This post describes the latter part of a single alpha course evening session, the first part was about the church.
Chris now moved onto talking about the supernatural healing that he believes God provides in response to prayers. He said that God healed in the old and new testament and, as God doesn’t change, must be healing today. That is of course if you take the bible as true and historically accurate. He wanted to see more prayer and healing, to the extent that supernatural healing becomes natural or at least commonplace. He and others shared some amazing stories of people who had been prayed for, sometimes by large groups of people, and were cured of meningitis when apparently “a few hours from death” or other ailments both serious and trivial.
I asked Chris what he thought was happening when Christians prayed for healing. He said that God hears the prayer and may choose to intervene to heal that person, although it can’t be expected to work every time because it’s up to God, not us. I asked why the prayer was needed at all. You can’t give an all-knowing god new information – he must know about the sick person. Presumably in his infinite wisdom he has decided not to heal them. So why would the pleadings of an imperfect human change his mind? Chris had already mentioned in his introduction that God doesn’t change. His answer was an unsatisfactory but honest, “I don’t know”. I probed a little further asking why they’d mentioned getting large groups of people to pray at once. Would this make God more likely to hear or respond? Again Chris and Matt pleaded ignorance saying that there wasn’t a particular formula and that they couldn’t expect reliable results as it was out of their hands.
Others chimed in describing both their experiences and opinions on prayer and healing. The consensus seemed to be that, even though prayer might only have an effect less than half the time, it was always worth trying. Someone else commented that although physical healing would be wonderful, they also hope for mental or spiritual healing, which I took to mean the person simply feeling a bit better and more able to cope with their condition. This is no doubt a good thing, but even harder to measure and could easily be brought about by the feeling of love from knowing that a lot of people care about you and really want you to get better. Genuinely nice and worthwhile, but not necessarily supernatural.
It’s interesting that people are willing to ignore all the cases where no effect is observed following a prayer, but become really impressed when there is a change for the better. I didn’t hear anyone say, “It’s a miracle!”, but “Wow, that’s amazing!” was a typical response. This leaves a lot of room for Postdiction or Argument by selective observation. In short, counting the hits and ignoring the misses. If a failed healing can never count as evidence against faith healing, then it’s not reasonable to consider it true based on a few successes. It’s an unfalsifiable belief, making it unscientific and no better than any pseudoscience or conspiracy theory.
When you take the more falsifiable proposition that prayer ought to yield healing results significantly better than chance and prayer is actually tested systematically, in the way that medicine is, there’s no effect.
CONCLUSIONS:Intercessory prayer itself had no effect on complication-free recovery from CABG, but certainty of receiving intercessory prayer was associated with a higher incidence of complications.
I asked whether people thought there was any risk in praying for someone. The only suggestion anyone made was that others might think they were crazy. I think there are other, more serious risks. I started to explain the tragic case of Kara Neumann who died from undiagnosed diabetes when her parents prayed for her instead of seeking medical attention. When her condition worsened, they thought it was a test of their faith. I didn’t have all the details memorised and as I paused to recall them other people started speaking. Another frustrating failure to get what I thought was an important point across. I guess I need to practise debating.
Chris and others repeatedly said that they always tell people who’ve been healed to go and get themselves checked out by a doctor. That’s obviously the responsible thing to do. I forgot to ask whether this policy was a result of someone having neglected medical treatment, or whether anyone made any record of the results of these medical examinations. Secondly, I suppose that thinking there’s a less than 50% chance it will work should encourage everyone to seek proper medical advice. Another thing which they thought was important was that the faith healing they do is all about Jesus and God – they’re not trying to take the credit themselves. He contrasted this with televangelists who garner a great following for themselves and a lot of money to go with it. But to be fair to televangelists, if you can bear to watch them for more than a few seconds, they do mention Jesus and God about as often as possible!
Chris asked whether anyone wanted to be prayed for or had a friend or family member who was ailing. I think they were hoping I’d say something, but soon someone suggested the two members of the group who were absent due to sickness as well as the homeless man who had been shivering on the street outside the coffee shop. Then Matt started rubbing his left shoulder and suggested this might be a sign that someone needed help with a similar complaint. After a long pause, Jeff indicated that both his shoulders were sore. So Matt prayed for him for a few moments and asked Jeff if he was feeling any better. I think he said, “About the same”. I’ve seen this kind of guess-the-illness game before and it seems like a great way to get mini miracle claims if the guesses are right or someone wants to play along. Presumably if no one, nor any of their friends or relatives, has the specified pain or ailment it’s quietly dropped and assumed the person voicing the prayer was mistaken.
We chatted a bit more and in response to the suggestions that I “might as well try prayer healing”, “What have you got to lose?”, I made some comparisons to the beliefs of Buddhists I know who chant for healing and also have similar miraculous stories of success. I challenged Matt to go along and try that, but I doubted that he would. This reminds me of the following quote,
“I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”
– Stephen F Roberts
Time was runnning out, so they decided to finish the session with some music and a kind of free prayer session. Danni started the music on her phone and Matt voiced the first of the prayers giving thanks for the friendly alpha course we’d all experienced. We sat listening to the music for a bit longer and someone gave emotional thanks to God for her child, who despite early struggles with health is now doing well. After a while Matt started another prayer. I can’t remember the exact words he used, but I’ll paraphrase as follows:
“Lord, I pray that you might help those who might be struggling to know you and maybe if anyone has been hurt by church previously, or maybe not hurt, but turned off by church. I hope that they may come to experience your love, sometime in the next few weeks.”
Seeing as I was the only atheist in the room, this seems to be pretty transparently aimed at me. I don’t think I’ve been particularly hurt or turned off by church, except that church and Christians made me think it through a bit more carefully. I guess they’re speculating and trying to make sense of my reluctance to accept their beliefs. This praying out loud thing seems to be a strange way to speak indirectly to people. If they actually wanted to communicate with God, why speak out loud? I suppose it’s a way to share things with the group that people might not otherwise feel comfortable about. Like a support group, I suppose.
Once we’d all got up and started to move the chairs back, Chris came over to chat with me to check whether he had understood my questions correctly. During our discussions, lots of people had been talking at once which caused some confusion. He didn’t need to do this, so I thought it was nice of him to make the effort. We had a brief chat and Chris suggested that the Buddhists I mentioned may also be experiencing genuine supernatural healing, because we don’t know everything about spirits and how they work. I admit I was not expecting that! Christians admitting that other religions may have something supernatural and good going on. That raises a whole lot of interesting questions.
He also told me about a healing he’d witnessed where someone with unequal leg lengths had the shorter leg grow as people looked on. I’ve heard that this can be done as a magician’s trick. Derren Brown shows one way it can be done and it’s discussed further here. I said I wasn’t saying that what Chris saw was definitely a trick, but that it can be done that way. To be honest, it seems like the more plausible explanation.
Before we left, a couple of books were pressed into my hands. We ended on friendly terms and we were all invited for an informal reunion at Jeff and Kim’s place in a few weeks’ time. I’m looking forward to it.