Faith healing and the manipulation of the desperate

On a normal day in February. Bernadette Soubirous, a 14 year old living in the small town of Lourdes in France, was gathering firewood with her sisters near a small grotto. She became aware of a presence, and claims a lady in a white robe with a golden rose on each foot appeared before her. Her sisters, who were present at the time, did not report seeing anything of the sort. Bernadette would return to the site another 17 times, and her visions were interpreted by the townspeople as being of divine origin. They all assumed the woman was the Virgin Mary, and in the 157 years since her ‘visions’, the site has become a pilgrimage for the sick and lame seeking for a miracle cure.

Every year, over 5,000,000 people visit the town, and the sight of so many ill and disabled people can be downright strange. There have supposedly been 67 inexplicable miracle cures since Bernadette’s visions, but in light of the droves of pious individuals making their journey to France, the numbers seem terribly low. There’s every reason to doubt the apparition story, especially since Bernadette had suffered from cholera as a child, which seemed to have made her simple.

If these visions had occurred today, Bernadette would have been hospitalized. They may have found her to suffer from schizophrenia, or perhaps was the victim of hallucinations caused by a poor diet. In any case, almost no one would have believed her sightings to be genuine. It seems, however, that she benefited from living in a much simpler time.

The droves wishing for a cure make the painful trek to Lourdes, but this is not the only example of ‘faith healing’. There are many different forms in a large variety of religious denominations. Many involve the imbibing of special and sacred liquids, or the presence of holy relics. Sometimes, it is actual living human beings who are thought to channel the power of healing. These ‘Faith Healers’ are most prevalent in America, where large numbers of indoctrinated individuals believe in their miraculous powers. Their piety and desperation reinforce one another, and the results are lucrative for those claiming to heal the sick.

In the 1980s Peter Popoff, a German born televangelist, made millions of dollars with his supposed abilities. He seemed to be able to name people’s names, addresses, and ailments. His clientele, which was comprised of desperate and sick people, were easy prey. The powerful tradition of faith they were part of, which teaches them miracles really do happen, made them prime targets for exploitation. But the technique Popoff used was so simple, anyone could easily duplicate it, and they often do. Popoff used a simple radio transceiver device operated by his wife, who would read out cue cards written in advance by the audience members. In 1987, he was exposed when James Randi recorded the audio he had intercepted. Although Popoff declared bankruptcy and vanished for a brief time, his ministry is still alive today. Dismantling the hopes of the faithful is much more difficult than can be imagined.

Some faith healers rely on far simpler and low tech techniques to convince the faithful they possess supernatural abilities, and these tricks are borrowed from mentalists and psychics. They use a tool called ‘cold reading’ to garner information about people while giving the impression that they are in fact revealing the information themselves. Most of the time it’s the simple act of using visual clues to make observations about an individual. For instance, a person with poor physical appearance would probably suffer from a lack of self confidence. A cold reader would therefore guess the person might have problems finding someone for a relationship or isn’t getting the promotion at work they want. In the case of faith healers, they can make snap judgments about ailments by the sight of a crutch, wheelchair, or bandages. His gullible victims are only too eager to give information about themselves if the visual clues are not present. All the faith healer needs to do then is speak loudly and suddenly, laying his hands (often on their foreheads) to send the audience member into a kind of trance. Often the exhilaration of the experience temporarily alleviates the symptoms, and this is interpreted as a cure. But once the show is over and the exhilaration fades, the symptoms return.

Some might think that a pilgrimage or dramatic laying on hands does no harm, but this is not the case at all. Often times, when these faith healers perform their ‘miracles’, their victims will often cease to seek proper medical treatment. One dramatic example involved a woman who had thrown off her braces and run on stage at the command of the faith healer. The woman suffered from cancer of the spine, and the next day, her backbone collapsed. She died 4 months later. Extensive investigations by doctors found that all attendees who have experienced cures during the performance often had worsened after their ‘cures’, due usually to the strain of the experience.

The practice of faith healing is popular precisely because of how lucrative it is. Lourdes’ tourist trap invariably provides a great deal of money for the town, and evangelical ministers often make millions of dollars going around the country collecting donations. The harmful effects have been heavily documented, and yet, we choose to continue to allow this fraudulent behavior. I can only assume it is because we place a higher value of faith than we do on life. Faith healing preys on the most desperate of human emotions; the need to live a life without suffering. Their practitioners exploit the fears and hopes of our fellow man to enrich themselves. This is unacceptable, and it must be stopped.

Comments (2)

  • avatar



    Another good article from the good atheist! Could you please give us the references of the litterature you used to talk about investigations about the harmful effects following the faith healing experience. This is very important as a lot of people that are enclined to believe in these sort of things become the shrewdest of skeptics and require a lot of background studies in order to rebut their claims. I’m also talking about the people that don’t believe in these things but affirm this is benign.

  • avatar


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