Many religions point to supernatural healing as evidence of their truth.
I’ve read books of testimonies from those healed of all kinds of diseases by the power of Jesus. I’ve spoken to neo-pagans selling healing charms with miraculous stories of their power. I’ve received an anointing with oil from Christians, healing touch from a Kabbalistic Jew, and healing crystals from a friend of the New Age. Healing is practised in religions around the world, Sufi Islam has a rich tradition of healing, Reiki was initially a religious devotion, Voudun heals through exorcism, Taoism through the manipulation of the qi.
So how? How does healing work?
As for other miraculous phenomena, it turns out that supernatural healing works on a few very natural principles.
1. Spin the stories. — Stories of someone naturally recovering from an illness are boring. We all naturally like to spice up stories, or present them in the way that most advances our goals. So a small lump becomes metastatic cancer, and its removal is a miracle cure. Joint pain becomes a crippling disability and the right pain regimen becomes an impossible healing. Someone fighting back to health over several months (under the prayers of their friends) becomes a rapid recovery that baffles the doctors.
2. Be vague. — Healing testimonies are often not very specific. A man with severe back issues was healed. A woman who’d been struggling with her neck has found relief. This builds on the previous: the specific illness may be rather unimpressive, but it can be told in a vague enough way to make it sound serious.
3. Get people at their worst. — We are most likely to seek treatment when our illness is at its worst. So, purely by force of statistics, most people seeking any kind of treatment will then improve. This is particularly powerful for variable chronic conditions. Arthritis has a good track-record of healing, so does irritable bowel syndrome, back pain, and so on.
4. Break through self-limitation. — We routinely underestimate how much we are capable of, when ill. Presumably this is adaptive, to give us time to fight off illness without physical stress. But if you can make people think they are better, they can behave a lot better, almost every time. Most people who use a wheelchair have at least some lower limb function. A large number of them can stand if they need to. Some can walk. Give someone a reason, and you might witness a miracle!
5. Act well. — Behaving as if ill can prolong some illnesses. Breaking the cycle can cause improvement. Back pain, for example, can be self-prolonging if not exercised and stretched. Or, a stomach problem can lead to bowel motility issues and lethargy, which perpetuates the bowel issue. Some mental illnesses can be treated by breaking unhelpful cycles of thought or behaviour: someone who believes they are healed may expect them to be broken and thus break them. This isn’t, of course, always the case — but it is the case for some conditions.
6. Let people fake it. — Many ill people really really want to be well. Self denial is a big factor in healing. I’ve seen a case where a woman had a mild orthopaedic issue as a result of a leg fracture. She really believed she’d been healed. She threw away her leg brace and walked around confidently. She testified to many that she’d been healed. Only years later did the chronic hip and back pain force her to admit to herself, that her healing was not quite what it seemed.
7. Exude empathy and authority. — Having someone with you, who fully acknowledges your suffering, and takes control over it, is hugely reassuring. Good healers listen, empathise, and boss the illness around. This makes it much more likely one of the previous situations will occur.
When we’re talking about a whole healing ministry, some higher level principles come in handy:
8. Count the hits. — Some people get better. Here’s an experiment. Set up an internet spiritual healing centre. Advertise to heal people of cancer (actually don’t, since it is illegal, but you’ll see the point). To each person who responds, send a mystical prayer and a video of you doing some odd chanting. Wait. After a while, you’ll get emails or letters from folks who’ve been healed. Some of the stories will be amazing. You won’t get much contact from people who weren’t healed, and the few you do, throw them away. After a couple of years, you’ll have an amazing portfolio of testimonies for your healing prowess.
9. Don’t follow up. — Many healing testimonies come from people claiming to be healed in the heat of the moment. So someone might say “I’ve had horrible pain for 10 years, but when you prayed tonight, my pain left me and I was healed!”. This is a great healing testimony. But won’t be followed up in detail. If the person finds the pain returning after a couple of days, it is better not to know. Often you read things such as “The woman had been suffering from Leukaemia, and as we prayed the fatigue left her and God totally healed her – we sent her to go see her doctor to have this miracle confirmed.” Implying the healing was confirmed, but without any need to actually confirm it.
10. Lie. — It is easy to slip additional stories of healing into the portfolio. Testimonies of healing are really difficult to confirm. Into a scrapbook full of genuine testimonies of cancer healing, gets added a resurrection or two. Sometimes the person leading the ministry can deliberately lie. Often the person is simply repeating someone else’s lies. Once someone gets into the mindset of believing that all these healings are genuine, and has convinced themselves that the things they are seeing are miracles, it is easy for them to be gullible when it comes to other people’s claims.
11. Piggy back on modern medicine. — Medicine is not perfect, but it is very good. If you can persuade people that its successes are actually yours, then your power will be all the more striking. Those healed will often be willing accomplices, stressing the role that prayer had in their recovery, but never mentioning the hours of advanced medical treatment they underwent.
Each technique can be further accentuated with theology or ritual. Emphasizing that the ill person must have unwavering faith, makes it much more likely they’ll engage in self-denial. Focussing on diseases with high fear, high mortality, but relatively complete recovery increases the power of counting the hits (more healers lead their resume with cancer healing than heart disease). Extended rituals or time consuming pilgrimages can give you more time to feel better naturally. Power-focussed, authoritative healing settings can increase the healer’s authority over the ill person’s reactions.
In my experience, when you go digging deeper under claims of healing (something I’ve done a fair bit), the miraculous tends to become rather mundane, or else becomes embedded in an increasingly elaborate story that shields it from examination. There is something so fundamentally frightening about illness, that drives people to seek supernatural power over it. And once they do, the evidence for its efficacy is very easy to assemble.
As always, please suggest other techniques if I’ve missed something obvious.