Irrational Medicine: Faith Healing, Intercessory Prayer, Religion in Medicine, and Belief in Alternative Medicine

Let me preface my talk with a quote from the 20th Century writer and atheist, H.L. Mencken, who said: “Faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable.” And that is precisely what I will be talking about in my lecture.

This lecture will begin with the history of faith healing in the Christian bible, particularly the New Testament, and glance at the purported healing activities of Jesus. While the story of faith healing goes back beyond the Greeks and Romans, my talk will begin with the bible. I shall be covering primarily Christian and New Age healing. We shall look very briefly at some of the historical examples of faith healing in Europe, and then at some of the purveyors of faith healing in the United States. We shall only be dealing with the Christian tradition, as well as some religions and belief systems in the United States which have grown out of the Christian tradition and embrace faith healing.

The two longest and most important portions of this lecture will be the encroachment of religion into medicine, particularly attempts to find intercessory prayer efficacious, and the popular CAM group of healing practices and their mingling with mainstream medicine.

CAM is an umbrella, shorthand term referring to all complementary and alternative forms of healing practices, which, while not strictly based on a belief in a god, usually involve some sort of belief based on healing “energy” vaguely described, or rely on some mechanisms that lie outside the purview of modern, conventional medicine. We do not have time to discuss how much of CAM is borrowed from Asian cultures, but my point is that the various practices under the CAM rubric are no less faith-based than Christian faith healing and intercessory prayer.

I consider the CAM portion of the lecture the most important for several reasons. My most pressing concern is that, along with the general population, there are some atheists who have embraced CAM. While not all skeptics are necessarily atheists, most atheists are skeptics. We non believers have abandoned belief in god, the most difficult “leaving behind” of belief in such a vociferously Christian society as the United States. Should we then abandon our respect for and reliance on the scientific method and embrace pseudo medical treatments and supplements whose proponents have not tested with the best investigations, double blind studies? I shall be discussing double blind tests in a while. Most CAM studies are not double blind, have no proven track record of success beyond that of the placebo effect, which we shall also be discussing, and cannot be replicated when put to genuine scientific investigation.

This lecture will try to prick the inflated balloons of intercessory prayer and alternative medicine, letting the air out of their claims of being scientifically backed up by so-called studies “proving” their efficacy and their anecdotal “success” stories. The truth is indeed out there, but it is not with the alternative healers.

I plan to allow the facts to speak for themselves, because facts give prayer and CAMs the lie. It is not necessary to fulminate against them or to accuse them of quackery.

Faith Healing in the Bible

First, let us turn to the Biblical basis for faith healing, especially the New Testament. The gospels are replete with instances of Jesus healing the sick and casting out demons from the possessed. There are more than thirty instances of Jesus healing people, usually by saying a few words, but sometimes with mud and spit. During his brief ministry, he purportedly healed the blind, the mute, lepers, the deaf, epileptics, a withered hand, and in the Garden of Gethsemane, the ear of the high priest’s servant, which Peter had severed with his sword. We shall note here that Jesus’ successors have not had similar success with restoring severed body parts!

James Randi explains, in his excellent volume, The Faith Healers, 1987, that the notion that certain people can heal by means of special gifts is rooted in the New Testament, I Corinthians, 12, in which this power is defined. Randi states that besides the Gift of Healing, there are nine other gifts of the Spirit, including, most importantly, the Gift of Knowledge and the Gift of Speaking in Tongues. Believers think that all three are gifts of the Holy Spirit. They have been utilized by faith healers to reify their healing practices.

Faith Healing, at its most basic, involves someone with the aforementioned gifts laying hands on the physically and/or mentally afflicted, or sending the ill person to visit a holy site. Sometimes a cure lies in simply having great faith in god’s healing powers.

Here are Jesus’ instructions to his apostles, reported in Matthew 10:8: “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out devils.” Christian faith healing ostensibly began with the religion’s founder, Jesus Christ, and was believed by the faithful to have been passed down to his disciples.

Faith Healing in the Church

The practice of Christian healing continued into the Middle Ages and beyond. Not only did kings claim to rule by Divine Right from god, they were also credited with being able to heal certain illnesses. In around 1307 C.E., the people of France began to visit their King, Phillip, for healing. Then English subjects began to believe that their kings could cure the disease of scrofula, a type of tuberculosis of the lymph nodes. They clamored for their king to touch them and make them well. There were other famous healers, such as Valentine Greatraks, who gained some reputation and some money by their artful laying on of hands, even though they had no claim of kingship.

The holy sites of the Christian past were replete with healing miracles. The graves of St. Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Sienna, and others became popular spots to visit and seek cures for various diseases. The most famous site is Lourdes, France, where a young peasant girl claimed she had been visited by the being she called “The Lady,” in 1858. A shrine was established at the spot some years later and the faithful still flock there, millions every year, to pray at the shrine and buy the so-called holy water sold in the shops, along with holy trinkets of all sorts.

The Catholic Church cleverly stage manages the daily performances at Lourdes, but makes very few claims of any sort. For example, the Church has never made any assertion concerning the curative power of the spring water there.

Yet the shopkeepers of Lourdes sell thousands of little vials of the spring water each year that are sold as amulets. The Church also denies the thirty thousand or so healing allegations the Lourdes public relations people cite each year. The Church maintains that while only about one hundred cases have even been properly documented, merely sixty four have been deemed true healing miracles. None have been authenticated by scientific research outside the Church.

Poor Bernadette, the young girl who had been visited by “The Lady,” was admitted to a convent and, afflicted by tuberculosis, asthma and other illnesses, died slowly and painfully at age 35. During one of her last visits to Lourdes, several miracles were reported. But when asked about them, she reportedly replied: “There’s no truth in all of that.” When asked about the miracles that took place at the shrine, she apparently answered: “I have been told that there have been miracles, but…I have not seen them.” Her father died, partially blind and paralyzed, without experiencing a cure.

James Randi

James Randi has exposed the “tricks of the trade of faith healers” in contemporary American society. His tracking and discovery of the infamous practices they employ makes his Faith Healers a very important volume for secular people to read. Randi’s exposes are also amusing reading.

For instance, one healer’s wife radioed the information she had picked up about audience members when she mingled with the crowd earlier. She remained backstage, broadcasting what she knew about the various people in the audience to her husband, who then miraculously called out the afflicted.

Another healer’s ushers would invite some people who came to the meeting walking under their own power to sit in the wheel chairs provided! When called to rise from them by the healer, they did so, showing the crowd that miracles were indeed being performed at each meeting.

Randi has received a MacArthur Foundation Prize Fellowship for his efforts, often called a “genius grant.” Carl Sagan reported that a critic accused Randi of being “obsessed with reality.” Need I say more? I do not think I need to, considering the audience I am addressing. Most of the secular community would not find an obsession with reality a fault, but rather a sign of intelligence and clear thinking.

Many so-called “faith cures” of people are easily explained. Sometimes their diseases go into remission. Sometimes they have not been properly diagnosed. Sometimes the body simply heals itself. Frequently the placebo effect takes place, which we shall discuss at more length later. The placebo effect comes from “dummy drugs,” often sugar pills, which in the past, alleviated symptoms just as well as real medicine. Today, placebos are not only pills, but herbs, massage, healing touch, and what have you. We shall list some of them later. There is evidence emerging that some placebos may actually effect a physical change in the body.

Faith Healing in the United States

In the United States, many religions incorporated, or tolerated, various types of faith healing, such as the Christian Scientists, the Catholics, the Mormons and others. Some have retained these practices, while others have distanced themselves from them. A popular form of faith healing is often connected to glossolalia, or Speaking in Tongues.

This practice, taken from the Christian Bible, Acts 2:4, consists of uttering nonsense babbling that believers think is a sort of language of god, understood only by him and his ministers. Numerous faith healers have encouraged their audiences to engage in it.

Many Pentecostal sects have revived the practice of glossolalia. The New Pentecostal Movement first emerged in the middle to late 1960’s, spurred by the middle classes in America who wanted more fire and enthusiasm during their worship services. Numerous mainstream Christians, wearied of pious clichés from the pulpit, and feeling spiritual emptiness, adopted the practices of a religion which had come out of the storefronts of Azusa Street in Los Angeles, California around 1906. The Azusa Street Revival Meetings claimed to heal many sick, blind and crippled people. The old roaring religion was toned down and gentrified by mainstream Christians who preferred to call themselves “charismatics.”

John G. Lake, a popular healer, came from the Pentecostal Movement. Another famous figure, in the earlier part of the 20th Century, Smith Wigglesworth, performed faith healings around the world, and even claimed to have raised a few people from the dead. In the 1920’s and 1930’s United States, Aimee Semple McPherson became famous for her healings, as did William Branham. Oral Roberts became well known in the late 1940’s, as well as his friend and fellow faith healer, Kathryn Kuhlman. Kuhlman was a large influence on the present day faith healer, Benny Hinn. For a complete history of these movements, please see several of the volumes listed in the Bibliography on, under the heading of Irrational Medicine.

Needless to say, while faith healing has been said to heal cancer, AIDS, blindness, paralysis and a plethora of afflictions, there is no measurable scientific proof of its efficacy. We have listed some reasons for the anecdotal stories of healing, such as remission, the body curing itself, misdiagnosis, and the placebo effect. The history of many so-called healers is unsavory, as well, which should be a warning to those tempted to approach them for cures. James Randi has exposed their tricks, and the fortunes some of them have accumulated from the hopeful, but faith healers are like the hydra-headed monster- expose one, and a dozen more seem to spring up in his or her place.

Even many Christians ask why faith healers do not go into hospitals and heal the sick, instead of soliciting funds publicly, constantly and blatantly. The American Cancer Society thoroughly rejects faith healing in an unequivocal statement. See the Bibliography at under web sources for the Cancer Society’s complete statement. Some thirty-two states in America, however, have exemptions for child abuse prosecutions against parents who resort to faith healing instead of medical treatment for their children. Nonetheless, in recent years, some states, such as Oregon, have charged parents who have turned to faith healing and whose children have died as a result. But faith healers, as heinous as their methods remain, are an easy target.

This lecture, as I stated earlier, intends to focus on two over-used, popular and difficult to discredit practices. Many mainstream Americans retain belief in their efficacy even though credible studies consistently demonstrate that they have almost no effect on genuine, biological illnesses other than the placebo effect. Intercessory prayer and religion combined with the practice of medicine and CAMs, alternative and complementary medicines, are my targets.

Intercessory Prayer

The interjection of religion and intercessory prayer into the practice of conventional medicine has been with us for many years. Richard P. Sloan’s volume, Blind Faith: The Unholy Alliance of Religion and Medicine, 2006, cites manifold instances of the blatant attempt to connect religion to medicine. When people are ill and in the care of an authority figure, a doctor, should they be filling out profiles that include their religious beliefs in an extensive manner? Some religious doctors think they should. Dale Matthews of Georgetown University states that doctors should ask patients about their religious beliefs and commitment. He thinks that if their answers reveal that religion helps them in their illness, their doctor should ask what he can do to support their faith or religious commitment. Why would a busy doctor have the time or the expertise to help patients spiritually?

The patient is in the doctor’s office to have his physical needs and illnesses attended to. This same Dr. Matthews is on the record as saying that the future of medicine is “prayers and Prozac.” Since prayer is a definite placebo and Prozac may well be, we are beginning to see a picture of a medical community that includes some members who seem to be ignoring the practical ethical, legal and even theological difficulties of combining medicine with religion.

Some contemporary scientists apparently take the position that religion is somehow “good” for their patient’s health. Dr. Sloan cites the deplorable insertion of religious classes and centers into prestigious medical schools in the United States.

In December, 2005, Harvard Medical School offered a continuing medical education course in “Spirituality and Healing in Medicine.” Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and other important medical schools have followed with similar offerings. George Washington University Medical School, Duke University Medical Center, the University of Minnesota, all have established centers to explore the relationship between religion and medicine. In 2009, over half the medical schools in the United States, says Sloan, included in their curricula courses on religion, spirituality and health.

Dr. Howard Koenig, an advocate of the trend, reported a few years ago that more than fourteen hundred papers had been written in the field concerning the topic of religion, spirituality and health. Most of these studies, he claims, erroneously, as we shall see, show a healthy advantage to the religiously involved.

Many of the advocates of the religious approach to medicine are evangelicals or some other sort of conservative Christians. Atheist scientists have put forward acerbic and devastating critiques on the dangers of mingling the fields of science and religion which are often at odds, if not war. Richard Dawkins, the famous biologist and author, and Stephen Weinberg, the Noble Prize winning physicist, are two non-believers among many who vigorously object to the religion/medicine blending.

In addition, there are thinkers, not necessarily atheists, who have cogent objections to the practice. Neil Scheurich, a psychiatrist at the University of Kentucky, argues quite rightly, I believe, for a separation of church and medicine. There are other scholars who maintain that scientific testing trivializes religion.

Is there not an attempt to reify religious tenets by means of scientific proof in this tendency? Is there not an implicit and indeed, often explicit attempt to coerce people who are vulnerable and worried and their families into religious observance? Religious advocates seem to be saying that if you don’t believe in god or if you don’t go to church or pray, your health outcome, or the outcomes of your friends and families, could be harmed by your neglect of prayer, religious involvement and belief. No wonder not only scientists, but some religious advocates deplore such blatant attempts to manipulate people.

What elements have contributed to such a deplorable situation in the United States? We are not lacking in scientists who receive international awards for their outstanding work. Our nation’s scientists, in the period from 1995 to 2005, won 7.67 prizes in physics and 6.7 prizes in medicine. Since then American scientists have more than held their own internationally. There seems to be a breakdown between the public and the pure scientists, a lack of communication and understanding.

There are four distinct trends that scholars have detected which have contributed to the decline of public, as well as the medical, understanding of the scientific method. Before we move on to the trends contributing to the deplorable blending of religion and science, I would like to review once again, in this series of lectures, the basic principles of investigation that fields of science follow, including biology, chemistry, physics, geology, medicine, astronomy and so on.

Here are the principles as laid out by Dr. Sloan.

Fields of science, including medicine, depend on scientific observation. They all employ methods that attempt to identify the connection between events and phenomena in unbiased manner. They state their hypotheses in ways that allow for testing, and most importantly, for falsification or disconfirmation of those hypotheses. How can faith, religious authority or subjectivity be put to any test? None of those principles can be objectively confirmed. Religion has no place in scientific studies.

Yet, as we have observed, there is a groundswell for connecting religion with medicine. Now that we have reviewed the general principles followed by the scientific community, I would like to outline some of the elements that have contributed to the breakdown between the boundaries of religion and science.

Doctor Sloan has pinpointed four crucial contributions to the practice of blending religion and medicine and the public embrace of belief in such methods as prayer, church attendance, and simply faith in supernatural entities such as god, to preserve health and to restore it when believers fall ill.

The first important element is the strong dissatisfaction with current state of mainstream, science-based medicine. It is ironic that there have been vast improvements in surgical procedures and outcomes, cardiovascular disease treatments, infectious disease containment and so on, but what Dr. Sloan calls the experience of being a patient has worsened considerably. Doctors are now on panels of practitioners created by HMO’s to control costs. Such events are a two-edged sword for doctors. They get referrals, but at reduced fees. So to make up for the lost fees, they accept more patients. Then they are bogged down in paperwork.

Many of us have faced long wait times at doctor’s offices and in emergency rooms. We endure more and more diagnostic tests. We are told this antibiotic is excellent until we learn that it has dangerous side effects. We find out many of the tests ordered for us were unnecessary. Many of these tests have saved lives, too, but the quality of being a patient, always difficult under the best of conditions, has deteriorated. Matters are made worse, too, by being placed under the care of specialists who do not know us and treat us perfunctorily, which is very common.

That is one reason why people turn to religion or alternative healing. But bringing non scientific practices, such as prayer, into medicine to help relieve religious or spiritual patients from the aridity of the medical experience, is not a viable solution. Working with the medical profession to provide a more human atmosphere is more to the point. Of late, many emergency rooms of hospitals are providing stated wait times, or sometimes even guaranteeing outside time limits during which you will be sure to be treated. However, the general psychological situation for patients undergoing conventional medical treatments, in many cases, seems to worsen every year.

Then there are the many advocates for the integration of religion and medicine. Dr. Sloan has noted that the John Templeton Foundation, which is based in Pennsylvania and funded by the huge wealth of Sir John Templeton, is one of the most important reasons for the rise of interest in science in connection to religion. The Templeton Foundation also funds the National Institute for Health Care Research. We shall look at the huge project Templeton funded in a little while–the Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer.

Please see Dr. Sloan’s Blind Faith for a list of all the foundations involved in the pursuit of attempting to integrate religion with medical science. They have been most effective.

The third element Dr. Sloan identifies is the uncritical and mercenary media. They engage in “pack journalism,” looking over each other’s shoulders, writing in the same way about the same topics, simply picking up stories and reprinting them in other papers. The media seldom insist on serious documentation. They have taken note of the fact that the public has an interest in religion and in medicine. The readership is high for stories on these two subjects. Well, two is better than one, they often decide. They combine stories of religion and/or prayer having a positive outcome on a medical procedure and the readership increases even more. This practice is problematical–most of us are quite familiar with the stories of religion’s positive effects on health and healing. The problem is that most of them are misleading and often just plain false.

Finally, Dr. Sloan finds that the Fourth, fourth, Great Awakening in the United States, which began in the 1960’s, has been an important factor in the movement to combine religion and medicine. According to Robert Fogel, our country has these periodic cycles of embracing religion and we have been in one of the upswings for about forty years. This attempt to bring human institutions and technological advances into some sort of balance with human needs and expectations is understandable, but misguided. It has also brought religion and much of its puritanical morality into such medical and private matters as abortion, birth control, homosexuality, end of life questions and so on.

We seem to be at the end of the fourth cycle, with secularity gaining ground once again. Let us work to assure the trend continues.

Now I would like to go over some important studies concerning intercessory prayers vis-à-vis religion and medicine. The first study concerning intercessory prayer and infertility was published in the Journal of Reproductive Medicine in 2001. Women who were undergoing in vitro fertilization in Korea were prayed for by prayer groups in Australia, Canada and the United States. They did not know they were being prayed for. They never gave informed consent. The study claimed the women prayed for had a 50% increase in achieving a successful pregnancy, while the unprayed for women had a 26% increase.

This investigation was a flawed, and possibly, according to experts, fraudulent example of medical research. The three lead doctors were Dr. Rogerio Lobo, Daniel Wirth and Dr. Kwang Cha. Lobo was head of the Obstetrics and Gynecology Department at Columbia University and on the editorial board of the journal in which the study was published. Dr. Cha was director of the Cha Infertility Center at Columbia when the study was published, but ended his relationship with the University shortly after the paper was published. Daniel Wirth is a lawyer who has a degree in Parapsychology. Wirth was later imprisoned for fraud. He was convicted of using the names of dead people for financial gain. Dr. Cha defended the deeply flawed investigation until he was accused of plagiarizing a different study he published in 2005. He has since left Columbia. Dr. Lobo, it turned out, had only read the paper months after it was written and helped with editorial suggestions and advice on getting it published. He withdrew his name. Because the study failed to obtain informed consent from the participants, Dr. Lobo was investigated by the United States Department of Human Health and Services.

A Dr. Flamm, a clinical professor of Ob/Gyn from Irvine at the University of California, wrote to the Journal of Reproductive Medicine, questioning the complexity of the study, and asking for the identity of the so-called independent statistician who backed up the validity of the data. The Journal did not respond to Dr. Flamm’s letters or phone calls. Other researchers wrote in with questions and they, too, were ignored.

Dr. Flamm wrote a critique in another journal. The Journal of Reproductive Medicine again did not print any of the letters sent to it questioning the Columbia study’s findings and methodology. Thanks to Dr. Flamm, this pseudo study has been exposed. The Journal removed it after public revelations and criticism in May of 2004, but returned it on November, 2004. They finally printed Dr. Flamm’s letter in 2005 and I find it is still on its website.

Such an article would never have been accepted were it not for the two Columbia doctors’ names on the study. This infamous study has been covered by Skeptical Inquirer and other respectable journals; but the story about its positive effects was all over the web and in newspapers, so a lot of damage was done to science before the facts came out. By the way, it is now called “The Columbia Miracle Study.” The real miracle was how it was accepted into a peer-reviewed, respectable journal in the first place. The red flags raised by the study should have been a warning to everyone involved.

Fortunately now it is no longer cited as “proof” of intercessory prayer’s efficacy, but as an example of false, or even fraudulent claims, made by some studies.

In the July 15, 2005 Lancet, there was a report of an investigation undertaken by Dr. Mitchell W. Krucoff and his colleagues. After an initial pilot study, the Mantra II Study was carried out and the results published. Mantra is the short name for Monitoring and Actualization of Noetic Trainings. Noetic is the designation of a therapy that does not use drug or medical devices. 748 Patients at 9 different sites underwent angioplasty or cardiac catherization. These patients randomized to four conditions. Group One was assigned standard care, Two was given intercessory prayer, Three received a combination of music, guided imagery and touch (MIT) and Four was given prayer plus touch (MIT.)

Now the secondary end points of this study were important because the press and other advocate groups tried to claim that even though the Mantra Pilot Study had shown no difference in patient outcomes from prayer, there were less deaths and readmissions to the hospital months later among the prayed for. So the secondary end points of this later study included major cardiovascular difficulty, readmissions and deaths in the following six months after the procedure. The researchers even checked the next six months after that. What the study meant by major adverse cardiovascular events were new heart attacks, heart failure, repeat angioplasty or bypass surgery.

The Lancet, known to be one of the most respected journals in the medical field, published the results. The results from Mantra II were what the secular community had expected.
The Lancet included an editorial praising the methodology and design of the trial. Well, analyzing the data showed no difference between the groups on the primary or secondary end points. Essentially there was no true difference between the groups.

Although Dr. Mitchell Krucoff, the lead investigator and his colleagues, had conducted a praiseworthy study, they waffled in the discussion section of the report. Perhaps, they speculated, the results would have been different if different religious groups had prayed, or if individuals had prayed instead of church congregations. Maybe the duration of the prayers should have been different. Sorry, gentlemen, intercessory prayer has no effect on patient outcomes. Your own work confirmed that.

Yet if one searches the web in an informal manner, one can see, even now, one or two newspaper articles posted that claim that patients in Mantra receiving intercessory prayer had a lower death rate in the six months following the treatment.

Furthermore, as the Lancet implied, can you imagine a poorly conducted test showing the efficacy of one religion’s prayers over another’s receiving publicity? In the current atmosphere of fundamentalist clashes over religion? How far will this type of folly extend? In a Washington Post article, Richard Sloan tells us, Dr. Krucoff was quoted as reporting that in MANTRA II: “…the combination of the bedside therapies and the prayer intervention creates a trend to improve survival.” It must have been a different MANTRA II than the one the Lancet published because that was not what the study had found.

I will conclude this section with the well conducted investigation STEP, the Study of Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer.

In 2006, the largest and most well-controlled study on the effects of intercessory prayer was conducted on patients who were recovering from coronary artery bypass graft. This study and its results may be found in the April, 2006 issue of the American Heart Journal.
More than 350,000 Americans undergo this surgery every year, and while the results are generally good, it is a stressful operation to undergo. The purpose of the study was to ascertain whether intercessory prayer or the knowledge one was being prayed for would affect recovery positively after the surgery. Herbert Benson, the well respected cardiologist and author of the popular volume, The Relaxation Response, 1975, was one of the lead investigators.

The STEP team divided the enrolled patients into three groups, randomly. The patients were from 6 hospitals. There were 1802 patients. Group 1, with 604 patients, was told they may or may not receive prayer, and they were prayed for. Group 2, with 597 patients, did not receive prayer after being told they may not be prayed for, and Group 3, comprised of 601 patients, received intercessory prayer after being told they would be prayed for.

Caregivers and outside auditors who had the job of comparing case reports to medical records were kept unaware of which patients were in which group. So we see in STEP a primary requirement of a well conducted study- a double blind. Some denominations approached did not have the ability to meet the time commitment of prayer during this multi year study, but finally three Christian groups were enlisted–2 Catholic and 1 Protestant.

The patients had similar religious profiles, with most of them believing in spiritual healing, and their friends and families were allowed to pray for them; it was assumed the patients would engage in prayer for themselves. The researchers provided the prayer groups a set prayer, set limits on the start and duration of the prayers, and only provided the patient’s first name and last initial. In this way, the researchers hoped the people praying would not drift into praying for everyone in the study.

It is clear that the study followed an excellent design, including blended audits, consent process, and independent monitoring. One can refer to the Harvard Medical School Office of Public Affairs, March 31, 2001, on the web, for the complete description of the study, as well as to the report in the American Heart Journal. The researchers followed all the important steps, such as the focus on one group of patients with one procedure, with the complication description well-established. It is a shame that such elegant work went into a study that was measuring something that is a fantasy. The secular community, however, welcomes the research, because for most sensible people, the outcome settled the issue of the efficacy of intercessory prayer. The John Templeton Foundation provided the financing for the multimillion dollar study.

The results of the trial are well known by now. The researchers found that intercessory prayer had no effect on recovery from surgery without complications. In fact, the patients who were told they were receiving prayers did somewhat worse than the others!

Here is the breakdown: Group 1, with 604 patients, had a 52% rate of complications. These patients had been told they may or may not be prayed for, and were prayed for.
Group 2, with 597 patients, had a 51% complication rate; 2 had not received prayer after being told they might or might not receive prayer. Group 3, with 601 patients, were prayed for and were told they would be prayed for, had a 59% complication rate. The study also found similar complication rates and 30 day mortality across all three groups.

You would think these results would settle the issue and lay the matter to rest. The priest who participated in the study emphasized that it was never intended to address the existence of god or of intelligent design. He issued further disclaimers as well, which may be found on the web site I have mentioned. Would he have said the same if the results had been different? I think not.

In addition, one of the other researchers stated that it might be impossible to untangle the results of the study prayer from the other prayers- the patients’ private prayers and the prayers of their friends and families. Some Christians are also claiming that the study is proof of god’s blessing being extended to the not prayed for group. Christianity Today stated, concerning the study’s results: “True to his character, God appears inclined to heal and bless as many as possible.” What? The all powerful, all benevolent creator is inclined to heal as many as possible? God has hit a wall in some cases, then? There are some cases not possible for him to heal and bless? Others have put forth the suggestion that Group 3 fared worse because they worried that they were so badly off that people had to pray for them.

The evidence is clear. Continuing the useless task of attempting to demonstrate how beneficial it is to link medicine and religion is simply bad science, bad medicine and bad religion.

There have been many poorly designed and executed studies, and I am sure there will be far more, touting the health benefits that arise from religious beliefs and practices. The only one that may have validity is showing better health for church goers. Given that people in poor health are very likely not to attend church as much as healthy people, such “results” cannot be taken very seriously. In addition, people in the United States consistently over report church attendance, so that any study trying to correlate health with attendance would need careful attention and adjustment.

I would like to glance at just one of the many factors that skew studies that are not designed and undertaken properly. Robert Park, a distinguished physicist and author of Voodoo Science, (2ooo) describes one practice that skews investigations. He calls it “the sharpshooter’s fallacy.” The shooter empties his six-gun into the side of the barn and only then draws the bull’s eye around the bullet hole. The same fallacy can be carried out in science; and it does regularly in the studies investigating correlations between religion and health. Researchers who come up negative with their original hypothesis of the healing effects of religion then keep searching the data to try to find something that’s a correlation. This practice is junk science. See Blind Faith for more fallacious practices during studies. We shall discuss a few more when we begin to look at CAM, complementary and alternative medicine, in a few minutes.

Religion and prayer do nothing for health or medical outcomes. Prayer and religious practices may provide comfort for believers when they are ill and undergoing medical treatment.

But how many people receive little help, and perhaps harm, from feeling guilty that their treatments are not working because they don’t have faith, or don’t have enough faith? Or because they have not prayed correctly? What of patients who are coerced by doctors, clerics, social workers, or psychiatrists into cooperating with religious practices to enhance their medical treatments? Why should doctors ask for an extensive survey about a patient’s religious practices and beliefs? Why should doctors be allowed to ask patients to pray with them before going into surgery? All these coercions are not suppositions; they have happened to patients.

Let us, as secular people, most of us committed to science, demand that the medical profession treat us with respect. We neither need the placebos of belief and prayer, nor being harassed to participate in such practices. As Dr. Sloan states: “Emily Dickinson may have said that hope is a thing with feathers, “but distant prayer still can’t fly.”

CAM – Complementary and Alternative Medicine

In the early 1990’s, a trend in medicine began to make itself apparent. More and more people were beginning to turn to alternative treatments and practitioners. This trend continues, although there has been a slight decrease in visits to certain alternative therapists, such as healing touch. In the last large survey taken in 2007 and published in 2009, thirty four million dollars was spent on CAM (Complementary and Alternative Medicine) a year. From now on, I will use the term CAM for all the alternative treatments we will be looking at in this lecture. People spent one third as much on CAM as they did on prescription drugs. Thirty eight percent of Americans used some form of CAM.

What is CAM? “CAM therapies are physical, mental, chemical or psychic interventions, such as acupuncture, homeopathy, naturopathy, folk medicine, herbs, megavitamins, nutraceutics, chiropractic manipulation, massage, biofeedback, hypnosis, yoga, tai chi, qi gong, and any sort of energetic, psychic, or spiritual healing used for the treatment of specific medical conditions or disease symptoms. They are practiced in the absence of both scientific evidence proving their effectiveness and a plausible biological explanation for why they should be effective; and their practice continues unabated even after (1) there is scientific evidence that they are ineffective and (2) their biological basis is discredited.” This is the definition of R. Baker Bausell, the author of the important 2007 volume, Snake Oil Science: The Truth about Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

Bausell is a research methodologist, or a biostatistician. In other words, he designs tests that can most reliably be depended upon to measure or predict what works and what doesn’t. He is the former director of research at the University of Maryland National Institute of Health, the NIH-funded Complementary Medicine Program. The second author I will be quoting from in this lecture is the co-author of Trick or Treatment: The Undeniable Facts about Alternative Medicine, 2008, Dr. Edzard Ernst. Dr. Ernst has used alternative treatments in his years of medical practice and is a professor of alternative medicine, one of the first in the field.

Both authors come from the field of CAM, and they are bringing a message that is both clear and fact-based. CAM is largely ineffective. Its effects are no better than placebos.

I will be discussing placebos a little later, but they are, for our purposes at the moment, nonsensical treatments such as sugar pills or saline injections doctors used to give patients when they couldn’t cure their conditions with conventional methods. Many people felt better when they took the “phony” medicine, and now an important field of research has grown up around them. But it is important to remember that placebos are not drugs.

Some of the reasons for the popularity of CAM are similar to those reasons that people have for turning to prayer and religion for so-called cures. A significant reason for trying CAM is its comparatively lower cost in comparison with the very high medical costs in the United States, where nearly 45 million people are uninsured. However, most Americans are not so silly that they throw all caution to the winds with regard to their health. Studies have shown that most United States citizens do not forgo conventional medical care, or allopathic medicine, when they can afford it. They use CAM in addition to mainstream medicine. So cost is only one factor in explaining the increased use of alternative treatments.

You will recognize some of the reasons I am listing here from the earlier list concerning religion and medicine. Conventional medicine, as I discussed earlier, is not meeting the needs of people used to being treated with some respect as consumers by most retailers and businesses.

They do not receive the same level of attention and time from the medical profession as they do, say, in buying cars, or jewelry, or the many consumer items available to them. We Americans are living longer, with all the attendant aches and pains, many of them chronic, that conventional medicine is not able to treat effectively. There is, because of expectations and also a more leisurely and better quality of life that enables people to focus more on uncomfortable symptoms, increasing dissatisfaction with mainstream medicine.

Some of this disaffection is likely due to the incredible gains in surgical techniques and other medical breakthroughs. People cannot understand why their chronic pain can’t be better treated, or their colds and flu, just as heart bypasses, for an example, often relieve angina. We have already discussed the role of the media in propagating the spread of stories that this treatment or that supplement helps prevent strokes, or heart attacks, or cancer. The lack of science education in the United States, often even among some science editors, is all too common. Most of the American public is poorly educated in science and in critical thinking.

Why do people persist in believing that CAM treatments are effective when they have attained a track record of being shown to be ineffective? There are many reasons, but one of the most important is causal inference. Take, for example, what Bausell calls the natural history of pain. Most researchers are aware that there is a rise and fall of chronic pain, say, due to a condition such as arthritis. People tend to take a new supplement or vitamin or herb or visit an alternative practitioner when their pain level is highest.

Then the pain, in its natural cycle, dissipates on its own. We humans then do a completely natural thing- we attribute the lessening of the pain to the treatment. Such an alleviation of the pain can go on for weeks, days or years, but usually patients tend to turn from one treatment to another fairly soon because of this natural cycle of many chronic conditions.

Now I would like to go into the question once again, of properly conducted studies that can be taken seriously. Most CAM studies, as many of the religious studies, claim excellent results. When CAM and prayer are subjected to rigorous study, the so-called benefits melt into thin air.

We have not yet gone very thoroughly into the impediments to making valid inferences from treatments and studies. It is very difficult, as I have already mentioned above while talking about the waxing and waning of chronic arthritis pain, to come up with correct causal inferences. Michael Shermer of Skeptics Magazine, puts this issue very succinctly, saying that “we have evolved to be skilled, pattern seeking, causal-finding creatures. Those who are best at finding patterns (standing upwind of game animals is bad for the hunt, cow manure is good for crops) left behind the most offspring. We are their descendents.”

So let us go over, a little more thoroughly this time, causal inferences I might make if I have a common pain, due to arthritis. Let us say that my leg hurts. The pain cycle, mentioned above, gets most severe around the fifteenth day of the cycle. That is the day I will likely take an alternative treatment or an alternative medicine, such as an herb or a supplement ordered by my alternative practitioner. My last treatment has stopped working, so I am trying a new practitioner, and/or a new treatment.

After a few days, my pain lessens. Don’t forget, the placebo effect is also at work here, too. The fact that I am engaging in a new treatment I trust or working with a new practitioner in whom I have faith, merely the fact that I am doing something positive for my pain, is going to cause me to make an incorrect causal inference. I have just linked the new treatment to a so-called cure for my pain. I have engaged in “sic ergo, ergo propter hoc,” or “after this, therefore because of this.” In other words, I took the treatment recommended, and it was this treatment that brought about my pain relief, indeed a cure for my pain.

I have ignored my natural history of pain and the placebo effect. In another month, or a few months, I will be ready to try another treatment, probably once again at the height of my pain cycle. We are, as a species, very likely hardwired for susceptibility to suggestion and conditioning. Both factors aid in learning. They can also throw us off the correct track in our reasoning.

R. Baker Bausell has come up with several other factors that increase our disposition to be hoodwinked into thinking that CAM treatments work. Cognitive dissonance is a large factor- we refuse to admit or are reluctant to admit that we have been wrong. In the case of my fictional arthritis, say that I have spent a large sum of money for the treatment recommended as well as time going to and from the treatment, taking the medicines, and so on. If I should say the treatment did not work as promised, I am afraid to admit that I have been a dupe. Who likes to think that about oneself, let alone admit it to other people?

As a human, I am predisposed to optimism, another factor in the inability to form a correct causal inference. I believe that there is something, somewhere to help control my pain.

The original conventional medicine I was prescribed by my mainstream doctor worked for a while, but then started to wear off and the side effects began to be worse than the pain. Nevertheless, I continue to believe that “out there” is a solution to my problem. Don’t forget my respect for authority, as well. Alternative practitioners dress up in white coats, too, quite often and have their credentials posted on the wall, just like mainstream medical doctors. Some of them eschew imitating Western medicine completely, and are dressed in ceremonial robes and have their own traditional clichéd rituals that command respect for a spiritual authority.

Bausell likes to cite a National Enquirer approach to life when discussing why people continue believing in CAM. By this he means that we humans seem to have a propensity to believe in the absurd. Some of us, given a choice between a sensible scientific explanation of the facts, and a completely absurd and counterintuitive explanation, apparently choose to believe the absurd one. Bausell admits that he does not know why- perhaps it is because we love to believe in wondrous experiences, a conscious but irrational choice, or a kind of alternative world view.

Bausell also finds another very persuasive reason for people’s belief in CAM. It is an important, but regrettable fact of contemporary life- a conspiracy-oriented view of the world. It often manifests itself in beliefs about governmental or special interest group cover-ups. Let me hasten to add that many institutions have not helped matters by actually attempting or succeeding in the attempt, to cover up issues from time to time. But notice the difference – the real cover-ups are much smaller, more easily contained, and are often exposed.

The facts come out. They are not like the general beliefs about alien abductions or the supposed “real” story behind the assassination of J.F.K.

Bausell cites a sterling CAM conspiracy theory. Kevin Trudeau’s self-published book, Natural Cures ‘They’ Don’t Want You to Know About, 2006, was on the New York Times Bestseller list nine weeks and sold about 5 million copies. The volume explains why the natural cures Trudeau advocates aren’t in “wider use,” because of government and industry cover-ups.

Unfortunately, some of us have decided to “just believe,” as the popular, overworked cliché exhorts us to do. In the complex interaction between patient and practitioner, the behavior of the practitioner is remarkably important as to whether a patient responds to a placebo or a CAM. Many CAM therapists are not simply out and out frauds. Many of them do believe in the so-called cures they are engaging in. In today’s atmosphere, where CAMs are invading the medical world, there are genuine medical physicians as well who believe in some CAMs, such as acupuncture. The confidence such practitioners have in the treatments transmits confidence to the patients.

Most respected scientists agree that the best, and most stringent way to conduct an experiment, as we discussed earlier, is to try to omit subject bias on the part of experimenters and participants both. This applies to mainly human studies and as we have said, is called the double-blind. Both the participants and the researchers must be kept unaware of which person is receiving which treatment. It is only after the data is recorded, and best case scenario, been analyzed, that the results are matched to the treatments.

This practice presumably cuts down on the placebo effect, experimenter bias, experimenter clues to the patients and so on. The participants should be randomly assigned and the key identifying them should be kept by a third party. We need to always look for these practices when a study is cited, especially when it is claimed that a study showed this or that medicine or treatment yielded astounding amounts of cures. You will see that claim quite often. It is not even necessary to step into a natural medicine establishment.

Fantastic claims are all over the web, and sometimes the media, especially television, pick up and give coverage to studies that report the so-called data and do not provide the public with any cautionary advice. The public is not informed about the size of the studies, who was their sponsor, if the investigations were double blind, and if the investigations are able to be replicated. Sometimes “experts” from departments of integrated medicine are brought on the air and interviewed. There are many such departments now, some operating under the auspices of respected medical institutions, such as the Cleveland Clinic, Duke University and others.

Let me assure you, a department of integrated medicine is nearly always a euphemism for alternative medicine, combined with some allopathic medicine. Medical and alternative medical terms are confusing to lay persons and cause them to think that they are hearing genuine scientific information when they are actually hearing speculation, data from studies that are either too small for true results or skewed by improper procedure, or other allegations about treatments that have not been properly tested and confirmed.

I would like to repeat again, and elaborate more, on why the above conditions that I discussed earlier are so important for a study. I will briefly glance at some reasons that investigators are not able to make valid inferences without the double-blind. Let us not forget, as I go along, the regression to the mean, stated by Bausell, the up and down history of chronic pain, which is such an important factor when patients self-report improvement during a course of treatment or an investigation.

We mentioned before the natural tendency of even honest, well-intentioned researchers to grab at multiple variables as outcomes. A good study will specify only one variable as the endpoint. This practice assures the trial has actually produced a positive or negative result. There is a human temptation to omit reporting glitches that occurred while the experiment took place, when getting the final results ready for publication. Then there is the well known effect called The Hawthorne Effect, which means that people behave differently when observed. People who know they are being watched will wash their hands more frequently after using the toilet, or will behave in more socially acceptable ways than their usual habits. The same effect applies to participants in studies: the very act of enrolling and then going through all the inconveniences of participating can make them believe they have improved. Their belief may have absolutely nothing to do with any therapeutic intervention.

Self-reports are highly vulnerable to this particular effect, such as self-reported pain reduction. Experimenter bias is another important problem, especially with those researchers administering the treatment. We have mentioned this difficulty before, but it is worth discussing again.
Researchers can give off subtle, unconscious signals that alert participants to which treatment they are receiving- placebo or genuine treatment.

The clinical psychologist, Irving Kirsch, in his intriguing volume, The Emperor’s New Drugs: Exploding the Antidepressant Myth, 2010, explains how participants in drug trials can deduce which treatment they are receiving, the real drug or the placebo. He asks his reader to imagine she is participating in a clinical trial of an antidepressant. You must receive informed consent instruction, that you may receive a placebo instead of the active medication, and that you will not be told which treatment you received until after the study is finished. You are informed that it may take time, weeks perhaps, before the therapeutic effects of the drug are apparent, and that the drug has been reported to cause side effects in some people who have tried it. Informed consent also requires that participants must be told what those side effects are, such as diarrhea, nausea, dry mouth and so on. You are also told that you will likely feel such effects before the therapeutic effects begin to occur.

As I begin taking the drug, I notice some of the side effects mentioned taking place. Hmm, do you think I won’t figure out which treatment I am getting- placebo or active medication? Do you think the doctor administering the treatment, who is also supposed to be “blind,” not knowing what I am receiving, won’t be able to guess that I am getting the active treatment? What has just happened is called “breaking blind,” and it means the test is no longer truly a double blind. Such a difficulty can happen very often.

Kirsch is reporting on double blinds for antidepressants, but it is safe to assume that other studies on other treatments are subject to the same difficulty.

The correct guess as to which treatment the participant is receiving goes beyond the statistical chance of around 50%. In the largest study of this type, 80% of the participants in a trial guessed accurately whether they were getting the placebo or the active medication, and 87% of their doctors also guessed accurately. Kirsch maintains that the odds that they guessed correctly purely by chance at an 80% rate are one in a million.

And now we come to the placebo effect. First I shall give a definition of a placebo, so that we don’t have any disagreement concerning what it is. This definition, similar to most others, states that a placebo is any dummy medical treatment; originally a medicinal preparation having no specific pharmacological activity against the patient’s illness or complaint and given solely for the psychophysical effects of the treatment. More recently, it is described as a dummy treatment administered to the control group in a controlled clinical trial in order that the specific and non specific effects of the experimental treatment can be distinguished. This is just what we have been talking about all evening.

H.K. Beecher published an important article in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1955 that stated he simply reanalyzed the results of fifteen randomized trials that had used a placebo as a control and about 35% of the participants who received a placebo had beneficial effects. Beecher’s 35% figure has not proven accurate. Sometimes a placebo can have a 50% or more effect, or an effect very much lower than 35%, nearly zero. But the important thing was that the placebo, the old fashioned sugar pill used by doctors before medicine became more sophisticated, and sometimes after, had moved into medical science. Further research has found in fact that is a double-edged sword.

I will cite only one recent, very well-conducted study by Fabrizio Benedetti and colleagues. This study not only confirmed the placebo effect but revealed that the placebo additionally, and let me quote here, again: “…has a plausible biochemical mechanism of action (at least for pain reduction), and that mechanism of action is the body’s endogenous opioid system.” The body’s chemistry had been altered by the placebo effect in the Benedetti investigation.

When I say two-edged sword, I am not overstating. People like Ted Kaptchuk, not a medical doctor, but a former acupuncturist, has been given an important post to study just this kind of effect of the placebo on the human body. Let me tell you a little bit about him and you can make up your own mind. You can find Mr. Kaptchuk on the web. Much of my information has come from Harvard Magazine’s Jan.-Feb. 2013 issue, entitled “The Placebo Phenomenon,” The New Yorker, and various articles by such scholars as Harriet Hall, in various publications such as Quackwatch.

Ted Kaptchuk has a degree in Chinese Medicine from Macao. He now heads the Program in Placebo Studies and Therapeutic Encounter (PiPS) at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical School. He is on the staff at Harvard Medical School. PiPS is the only multidisciplinary program dedicated solely to placebo study.

He is well funded by outside sources, including the National Institute of Health. He and fellow researchers published the results of a study they undertook in the New England Journal of Medicine. I shall preface my discussion of the study by saying that it was very well conducted, meeting most of the standards for a respectable trial. He and his team worked with 40 asthmatic patients. They were randomly assigned to four different interventions. One group was treated with real medicine delivered from albuterol inhalers. The second group did not receive any medicine from the albuterol inhalers they were given. The third group was administered sham acupuncture and the fourth group had intervals of no healing treatment. Kaptchuk and his team were hoping to show that the sham treatments had the same biological effect as the real one. All four groups reported subjectively that they felt better. There was no difference between their reports. However, the investigating team found that only the group that had received the real medicine in the inhalers had improved lung function.

There are a few so-called experts who argue for using placebos in medical treatments, not merely in studies, as they work so well, are cheaper, and lack most side effects. This kind of argument has been advanced for intercessory prayer as well. It is unconscionable. Placebos do not cure cancer, or damaged hearts, or AIDS, or any other biological ill. It is important to keep in mind that among most mainstream doctors and medical societies in Britain and the United States, the use of placebos outside of clinical trials is considered an unethical practice.

Benedetti himself, with his knowledge of the biochemical effect of the placebo, is adamant that use of placebos outside of clinical studies is unethical and that they should not be administered to patients.
If one looks at well-conducted studies that measure the outcomes of CAM practices and therapies it will be discovered that they consistently have no healing effect on the people who use them, other than the placebo effect. They do not have any biological, therapeutic effect on cancer, stroke, AIDs, or other biologically based illnesses.

The Cochrane Collaboration and its Database of Systematic Reviews are arguably the most reliable reviews of studies. As of 2005, the Cochrane Library had about 145 CAM related systematic reviews. There are also other well-conducted reviews of CAM therapies in addition to the Cochrane. Here is what Bausell has to say about them and their findings: “There is no compelling, credible scientific evidence to suggest that any CAM therapy benefits any medical condition or reduces any medical symptom (pain or otherwise) better than a placebo.” He concludes: “CAM therapies are nothing more than cleverly packaged placebos.”

I have often quoted Victor Stenger, the distinguished atheist, physicist, lecturer, and author in many of my lectures in this series. He has identified and clarified much of the confusion concerning the emphasis on “energy” in many, not all, CAM therapies. It is noticeable that many CAM therapies do not refer to a transcendent being, but rather to a source of energy, somewhere in the universe, that connects human beings to each other. The notion is fuzzy and the definition usually differs from one CAM healing technique to another. It is what contemporary parlance designates as “spiritual but not religious.”

Stenger believes that many of those drawn to CAM therapies, either as patients or practitioners, are seeking some rationality to their belief in what he calls the duality of matter and spirit. They embrace a concept of “energy” that is misused and misunderstood. Ellisa Patterson, a nursing professor, wrote in a peer-reviewed nursing journal in 1997: “We are all part of the natural harmonious energy of the universe.” She continued: “The human energy field is part of the universal energy field and is intimately involved with human life, also called the aura.” The movie “What the Bleep Do We Know?” put forth the postmodern idea, much misunderstood, that we can alter or create reality with our thoughts. Such unscientific, woo ideas and statements issue continuously from the CAM community.

Stenger sets the record straight. He calls these delusions applications. He explains: “…energy in all these applications is imagined to be some kind of immaterial, spiritual phenomenon. Energy is purely material in nature, a property of physical matter. No special form of biological energy associated with living things has ever been observed. We do have “an aura” of infrared radiation that is simply black body radiation that results from us being warm bodies. There is nothing spiritual about it. A rock at body temperature has exactly the same spectrum as a live human. A rock at ambient temperature has exactly the same spectrum as a dead human.” Stenger also answers the woo beliefs of both religious apologists and quantum spiritualists with science.

Their claims are based on the non-scientific notions that relativity and quantum mechanics have now dematerialized the universe. It is as if quantum mechanics has introduced us to a universe where anything goes. It is, for the religious and the CAMs, a universe that has become teeming with energy, a vast mind/body/spirit configuration that forms a united whole, a holistic paradigm!

Stenger throws cold water on such nonsense. He explains that 20th Century physics has replaced classical physics with something even more materialistic and reductionist. For example, “the old Newtonian model had a continuous field, like electromagnetic fields, while quantum physics has only discrete particles like photons, all the way down.” Stenger goes on to reiterate: “2oth Century physics did not dematerialize the universe- it rematerialized it.”

The mantra of the spiritualists and the CAM healers, such as Deepak Chopra, contains a different notion. They have a message for all of us: “Reality depends on our thoughts.” Please tell that to a hurricane. Oh, many of them will answer that we did not think deeply enough and not enough of us joined in to prevent such natural reality from upending our lives. Many of the believers in this spiritual reality concur with the theologian, Philip Clayton, who states in his airy manner: “The phenomenon known as collapse of the wave function suggests that the observer plays some constitutive role in making the physical world become what we perceive it to be at the microphysical level.” Not anything goes, which is what Clayton would like us to believe, however. I extend deep apologies to the woos for my skepticism.

Stenger, and I quote, relentlessly drives his material point home: “A simple particle is always a particle, never a wave. When teachers and authors say an electron is either a particle or a wave, they are using sloppy language.” 

Stenger maintains that a “reality exists that is independent of what people think about it.” CAMs, the religious and the spiritual practitioners who tell people they can change reality, attracting health, wealth and long life, even immortality, by thinking about it hard enough and in the proper way, are not practicing science. They have reverted to a type of voodoo, or shamanism. It would be nice to think ourselves well, or rich, or immortal and to become so as a result of our thoughts and prayers. Hemingway, the 20th Century author, ironically said of pleasant fantasies: “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

Spiritual practitioners poke at science and medicine by insisting that these fields have many unanswered questions. Science does not know everything yet and may never know all the answers to the universe, the world, consciousness, and the best way to treat fragile, illness prone, injury prone human beings. By rejecting sound science and medicine, spiritual healers and believers think they have replaced it with something equally scientific but more “spiritual.”

Such nonsense resonates with the Christian idea of the god of the gaps. Christians and others believe god can be found in those gaps where science has not yet found answers. But science continues to fill in those gaps and god is slowly being forced out. The same thing is happening in medicine as well.

The gaps in our knowledge of disease, injury, genetics and so on keep filling in with patient testing and retesting of theories, medicines and surgical techniques.

I would like to ask all of us in the secular community to keep our skepticism as atheists. We have rejected the notion of a transcendent other, and of a transcendent reality somewhere beyond us, by paying heed to science, and using our skepticism and common sense. Shall we be led back to fantasy and non-rationality by the practitioners of delusion? An art critic, Ken Johnson, stated in the New York Times: “As science eroded belief in distinctively embodied gods, poets reconceived divinity as an all-pervading energy.”

Why should some of the secular community give assent to the fantasy of an all-pervading energy? It is obviously a reconception of a transcendent reality that does not exist, except in the minds of those who embrace it. Let us spend our money and time on books, films, sports, atheist causes, and charities that need us, or simply activities that please us, and not throw our time and resources away on prayers or on quantum quacks. Let us reduce their significance with the skeptical laughter of enlightened thinkers. We do not need their crutches or their placebos. Let us face reality with sound judgment, with reason and with courage.

Video of Lecture: Irrational Medicine – An Atheist Perspective on Faith Healing 

Lecture: Irrational Medicine – An Atheist Perspective on Faith Healing

Video of Discussion: Irrational Medicine – An Atheist Perspective on Faith Healing 

Discussion: Irrational Medicine – An Atheist Perspective on Faith Healing 


Barnhart, Joe Edward. “Faith Healing.” In Tom Flynn, Ed. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007. 319-322.

Bausell, R. Barker. Snake Oil Science: The Truth about Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Cuneo, Michael W. American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty. New York: Broadway Books, 2002.

Kirsch, Irving. The Emperor’s New Drugs: Exploding the Antidepressant Myth. New York: Basic Books, 2009.

Park, Robert L. Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Pilch, John J. “Insights and Models for Understanding the Healing Activity of the Historical Jesus.” In Society of Biblical Literature 1939 Papers. Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1993.

Randi, James. The Faith Healers. Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Press Books, 1987.

Sagan, Carl. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Random House, 1995.

Simson, Eve. The Faith Healers: Deliverance Evangelism in North America. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1997.

Singh, Simon and Edzard Ernst, M.D. Trick or Treatment: The Undeniable Facts about Alternative Medicine. New York; London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2008.

Slade, Peter D. and Richard P. Bentall. Sensory Deception: A Scientific Analysis of Hallucination. Baltimore; London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1988.

Sloan, Richard P. Blind Faith: The Unholy Alliance of Religion and Medicine. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2006.

Stenger, Victor J. God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2012.

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