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Posts Tagged ‘James Randi’

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).

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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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