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!
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.
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.