after the sleeping comes the waking up.

Faith healing and magic

Posted by c. wagner on November 12, 2009

The girlfriend just finished James Randi’s The Faith Healers, which I read earlier. We had a long and emotional conversation about Randi’s statement that those who believe in faith healers don’t question the reality of what they’re seeing. Especially in light of the fact that Randi was a professional magician.

She argued that Randi was being hypocritical, criticizing those who follow and fund faith healers for being gullible and absolutely blasting the healers for being liars and cheats, while depending on a similar suspension of disbelief to earn his living. She also noted that faith healers provide a service to their devotees, with the placebo response to their “healings” making folks feel better.

I don’t agree on the first point. The difference between a magician and a faith healer is something I’ve heard a lot of magicians say: Magicians are honest about their dishonesty. As an adult, you know going in that they are performing are tricks or illusions. That they have no skills that others can’t develop. That they are not tapping into some power outside of themselves. Some of them even dare you to figure out how they’ve created the illusion. Faith healers do none of these things. They may be using magicians’ tricks, but they claim that God is working through them and really, truly causing something unusual to happen.

Magicians work on two levels. Viewers who suspend disbelief can see the seemingly impossible happen. Those who view it all as trickery can marvel at the skill with which the magician makes it seem like the impossible is happening. Faith healers have only the first level. The healing works if and only if you believe the impossible really is happening.

Even more important, magic is entertainment. You don’t base life decisions on what magicians tell you. You pay your money to have fun for an hour or so. At worst, you go home and spend hours trying to reproduce something you saw. Faith healing is not entertainment. At its best, it’s a comforting ritual and a connection with others who have similar beliefs. At its worst, it can inspire a dependence on the healer and other sources of spiritual authority, undermining the devotees’ confidence in themselves and their control over their lives.

It’s harder to argue about the placebo response. Many doctors have ethical qualms about handing out pills that do nothing for a patient (although that doesn’t stop some of them for giving out antibiotics to treat viral infections). If it makes a person feel better, what’s the harm, right? Hell, who I am to argue about this stuff? I used to get regular acupuncture treatment and massages. They did nothing for my underlying condition, but they did make me feel better.

But is that really a service to the person being treated? They feel better, but they also might forgo a doctor’s care (like I did) in favor of the placebo results.

Is it better to tell yourself a lie (not necessarily a big one) or to accept the reality of the situation and work with that?

I’m not sure where I stand on this issue yet. I’m evolving.

In Randi’s world, lying to oneself and others about the nature of reality is never acceptable and he has no tolerance for those who do lie, especially when they can cause others harm. None. This makes him and his ideas tough to deal with. It’s a tough and scary world, in a lot of ways. Scares the heck out of me a lot of the time.

But it’s still empowering. It gives you the ability to make changes for yourself, to protect yourself, to make yourself who you want to be, without help from external forces (other than a little help from your human friends).

4 Responses to “Faith healing and magic”

  1. Nasty Peanut said

    Is it really lying if it works? Is it lying if the healer is a believer as well?

    Don’t forget — many folks go blind, lose control over their limbs, go numb from the waist down, are overcome with crippling pain, etc., for no reason explainable or treatable by current mainstream medical techniques. If we forbid “alternative” healing, or “faith” healing, many of these folks will _never_ find relief.

    Medical doctors, at their worst, actively promote feelings of powerlessness and dependence on authority. In some cases, doctors depend on these social forces to assure that they have the full trust and cooperation of their patients. In some cases, it’s just an ego trip. Being told that your condition is incurable, that you have 6 weeks to live, that your blindness is psychosomatic, that you will never regain full range of motion in your right hand, that your symptoms are really not bad enough to warrant a diagnostic examination, let alone a referral — many doctors think nothing of “informative” remarks that can take away every shred of hope. An overconfident, flip, and insensitive physician can do a lot of damage, cause corrosive emotional pain, and greatly hinder a faithful patient’s capacity for well-being. Even if they technically explain the true state of affairs to their patients, do conventional doctors have the right to destroy hope and offer no alternatives when the prognosis is poor or the diagnosis is uncertain? Especially knowing what we know now about the increasing power of human placebo response, I believe the answer is no. And I have to say, sometimes even the most well-intentioned medical recommendations can be harmful when given to a credulous, unquestioning, and vulnerable patient. Not everyone can withstand the chemical bludgeoning that is modern medicine’s answer to miracles, and not every physician bothers to check the risks and interactions before prescribing to an individual in distress.

    Alternative and faith-based healing techniques, at their best, _are_ empowering people to make changes, protect and heal themselves, and form their identities as beings with great capacity for good. I think that both alternative and mainstream treatments should continue to be available for those who seek them.

    • I was unclear in my take-home point. I don’t think that alternative medicine practitioners or faith healers should be outlawed, punished, or otherwise restricted. Folks who seek out these practitioners and treatments are making choices about their own bodies and should be allowed to do so. It’s their life, let them live it as they see fit. End of story.

      And people should feel empowered to make every choice that has an impact on their life, health, and happiness. Whether that means visiting a faith healer, a doctor, an alternative medicine practitioner, or doing nothing. That empowerment should be encouraged in all areas of life.

      But there’s a lot of gray around here.

      Where I don’t see any gray is around those faith healers who use magicians’ tricks and claim that they are calling down the power of God. They’re lying. Not gray. (All of the healers in Randi’s book fall into this category.)

      The gray comes in … just about everywhere else.

      I’m still figuring out where I stand on what balance of hope versus acceptance of harsh realities is best, how best to encourage reasoned choices, and even whether reasoning is the best approach to life. I have to say that my gut reaction, right now, when I’m not facing any crushing medical condition, is that it is better to hear the painful news and learn to live with it than to be offered false hope. But I don’t feel like I can decide for anyone else. Making people think is all I aspire to.

      I enjoy discussions like this. They help me work through my thoughts and find where I want to stand on an issue.

    • I also apologize to the girlfriend for being passive-aggressive and airing this on the web, rather than talking about it face-to-face. Sorry.

  2. Nasty Peanut said

    Hey, it’s not passive aggressive if we already talked about it! 🙂 No need to apologize. ❤

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