Can prayer cure illness?

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If you happen to watch BBC1’s The Big Questions on a Sunday morning then you might have spotted me among the guests this morning. I was invited onto the show to debate the question ‘Can prayer cure illness?’ because of my involvement in the ASA complaint against Healing on the Streets in Bath.

I was joined in the ‘no’ camp by Kevin Friery of Hampshire Skeptics, and I owe him huge thanks for helping calm my nerves about my first live TV experience. I also think he deserves credit for the comment he made about praying for traffic lights to stay green!

In the studio pre-broadcast
In the studio pre-broadcast

Although all the evidence shows that prayer doesn’t cure illness some of the other guests would have you believe otherwise. You should watch the episode on BBC iPlayer if you can to see the bizarre nature of the arguments in favour of faith healing. The segment is also available to view online on Youtube by clicking here. I don’t think I can do them justice in this post. Needless to say, all of the arguments contained subjective personal anecdotes which don’t hold much weight at all. Studies into whether prayer can help cure or heal people have shown little to no effect, with the studies that have the most scientifically rigorous methodologies providing no positive results. The meta-analysis studies are the most interesting, with some suggesting that further research is pointless.

It’s most likely that any positive result is caused by a prayer related placebo effect. Humans are very susceptible to suggestion, after all. Even Wes Sutton, a healer himself, stated that prayer doesn’t offer a cure all of the time, and guess what else doesn’t work for everyone every time? The Placebo effect, and Placebos are not a valid replacement for medicines or treatments that have reliable results.

screenshot mid-broadcast

I was glad to hear that none of the people on the show that believe they can heal others through prayer or the laying on of hands would suggest people stop their conventional treatment for their illnesses, but the fact does remain that there are faith healers who do this and that people die because they prayed for healing rather than seeing a doctor. Parents end up in prison because their child died needlessly, and the sick are offered false hope in their most vulnerable and desperate moments. The Adrian Pengelley case is a good example of this, and you can find many stories of this happening on the ‘What’s The Harm?’ website.

The take away message here is that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and personal testimony isn’t evidence enough.

photo: Kevin Friery / screencap: Alastair Coleman

p.s. at one point during the show another guest stated it was sad that people felt so callous about god, and he pointed towards me and Kevin. Callous doesn’t cover it.

Bringing Bad Science to the Classroom

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I recently held a workshop in my local library for children aged 10 years+ that was marketed as ‘How to be a Ghost Buster’. I taught the attendees how to spot faked ghost photos, misidentified ghost photos, and what a scientific approach to odd activity looked like. I taught them how dodgy human memory is, and we often see meaning where there is none. None of what I told them was personal opinion and was all based on research and studies. I answered their questions as objectively as I could and yet I was still terrified that I might say or do the wrong thing to a potentially vulnerable audience.

This is why alarm bells rang when I read about a Milwaukee paranormal researcher who tried to hold a Ghost Hunting 101 class at a school and was met with angry protest from Christians who felt that the only spirits that should be discussed were the Holy Spirit.

Greg Neukirk of WhoForted reports that ‘Arn Quakkelaar, a member of the Christian Emergency Network, told WTMJ News Radio that the Holy Ghost is the only ghost children should be seeking. “There could very well be ghosts. We’re not against believing that. We believe in the Holy Spirit, and that’s what we’re focused on.”’

The paranormal researcher in question, Noah Leigh, wanted to demonstrate some of the techniques used by people who investigate anomalous phenomena. “We’re not going in there with Ouija boards, dowsing rods, to conjure things up. This is not the point. We’re there to document what may have been reported,” Leigh told the local news.

Apparently the school weren’t happy to allow the religious to have the monopoly on what extra-curricular lessons the children could have and Leigh was allowed to proceed with the ghost research classes. However, there are a number of issues raised in this story that I wanted to explore in a bit more detail.

It turns out that Arn Quakkelaar hosts something called ‘Prayer Walks’ at schools. This extract taken from Arn’s ‘Brothers and Sisters in Christ Serving’ newsletter explains how this works.

A Prayer Walk is simply a group of “Prayer Warriors” walking  around, in and throughout a building . . stopping to pray at  specific locations or troubled areas in a school which the  teachers, staff and/or principals are concerned about. Past  testimonies by Principals and staff have declared how effective the power of prayer in their respective schools have changed the attitudes of students and staff.

This is a weird and inappropriate activity to be taking place in an educational facility, but then again I’m a dirty secularist and would say that. Yet, with that in mind, I also wonder if the Ghost Hunting 101 class is appropriate too. Noah Leigh belongs to a research team called Paranormal Investigators of Milwakee and their website suggests they are a scientific team but a quick look at their approach, methodology and equipment suggests otherwise. There is lots being used that probably leads to baseless speculation about activity being paranormal. Moon phases? Really?

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Everyone is entitled to their own opinions and beliefs and if the Paranormal Investigators of Milwakee want to explore buildings in the dark with their Mel Meters and so on, then this is entirely up to them. It is an entirely different ball game though, when this is presented in schools as a scientific approach when it simply isn’t.

Using technological devices does not make you a scientific paranormal researcher, and the science associated with a lot of these pieces of ghost research equipment is often shaky, in need of replication and further testing, or still in progress. Ghost hunters often misunderstand the science and misrepresent it, unknowingly, during their research. Ghost hunters often use these devices in a ‘just in case’ style, yet still use any positive hits as evidence of something weird. This is bad science.

Bad science should not be presented in a school environment as anything other than an example of what bad science looks like. Some have argued that if the prayer group are allowed into the school then ghost hunters should be allowed in too, but this is a poor selection process for determining who should get to talk to children about what they believe to be true.

Noah Leigh said  “We’re not going in there with Ouija boards, dowsing rods, to conjure things up. This is not the point. We’re there to document what may have been reported,” but I would suggest that the techniques he would have been telling the children about are just as bad as dowsing rods and ouija boards – they may have no religious relevance, but they’re still nonsense.

Nonsense does not belong in the classroom and does not get a free pass just because someone else gets to bring a different flavour of nonsense into the classroom.

Healing on the Streets: One Year on

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In one weeks time a petition that states ‘I believe that God can heal’ will come to an end. Launched in early 2012 the petition calls on the UK Government to

… ensure that publishing statements of faith is not banned. This petition is put forward following cases where the Advertising Standards Agency [ASA] has banned Christian groups from publishing material with the words ‘God can heal’, for example in Bath.

This is a story quite close to my heart as I was the complainant in the Bath ‘Healing on the Streets’ case that inspired this petition after it made the headlines on February 1st 2012. The group based in the city of Bath were told by the ASA they could not continue to use the leaflets in the form I had complained about. The leaflet read

NEED HEALING? GOD CAN HEAL TODAY! Do you suffer from Back Pain, Arthritis, MS, Addiction … Ulcers, Depression, Allergies, Fibromyalgia, Asthma, Paralysis, Crippling Disease, Phobias, Sleeping disorders or any other sickness? We’d love to pray for your healing right now! We’re Christians from churches in Bath and we pray in the name of Jesus. We believe that God loves you and can heal you from any sickness”

Original Leaflet handed to me in Bath in 2011

I made the complaint because I felt the health claims being made about specific illnesses could be potentially dangerous for those who are desperate and vulnerable, and the ASA agreed with all of my points. A lot of Christians and Christian groups complained that I made the complaint because of some sort of hidden atheist agenda and that this ruling from the ASA was religious persecution. This is, I expect, where the inspiration for the Government petition came from – a misunderstanding of the ASA ruling.

The petition from Andrew Scopes says ‘we call on the Government to ensure that publishing statements of faith is not banned‘ and by asking this question Scopes has taken a distorted interpretation from the ASA adjudication.  The claims ruled against were not statements of faith that were banned, they were claims about the healing of specific illnesses, many of which are terminal and debilitating. The claims had no testable evidence to back them up, and the claims were being made on literature being handed out to strangers on the street, where it would be impossible to know the circumstances of the person being given the leaflet. This is why they were found to be in violation of CAP codes, and not because it was Christians making statements of faith.

The ASA even stated in the initial ruling

‘The ASA acknowledged that HOTS sought to promote their faith and the hope for physical healing by God through the claims in the ad. However, we were concerned that the prominent references to healing and the statement “You have nothing to lose, except your sickness” in combination with the references to medical conditions for which medical supervision should be sought such as arthritis, asthma, MS, addictions, depression and paralysis, could give consumers the expectation that, by receiving prayer from HOTS volunteers, they could be healed of the conditions listed or other sicknesses from which they suffered. We concluded the ad was misleading.

We acknowledged that HOTS volunteers believed that prayer could treat illness and medical conditions, and that therefore the ads did not promote false hope. However we noted we had not seen evidence that people had been healed through the prayer of HOTS volunteers, and concluded that the ad could encourage false hope in those suffering from the named conditions and therefore were irresponsible.’

I’m personally not in the business of stopping people from practicing their chosen faith, and I only made the complaint because of the nature in which the claims in question were being made. The ASA ruling had no hand in the banning published statements of faith, but everything to do with statements of faith being published in a potentially misleading manner.

To even be considered for debate by parliament the petition will need to gain another 96,900+ signatures within the next 8 days which is unlikely. Yet, if Scopes and the 3,000+ people who signed the petition believe what happened in the Bath HOTS case was the banning of statements of faith, the one way the government could ensure similar didn’t happen again would be to grant religious groups exemption from CAP codes and similar regulations, and nobody should be offered a free pass to making health claims if they can’t back their claims up with evidence. Testimony, and claims that ‘god did it’ just aren’t good enough. Surely that isn’t what these people are asking for?

One year after the Healing on the Streets saga – after being hounded by the media, being called ‘Atheist Hayley Stevens’ by the international press, someone complaining to my employers that they shouldn’t employ ‘someone like that’ in a bid to get me in trouble, and dozens and dozens of emails from angry Christians all over the world, the HOTS Bath saga still hasn’t ended…

I was right

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In the piece I wrote for the Skeptical Inqurier about my encounter with ‘Healing on the Streets’, the ASA complaint and the following media attention I closed the article with the following quote.

I think my story demonstrates one very important thing: standing up for what we know is right and speaking out against what we know is wrong can result in a tangible achievement. One person can make a difference; all you have to do is act. Be that person. Make that difference.

I was right.

The original leaflet from ‘Healing on the Streets’ in Bath
The new leaflet with a disclaimer explaining people must seek professional advice from their doctor. It reads “We would advice those who receive prayer and feel there is a notable change in their health, that they seek a doctors verification and advice, before making any changes to the medication they receive for a condition. “

Standing up for what we know is right and speaking out against what we know is wrong can result in a tangible achievement. One person can make a difference; all you have to do is act.

Be that person.

Make that difference.

An Outcome In The ASA ‘praying for healing’ Appeal

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The complaint I made to the ASA about Healing on the Streets (HOTS) Bath was originally upheld by the ASA with the following:

 The ads must not appear again in their current form. We told HOTS not to make claims which stated or implied that, by receiving prayer from their volunteers, people could be healed of medical conditions. We also told them not to refer in their ads to medical conditions for which medical supervision should be sought.

The ASA had told HOTS that they could not state that they believed prayer could cure people, which had been the amendment HOTS suggested they were happy to make at the time. This decision by the ASA was appealed by the HOTS group and I was asked to contribute a statement to the appeal being conducted by an independent person who had not been involved in the original case. Today I received word that an outcome had been reached and the original “outcome” has been upheld but only applies to the leaflet now, and not the website which was decided to fall outside of the remit of the ASA in this case.

The ASA state:

 This adjudication replaces that published on 1st February 2012. One point of complaint, in relation to website content, outside the remit of the ASA, has been removed. The wording of the remaining points has been changed but the decision to uphold remain.


The ad [leaflet] must not appear in its current form. We told HOTS not to make claims which stated or implied that, by receiving prayer from their volunteers, people could be healed of medical conditions. We also told them not to refer in their ads to medical conditions for which medical supervision should be sought.

I think this is fair and am really pleased with this as I only included the website claims after finding the leaflet and deciding I was going to make a complaint about it.

When I made the complaint it wasn’t on the grounds that Christians were making these claims – despite what some news sources may have said. I made the complaint because of the specific health claims being made by the HOTS volunteers. These specific claims about what they felt their God could heal concerned me because they are all serious conditions that make the sufferer vulnerable and desperate.

That the ASA have reassessed their initial decision and have announced that HOTS still must not list specific illnesses and diseases is great news. They have still taken into account my complaint and understood my concerns and addressed this in their final decision. This an excellent final outcome as far as I am concerned.