On Science, Logic, and Faith Healing

A frame from the lecture, "Plants and Sacred Tobacco of Peru and Medicinal Plants for Women," from Curanderismo at the University of New Mexico.
A frame from the lecture, “Plants and Sacred Tobacco of Peru and Medicinal Plants for Women,” from Curanderismo at the University of New Mexico.

So, I just finished taking an online class in Curanderismo, traditional Mexican folk healing based on working with the spirit, through the University of New Mexico (via Coursera). As I watched the videos for this class, I found myself thinking that these videos would drive the typical skeptic crazy, because on the physical level, it doesn’t look as though anything is being done. Things like prayer, chanting or singing, smudging, rubbing an egg on a person, circling the person to be healed–how can these actions affect healing on the physical plane?

I just want to point out the logical flaw in this type of skepticism. If you believe that there is no spiritual level to existence, and that there is only the physical, then you actually have a logical problem embedded in your resistance to the very idea of faith healing. That problem is this: if there is only the physical, then actions such as prayer MUST be acting only within the physical plane, because what else is there? According to the skeptic, if we feel spiritually uplifted by such practices, our feelings are only going on inside us–there’s no physical basis for those feelings. But that is where skeptics introduce a flaw into their own logic. Because according to them, there is no such thing as anything but the physical world. If there is nothing other than the physical, then the physical plane is where all these actions occur–including our own feelings that we might describe as spiritual. If that is the case, then even our spiritual feelings have a biochemical basis. But if spiritual feelings are biochemical in nature, then they can’t help but affect us physically. If that is the case, spiritual work could obviously affect physical health very profoundly.

Do you see my point? The skeptic, by “proving” that spiritual techniques cannot have any effect in the “real,” physical world, has actually proved the opposite.

We know that that which affects the brain affects the whole body. The brain’s response to emotions can involve a change in the levels of neurotransmitters. Parts of the brain release hormones in response to changes in emotional status. The release of adrenaline and cortisol in response to stress, for example, is well documented, as is the release of oxytocin, which is often called the “cuddle hormone,” in response to kind, gentle human touch.

We also know that the placebo effect–literally, healing that takes place because we have FAITH that it will–is real. Scientists have studied it extensively. We also know that people who respond well to placebos tend to respond well to prescription drugs, while people who do not respond well to placebos are more likely to be “treatment resistant” and not to be helped by drugs as much as would otherwise be expected. This strongly suggests to me that the spirit–even if you don’t believe it exists apart from the physical world–actually plays a strong role in healing.

Faith healing skeptics, I believe that you are hoisting yourselves on your own petards.

As a final note: please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that we don’t need medical doctors. What I am saying is that spiritual healing CAN be a useful part of our health care, just as lifestyle changes such as eating nourishing food, getting enough exercise and fresh air, and spending some time every day out in the sun can also help us to improve our health.

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4 Comments

  1. Interesting post! Thanks for sharing. As a skeptic (and a hard-core one, at that), I do disagree with you. Your post assumes that prayer and spirit work must necessarily have some kind of effect, either spiritual or physical, and that by denying the existence of the former, skeptics are forced to accept the latter. I would argue that this is a bit of a false dichotomy, and that it’s possible (not necessarily true, of course, but possible) that such work simply has no effect whatsoever.
    The discussion of the placebo effect is an interesting one, and I think your conclusions are reasonable. It’s fair to point to psychosomatic effects and argue that something like faith healing works much like a placebo (although the “spirit” as the reason for this is by no means a given).
    Thanks for posting this! I greatly enjoyed reading it.

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    1. Hi Jack, I think maybe I wasn’t entirely clear–which is understandable because the distinction I’m making is subtle. I’m not asking anyone to believe in anything spiritual. What I’m saying is that prayer, for example, has an existence on the physical plane. If we pray out loud, prayer becomes audio vibrations (which we can measure and quantify), but even if we don’t , the prayer is still in our thoughts. Our thoughts and memories, to me, fall into the category of “stuff that happens in the brain and the nervous system,” and, in fact, we know that thoughts affect the brain physically because we can stick people in an MRI, have them think about certain things, and then watch parts of their brain light up. That’s what I’m trying to point out–that our thoughts, our feelings, our spirituality, even if it does not exist as spirit per se (which reasonable people could disagree about), still exist physically, because we can look at them happening in the brain and measure the effects on the brain of those thoughts and feelings. Does that make a little more sense? I actually don’t think I’m disagreeing with you, though there are areas that we could probably disagree about–I just don’t think the subject of this post is one such area. If, on the other hand, I were to argue that I could affect President Obama’s health by praying for him, even though he and I have no particular connection, then we’d have something to argue about–I could point to studies that show prayer has a statistically significant effect on heart patients even if they don’t know they are prayed for, but that’s a pretty thin line of argument and I realize that. However, if I’m talking about doing faith healing for myself, I’m on much stronger ground, because my faith exists physically as part of my body, because the thoughts that I think can be measured physically and recorded via an MRI or fMRI, and can, for example, cause hormones to be released that affect the entire body. Does that make a little more sense? Thanks for reading and commenting on this!

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  2. Interesting post and subject. But, I think it is safe to assume that our minds( frame of mind, that is) and beliefs do play an important part to an extent in our own healings and health. Feeling comfortable and believing in your medical doctor and course of medical treatment will relieve psychological stress and worry. We all know this to be true. My problem with this is that quacks faith healers known this and use/abuse people’s gullibility and sickness for a lot of money. And many times, tragic harm to the sick.
    What I might add also is the shameless promotion by the media. People like Oprah, Wayne Dyer and even some popular and trusted news agencies have ‘investigated’ or rather advertised quack faith healer john of god of Brazil. After, the the Oprah shows he became known world wide. And many foolish, sick and desperate people now claim to ‘believe’ in this form of ‘medicine’. Such is the extent of Oprah’s power of persuasion and woo mongering. But, sadly the truth is a tragedy for those who expect real medical healings. Take Lisa Melman, the beautiful young woman Oprah used on her show to promote this quack. Lisa had serious breast cancer and chose to have john of god treat her. The faith healing treatment called psychic sugery by the Entities consist of Medium john of god sticking a pair of forceps way up her nose. And giving them a twist!!! That’s right!! This ‘surgery’ is how he cures cancer. And Oprah, true to her own God( of money, influence and ratings), preach and sold the efficacy of this quackery on national TV. Totally unbelievable and heartbreaking. But much worse for Lisa Melman.
    https://lakishajj.wordpress.com/2015/07/09/faith-healer-john-of-god-another-tragic-death/

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Lakisha. I do understand where you’re coming from on this and I know there are quacks out there, and, in addition, there are also other people who are very sincere and don’t intend to do any harm but yet are not as effective as they think they are. On the other hand, sometimes medical doctors fall into those camps as well. (And then there are times when neither can help. I find it very interesting that people who don’t respond well to placebos typically don’t respond well to regular prescription medicines either.) Ideally, both should work together so that people have the best of both worlds, but there definitely are times when we instead get the worst of both. Also, I want to note that most people who apply faith to their own healing don’t go out and find a famous healer (or quack)–most of them, I think, just pray, and people in their spiritual communities also pray for them. I don’t regard prayer as a substitute for medical care, but I absolutely think it is a safe (and often effective, in that science tells us that it makes a small but statistically significant difference to health in clinical studies) adjunct to medical care.

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