Saturday, April 19, 2014

An Evening With Faith Healers

On Wednesday I'll be recording my fourth appearance on Premier Christian Radio's 'Unbelievable' show. If you like Christian and non Christian debate I recommend you check out their archive. The host, Justin Brierley, makes an excellent moderator and always ensures both sides get fair hearing.

My last two shows were on miracles. After they aired a faith healer called David contacted the host and offered to take me on an evening of healing on the streets of Dublin. I was reticent - David is based in the Middle East and if nothing else I did not want him to incur the financial expense of such a journey. I think we left it as something along the lines of 'only if you happen to be here'.

Time passed and David contacted me with dates of his planned visit to Ireland. By happy coincidence we later discovered that one of his Irish cohorts knows my brother in law. We agreed to meet, spent an evening in Dublin city centre, and got on rather well.

That was perhaps seven months ago. At the time Justin asked me if I'd like to go back on his show to discuss the experience and if I'm honest I ducked the request. I liked, indeed admired David, and his ministry didn't raise any flags normally associated with faith healers. He does not accept remuneration, does not seek fame or recognition, avoids those with obvious serious ailments lest he causes offence, and seems to genuinely brighten the days of those he encounters. I felt my choice was between arguing with a likeable fellow with heartfelt intentions or taking a very soft approach and inadvertently endorsing faith healers who have a negative impact on society.

Recently Justin asked again. David seemed game, I had a day off around the time and I thought why not. This post is as much my effort to collect my thoughts and give David fair warning of points I'll raise as anything else. Given the gap in time I'm sure our recollections will differ in places, any lapses on my part are unintentional. Given how long and unwieldy this post has become I'll only discuss the first few encounters.


The first attempt was a Trinity student and fellow atheist, his crutches and cast making him an ideal candidate. David's approach was polite, almost shy, and he explained his proposal while I stood awkwardly at safe distance. The student seemed bemused but game: David prayed. Although there was no improvement in his condition the student did seem to get a kick out of the experience and left in good humour. It's rare for any faith healer to expect a constant success rate so this did not phase the group. (The most coherent defence of this position is the belief that healing is not primarily intended to remove ailments, rather its purpose is to demonstrate God's power. On this viewpoint unsuccessful attempts are not considered evidence against healing powers.)


I have scars on my left cornea. When I was in primary school the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles inspired me to embed homemade nunchucks in my eye. Not my smartest moment. The scars don't bother me much but in the interest of science I submitted myself for healing as it is a complaint which is easily verifiable. Most of the group prayed for me. I admired their sincerity and desire to heal me of this trivial complaint, though I sensed it was more about hoping to show evidence for their beliefs. No joy.

I did feel their method may have inadvertently generated false positives in others. Jenny covered my eye with her hand, prayed with sincerity for some time, and then uncovered my eye and asked if my vision had changed. The scars still floated across my vision but my pupil had dilated in the minutes' darkness so the street did seem temporarily brighter, an effect that passed after a minute or two. It seems conceivable some could interpret this change as a sign of healing, especially when caught up in the excitement of the moment.


Leaving the atheist on Henry Street we turned to O'Connell Street and saw a group of Filipino ladies who were carrying bags indicating they were attending a Catholic conference. One was bow legged. David approached with his impeccable politeness and asked if he could pray for her healing. She accepted, said that her pain had decreased, and thanked him. They chatted. I observed (privately, to David) that her legs were quite clearly still bow legged.

I had chondromalacia patellae as a teenager. It's a Latin term, effectively meaning 'sore knees', a remarkably accurate description of my experience. The pain came, subsided, and was less noticeable when I was distracted. I can't imagine her knee problems were wildly different in that regard. I feel that either a kindly chat from a concerned stranger provided a temporary distraction from her pain, or a God who once reattached severed ears and restored withered hands chose to provide some incomplete pain relief and left the structural problem as it was.


The concept of agape (genuine concern for the well-being of one's fellow humans, often translated as love) is one that comes up often in Paul's writing and in the early Christian movement. Seeing no distinction between free and enslaved, male and female, Jew and Gentile was new, baffling and subversive in Roman society. One could fairly argue that it still is today. When David stopped to talk with some Roma gypsies begging on O'Connell Bridge I was forced to confront some of my own prejudices against their community, and admire how he saw no distinction between them and other people he met.

I imagine David will consider this encounter his strongest case for healing. One chap had a head injury which (as I recall it) caused him frequent headaches. He said that faith healers had cured it twice in the past. They fetched an acquaintance who had pains in her shoulder. David's group prayed for healing and she said she felt some improvement, and moved her arm a short distance to demonstrate.

I can be a little hesitant when many people are speaking at once, and we'd walked a few steps before I managed to voice the objection that her arm movement was quite small and not strong evidence. David was kind enough to go back and politely ask if she'd be willing to move her arm more. She obliged and swung it in a complete circle with no sign of pain.

Some are probably wondering: at no point was money offered or requested during the interaction.

Should we consider this a miracle? Well, for starters we have no idea what her range of motion was before being prayed for, or if the pain restricted her in that way. Again, pain ebbs and flows, and the distraction of a kind and interested group when one is marginalised in society can provide temporary alleviation. I feel there are reasonable naturalistic explanations of the events.


Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings - 1 Corinthians 9:9-23
Paul comes across as a man who knew his audience. He had knowledge of the Talmud when discussing with Jews and when he went to Greek cities he embraced the spirit of debate in the forum, at one point discussing  for so long that a listener succumbed to sleep and toppled three stories to the ground. Most would have called it a night at this point, but it's said Paul raised him from the dead and continued discussing till daybreak. He became Christian because of a vision, not because of scripture or philosophy, but he was willing to adapt to the frameworks used by others and recognised the frameworks they used to determine truth.

I wonder how Paul would approach skeptics? Atheist Biblical interpretation admittedly doesn't carry much weight, but I'd suspect he'd have tried to deliver his message through a scientific framework to those who seek to understand the world through that lens. I don't feel it's unfair extrapolation to say he'd have been a proponent of double blind trials.

It feels clear to me that our current method of assessing medical claims works. Those of us fortunate to have access to modern medical care live longer, healthier and more productive lives as a result, and we have robust systems to distinguish between treatments that work (for example antibiotics) and those that do not (homoeopathy leaps to mind). The evidence based medical framework is the framework I use when evaluating claims of healing regardless of the source of the claim. I feel it would be unfair to use a harsher standard for faith healing and patronising to use a lower one.

Does David's group use this framework? I think not. I felt that throughout the encounter there was a strong tendency to focus on the times where, for whatever reason, participants said they felt a measure of improvement. The 'words of wisdom' (where they felt a message directing them to a certain person with a certain ailment) seemed especially dependant on this approach - correctly identifying a gent in a pub with a sore leg required first speaking to three others, and ignoring his numerous other medical complaints. It felt little better than guesswork, and reminded me somewhat of cold reading attempts by psychics. (To labour the point I do not believe David's group intended to deceive.)

Could a homoeopath correctly guess a person's ailment, if given unlimited attempts and a large enough audience? Undoubtedly. Will there be some instances of people feeling their condition has improved having spent time with a homoeopath who has spent time with them, expressed concern for them and suggested their treatment with help? Certainly. Does this mean homoeopathy works? Science says no.

Ultimately I did not feel the group's aim was to step back and analyse the events in a cold and detached manner. Rather, I felt they were attempting to celebrate and reinforce their own faith in a God who heals today while sharing their spirit of agape with others. I had a great time with David and his group, I'd happily meet them again, but I don't feel their claims of healing have been properly put to the test.

I'll post a link to the show's podcast after it airs - it may be some time.

1 comment:

Paul HPN said...

This is my first visit to your blog. I enjoyed reading this albeit with a prediction n the results of the 'healing'. Having a long term disease myself and having had healing done on me - Evangelical Christians was my flavour- I was interested to discover how other cults do healing. No differently it seems. With a grand helping of misplaced optimism and an empty 'success sheet'.
Thank you for sharing your experience.
I should mention that I still have the disease, in case you were wondering if my healing had worked!
the podcast link, so that you can easily copy it into your post, is: