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Faith Healing

Perhaps one of the worst outcomes of the fundamentalist resurgence is the irrational belief in the power of prayer to perform faith healing; the miraculous cure of diseases. The problem with faith healings are:

  • There has not been a single verifiable case of an actual miraculous cure. So called "proofs" are mainly anecdotal or worse, merely taking advantage of statistics.

  • Some Christian evangelists had even resorted to fraud to bring in believers and followers.

  • It may not be that bad, if the results of all this belief are merely to rob some believers of some donation money and to waste an evening attending a "miracle rally". But the consequences are worse than these.

Non-verifiability of Faith Healing Claims

James Randi did an extensive amount of research on this phenomenon for his book The Faith Healers (1989). None of the evangelists he investigated was able to provide even one verifiable case of a miraculous cure.

The "proofs" that these evangelists normally provide are anecdotal in nature and of no use for verification whatsoever. Take for instance the claim made by Oral Roberts in his autobiography, My Story (1961), where he was supposedly miraculously healed of tuberculosis by a traveling evangelist. In his book, Oral provided medical records showing that a few months after the incident, his lungs were perfect. There is only one problem, Oral never provided any medical documents of his lungs before the healing. There is no prove that Oral ever had TB in the first place. All we have is his memory of what some country doctor told him. [1] Oral's case is typical of the fundamentalists' faith healing claims.

Some of Oral's "successes" were in fact failures. In 1956, a woman appeared in Oral's TV show testifying that she had been miraculously healed, with the evangelistís prayers, of cancer. Twelve hours after the show was taped, the woman was dead. In the same year another woman appeared in his show, giving an enthusiastic testimonial about her miraculous cure of spinal cancer. She succumbed to the disease three days later. Oral once even claimed that he had actually resurrected the dead! When James Randi, in June 1987, wrote to him asking him for more information on this alleged resurrection, Oral, perhaps wisely, never responded to the request. [2] Mindless, baseless and outright erroneous claims are still being made and are still being swallowed wholesale by credulous believers.

Another simple way of performing "miracle" cures is the so-called "shot-gun" technique: you fire at so wide a range that you're bound to hit the occasional bull's-eye. Pat Robertson is a shameless practitioner of this technique. It involves getting a "word of knowledge" from God about the afflictions of unnamed people. With the millions of viewers watching his show, he is bound, once and a while, to score some lucky hits. Those who are "cured" reported them and apart from giving more donations, generate publicity for his ministry. Given below is an example of his technique taken from one of his TV shows:

There is a woman in Kansas city who has sinus. The Lord is drying that up right now. Thank you, Jesus. There is a man with a financial need - I think a hundred thousand dollars. That need is being met right now, and within three days, the money will be supplied through the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit. Thank you, Jesus! There is a woman in Cincinnati with cancer of the lymph nodes. I don't know whether its been diagnosed yet but you haven't been feeling well, and the Lord is dissolving that cancer right now! There is a lady in Saskatchewan in a wheelchair - curvature of the spine. The Lord is straightening that out right now, and you can stand up and walk! Just claim it and its yours. Thank you, Jesus! Amen, and amen! [3]

So who is to know if there is no such lady in Saskatchewan. And how many woman in Kansas city have sinus that night? The lymph node cancer is a gem. Note that Pat said that it may not have been diagnosed yet. Any woman in Cincinnati feeling unwell that night and believing in Pat may, once she feels better, to think that she was the one who was cured. As for the man in financial need, note that no location was given. With the whole evangelical population of the North America to hit on, Pat's chances on getting that miracle seems pretty high: anyone who had a sudden financial windfall could attribute it to the miracle.

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Fraudulent Cases

The competition for viewers and donations are immense so much so that some evangelists had even resorted to outright fraud to convince believers of the efficacy of their intercession for God's healing powers. Perhaps the most spectacular exposure of such a fraud was that of Alex Poppoff by James Randi. Most of Poppoff's "miracle and blessing crusade" [a] have the same kind of miracles. There will be, among the audience, a few rows of people in wheelchairs. Poppoff would, in a dramatic moment, utter a name out of nowhere and it invariably will be one of those seated in the wheelchairs. He will rattle out not only the full name, but also the address and ailment of that person, to the amazement and "hallelujahs" of the crowd. The person will be pushed onto the stage in the wheelchair. Poppoff will then lay his hands on the person, and then command him or her to get up and walk, which he or she invariably does. Sometimes, for added effect, he would ask that person to push him in the wheelchair on stage. Many in the audience would doubtless believe that they are witnessing a miracle. Poppoff seemed to have the "gift of knowledge" and had enabled, by his prayers, to make a crippled person walk. [4]

To find out how Poppoff performed his miracles, Randi solicited the help of some friends. During Poppoff's miracle crusade in Detroit, Randi had Donald Henvick, a San Francisco postman posed as a woman with the name Bernice Manicoff complete with a fictitious address and ailment, uterine cancer. "She" arrived at the auditorium in a wheelchair where she was greeted by some of Poppoff's assistants. They casually asked her name, addressed and ailment. To which "Bernice" gave them the prepared fictitious information. They then asked her if she could walk, she said yes. Bernice was then placed in one of the wheelchairs Poppoff's entourage had rented for the occasion. [5]

And having discovered in earlier rallies an electronic device in Poppoff's ear, Randi solicited the help of an electronics expert, Alec Jason. With a scanner and a tape recorder, Jason tuned in 39.17 megahertz, a frequency they had earlier discovered Poppoff to be using. [6]

During the miracle crusade, Poppoff's method was finally discovered. Mrs. Poppoff who had, together with some others, been casually chatting with the audience before the show starts left the auditorium and went into a trailer. The electronic scanner picked up everything. A female voice, Mrs Poppoff's, was heard over the 39.17 megahertz band:

Hello Petey. I love you. I'm talking to you. Can you hear me? If you can't, you're in trouble 'cause I'm talking. I'm looking up names right now. I forgot to ask. Are you going to preach first, or are you going to minister first? Heloooo! I love you! [7]

The electronic device in Poppoff's ear was a receiver. It was through Elizabeth Poppoff's transmission that Poppoff received his "gift of knowledge." Elizabeth then proceeded to give out names and addresses to him together with the ailments. The final confirmation came when Peter Poppoff called out the name Bernice Manicoff and described her ailment. All the while, Alec Jason, recorder Elizabeth reassuring her husband that "Bernice" was sitting in one of their rented wheelchairs and could walk. The moment Poppoff heard this through his transmitter he commanded the "woman": "Get up and walk!" The crowd applauded. Poppoff had just healed a man in drag of uterine cancer! Randy also found out that the Poppoff entourage regularly rented wheelchairs for their shows and put people who could walk into them. Most of the audience was not aware of this. [8]

On February 1986, Randi appeared on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" and presented the damning evidence. Peter Poppoff and his gifts of the Holy Spirits were exposed for what they are: frauds. The following of Poppoff's ministry rapidly dwindled after that revelation and within a short while Poppoff himself was filing for bankruptcy to escape creditors. [9] There is some justice after all!

Peter Poppoff is not the only outright fraud in the evangelical faith healing circuit. Among the others, one of the most prominent is W.V. Grant. Grant, a faith healer in his forties is based in Dallas, Texas. He used to have a TV show called Dawn of A New Day which was shown in 93 stations throughout the U.S. [10] Grant, like the other prominent evangelists, lived in luxury. He owned a mansion in Fort Wright, Kentucky and a penthouse in Cincinnati. He owned many luxury cars including Cadillacs, Mercedes Benz and even a Porsche! [11]

Grant uses the same rented wheelchair trick as Poppoff. One of the healings Grant credits himself with [b] is the healing of the blind. "Blindness" is a very deceptive term which the evangelist skillfully uses to his advantage. 75% of those termed "legally blind" actually have a usable but limited vision. Most of them can see the number of fingers held closely in front of them. Thus Grant would normally show the audience that he had healed a blind person by putting his fingers in front of them and asking them to count it. The audience is led to believe that this was not possible before the healing. To ensure a higher success rate, Grant added a variation to his repertoire; for dealing with the totally blind cases. Grant uses a cordless microphone which if held close to the lips of his subject will only amplify that person's voice. The subject, of course, can hear Grant speaks clearly without the mike. Grant will normally, after healing a blind person, hold the microphone close to that person's lips, raise his other hand with a few fingers outstretched and at the same time tell the person how many fingers he has up. With the microphone close to the subjectís mouth, Grants instructions go unheard by the audience. [12]

One such deception is the "healing" of Morris Kidd of Racine, Wisconsin. In 1982 Grant's newsletter Dawn of A New Day published a color photograph showing Morris with the preacher. The heading above the photograph says "Miracle of the Month." The caption below it reads: "This Milwaukee man was blind all his life. After Rev. Grant prayed, he saw for the first time." Morris's wife, Pearl Kidd was angered over this whole deception and told a reporter her hold story. In the first place, she revealed that her husband was not "blind all his life." His sight had deteriorated over the years due to an incurable degenerative eye disease. Morris could still see, but very poorly. He could definitely see Grant's fingers stuck out in front of him. In the show, upon "healing" him, Grant took the man's white stick and threw it away; in a dramatic gesture to show that he was healed and no longer needed them. After the rally, Mr. Kidd had to ask for his stick back because he could not find his way out of the auditorium. His eyesight was as bad as it ever was. Mrs. Kidd called Grant a liar and demanded that he should be "put out of business for lying to people." [13]

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The Harmful Consequences

But the harm from all this faith healing is not limited to the audience being duped by the evangelists. There are far worse consequences. One is the direct consequence of a foolproof explanation most evangelists give for their faith healing that doesn't quite work: anyone who gets "healed", which can mean anything from simply feeling better to the "cure" of a psychosomatic illness, during the rally is considered as proof of the efficacy of the evangelist, anyone who doesn't get healed is immediately blamed for it, for lack of faith! In other words, it is never the fault of the evangelists that any healing fails to happen.

An example of this is an incident that happened during a rally by the evangelical couple Frances and Charles Hunter, more popularly known as the "Happy Hunters." This appalling incident happened when a man, who went to the rally hoping to be cured, was commanded by the Hunters to be healed of his pain. When the healing failed to do so, Frances took the man aside and scolded him for not wanting the healing God was offering him! [14] One can just imagine the psychological trauma of the man; being told that the continuance of the pain was purely his fault.

But by far the worst effect of this belief in faith healing is with regards to people who are really sick. Believing that they are miraculously healed these people discard their medication, many times with fatal consequences.

One such case is that which a diabetic woman who threw away her insulin during an Oral Roberts crusade at Detroit in July 1959. After seeing Roberts' show, Wanda Beach threw away her insulin, announcing to her family that the evangelist had completely cured her. A few hours later she was dead. In another Oral Roberts revival, this time in Oakland, California, at least three people were reported to have died. [15]

Asking believers to throw their medication onto the stage floor during a miracle rally is a popular method among the evangelists, as it adds to the dramatic climax of the show. Peter Poppoff, as part of his stage act, normally urges believers to throw their medications onto the stage. James Randi reported finding medications for diabetes, heart disease and angina left on the stage floor after a revival rally. [16]

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Innocent Victims

The credulity of those who believe in such nonsense harm not only themselves, oftentimes it is their children that have to pay the ultimate price:

At Barstow, California in 1973, an eleven-year-old diabetic boy died because his parents decided that prayer and fasting, rather than modern medicine, would save him. The parents, Lawrence and Alice Parker, members of the Assemblies of God Church, actually withheld insulin from the boy.

In 1981 two members of the Faith Tabernacle Congregation, William and Linda Barnhart did not seek medical help for their two-year-old son who had abdominal tumor. They prayed and fasted for a miracle cure, but to no avail as the boy died. William Barnhart was charged with involuntary manslaughter yet all he had to say to the press was: "This haven't wavered my faith one bit."

In 1982, a nine-year-old boy of Enid, Oklahoma had a ruptured appendix. Instead of taking him to the hospital, his parents, Dean and Patsy Lockhart, together with the congregation of their church prayed for his healing. The boy needlessly died. [17]

Another example, cited in the April 5, 1998 issue of Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics,[18] is that of a two year old who choked on a bite of banana. The baby struggled for her life for an hour while her parents called members of the religious circle to pray. Needless to say the prayers hastened the baby's journey towards god, she died.

More recently, on August 22, 2003 an autistic eight-year-old boy, Terrence Cottrell, Jr., of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, died when members of the Faith Temple Church of the Apostolic Faith tried to exorcise the spirit that was supposedly causing his autism. He was wrapped in sheets and held down during the prayer service. Autopsy reports showed that the boy died from asphyxiation due to pressure on his chest. A preacher, Ray Hemphill, reportedly pressed his knee on the boy's chest during the exorcism to keep him still. [19]

The study in Pediatrics mentioned above, conducted by the University of California in San Diego, examined 172 child deaths in faith-healing families spanning two decades from 1975 to 1995. It concluded that a large proportion of these deaths (more than 80%) were avoidable. In other words these children could have been saved had medical attention been sought.

The continued preponderance of faith healing "miracle" rallies, despite the absence of any scientifically substantiated case for it and the presence of many damning cases against it, is a constant reminder of the fundamentally harmful effect of Christianity.

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Notes

a.The name Poppoff gave to his religious road show.
b.Some Christians may protest here that the evangelists always give the credit to Jesus. But the miracle was done in the evangelist's presence, which must surely increase his stature in the fundamentalist community of his efficacy to act as an intercessor for these miracles.

References

1.Gardner, The New Age: p226-227
2.Randi, The Faith Healers: p195,288
3.Gardner, The New Age: p235
Randi, The Faith Healers: p199
4.John Tierney, Fleecing the Flock, Discover November 1987
5.Randi, The Faith Healers: p150
6.ibid: p147
7.ibid: p148
8.ibid: p150-151
9.Randi, The Faith Healers: p146-153,308
10.Ibid: p100,103
11.Ibid: p70
12.Ibid: p104-105
13.Ibid: p112-113
14.Ibid: p240
15.Ibid: p288
16.John Tierney, Fleecing the Flock, Discover November 1987
17.Randi, The Faith Healers: p295-296
18.cited in "Faith Healing Kills, Study Shows" Skeptic Vol.6 No.2 1998 : p18
19.Kevin Christopher, "Autistic Boy Killed During Exorcism", Skeptical Enquirer Vol 27 No.6 Nov/Dec 2003: p11

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