Faith healing is perhaps one of the oldest healing modalities. In ancient times, it was likely one of the earliest attempts to heal illness. A patient is ill and the shaman, witch doctor, or priest appeals to a deity for help. Does this work? Is prayer, or faith healing, an effective method for the treatment of illness?
The first line of evidence to the negative is the low life expectancy of the pre-scientific medicine world. In these times, when prayer was often used as a treatment, lifespans were the shortest, and often the most trivial illness could mean death. The first trials of the efficacy of prayer were performed by Francis Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin, in 1872. He observed the church services would often include prayers for the health of the royal family. He reasoned that if prayer was efficacious, then surely the royals would be the most healthy. Galton crunched the numbers and found no difference; prayer did not benefit the royalty.
Modern randomised controlled studies have also shown no benefit. The most famous of these was the Templeton funded study of cardiac bypass patients. These patients were divided into three groups: those whom received prayers, but did not know, those whom didn’t receive prayer and also did not know, and the third group received prayers and were told about it. Researchers then tracked the patients as they recovered from surgery. There were no statistical differences between the group who received prayers and those who did not. There was a difference in the group who received prayers and were told that they were receiving prayers. This group did worse by suffering more complications. This well-designed study showed that praying for patients did not help them recover, and knowing that one is being prayed for, does not bring peace of mind. The results are a dead negative for the effects of intercessory prayer.
The randomised control study is the gold standard for testing medical interventions, but most believers in prayer point to low-quality evidence such as anecdotes. Anecdotes are stories, not evidence: you may have heard of a family member that was deathly ill, yet recovered after receiving prayers. This may make a compelling story, but there are so many unanswered questions that make anecdotes worse then useless as evidence. Did the patient also receive medicine? Was their illness self-limiting? (In other words, would they have recovered no matter what intervention was given?) Without proper documentation and a control group, anecdotes will remain mere stories.
Well-wishing and prayers for sick patients still remain common today. While visiting my great aunt at her convent (she was a Catholic nun), I noticed a list of names by the chapel door. I asked her about it, and she told me that these were the people that requested the convent to pray for them. Much to my delight, one of these prayer recipients was tearing around the convent in the form of a rambunctious young boy. His mother had requested the nuns to pray for him, and now she had come to give thanks. Her son had received brain surgery and recovered beautifully, and was now bouncing off the furniture. With the science on intercessory prayer being negative, I am forced to conclude that it was the skill of the neurosurgeon that saved the boy’s life. I kept that observation to myself. Fortunately the child was suffering no complication from knowing he had received prayers.
What’s The Harm
If prayer does not seem to do anything, then what is the harm of prayer or faith healing? In the case of the mother at the convent there was no harm: she had used a combination of the proven modern medicine and the statistically irrelevant intercessory prayer. Faith healing removes the modern medicine, leaving only the prayer; in effect, taking the patient back to time before modern medicine when the simplest illness could mean the end.
Here is one victim of faith healing. Her name was Kara Neumann and she was 11 years at the time of her death. We know almost nothing about her except for the odd snippet from her mother Leilani. Kara was a straight-A student before being pulled out of school to be home-schooled.
We know considerably more about her parents Leilani and Dale who are followers of Unleavened Bread Ministries, a ministry that believes in faith healing, and other miracles. Note that they only “believe”; they provide no evidence. We will never hear from Kara as she fell ill, and her mother prayed for Kara’s recovery. She did not recover. Leilani denies this, but experts believed the Kara suffered extreme symptoms for 30 days before her death. Nausea, vomiting, excessive thirst, lack of appetite, and weakness, enough signs of distress to send any parent to the emergency room, yet Leilani continued to pray. Kara Neumann slipped into a coma and died Easter Sunday March 23rd, 2008. She died of diabetic ketoacidosis – a condition that is 100% fatal without treatment and completely survivable with treatment. All Kara needed was insulin, just as a child suffering from dehydration needs water, not prayers. Leilani and Dale Neumann were convicted of second-degree reckless homicide.
Leilani’s rather unapologetic statement included this bizarre claim:
“Dale and I thought we were within our rights to pray for our daughter’s recovery. The last thing on our mind was to harm our daughter in any way. I believe the law should be more clearly written before any charges can be made against parents who pray.“
We know from the example of the boy in the convent that parents are allowed to pray for their child’s recovery. Leilani claims injustice was done to her, she believes the state is interfering with her test of faith, her family, and her daughter. Quite the statement from a woman convicted of reckless homicide of a beautiful little girl. I am sorry, Leilani; the lives of others are not yours to sacrifice for your personal spiritual quest. I would like to say this woman is behind bars for good, but she and her husband were sentenced to 10 years of probation and six months of prison. Injustice has been done, but not to Leilani.
People have a right to their beliefs, but not their own facts. The evidence is overwhelming; prayer does not work. Let us never forget Madeline Kara Neumann.
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