28 June 2007

Healed by faith

Do faith healers really heal people, or are they contributing to their misery?

A pilgrim, who came to the house of the Benoni teenager who claimed to have seen visions of the Virgin Mary, has been blinded by looking into the sun, waiting for the Virgin to appear.

Curiously, once the news of the visions began to get out, a growing number of people made ‘pilgrimages’ to the house, including people who were from different faiths from the devoutly Catholic family involved. They were considered to have come seeking blessings, and proceedings became more like revivalist prayer meetings, as visitors collapsed on being touched by the girl.

Apparently no donations were asked for the services provided. Some people claimed that they had been ‘healed’ of various ailments while being prayed for at the place apparently now calling itself "Our Lady of the Rays", while others complained that their ailments persisted.

“You must have faith” says Francesca, who claims the Virgin Mary appeared to her 20 times.

Spiritual healers
It is indeed typical of revivalist meetings and a wide range of people claiming to be ‘spiritual healers’ of one kind or another, that they attract a large number of sad and desperate people.

Some have complaints rather than disorders, their symptoms being largely or entirely due to their psychological conviction that there is something wrong with them, and such folks can often be ‘cured’ of the diseases they actually don't have, but are relieved of their symptoms by now considering themselves as no longer ailing.

Who gets helped?
It's typical of the former type of healing-seeker, often suffering some variety of conversion disorder (what used to be called ‘hysteria’ before that term unfairly became unfashionable) that they are very susceptible to ‘cure’ under such circumstances, just as through the ages they were always able to be cured by a wide range of quack treatments sharing only the fact that the afflicted were prepared to believe they were curative. And the scenes that we have seen and read of, in which such folks, when ‘touched’ by the ‘healer’ collapse and lie twitching on the floor, are absolutely typical and diagnostic.

Who gets harmed?
More sadly, some are genuinely ill, and, losing faith in orthodox treatments, are keen to try any possible remedy. They are of course not ‘cured’ at all, and may experience little or no symptom relief. Because indeed nothing has happened to them, except that they have been exposed to a setting in which emotionally unstable people are encouraged to believe themselves to be better.

When I read the smug declaration, in response to reports that some are not being cured, saying “You must have faith”, I feel so sorry for the genuinely ill who meet such a lack of understanding or sympathy. It’s the old mischief – if you are not healed, that's your fault for not having enough faith. Blame the victim for the healer's failings; never admit to any possible fallibility of the healer.

And let us be absolutely clear - for such a remedy to work, it is not genuine religious faith you need, but total, uncritical faith in the healer himself or herself. These events represent a mini-cult, and a personality cult, and are about the ‘healer’, however much he or she might claim to be representing some higher and truly religious force. The cruelty of it is not that some people who were previously convinced they had an ailment with little or no actual physical basis, have now been convinced that they are well; but that people who are genuinely physically ill, are now rejected as not having enough faith; still suffering, but now told to blame themselves for their fate, and now feeling more hopeless than ever.

The Biohazard of Benoni
And this is before you even consider the people who may have been blinded or at least seriously visually damaged, by sincerely following the daft and irresponsibly dangerous advice to stare at the sun, which would dance and spin and provide a vision of Mary.

This is always dangerous advice, and is to be condemned in the strongest possible terms. Unstable people are likely to follow such advice. If they had retained their powers of critical thinking and self-protection, they would not have rushed to Benoni to seek the advice of a schoolgirl. Susceptibly gullible people may ‘see’ whatever they are told they will see.

But consider the mischievous cycle here - if you are told both to gaze at the sun, and that if you have enough faith you will see something special, in your eagerness not to seem lacking in faith, the less you see, the longer and harder you will look. People who issue such advice are a menace to public health and should be treated like any other form of bio-hazard - quarantines and prevention from issuing dangerous advice to others.

(Professor M.A. Simpson, aka CyberShrink, June 2007)




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