after the sleeping comes the waking up.

Is faith healing performance art?

Posted by c. wagner on November 4, 2009

James Randi has spent most of his life investigating alleged magical and “psychic” happenings and training others to do the same. In the mid1980s he spent a good amount of time looking into Christian evangelists who claimed to be able to heal believers with a touch or a word. As a skeptic would expect, all the evangelists did was put on a show. Randi caught them using covert earpieces, pre-show interviews, crib sheets, and the one-ahead method. Perhaps it’s needless to say that all of this pissed Randi off.

Ever the rationalist, Randi didn’t understand how people could believe that tricks he could have performed better on his magic stage show were signs of God’s power. Upon reflection, he began to see a reason behind this behavior.

As a result of his observations of this ministry and [W. V.] Grant’s techniques, Barnhart suggested a scenario that I have come to accept–though with some difficulty–because it satisfies all the evidence and it has been confirmed by my subsequent investigations. He contends that the faith-healing service functions as a significant drama for those who attend. This explains their willingness to believe what others see as obvious delusions. He says that we cannot divide the participants into “audience” and “performers.” The entire auditorium becomes a huge stage, with both the preachers and the believers taking part in the drama. A careful observer notices that almost everything in the drama leads up to the climax, the long-anticipated healing scene. It is a ritual of major magical importance to the participants.

Barnhart points out that the afflicted person wants to get close to this magic. By pretending–earnestly–and by refusing to entertain any doubt, on his or her part or on behalf of another, the subject maintains and reinforces the myth that all of the actors have agreed to believe in, for their own reasons. The faith-healing service is a sort of mutually accepted morality play that is participated in without doubt or hesitation, for fear of breaking the spell.

So, faith healing ceremonies may serve a purpose in the lives of those who attend, even if they don’t actually heal anyone. There are a few problems, though. The healers often encourage believers to discard necessary medicines or ask them to do things during the show that wind up hurting them. And then there’s the money. The continual demands for money. Which many of the believers can’t afford to spare.

Should we punish the evangelists for a seeming fraud or should we chalk up the lost money to the believers’ free will? Should we be sympathetic to the believers’ need to believe in something bigger and more powerful than themselves?

Learn more about James Randi and his efforts at demystifying pseudoscience of all kinds at the JREF.


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