Faith healing is based on belief and is about as far as you can get from science-based medicine, but it is not exempt from science. If it really worked, science would be able to document its cures and would be the only reliable way to validate its effectiveness. Miraculous cures continue to be reported on a regular basis: what are we to make of them? In the Healing Rooms Ministry of Bethel Church in Redding, California, people regularly claim to be healed of cancer, broken bones, multiple sclerosis and many other ailments. Page after page of testimonials of cures are listed on their website. Are these cures real? If not, what is going on?

Amanda Winters, a journalist doing a series of articles on Bethel Church, interviewed me for a scientific view of these faith healings. She asked me some very incisive questions and understood my answers. She wrote what I thought was a balanced article, quoting me fairly and at more length than reporters usually allow.

Her article features a patient who believed his flat feet would be healed (bones would crack and form an arch). Healers poked him, blew a shofar at his feet, and covered him with a blanket when he collapsed on the floor. When he got up, his feet were unchanged. But

his faith was not shaken, he said, because he felt so loved and maybe the physical healing was secondary to the spiritual experience he had.

Multiple sclerosis healed

One impressive testimonial was of a woman who had had multiple sclerosis for 30 years and whose symptoms and impairments apparently vanished during a healing session. The reporter asked me what I thought of the situation and the testimony. What medical, scientific explanations could there be for the perceived healing?

In the first place, stories like these are notoriously unreliable. They are layman’s testimonials that amount to nothing but hearsay. How can we know they were not invented, exaggerated, misunderstood, or otherwise misrepresented? They fall far short of the kind of case reports that are published in medical journals with x-ray, lab and other documentation and the opportunity for peer review.

In the second place, multiple sclerosis is a notorious quack magnet because its symptoms come and go erratically. It is a disease with a wide variety of symptoms. It is characterized by remissions and exacerbations: to make the diagnosis you have to show that the symptoms go away and come back over time. It is very difficult to tell if any treatment has “worked” or if the disease was simply following its natural course and happened to be improving on its own at that time. We don’t have any objective report from a doctor about this patient’s condition before and after the “healing” episode. Some of the improvement could have been because she was trying harder: muscle strength is particularly effort-dependent. We don’t know what happened after the “healing” or how long the improvement lasted.

There are many, many similar reports where follow-up found the patients still just as sick or worse off. Patients who “get up and walk” may not be healed. In one unfortunate case a woman was encouraged to get up out of her wheelchair and discard her braces at church. The faith healer proclaimed her “healed.” Unfortunately her cancer of the spine had weakened her bones, and the activity caused bones in her spine to collapse; she died not long after. The faith healing hastened her death and caused her unnecessary agony. For the faith healer and the witnesses at church and for the patient herself that day, it appeared to be a miraculous healing: they couldn’t have been more wrong! Incidentally, many of the faith healing patients who get up out of a wheelchair and walk had actually walked into church and had been offered wheelchairs they didn’t really need.

Cancer cures

The reporter asked me about a woman with brain cancer who was healed and a subsequent doctor’s visit showed the brain cancer was gone. Are there cases of cancer where it simply goes away?

There are cases of spontaneous remission but they are rare. There are other explanations that are more likely. Many “cancer cure” claims involve cases that were never proven to be cancer by biopsy. This story is particularly unbelievable because the “healing” supposedly relieved her tunnel vision and then produced a discharge from the ear. The vision and ear parts of the brain are in different locations — where was her tumor supposed to be? One report I saw on the website (not sure if it was the same patient) reported that the size of the tumor had decreased but it had not gone away. Release of liquid and a lesion that became smaller sounds more like some kind of cyst or abscess might have spontaneously drained. Where are the medical reports? Where are the x-rays? Why was this case not written up in a medical journal? What happened to the patient afterwards? There are too many unanswered questions for anyone to even make an educated guess.

Many years ago the Journal of the American Medical Association used to have a regular feature where there would be a testimonial on one page describing how a patient was cured of cancer. On the opposite page, they would print the patient’s death certificate showing that he had died of that cancer shortly after providing the testimonial.

The explanations for most alleged cancer cures are:

  1. The patient never had cancer. (Was a biopsy done?)
  2. A cancer was cured or put into remission by proven therapy, but questionable therapy was also used and erroneously credited for the beneficial result.
  3. The cancer is progressing but is erroneously represented as slowed or cured.
  4. The patient has died as a result of the cancer (or is lost to follow-up) but is represented as cured.
  5. The patient had a spontaneous remission (very rare) or slow-growing cancer that is publicized as a cure.

Raising the dead?

Bethel even reports resurrections: one patient began to move shortly after she was declared dead, and she made a full recovery. This is uncritically accepted as a triumph of prayer and faith healing, without even considering other possible explanations. Which is more likely: that the doctor who declared her dead made a mistake or that a dead person returned to life? I know which I would bet on.

One of their students has formed a Dead Raising Team that is attempting to help the police in Mason County, Washington in cases of accident or fatality. The manager of the county Department of Emergency Management reports there have been no resurrections so far.

Bethel is part of a larger movement known as the Word of Faith movement, which teaches that faith is a force through which anything can be done. They believe they can train people in the supernatural ministry and they can go out and heal people and raise the dead. Other Christian denominations condemn this as a false teaching, because in the Bible healing ability was limited to Jesus and the apostles.

Their questionable claims are not limited to healing. They say angel feathers have floated down into their church. Ornithologists identified these as common bird feathers. They say diamonds and gold dust have also mysteriously appeared.

The evidence for faith healing

There are lots of reports describing the emperor’s new clothes, but investigations consistently show he is naked. There is a good review of faith healing on Quackwatch. When faith healings have been diligently investigated by qualified doctors, they have found no evidence that the patients were actually helped in any objective sense. Even at Lourdes, the Catholic Church has only recognized 4 cures since 1978, out of 5 million people who seek healing there every year.

There simply is no evidence that faith healing heals. Not what science considers evidence. And the true believers don’t value evidence or the scientific method: for them, belief is enough.

The psychology of belief

Winters asked about healers who “feel someone else’s pain” and are led to a patient because God tells them words like “baby” and “blue” and “foot” and they use those correlations to find a baby with a foot problem and some association with the color blue who needs healing. What could cause someone to feel a pain they believe isn’t theirs? Are there neurological reasons why someone could think they hear prophetic words that are from God?

People have wonderful imaginations, and they are great at finding patterns, real and unreal. They can find ways to connect words to a patient, just as they can see the Virgin Mary on a toasted cheese sandwich, just as numerologists can find imaginary connections everywhere. People can convince themselves of almost anything if they want to believe. There are neurologic conditions that make people hyper-religious. Temporal lobe epilepsy can present as a religious experience. Experiments with magnets have created religious-like experiences of a higher presence. And hallucinations are not uncommon even in normal people. According to one study, 39% of people report having experienced hallucinations when they were neither sick nor on drugs. There are even mass hallucinations where one or a few people insist they are seeing something that is not there and they get a whole group of people to believe they can see it too.

These faith healings are never documented properly or investigated, because the people involved want to believe, need to believe. If you challenge the pastor to participate in a formal study to establish that these healings are really occurring, you will get lots of rationalizations and backpedalling with no understanding of how science can go about testing for the truth of a claim. They have no interest in finding out if the healing is “real” because they already “know” it is real for them. (Winters’ article confirmed my prediction: she says the pastor “doesn’t feel he needs to provide any documentation or hard evidence to inquiring minds. He also said he doesn’t check up on people who come to Bethel for healing – he doesn’t have the time.”) Some people who have had recurrences of cancer after faith healing have continued to claim that they were “healed” in some nebulous psychological or spiritual sense even though they know they are dying.

For more insight into the psychology behind faith healing, see this article from the Skeptic’s Dictionary.

Faith healers run the gamut from cynical con artists to well-intentioned but self-deluded true believers, with some in the middle who know they are cheating but whose exposure to grateful patients allows them to convince themselves there is something happening beyond the con. “Healing” may not mean objective cure of physical disease; it may mean a subjective feeling of wellbeing or a coming to terms with a disease.

Faith healing can comfort, but it can also cause suffering if patients believe a failure to heal was their fault due to insufficient faith. It can be deadly when patients are led to believe they don’t need conventional medical treatment.

Posted by Harriet Hall

Harriet Hall, MD also known as The SkepDoc, is a retired family physician who writes about pseudoscience and questionable medical practices. She received her BA and MD from the University of Washington, did her internship in the Air Force (the second female ever to do so),  and was the first female graduate of the Air Force family practice residency at Eglin Air Force Base. During a long career as an Air Force physician, she held various positions from flight surgeon to DBMS (Director of Base Medical Services) and did everything from delivering babies to taking the controls of a B-52. She retired with the rank of Colonel.  In 2008 she published her memoirs, Women Aren't Supposed to Fly.