(Investigator 138, 2011 May)

The most acclaimed beneficial aspects of paranormalism are the cures effected by faith healers. Thousands testify that faith healing works and that it is a great source of hope for those who would otherwise have none.

Faith healing is usually performed in the absence of any medical training or skills and while the techniques and methods vary slightly, generally speaking it simply involves the touching or laying on of hands by the practitioner, coupled with faith in that practitioner by the person seeking help.

The Bible features many who have effected miraculous cures. Christ restored the ear of Malchus after it had been severed by one of the disciples; he healed a centurion's servant of palsy and a woman who had "a flow of blood for twelve years." The disciples also effected cures and many Roman Catholic saints have been renowned for their healing powers both while living and after their death. Often miraculous cures are attributed to statues and specific places.

In recent times Britain's best known faith healer was the late Harry Edwards, (1893-1976), who, since he began healing in the 1930s, claimed to have cured tens of thousands of people, most of them believed to have been "incurable". Although his first healing took place in north-west Persia (now Iran) while serving with the Royal Sussex Regiment in World War I, it was not until he attended a Spiritualist Church in London in 1934, that he was told that there were spirit guides who wished to co-operate with him and that he had undoubted powers of healing.

Those spirit guides were none other than Lord Lister, the founder of antiseptic surgery and Louis Pasteur, the great French scientist.

Like Edgar Cayce, Harry Edwards could also effect cures without actually being in the presence of the patient. One remarkable case was of a man desperately ill in hospital dying from tuberculosis, pleurisy and hemorrhages. In his book, Thirty Years a Spiritual Healer, Harry Edwards tells what happened.
"We sat quietly in meditation, employing our thoughts for his recovery. As I did this, with my eyes closed, I became aware that I was looking down a long hospital ward with my attention focused on a man in the last bed by one. A week later he received news that the doctors at the hospital were amazed at the sudden and remarkable recovery that the patient had made, three weeks later he was discharged and within a few months was able to take up full employment again."
What credence can be had in these tales of miraculous cures? Undoubtedly, Lourdes would be the first to spring to mind if you were asked to name a famous healing shrine. To this alleged miraculous spring in the department of Hautes Pyrenees in the old French province of Bigorre, an estimated two million visitors come each year, many of them in the hope that they will find a cure for what ails them. Yet of the tens of thousands of cures claimed since 1858, when Marie Bernarde Soubirous (canonized in 1933 as St Bernadette) first wandered into the grotto and had her vision of the Virgin Mary, very few cures have been accepted officially as miraculous by the Roman Catholic Church. Unsubstantiated and anecdotal testimony abounds however.

As a commercial enterprise, there is little doubt that the four annual pilgrimages to Lourdes are the mainstay of its 400 hotels (one per forty permanent residents), and the 450 souvenir shops dispensing vials of "miracle" water. Chemical analysis of the water however, shows it to be lacking in any special mineral or trace element; it is simply plain spring water.

Where it has been possible to investigate claims of cures it has been found that essential laboratory tests have not been carried out and that "certified" cures were unscientific and totally unconvincing. The cures fall into the general pattern of "faith healing" and there is no evidence to suggest that they are in any way of a supernatural nature. It's worth noting too, that the papacy have not displayed much faith in the prospect of a miraculous cure at Lourdes. On his death bed, Pope Pius XI was attended by medical specialists flown in from the USA, and neither he, Pius XII or John ("The Good") XXIII sought to prolong their terrestrial stay by imbibing the miraculous waters of Lourdes. Even Bernadette herself who suffered through several long illnesses died at the early age of thirty-five.

There is little doubt that sometimes cures are seemingly the result of inexplicable, irrational and often bizarre practices, ranging from the laying on of hands to the re-aligning of the body's chakras with the application of crystals or magnets. Unfortunately, the efficacy of these therapies are seldom subject to critical analysis; the successes are touted enthusiastically, the failures are never mentioned.

James Randi, a foundation member of the American Skeptics' group, CSICOP, has spent much of his life investigating the claims of miracle cures by faith healers of all denominations and his book, The Faith Healers, is a hard hitting expose of the widespread fraudulent practices common to the genre. One I will briefly mention here, is the Reverend Peter Popoff, whose faith healing and allegedly miraculous cures were regularly televised in the USA, until unknown to Popoff and his wife Elizabeth, a team of electronic surveillance experts began a series of surreptitious recordings designed to expose how the evangelist was able to recite details about audience members and their afflictions without apparent prior knowledge of that person.

Popoff, like many faith healers, calls out the names and illnesses of people at his crusades, then "lays hands" on them and prays for their healing. The impression given is that the information comes from a divine source. The sceptics however, found that the source of the information was Popoff's wife and her aides who interviewed members of the audience as they came in and relayed the information to her husband on the stage by radio, through an earpiece similar to a hearing aid.

The blatant appeals for large amounts of money by some of the best known faith healers, Oral Roberts and his son Richard, Kathryn Kuhlman, Ernest Angley and the recently discredited Jimmy Swaggart and Jimmy Bakker, are living testimony to the megabuck industry that passes as religious faith.

What of those who claim to have been cured and what harm has been done if what they choose to believe is only a figment of their imagination?

First it must be understood that many illnesses are psychosomatic, that is, an imaginary complaint (albeit sometimes evident in physically manifested symptoms), which will respond in the right environment to a suggestion by another person.

Secondly, there is the self-limiting aspect of many illnesses which will come and go of their own accord with or without treatment. And thirdly, the placebo effect whereby a person will respond positively to any palliative, no matter how lacking in medicinal compounds it may be. The power of suggestion is relevant to both orthodox and unorthodox healing and although the basic mechanism of hypnotism still provokes argument, it has become more and more acceptable over the years. The concept of "role playing" too, plays a large part in faith healing, where the sufferer will endeavour to fulfill the role indicated by the healer — throwaway your crutches and walk, for example.

For a short time they may be able to comply because it is expected of them. But if it works, why knock it? Well, it all depends. If the problem falls in the above categories and the treatment, no matter how scientifically or medically inefficacious it may be, leads to an improvement in the emotional state of the sufferer and makes life easier, then the only quarrel I would have with it is that it abrogates the personal responsibility of an individual to cultivate faith in themselves and to reason out the cause and solve their own problems. In other words, it makes one vulnerable in more serious situations. Take for example the case cited by Dr William A. Nolen, in his book, Healing: A Doctor in Search of a Miracle:
"A fifty year old woman suffering from a stomach cancer which had metastasized her liver and confined her to a wheelchair, attends a faith healing session conducted by Kathryn Kuhlman. She is told by the faith healer that a miracle is occurring and that she should take off her back brace and run back and forth across the stage several times, this she does and walks back to her wheelchair waving her brace while the audience cheered and Kathryn Kuhlman gave thanks to the Lord. At four o'clock next morning the woman woke suffering from chronic back pain, X-rays revealed that a weakened vertebra had collapsed due to the strain put on it and she died two months later of the cancer which Kathryn Kuhlman had allegedly cured."
What really happened? The body has its own physiological and biochemical systems for dealing with pain by releasing endorphins in the time of stress. These endogenous substances are naturally occurring analogues of pain limiting drugs such as morphine and heroin, thus in a stressful event such as a high level of excitement, no pain was felt by the woman due to the release of a natural analgesic, but when it was no longer present the pain returned much magnified by the damage that had been done.

The claim is often made by those cured after turning to faith healers that the medical profession had given up on them. They produce medical records to show that they were in fact suffering from an incurable disease prior to the cure. Evidence suggests however, that many such cases are likely to be instances of wrong diagnosis, wrong prognosis, remission or spontaneous cure. A further consideration when dealing with the testimonies of those allegedly cured by faith healers or paranormal practices, is the understanding of the nature of disease itself. Disease and even terminal illnesses are subject to variability, that is, the severity of the symptoms and how the patient feels varies from day to day, week to week and month to month.

As treatment is more likely to be sought when the patient is feeling especially down, no matter what the treatment, orthodox, unorthodox, occult or religious, the odds are that they will improve, giving the credit to the healer.

In a booklet entitled Divine Healing and Co-operation between Doctors and Clergy, a medical committee set up in 1956 to assist an enquiry by the Archbishops' Commission, concluded that they could find no evidence that there is any type of illness cured by 'spiritual healing' alone which could not have been cured by medical treatment, and no evidence that organic disease is cured by the various methods of "spiritual healing."


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From: Harry, E. A Skeptic’s Guide to the New Age, Australian Skeptics Inc.