How Faith Healing Works

What do skeptics say about faith healing?
Filipino faith healer Alex Orbito treats a patient using psychic surgery, a pseudoscience that involves using nonhuman animal tissues to fake an operation. Bettmann/Getty Images

Skeptics note that faith healers' performances are often carefully scripted to build excitement in the crowd, and that healers use techniques borrowed from stage hypnotists and other faith healers. Much of what the people at these sermons feel stems from their expectations and their openness to believing that some kind of spiritual energy is affecting them. They may faint because they've seen others faint (and some preachers actually slap or push people to make sure they fall). What skeptics see as a sort of group hysteria, believers feel is the hand of God [source: Nickell; CNN].

Skeptics and investigative reporters have looked into the claims of faith healers, and in many cases have found concrete evidence of blatant fraud. Perhaps the most infamous is Peter Popoff, who made millions of dollars in the 1980s healing people and demonstrating his seemingly mystical knowledge of their names and ailments. Skeptic James Randi and a team of investigators used a radio scanner to intercept radio transmissions from Popoff's wife, revealing she was simply reading information from prayer cards people had filled out prior to the show, and Popoff was listening to her through an earpiece. Despite being exposed by Randi on "The Johnny Carson Show," Popoff continues to sell holy water and divine debt removal services on TV.

Another faith healer exposed for fraudulent practices is Benny Hinn, who would call out various ailments he could supposedly heal to a large audience, then invite those who felt he had healed them to the stage to give testimony of their miracle. No one with a visible disease or injury would approach the stage, since it would be obvious that no actual healing had occurred [source: McKeown]. Those who felt they had been healed had likely come to Hinn's events with powerful expectations that they would be part of a miracle, and may have experienced temporary relief from symptoms. However, investigators who followed up on several cases of people who claimed Hinn healed them found no evidence that any actual healing occurred [sources: CNN Sunday Morning; Nickell]. Any regression or healing of illness in these adherents can often be explained by spontaneous remission, misdiagnosis or the potent effects of suggestion.

Some healers use other methods of fakery, such as paying an accomplice to pretend to be ill then experience a sudden cure. One of the most spectacular techniques is psychic surgery. When performing psychic surgery, healers, calling upon divinity, will either pretend to make an incision (that will shortly be magically healed) or make a show of pressing their fingers directly into the flesh of the patient. They carefully hide the entry point with their hands or a towel, the way a stage magician might hide a sleight-of-hand trick. Unidentifiable tissue, which is generally animal blood and organs from a butcher shop, is pulled from what appears to be awound, usually with theatrical proclamations of pulling out the cancer or the demons. James Randi has documented and debunked this particularly insidious form of fraud. There is no actual wound, and the entire process is a stage trick [source: Randi].

Skeptics also describe the harmful effects of fraudulent faith healing. People who donate money to a fake healer are being bilked and might suffer some financial hardship as a result. But some people who feel as though they've been cured even though they haven't will stop getting legitimate medical care, worsening their conditions and in some cases hastening their deaths. Investigators who followed up on some of Popoff and Hinn's victims found multiple cases of people who had foregone medical care because they received a holy cure instead [source: Nickell].

Also, the tenets of faith healing and abundance ministries put the burden of their own failures on their followers, tying financial success and healing outcomes to adherents' intensity of faith. As a result, people who are poor or who do not experience healing feel as though they are at fault for their lack of faith. An idea similar to "if you're sick or poor you're just not praying hard enough" shows up in the popular Law of Attraction concept, which suggests that people get positive outcomes in situations by simply thinking about positive things.

Skeptics don't have the final word on faith healing, however. Scientists have taken a hard look at the effect of prayer on illness as well.