Archive | 5:51 am

Faith healing

14 Jul

An old college acquaintance of mine recently announced that a friend of hers had been cured of cancer for the fifth time. While I wholeheartedly agree that this is wonderful and amazing news, I disagree that it was her friend’s faith in Jesus that cured her.

Now I do not have all the facts about the event, but this is what I can gather from my friend’s facebook note:

  • The woman in question has had cancer four times in the past
  • The cancer she just recovered from was somehow different from her previous cancers
  • The doctors and the woman in question disagreed on how to treat the cancer
  • The woman decided to try praying for a cure
  • Four hours after being declared “healed” by fellow religious members, the doctors reported her cancer had stopped growing

The note does not mention what type of cancer she had, what her previous cancers had been, whether the cancer was malignant or benign, and what time the tests were done that told the doctors the cancer had stopped growing.

Firstly, the note only mentions that the cancer stopped growing. While this is great, it is not the same thing as “healed”. “Healed” would be if the cancer was gone entirely. Secondly, it would be nice to know what time the tests were conducted, and how long it took for the results to come back. If, for example, the tests were done at 10 am, she was declared “healed” at 12, and the results came back at 4 pm, the cancer had stopped growing at least 2 hours before the “healing” took place.

Thirdly, did the woman in question attribute her four previous recoveries to faith healing? If so, why does she keep getting cancer? One would assume it only takes god once to get the job done. Also, is it possible that her previous experiences with cancer left her body better prepared to fight a new cancer?

I would also like to know how this fifth cancer was different. Was it weaker than her previous four cancers or stronger? Is this rare cancer usually fatal or does it have a history of getting better on its own?

Most importantly, can the doctors explain why she got better? (The note makes no mention of this) Let’s assume that the doctors can’t explain why the cancer stopped growing. The fact that it can’t be explained in no way supports the claim that supernatural powers are at work. The unexplained is just that, unexplained. To claim that because you can’t explain something, supernatural powers are at work is actually a contradiction. You are saying “I can’t explain something, therefore I can explain it.”

When you label and event supernatural simply because it has no explanation that is obvious to you, you’ll inevitably misinterpret evidence, make invalid causal connections, and eliminate whole realms of alternative explanations before it is even clear what explanations might be appropriate.

It is important to note that similar claims of faith healing have been made by adherents of a variety of different mutually exclusive religions throughout history. The fact that the patient’s cancer stopped growing is no more evidence that Jesus healed her than an ancient Egyptian’s claim that Ra healed him.

When judging the effectiveness of something, it is important to record the “misses” as much as the “hits.” Well meaning people often make the mistake of only paying attention to the data that supports their preconceived notions.

According to the National Cancer Institute, it is estimated that 1,479,350 men and women (766,130 men and 713,220 women) will be diagnosed with and 562,340 men and women will die of cancer of all sites in 2009.

According to the Barna Group, which has been measuring the size of the evangelical public since 1994, 38% of the US population describes themselves as “evangelical christians”.

For the sake of the argument, if we overlay the 38% over the 1,479,350 we come out with 562,153. That is roughly the number of evangelical christians who will get cancer.  Of that 562,153, around 213,689 will die. That’s approximately a 40% failure rate.

In 2006 the Templeton Foundation, a religious organization that aims to affirm faith through science, published the report of a decade long experiment aimed at studying the effectiveness of prayer when it comes to healing the sick. Unfortunately for the Templeton Foundation, the study found that prayers had no effect. In fact, just the opposite:

“patients who knew they were being prayed for had a higher rate of post-operative complications like abnormal heart rhythms, perhaps because of the expectations the prayers created, the researchers suggested.”

One last thing to consider. The note my friend published did not mention the age of the woman in question. I’m assuming she is around the same age of my friend, and thus over 18. “Faith healing” can have a very dark side, especially if the person undergoing the “healing” is of an age where they cannot make rational adult decisions about their health.

“Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty” (CHILD) is a children’s advocacy group that monitors the religious based medical neglect and abuse of children in the United States.

For the years 1975-1995, CHILD documented 172 instances of children in the U.S. dying from treatable illnesses after their parents rejected standard medical care and relied solely on religion. CHILD’s president, Rita Swan, says the actual number is far higher.

The courts have consistently ruled that parents do not have a constitutional right to harm children. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects religious freedom, but does not confer a right to abuse or neglect children. The leading case is Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158 (1944), in which the U. S. Supreme Court ruled, “The right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community or child to communicable disease, or the latter to ill health or death. . . . Parents may be free to become martyrs themselves. But it does not follow they are free, in identical circumstances, to make martyrs of their children before they have reached the age of full and legal discretion when they can make that choice for themselves.”

Nevertheless, state and federal governments have created many religious exemptions allowing parents to withhold some medical care from children, almost entirely because of Christian Science lobbying.