positive effects from prayer; most studies do not show any effects from prayer; and a few studies even found that prayer worsened the subjects’ medical outcomes.
A study on intercessory prayer is usually constructed like this: A population of patients with similar medical problems is divided into two groups. Strangers from a church pray for one group and don’t pray for the other. After a certain amount of time, the researchers measure how the prayer group is faring as compared to the nonprayer group.
Research has been conducted on AIDS patients, people with blood infection and people recovering from coronary artery bypass graft surgery, among many other types of illness. The coronary bypass study is notable because it divided patients into three groups: no prayers given but the patients didn’t know whether they were receiving prayers, prayers given but the patients didn’t know whether they were receiving prayers, and prayers given that the patients were aware of. The patients who were prayed for and knew it suffered a higher rate of complications following the surgery than the other groups. The researchers supposed that the knowledge of extra spiritual care may have either made them worry that their condition was severe (why else would they need prayers?), or that it put pressure on them to respond to the prayers, causing anxiety, which is known to be detrimental to health.
The real problem with studying intercessory prayer becomes clear when you look closely at the methods of the studies. Some suffer from common issues with statistical studies: small sample sizes, unclear measurement of health outcomes and the sharpshooter effect (in which so many possible outcomes are considered that it’s inevitable the researchers will find a result among them, like drawing the bull’s-eye around the bullet holes after you’ve already fired).
Can scientists truly study faith healing?
Scientifically measuring a supernatural process is essentially impossible. What counts as a prayer? Should the praying people meet the patients, or is it sufficient that they know the patients’ names? Or maybe they should see photographs of the patients. Do they need to pray for a specific outcome? The cardiac study asked the praying people to include a specific phrase: “for a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications”. Is it possible (and ethical) to prevent the friends and family of the patients from praying for them, which could affect the results of the study? Does it matter what religion or denomination the prayers are given in?
In 2001, the British Medical Journal published a satirical study on “retroactive intercessory prayer” that showed positive results on the outcomes of patients in the past. In other words, prayer was powerful enough to effectively time travel backward and affect patient health. The study was intended as a critique to point out the logical impossibility of scientifically testing the effect of prayer, but proponents of faith healing continue to cite the study’s results as evidence of its efficacy.
There are plenty of anecdotes about people experiencing seemingly miraculous cures after being prayed for. Anecdotes, of course, don’t offer conclusive evidence and can’t be reliably studied. People do get better, sometimes unexpectedly and from serious illnesses, and someone who has religious beliefs is likely to make a connection.
It is possible that some of the benefit from prayer is due to the placebo effect — when fake treatments that appear real have actual positive effects for a patient — which often has overestimated effects, but is real. It’s also possible that, contrary to the coronary study’s results, people praying for someone can bring them comfort, reducing anxiety, stress and the medical complications prolonged stress can cause. And just like with individual faith healers, patients can temporarily feel better, convinced that the power of prayer has healed them. Anecdotes about prayer healing rarely mention follow-ups to see if the patient had truly and permanently recovered.
But in the end, the statistical evidence is inconclusive. Prayers will not hurt you (unless you’re a cardiac patient and you know people are praying for you, apparently), but for medical problems your first stop should be a medical doctor.