Christian MPs try to lift ban on “prayer can heal”

There is one fascinating thing with some people, is that they’ll dare anything. After the outrage caused among christians who felt victimized by the decision of an English court to ban prayer before the beginning of city councils reunions, we have now three British MPs trying to overturn  a ban on campaigns claiming that “God can heal”. Past the good time spent laughing, and in a world where children are abused and murdered, even in the UK, because they were marked as “witches” by pastors —not to mention what happens in many african countries—, in a world where parents let their kids diebecause, instead of relying on a proven method to treat them, they’d rather intercede to an imaginary being. I felt angry.The letter these MPs wrote to the ASA to try to overturn this ban is riddled with false and age-old arguments that are typical from people peddling faith healing or the same sort of new-age baloney. The first one is that, with 2,000 years old, Christianity has a proven track record, as a tradition, to better understand the world (the classical argument that “what is old is good”, also found among promoters of chinese medicine). Well, they should read a real history book: Christianity, as a “system” to understand the world, has consistently failed! Otherwise, among other things, we would be living on a flat planet, at the centre of the universe, and blood would not flow in our veins but would be stagnant, and the Earth would be 6,000 years old. None of this is true, every single assertion I just mentioned has been proven wrong. And yet, some people are still believing this kind of stuff, in 2012. One might argue that believing that prayers can heal and that the Earth is flat is not quite the same. It is! Both are beliefs, both are based on no substantial evidence other than a 2,000 years old book. A nice story, yes. Then again, Lords of the Rings is a nice story, too. And I never met anyone who believes in the existence of elfs, orcs, hobbits and so on…

These MPs ask whether there is any evidence that prayers, as a medical means, do not work. Prayers have been tried in clinical trials, and they do not perform well. Sometimes, letting know someone that you pray for his recovery even has adverse effects on this recovery. In any event, a Cochrane collaboration meta-analysis failed to draw any definite conclusion, although the results clearly show that their is no statistical evidence of any positive effect of standard care plus prayer versus standard care alone:

MAIN RESULTS: Ten studies are included in this updated review (7646 patients). For the comparison of intercessory prayer plus standard care versus standard care alone, overall there was no clear effect of intercessory prayer on death, with the effect not reaching statistical significance and data being heterogeneous (6 RCTs, n=6784, random-effects RR 0.77 CI 0.51 to 1.16, I(2) 83%). For general clinical state there was also no significant difference between groups (5 RCTs, n=2705, RR intermediate or bad outcome 0.98 CI 0.86 to 1.11). Four studies found no effect for re-admission to Coronary Care Unit (4 RCTs, n=2644, RR 1.00 CI 0.77 to 1.30).Two other trials found intercessory prayer had no effect on re-hospitalisation (2 RCTs, n=1155, RR 0.93 CI 0.71 to 1.22).

Although, as Martin Robbins notes, advertisers are required by the ASA to prove that their claims are true, this wasn’t the case here. Given what I wrote above, one might understand why.

Second, when one of the signatories write that:

You might be interested to know that I (Gary Streeter) received divine healing myself at a church meeting in 1983 on my right hand, which was in pain for many years. After prayer at that meeting, my hand was immediately free from pain and has been ever since. What does the ASA say about that?

The only thing Gary Streeter is showing is that he has not the slightest understanding of how, nowadays, we understand the world around us, especially when it comes to test medicines. Anecdotes aren’t data, as Ben Goldacre insisted on. If you want science, look at the links I gave above, especially the one from the Cochrane collaboration. The authors won’t stop at such petty anecdotes, though. They use the news as well, and in that case, Muamba’s condition:

It is interesting to note that since the traumatic collapse of the footballer Fabrice Muamba the whole nation appears to be praying for a physical healing for him. I enclose some media extracts. Are they wrong also and will you seek to intervene?

This part of the letter is interesting, too. It signals that the authors are pretty angry, or that they do not know what the ASA is doing, or both. First, you have the classical “so many people cannot be wrong”. Well, assuming that here, “praying” is to be taken literally, which I doubt, not all the nation did pray. Or at least, not all the people living in the UK. I, for one, didn’t. It’s not my fault. I don’t believe in any god, therefore I don’t pray. I might “hope”, though that Muamba recovers. Indeed I do, not because he is a footballer (I don’t care much about football), but because he is a human being. But let’s go back to this argument that the sheer number of people believing in the same thing makes it right. It doesn’t. In December 2010, there was 40 % of american people believing in creationism and a further 38 % believing in theistic evolution. This makes up to 240.8 million people who believe that life has been created as it is now, or that, it evolved under the direction of a supreme being. I don’t: there is a lot of evidence for evolution. Loads of, actually. On the contrary, there is no evidence backing the claim that life never evolved, or that this evolution took place only according to the will of a god. There isn’t, not one bit (no, the Bible isn’t an evidence). So, a science savvy mind will come to the conclusion that these 240.8 million people on the other side of the pond are likely to be wrong. Even if he or she is alone.

Second, the ASA is here to regulate advertisement, not the expression of people, however dumb the latter maybe. One would think that an MP would be aware of that. Then again, that was probably a rhetorical argument whose aim is probably to portray the ASA as a modern-day Inquisition, whose purpose is to persecute Christians.

At the end of the letter, the MPs ask ASA to give “convince” them that there was any scientific basis to its decision. This is a breach of ASA’s procedures, as it doesn’t need to back its decision on scientific evidence. On the contrary, advertisers need to provide evidence that what they say is true. Above is a linked to Martin Robbin’s blog explaining that. I suspect that whatever the ASA will do, they’ll fail to convince our Christian MPs: these are all out about faith, and I’m pretty sure they are ready to deny any evidence that would go against their beliefs. So, I would be the people at ASA, I would not really bother with these loons. Citizens, however, should be wary of them: if they indeed, bring the matter to the Parliament, odds are good that they’ll try to push a reform of the ASA where it has to back its decision with evidence that what the advertisers say is wrong. If this is the case, and given the economic downturn, no doubt that this won’t end very well for consumers’ rights and security.

I have a suggestion to these MPs: you want to worry about the well-being of your constituents? That’s good. Just do that with earthly means, that might work, not with “magic” we know doesn’t. Because let me tell you one thing: if there is one person, just one, who dies because of he or she attended some faith-healing event instead of going to a real doctor to be treated properly, that’s on you. In that case, you’ll have the death of somebody on the conscience. Not because “God didn’t want to help”, but because you enabled an organisation to take advantage of people in need.

At the end of the day, to want to lift a ban on faith healing advertisement isn’t about freedom of religion. it’s a crime, the same kind that the cigarette industry does when advertising for its product. It may not be a legal crime, sure. But morally, this is one, without question.

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About ravingscientist01

Trained as a molecular geneticist, I did a PhD in biochemistry and molecular biology. I am interested in science, its communication, the impact it can have on policies as well as the impact of various policies related to science may have on the latter.
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