The practice of faith healing, the belief that you can cure the ill and revive the dying through prayer and a reliance on divine intervention, remains alarmingly widespread, and seems on the rise as evangelical religious circles prosper. What’s more, it really is endangering and in some cases costing people their lives — and we’re letting it happen.
The UK charity the African Health Policy Network (AHPN) has this week raised the alarm about numerous cases in Britain where faith healers have told HIV-infected church-goers that they will be cured through act of God and that they must abandon their antiretroviral treatments.
Last year, BBC London revealed that three people from London with HIV were known to have died after they stopped taking their life-saving medication per advice from their pastors who claimed they would be healed if they only had faith.
The Department of Health has issued a limp response that prayer cannot cure HIV, before going on to say that churches can play an “important part” in raising awareness about HIV/AIDS and the importance of proper screening.
This misses the point entirely, however. Evangelical churches have a competing interest because their particular religious flavor, not unique but perhaps now the most forthright in this regard, hinges on divine intervention, faith healing and miracles. Any way we look at it, this is deeply antagonistic to medical science. A failure to recognize that fact shows a worrying oversight. Though it’s not actually that surprising.
There have been several other recent cases in England where evangelical churches have made claims that God will cure the sick.
In March of this year, an evangelical ministry group called Healing on the Streets Bath was banned from using ad leaflets that said: “NEED HEALING? GOD CAN HEAL TODAY! We believe that God loves you and can heal you from any sickness.”
The leaflet made claims that prayer could cure a number of illnesses, from arthritis to multiple sclerosis. Apparently we are to believe God is ahead of medical science but is refusing to share his secrets.
The Advertising Standards Authority said the claims were misleading because they risked discouraging people from seeking essential medical treatment, though the ASA would later rule that the use of the “God Can Heal” claim on the group’s website and associated materials was not a concern.
Startlingly, a group of religious conservatives from across Britain’s three major parties attempted to defend as a matter of free exercise of religion the ministry’s claims, with MPs even going so far as to make a car-crash of an argument that because no one could absolutely prove faith healing could never work, it was wrong to suggest that it didn’t work, before one MP went on to claim that he himself had been healed.
The problem of course is that this subject touches so close to the deeply and sincerely held beliefs of many religious people of all stripes. As such, many in the wider community — even those who have no belief in the supernatural at all — find themselves, almost by default, thinking that faith healing falls under religious freedom. This is an egregious error, but an understandable one.
The danger faith healing presents is no more apparent than in the recent case of 16-year-old Austin Sprout, of Oregon, who died after his appendix burst in December of last year.
His mother and stepfather, Brandi and Russel Bellew, were arrested in February of this year when an investigation revealed they had failed to find their son emergency medical care because they believed faith in God alone would be enough to cure their child.
The Bellews, having pleaded guilty to negligent homicide, were spared jail time and given five years probation. The court also ordered that they must seek medical attention if any of their remaining six children, not currently in their care but with whom they are allowed visits, became ill.
A heartbreaking aspect to this story is that, while what the Bellews allowed Austin to suffer through is abhorrent, they did so in apparently genuine faith that they were doing the right thing. Their actions were a symptom, then, of a much larger issue.
The Bellews are part of the General Assembly and Church of the First Born which advocates faith healing. Oregon no longer allows faith healing to be a defense against manslaughter charges, but even so the DA’s office has had to work with the church in order to ensure a “safety plan” was enacted whereby church members agreed that they would pro-actively seek medical assistance for themselves and loved ones if it was deemed their lives may be at risk, and also that those who did seek medical intervention would not be ostracized.
While it would be easy to sneer at the safety plan, denigrating it would miss the mark. It is a measured and necessary response in what has become an untenable and convoluted situation. Again, the need to tread so softly is symptomatic of a wider issue.
We have a problem with religion. In particular, when it comes to religious freedom. We have lost sight of the reasonable limits on faith — that nebulous void that requires as a virtue the suspension of reason.
We have mistakenly allowed faith healers to operate because their reading of their religion tells them that faith healing can work while ignoring the simple fact: there is no viable evidence to suggest that it does. None. And, to forestall the obvious, the placebo effect doesn’t count in religion’s favor when the same benefits can be derived from the use of sugar pills.
If a medical practitioner were to operate on faith alone, throwing his or her training to the wind, we would be aghast, they would be struck-off and most likely prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
Yet if someone does this in the name of God, himself an unproven though often quested after agency, we are to give out a free pass because it is their “religious right.”
It is a feeble, cruel and unthinking canard which warps all reasonable and rightly protected freedom of religion; that leads to children and those who are easy prey — the desperate and the hopeless, the sick and the terminal — to put their lives in the hands of people who are grossly unqualified.
Until we have the strength of character as a society to challenge faith healing for what it is, and that is dangerous quackery, we each must take responsibility when the vulnerable among us suffers or dies as a result.