Sunday, February 10, 2008

Why reported miracle healings should be taken not with a grain but with a sack of salt

To those who believe in the powers of Fr. Fernando Suarez and cannot imagine how the healings can be anything other than genuine, and to those who think that witnessing a healing firsthand is sufficient evidence, the following account will hopefully bring some needed illumination. It is from a 50-year old woman who had stomach cancer that had metastasized (spread) to her liver and spine.
At the service, as soon as she [the faith healer] said, "Someone with cancer is being cured," I knew she meant me. I could just feel this burning sensation all over my body and I was convinced the Holy Spirit was at work. I went right up on the stage and when she asked me about the brace [to support her spine] I just took it right off, though I hadn't had it off for over four months, I had so much back pain. I was sure I was cured. That night I said a prayer of thanksgiving to the Lord and [the faith healer] and went to bed, happier than I'd been in a long time. At four o'clock the next morning I woke up with a horrible pain in my back. It was so bad I broke out in a cold sweat. I didn't dare move. [Hines, p.332]

What did the doctors find? X-rays revealed that one of the bones of her back had collapsed--because she had removed her brace and ran across the stage as directed by the faith healer. Was this woman really healed of her cancer? Two months after the "miracle" she died from the very thing she was supposed to have been miraculously cured of [Hines, p.332].

This case is an exemplar and affords a number of lessons.

1. Faith healing as with other types of quackery cannot be claimed to be harmless. This woman broke her back believing she was already healed. Some people stop taking their medications believing they've received a miracle cure. People have died because they resorted to faith healing instead of evidence-based medicine [Randi, p.293-296]

2. Testimonials are not evidence; they're just claims. This terminally-ill woman believed she was cured of her cancer. People in the audience believed she had been cured. She wasn't. She died.

3. Belief in the treatment--whether faith healing, one's preferred snake oil, psychic surgery, herbs from the 10th mountain of the Himalayas, or whatnot--creates the setting for perceived cure. Notice how the woman above felt a "burning sensation" all over her. Her excitement over believing she'd been singled out for a miracle cure had probably triggered the release of endorphins. Endorphins can mask pain. [Hines, p.333]

4. Many take reports of miracles at face value. There is no effort to look beyond tabloid reporting. People rarely, if ever, ask "What have I not been told?" "What was the diagnosis before the miracle and after the miracle?" "How is the person doing 1 week, 1 month, 1 year after the miracle?" People focus on the fleeting spectacle and fail to look at the whole picture.

5. Some people even arrogantly believe they have the knowhow and expertise to rule out trickery and any and all natural explanations/causes: "But I saw the miracle with my own eyes!" Well, imagine you had been one of the thousands in the audience and witnessed this woman take off her braces and run across the stage. Would you have concluded that a miracle had taken place because you had seen it with your own eyes? Even if you're an oncologist, how could you possibly know that the cancer was gone without doing sonograms, MRIs, blood exams, or whatever diagnostic tests are required and without doing follow ups over a period of time?

Now read the following. It's a supposed healing by Suarez circa 2006.
An usher brings Suarez to the front pew to see a dark-haired woman in a wheelchair. Suarez prays with the woman, who’s in her 40s. He helps her stand up and the woman falls limp. Two men help lay the woman on the floor. After a few minutes, the woman gets up and makes her way to the pulpit. “I have for years had pain in my legs, cancer has torn them apart,” the woman tells the crowd. “Now I don’t feel pain right now, so I praise the Lord.”

The pain was gone--at that moment. We are given a snapshot. What we don't have is the movie providing us a detailed intro to her condition and a time-lapse account by which we can follow her condition through to the present. I cannot but wonder if and when the pain returned and how she faced and resolved the cognitive dissonance--the belief that she'd been healed and the fact that the pain had returned and things were as they had been before the miracle.

In the 70s Dr. William A. Nolen followed up a number of cases of claimed miracle healings by faith healers. He found no evidence for them [Hines, p.333]. In the late 80s James Randi investigated various faith healers including Pat Robertson, Oral Roberts, Ernest Angley, W.V. Grant, Peter Popoff, and Fr. Ralph DeOrio. While he was able to uncover the tricks and deceptions of faith healing, he found no evidence whatsoever of miracle healings.
This book is an account of my earnest efforts to discover one example of faith-healing that can stand examination. I have found none [Randi, p.268].

I have tried to obtain from all possible sources direct, examinable evidence that faith-healing occurs. My standards are simple. I need a case that involves a living person, healed of an otherwise non-self-terminating disease who recovered from that disease as a result of a faith healer's actions and can produce before-and-after evidence to establish that fact. I have failed in any and all cases I have investigated to obtain a response that satisfies these simple requirements [Randi, p. 287-288].

The healing claims of Benny Hinn have been investigated. They too have been shown to hold no water.

Suarez is just one of the latest in a long list of people who've claimed to possess (or to channel) supernatural powers of healing. There is yet to be solid evidence for this. Given the paltry track record of his predecessors, given that anecdotes and testimonials are hardly good evidence, and given the fact that it is fallacious to equate inexplicable with miraculous, to believe in Suarez is to surrender to a delusion. Instead, we ought to confront the claims with utmost skepticism.



Terence Hines. Pseudoscience and the Paranormal, 2nd ed. Prometheus Books. 2003.
James Randi. The Faith Healers. Prometheus Books. 1987.

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