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Christianity, Religion, science

How Do You Explain Healing?

A reader writes:

How do you explain healing again? Here’s a video of Delia Knox being healed.  And at under videos you can see her being interviewed in a wheelchair, performing and also exercising her upper body.  She was in a car accident in 1987 and paralyzed for 23 years until last Friday in downtown Mobile!  She was already paralyzed when she got married.  Two ladies in my department used to go to her church and sang with her in the choir – so they were especially moved by the healing video.  Unfortunately, they didn’t video when our friend was healed of Parkinsons at a healing event 3 years ago.  He’s still going strong.  Just wondering your explanation or if you just blow it off because it can’t be explained aside from God?

It’s almost a great question.  The thing is, it’s not quite the right question.  There is a presumption of the desired answer within the question, and this creates a strong bias.  In science and critical thinking, we attempt to remove as much bias as possible and proceed from only the facts which we can verify.  So from the start, we need to rephrase the question without presuming God as the “obvious answer.”

Let’s try this:  “How do you explain the phenomenon of faith healing?”  That’s better.  No presumed answer.  Now, let’s have a look at the evidence.

  • There are a significant number of anecdotal cases of people recovering from various illnesses and debilitating conditions without medical intervention.
  • There is circumstantial corroborating evidence in the form of home video and other such (non-scientific) documentation.
  • There are medical records corroborating the fact that some of these individuals did indeed have the claimed medical condition, and do not have it today.

In the absence of this last bit of data, it would be tempting to discard the claims entirely.  We don’t need to look very far to find cases of fraud in the name of religion.  Healing sells.  But it appears that there are at least a few people who have genuinely experienced the following sequence of events:

  1. Gotten sick
  2. Gone to church
  3. Gotten better

But if we’re going to be good critical thinkers, we must remember that correlation does not equal causation. That is to say, just because these folks went to church and then got healed, the going to church part does not necessarily have anything to do with it.  Maybe something else did it.  Yes, it’s tantalizing to note that some of these healings took place exactly when we would expect them to if there was a causal agent associated with the church.  But we need to avoid confirmation bias and note that many healings do not happen in this manner.  Some people report being healed later the same night, the next day, the next week, or even years later.

{EDIT:  Perhaps God is punishing me for exposing him.  For some inexplicable reason, more than half of my post has disappeared.  I’m doing my best to recreate it for memory.  My apologies for any confusion.}

It gets worse.  Healings are common to virtually all religions, even contradictory ones like Islam and Christianity.  Not only that, but some nonbelievers experience the same kinds of recoveries.  When we examine the data, we discover that the rate of “miracle healings” is virtually identical to the natural recovery or remission rate.  If God is working miraculous healings, he is doing so without regard for religious affiliation, which seems… odd.

Occam’s Razor directs us to attempt to solve problems by proposing the simplest solution which includes all the relevant data.  At this point, we could suggest the following as an explanation for faith healings:  Faith healings are natural recoveries which are misconstrued as supernaturally caused because of a confirmation bias error. I don’t suspect that many theists will be happy with this answer, though.  I’ve been to healing services, and I’ve seen people “healed.”  The atmosphere is emotionally charged.  There’s music, the preacher is speaking hypnotically in concert with the music.  Several people, sometimes dozens, surround the object of prayer.  There’s adrenaline, dopamine, oxytocin, and a dozen other chemicals coursing through the brains of the participants.  It’s very compelling and powerful, and it just “feels right.”

Luckily, we have substantial evidence for the natural explanation, and perhaps more importantly, we have considerable evidence against the supernatural one.  I’ll begin with the case for natural recovery.

The Placebo Effect

Placebos aren’t just about pain relief.  Since its discovery in 1955, the placebo effect has been scientifically demonstrated to provide relief from conditions as diverse as rheumatoid arthritis, ligament damage, heart disease, and Parkinson’s disease.  In some cases, even surgical procedures have been shown to be essentially placebos, as in the case of some arthroscopic surgeries.  (Surgeons have been flabbergasted to discover this, and quite reluctant to accept the findings.  Denial isn’t just for theists!)

The neat thing about placebos is that they can be anything that sufferers believe in.  A sugar pill has the same effect as a prayer service if the level of belief is the same.  So in one sense, faith healings might indeed represent real healings, but there’s no implication that prayer works because there’s a real being answering the prayers, but rather that the placebo effect works, regardless of the form the remedy takes.

Some conditions are healed permanently with placebos.  The body heals itself, and is aided by the belief that something is offering external support.  So it’s no good to argue that there are faith healings which did far more than temporarily relieve pain.  That’s supported by the research.

Natural Healing

With or without placebos, the body sometimes heals itself.  Everything from cancer to blindness to paralysis has been known to spontaneously “cure itself.”  Any decent medical textbook will include mortality rates, recovery rates, and rates of remission where they are applicable.

The human genome is enormous, and many diseases and conditions have genetic elements.  Diseases which once killed 100% of those infected often run into human resistance.  There are now people who are immune to AIDS, for instance.  The body is also good at rerouting nerve impulses around wounded areas.  Sometimes this kind of “self-correction” causes injuries to seemingly “disappear.”

Healings are Never Completely Magical

The most obvious objection to the notion of faith healing is perhaps the most devastating.  Why are faith healings always performed on conditions which can be healed naturally? Or, to put it even more bluntly, why don’t amputees ever grow back severed limbs? Why don’t eyes grow back to replace those that have been gouged out?  Why don’t lobotomy patients ever regrow brain lobes?  In short, why are there never any healings which are totally impossible through natural means?

Statistical Problems

To be sure, there are examples of highly improbable healings.  But they’re quite rare.  Which is what we’d expect.  Because they’re highly improbable! Highly improbable is different than impossible.  It’s highly improbable to win the lottery, but people do it all the time.  Just not very many people.  To a statistician, it seems perfectly reasonable to say that out of 10,000 people who prayed to be healed of paralysis, two were healed.  No explanation other than rarity is needed.  But for the one theist who received healing in church, it’s very compelling evidence for his particular God.

Of course, there’s the tricky bit about seventy percent of Americans believing in God and the power of prayer.  This suggests that regardless of whether prayer works or not, 70% of Americans will be praying when they get sick!  What’s worse, most nonbelievers have theist friends.  Odds are very good that they’re being prayed for as well.  In a nutshell, it’s incredibly difficult to find someone who’s sick and not being prayed for by somebody. This means that for any recovery whatsoever, we can rightly note that there was prayer for the sufferer.  So we’re left with a serious problem.  If we can always cite prayer as a correlate, we can never isolate prayer as a cause.

Healings are Indiscriminate

True, some healings happen in church, but lots of them happen out of church.  Healings happen in all religions.  Is God masquerading as many different Gods and even multiple Gods?  Or nonexistent Gods?  If one religion possessed the secret of faith healings, we should expect a markedly better recovery rate for lots of conditions in only the followers of that religion.  But we don’t.

What if all but one religion’s healings are really just confirmation bias, placebos, and natural healing?  Ironically, if God is only healing Christians, for instance, he’s having to suppress the natural rate of recovery in Christians so that he can perform miracles.  It must be true because Christians have the exact same rate of recovery as any other group, religious or not.

Contradictory Data

In what research has been done, there is no support for the claim that prayer increases the chance of recovery.  Ironically, there is actually an increase in complications when people know they are being prayed for.  Perhaps the performance anxiety — the expectation of making a remarkable recovery — puts additional stress on the patient, lowering their chance of recovery.

It could be argued that God has chosen not to allow himself to be tested.  He will not submit to such obvious attempts to turn him into a lab rat.  And while this might very well be true, it illustrates the problem inherent in addressing the claim of intercessory prayer and miraculous healings.  Never mind any of the corroborative data that builds a strong case against any group having more healings than the general population.  Never mind that only people with curable ills receive healing.  Never mind that believers and non-believers alike experience similar healings, or that there are perfectly good explanations in the placebo effect and natural healing.  If it happened in church, God did it.  End of story.

More Questions for God

Things get worse still for the miracle hypothesis.  Even if we were to concede, hypothetically, that placebos and natural healing are not sufficient to account for observed healings, we’re still stuck.   Since they happen across cultures and religions, we can’t very well pin it down to one deity.  Is it Allah?  Perhaps he heals Muslims out of love, but heals Christians in an effort to persuade them to follow Jesus.  Sounds fishy, but what if Allah is blood-thirsty and evil, and wants to kill Christians.  It would be in his best interests to increase the number of Christians so that he could increase the amount of joy he receives from killing more of them!

What if it’s neither Allah nor Jesus?  What if it’s not a god at all?  Maybe there are aliens working unseen from invisible spaceships high in orbit.  Maybe it’s gnomes or elves.  Or trans-dimensional beings from the Quartic Nebula in the Fourteenth Dimension of a parallel universe.  Or Satan.  For that matter, what if there is no God, but there’s something to the claims of “group consciousness” or ESP?  What if the collective positive energy from all those believers is doing the healing?

To a theist reading this, most of these explanations sound wildly implausible, but if you try to put yourself in the mind of a non-believer, you will realize that your God is just as implausible as Allah or Buddha or Thor.  We’re not far apart, believers and non-believers.  We believe exactly one less implausible story than you.  We both disbelieve thousands of possible but improbable explanations.

So How Do You Explain Faith Healings?

When we take into account that there is no statistical data to back up the claims of faith healings, that there are no healings which would absolutely require magic, and that healings are distributed evenly through the population regardless of religious belief or non-belief, we are left with only one reasonable conclusion.  Whatever is causing people to be healed, it does not appear to be an agent who cares a whit about what religion people practice.

Beyond that, we have a very plausible scientific explanation for such healings, namely the placebo effect and rates of natural remission and healing.  So we can make a reasonable guess that the explanation is not God.  It’s probably completely natural.  Are we completely sure?  No, but whenever we are faced with a plausible explanation that does not require magic, and there’s no evidence of magic, and no statistical data indicating that there’s even a phenomenon to explain… well, we can be reasonably certain that we’re right.

But What If We’re Wrong?

We might be wrong about this.  There might be some phenomenon which has yet to be scientifically documented, and there might be some non-natural force behind it.  But until there’s evidence for it, we’d literally be making explanations up for imagined events!  Put another way, we can’t very well explain something unless we can at least see that it exists.

Furthermore, even if we were somehow able to document a healing that had to be magical (such as an amputee growing a new limb), we’d still be hard pressed to attribute it to anything.  Might it be the God that the patient believed in?  Yes, it might.  But it might not.  We can imagine lots of different explanations, and without any other evidence, any one of them is equally improbable.

So maybe we’re wrong.  But if we are, we’re wrong for the right reasons.  All the evidence points away from the existence of miraculous healings.  Confirmation bias, placebos, and natural recovery rates sufficiently explain healing events that happen in churches.  There’s no statistical reason to believe that any one group has access to miraculous healing, despite the fact that the religions in question each claim exclusive truth.  Until there’s more evidence, that’s where it will have to stand.



20 thoughts on “How Do You Explain Healing?

  1. This is an inspiring post. I’m delighted to be reminded of the fact that there are so many different ways in which the “Jesus did it” claim fails.

    Perhaps the easiest of these to forget is, as you point out, even if there is an explanation of “healing” that is unknown to science, the explanation does not have to be “Jesus”. In fact, “Jesus” is still just as unlikely as ever, because there’s no reason to favor it over an infinity of other untestable hypotheses, such as “space aliens”, “the C.I.A.”, and “quantum foam”.

    This is analogous to a point made by Rebecca Goldstein in her novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. Even if it were demonstrated that human beings actually do enjoy some sort of life after death, even this would not prove the existence of the Christian (or any other) “God”. “Life after death” and “God?” are different things, and either could exist without the other.

    (Of course they can’t exist anyway, because they are incoherent. But that’s another story.)

    Posted by YASHWATA | September 2, 2010, 5:23 pm
  2. Thanks, Yashwata.

    I think you’ve hit on the most compelling reason not to latch onto any particular cause of healing, even if it is magic. If there was only one group of people who recovered from certain conditions, we’d at least have circumstantial evidence that there was something to their beliefs (though far from conclusive evidence). But in every clinical study, recovery rates are virtually identical, regardless of religious or non-religious beliefs.

    And the problem of deception is still a going concern even if we found such a group. Suppose that the agent behind the healings is a capricious and evil being who is working behind the scenes towards some nefarious plan for humanity. Maybe the Christian belief system is actually bad for people, and there is a being pretending to be a loving god. Maybe he’s getting his jollies watching Christians make the world a worse place for everybody.

    Posted by hambydammit | September 2, 2010, 5:37 pm
  3. The old Benny Hinn trick was to have a lot of wheelchairs at the door of the meeting hall and to have handlers offer the wheelchairs to people looking like they had some walking difficulty / tired as they came in. Then later in the service they would be “healed” and could walk again. Ta-da!

    I had to laugh at the lady being “healed” being walked around the room. Two strong guys actually have her in a two person escort hold and taking a lot of her weight. We use that same techiqnue at work to return aggressive residents to a more appropriate location. Though usually you have them walking backwards on tip toes for better control over them, though she was being quite compliant.

    And then if you read her own website….

    “A near fatal car accident in Canada on Christmas Day 1987 left Delia to continue life as a paraplegic. She utilizes a wheelchair and has found life to be a challenge, but not an impossible one.

    A Miracle…Her faith in God has not only helped her cope with the loss of the usage of her legs, but a life-threatening brain tumor as well. Miraculously, a day before surgery to remove the tumor was scheduled, it separated itself from the base of her brain. The operation which may have left her in a coma for the rest of her life was not necessary. Neurosurgeons were stumped, but Delia was confident that her God has performed the work Himself! She gives Him sole credit for the miracle and delivers her testimony with a fervency.”

    Apparently she didn’t have her legs healed… but a brain tumor instead. So…. what to believe?

    And more importantly, why doesn’t God ever heal a UTI? Oh because when you’re urine is like fire you go to a doctor instead of a church. Funny that.

    Posted by Athol Kay: Married Man Sex Life | September 2, 2010, 9:18 pm
  4. I’m waiting to see video of this person’s healing after the fact. Has she been seen in public walking normally? You’ll notice that those two large guys had her by the arms the whole time she was “walking”. The real proof comes a day, a week, a month later…

    Posted by Jimmy | September 2, 2010, 9:40 pm
  5. Great observation, Jimmy. There was a story several years ago about someone who was “healed” at one of these services, only to have their spine collapse the next day because it wasn’t strong enough to support them walking.

    Another thing to consider is the incredible rush of dopamine and other chemicals when you’re at the center of one of these things. Sometimes, enough of an endorphin rush can dull pain to the point where someone might feel healed at the moment but “relapse” when the natural high wears off.

    I don’t know anything about the woman in this video, or if she’s walking unaided these days. But I’ll certainly pass along any evidence I get either way.

    Posted by hambydammit | September 2, 2010, 10:55 pm
  6. She’s a Christian singer, I linked to her website in my earlier comment.

    Posted by Athol Kay: Married Man Sex Life | September 2, 2010, 11:04 pm
  7. I prayed to Jesus, God, and some other imaginary twat, to heal me of my Type-1 Diabetes. NO ANSWER! However, I’ve got this awesome insulin pump designed by a team of scientists and its making my life much easier. Thanks, scientists…..God, thanks for nothing!

    Posted by Jon Wilson | September 8, 2010, 10:11 am
  8. Thanks for this awesome answer to this healing claim.

    Posted by Miles | September 8, 2010, 11:11 am
  9. Good post. I have one observation, though.

    You refer to “natural recovery rates,” and you make a good case that they are natural, because they occur regardless of the person’s religion or practice. But I would be hesitant to describe the placebo effect and remission as scientific explanations. At least to my knowledge, we have names for these phenomena, but no explanations for them.

    I see these not as well-understood phenomena, but as gaps in our knowledge that religious people try to fill with “God did it”.

    Posted by Joel Justiss | September 18, 2010, 10:10 am
  10. I get what you’re saying, Joel, but it’s not really as bad as you make it sound. We understood gravity and could make precise predictions about it long before we could begin to explain it as curvature of space-time. When we were asked what gravity is, we said, “It’s a force.” It isn’t exactly detailed scientific explanation of the nuts and bolts of the thing, but it’s good enough for application. It’s the same with the placebo effect. What is it? It’s an effect of the mind on the body.

    Posted by hambydammit | September 18, 2010, 1:20 pm
  11. Actually, during the Azusa Street Revival, there was a documented case of a limb growing back before the eyes of several witnesses. As the arm was being regenerated, bone could be seen coming out first, just before flesh that was also being restored. The man had lost his arm in an industrial accident–it had been completely torn off shoulder and all. Then, during a church service, God restored both his shoulder and arm. The man came to the church expecting a miracle, and God granted it.

    Spontaneous regeneration is amazing, but one day our bodies will die, so your greater need is not physical healing–you need salvation. The greater miracle is your spirit being regenerated through faith in the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. Spiritual rebirth is something only God can do for you through faith in Jesus Christ. And only through Christ will you see heaven.

    Look around, the stage is being set for all of the end times events prophesied in the Bible. After Christ snatches up the church, what will you say? When Christ comes down from heaven, leading the armies of heaven, what will you say? Then, on the Day of Judgement there will be nothing to say?

    The stage is being set. The Day of Judgement is a date set in time–it will not be rescheduled. The kingdom of heaven is coming. There, in the kingdom, those who have been saved from the coming wrath will experience fullness of joy and fullness of peace that will last forever.

    Posted by nicknook | October 10, 2010, 3:02 pm
  12. Actually, during the Azusa Street Revival, there was a documented case of a limb growing back before the eyes of several witnesses.

    And by documented, you mean “alleged.” There’s a big difference. Or.. do you happen to know which medical journal it was documented in?

    Posted by hambydammit | October 10, 2010, 3:12 pm
  13. You beat me to it Hamby. I wasn’t going to go so hard on him though. Some simple before and after photos would be enough for me.

    Posted by Athol Kay: Married Man Sex Life | October 10, 2010, 3:56 pm
  14. Too easy to fudge time stamps. I want a medical journal.

    Posted by hambydammit | October 10, 2010, 4:47 pm
  15. Well the Azusa Street Revival started in 1906, so no time stamps available.

    Posted by Athol Kay: Married Man Sex Life | October 10, 2010, 5:03 pm
  16. Lol… you get what I’m saying, though. Stop busting my chops. Pictures would be way too easy to just put in reverse order.

    Posted by hambydammit | October 10, 2010, 5:08 pm
  17. An Awful lot of energy is put into picking at this story (Delia Knox). Truth of the matter is that her original condition is verifiable, and she is walking and has been since the healing.

    I find it almost amusing to see the lengths that people who refuse to believe anything will go to when it might be possible that something might be true when it runs counter to their belief system.

    Posted by Peter Lounsbury | November 5, 2010, 4:52 pm
  18. Peter, that’s fine. I haven’t really looked into this because it doesn’t matter to my argument at all. If she is up and walking, and really was sick, fine. That doesn’t have any impact on what I said at all, since I clearly articulated that science accounts for anomalous healings in various ways.

    And even granting that something highly unusual went on with Delia, I can’t think of any reason why that points to your Jesus worship as the causal agent.

    Posted by hambydammit | November 5, 2010, 4:57 pm
  19. Of course it wasn’t the Jesus. We all know the FSM is responsible for random regrowths of various appendages.

    Posted by Alex Hardman | November 5, 2010, 6:25 pm


  1. Pingback: The Power of Prayer « Life Without a Net - October 7, 2010

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