God will heal you!
There’s an interesting story which was posted to Liberal Conspiracy yesterday. It’s not so much interesting because of what it’s about, which is essentially a group of Christian MPs demanding to be allowed to spread religious propaganda, which I believe is actually the core function of the Christians in Parliament group, after opposing equal gay rights (two of the signatories of that letter, Gary Streeter MP and Tim Farron MP voted to at least some extent against sexual equality legislation), but because it’s an interesting example of how reasonable, liberal-sounding discourse can be employed to hoodwink a casual reader into thinking something sounds alright, when that’s far from the case.
Their letter includes the following passage;
We are writing on behalf of the all-party Christians in Parliament group in Westminster and your ruling that the Healing On The Streets ministry in Bath are no longer able to claim, in their advertising, that God can heal people from medical conditions.
We write to express our concern at this decision and to enquire about the basis on which it has been made. It appears to cut across two thousand years of Christian tradition and the very clear teaching in the Bible. Many of us have seen and experienced physical healing ourselves in our own families and churches and wonder why you have decided that this is not possible.
On what scientific research or empirical evidence have you based this decision?
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? I would be the first to accept that prayed for people do not always get healed, but sometimes they do. That is all this sincere group of Christians in Bath are claiming.
My immediate reaction to this was something like, “well, I don’t agree with their ideas and I’m really dubious about the probability of faith healing being anything beyond a placebo effect, but I guess in a subjective world and a free polity, they should have the right to spread this stuff if they want.” (In other words, a standard liberal response.)
I think this response is triggered by the employment of rhetoric which sounds profoundly… reasonable. They seek to establish that their position is simple (“that is all [we] are claiming”), offer a brief example of how the current ASA decision might be predicated on false pretences (Gary Streeter’s wonder recovery) and appeal to the popular intuition that there may be something supernatural with significant causal powers which we have yet to understand, by requesting irrefutable proof that divine healing does not work.
The problem is that this is actually extremely unreasonable.
Firstly, Gary Streeter’s wonder recovery is a one-off, unevidenced anecdote which has no place in a formal appeal for a national policy decision to be overturned. The potential illusory effects of faith healing were amply demonstrated for the nation’s eyes by Derren Brown last year. Further, the placebo potential for non-specific “pain in the right hand” must be phenomenal. Using this as an example is irresponsible.
The pang of annoyance I felt at realising this led me quickly to realise that their claim is far from simple and far from reasonable. They are actually asking the ASA to accept their faith and word as a substitute for evidence, and to allow them to propagate material which will encourage people – people who are ill and need help – to put their time, money and effort into unresearched and unproven modes of healing (to be generous and call them such). This is the equivalent of me publishing posters advertising prayer to Zeus as a cure for cancer and expecting to get away with it because I have years of tradition on my side – doubtless, if I dug around in some classical literature, I could find a plethora of anecdotes to support the marvellous power of my new brand of healing. Of course, the ASA absolutely cannot accept this kind of ‘evidence’ – they have a clear social responsiblity. If a drug company wanted to market a new drug without rigorous testing on the basis that they had a lot of faith in its suitability and a handful of questionable anecdotes to support them, they’d be laughed at.
The lesson here, which is one which is striking me more and more often, is that all which seems socially liberal is not necessarily good.