According to the dictionary, faith healing is the belief that religious faith can bring about healing—either through prayers or rituals that, according to adherents, evoke a divine presence and power toward correcting disease or disability. It can involve prayer, a visit to a shrine, or simply a strong belief in a supreme being. Although found in many religions, it is perhaps best known in connection with Christianity and the New Testament. Spiritual healing, however, makes no attempt to seek divine intervention, relying more on alternative medicine, sometimes combined with a distrust of or lack of confidence in standard medical care.
The placebo effect (the influence of the brain on physical symptoms) allows faith healing to gain traction in the general community, especially when reinforced by the dynamic personalities of religious leaders or cultists who perform the laying on of hands. This provides the important physical element which enhances the power of the placebo effect. The physical contact between the healer and the sufferer in a group setting provides a powerful psychological incentive for the latter to show an immediate salutary response. The need to acknowledge immediate improvement or cure is further supported by the social pressure to avoid the embarrassment that would accompany the denial of any response. Of course, audiences cannot fail to be impressed by such dramatic responses, a factor that likely entices future recruits.
Although many such leaders are undoubtedly sincerely motivated to aid the sick and disabled, the elements of financial greed and fame are frequently inextricably associated. Stemming from obvious desperation, individuals suffering from the most severe and dread diseases such as cancer, are especially vulnerable to the superficial appeal of such claims. The American Cancer Society (ACS) notes that, although a small percentage of people with cancer have been known to experience remissions unexplained by the scientific community, “available scientific evidence does not support claims that faith healing can actually cure physical ailments. Death, disability, and other unwanted outcomes have occurred when faith healing was elected instead of medical care for serious injuries or illnesses.”
The best and most accurate analysis of faith healing I have encountered can be found in William Nolen’s book, titled “Healing: A Doctor in Search of a Miracle.” Dr. Nolen, a busy surgeon, expended enormous time and effort to detect evidence of physical healing that was accomplished by faith healers, religious or otherwise. His effort offers a rare and objective vignette into an obscure world.
Surprisingly, Nolen approaches the subject with an open mind, and goes to great lengths to interview several such healers, observe the procedures, and follow up on the results with recipients when possible. He concluded that such healers were either charlatans or religious zealots believing they were endowed with supernatural powers. The degree to which monetary reward influenced their ministrations was beyond the scope of his investigation, but it must have been significant.
First, he notes that in the case of organic diseases, such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, deforming arthritis, strokes, and other forms of paralysis, there is no evidence that any cures have ever occurred. All of us in medical practice are aware of an occasional, but rare, case of cancer that goes into spontaneous remission or even disappears totally in the absence of treatment, but Nolen was unable to document any such examples that could have been attributed to healers. Conversely, he encountered many cases of functional, or psychosomatic, conditions that did show improvement, including tension-type or migraine headaches, irritable colon syndrome, back pain without of physical deformity, and others. These examples would be amenable to standard medical care, especially in an understanding and caring environment. Unfortunately, most physicians have inadequate time or inclination to devote adequate resources to these types of problems.
Finally, Nolen discusses conditions that have both physical and functional components, such as some forms of arthritis, duodenal ulcer disease, and high blood pressure, among others. In these examples, associated pains, subjective weakness, and anxiety can be markedly alleviated by the power of suggestion alone, abetted by an intensive interview with the caregiver, and supplemented further by the administration of a medication. All this can be explained by the placebo effect.
Despite the fact that most patients are now better able to supplement information about their ailments from the internet, I believe that those suffering from functional illnesses will continue to seek sources outside mainstream medicine for care and attention. It is equally inevitable and understandable that many who suffer from cancer and other deadly conditions will also seek unconventional avenues out of desperation, grasping at any possibility after having been told that conventional medicine has nothing further to offer. Rather than wasting money on worthless remedies, we would fare better by channeling these funds into organizations devoted to fighting these diseases at a societal level, such as the American Cancer Society.
Because of potential dangers of faith healing, we should seek general measures to avoid this trap. A few things might help lower faith healing’s toll on our society: In his popular website, Quackwatch, Dr. Stephen Barrett recommends the following steps::
- Laws to protect children from medical neglect in the name of healing should be passed and enforced. In states that allow religious exemptions from medical neglect, these exemptions should be revoked. The practice of evangelistic faith healing on minors should be illegal.
- Faith healing should no longer be deductible as a medical expense.
- Reporters should be encouraged to do follow-up studies of people acclaimed to have been “healed.”
- “Healers” who use trickery to raise large sums of money should be prosecuted for grand larceny.
I would also add one final recommendation: We need to provide and promote educational materials about critical thinking and skepticism. Magazines such as Skeptical Inquirer and Skeptic and websites such as Quackwatch and Science Based Medicine are good sources. I have also provided pertinent material in my book entitled “Snake Oil is Alive and Well. The Clash between Myths and Reality. Reflections of a Physician”, Brighton Press, Chandler, Arizona, available on websites such as Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.
In conclusion, I would place no faith in “faith healing”!
 Nolen WA, Healing: A doctor in Search of a Miracle, Fawcett Crest, New York, N.Y., 1974.