Faith healing works

Faith healing shouldn't work, but it works

In my previous post, I discussed whether antidepressants work mainly via suggestion, or the placebo effect. A placebo is similar to faith healing. However, faith healing is usually viewed as a matter of belief in magic and the supernatural rather than a matter of belief in magic and supernatural trust in the science of pharmacology.

From a scientific point of view, faith healing is unexplained, incomprehensible, and shouldn't work. Still it works. The same of course also applies to placebo effects. Scientists recognize that there are placebo effects but struggle to explain them.

If you grew up in a superstitious country, you have likely experienced faith healing. Here are some examples of my childhood In Ireland:

  • Children born after their father's death had the cure for thrush, a sore throat.
  • The seventh son of a seventh son had special powers, such as the ability to cure ringworm.
  • A cure for warts has been inherited in some families.

Such traditional faith healers generally practiced for free, although strangers may want to make up for their inconvenience with a small gift. Given that these services were truly free and that faith healers found it immoral to ask for payment for their special gift, they were widespread. What about the results?

The proof of the pudding
For a year, my sisters and I became infected with ringworm - a fungal infection that can result from contact with farm animals. The man with the cure was a local bachelor farmer who could be met early in the morning picking mushrooms in our pasture. He greeted us at his hut and treated our ringworm by drawing a wedding ring over each lesion and making the sign of the cross. "You should be gone in a month," he said. Sure enough, they all went away in about three weeks.

A close friend had a similar experience with warts. The faith healer knotted pieces of wool over each wart without touching it while reciting an Ave Maria. The warts fell off within a month.

Most scientists face such evidence through simple skepticism. Perhaps the alleged "cure" was unrelated to the outcome. Without treatment, the timing of recovery would be exactly the same. It is certainly true that ringworm undergoes spontaneous healing. This is a seasonal phenomenon; however, the rash that is characteristic of wet or humid seasons and spontaneous recovery would have taken several months, not weeks.

The girl had also had warts for at least two years, making her accidental recovery even less likely in a month.

It is always difficult to understand such anecdotal phenomena to the satisfaction of scientists, but the healing of faith seems to produce a placebo effect, much like the use of drugs to treat people who are mildly depressed (and therefore have no real pharmacological response to it learn the medicine).

When people are given a prescription drug like Zoloft or Paxil, they expect improvement and are fair game for a strong placebo response. Why should faith healing recipients expect to get better? Several elements of the situation conspire to give patients an expectation that they will be better off.

First, there is the hocus-pocus through which people acquire the gift of curing a certain disease. Notice how the pagan aspects of faith healing or "superstition" are combined with Christianity to give the impression that various supernatural forces are working on the problem. Social pressure could also be a factor, as we feel the pressure to believe in healing according to the emperor's style of new clothes.

If there have been successful results in the past, people who consult the faith healer will likely show up because they already have positive healing expectations, even if they consider themselves too sophisticated to be absorbed by magical thinking.

With unfamiliar means, faith healing can obviously strengthen immune function. This would explain why smaller lesions disappear faster than they would otherwise. If placebos are half the effects of non-surgical medicine (which can be too conservative), faith healing can be a trillion dollar industry in the US.