How to Heal People

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.


Filed under Uncategorized

11 responses to “How to Heal People

  1. Mike Gantt

    Lying is effective – to a point – and, alas, widespread in religion, in politics, and in practically every human activity. However, Its corrosive effects where God’s name is concerned are particularly pernicious. It’s worth pondering why that might be the case.

  2. Ian

    I agree, but I genuinely think, when it comes to testimony of healing, outright lying isn’t that common. There are headline-grabbing healing ministries which definitely involve lying. The Benny Hinns and Todd Bentleys of the world. But from what I can tell most people aren’t cynical about their testimony. Most of the untruth comes from a whole series of #1 – people telling the story and naturally tweaking it to be more spectacular. So the disease worsens with every telling, the treatment recedes in the story, and the recovery is more abrupt. Details like mystified doctors and terminal prognoses appear. I think most folks are unaware they are doing this. They pass on a story who’s intent was to engender faith in the same spirit. The details are less important than the message. Its only when you go back through the chain (as I have, but rarely succeeded) that you find the kernel of truth bears little resemblance to the story.

    And I think it is equally common in other fields too, as you say. Great sporting victories are pulled from the jaws of defeat with a second on the clock, when most fans had left the stadium. Just about every story on the news, you can play the game of trying to figure out what actually happened, behind the heightened drama being portrayed.

    It is part of our nature as story tellers. We communicate to move people, to influence them, and to bond with them, not to pass on raw information.

  3. Mike Gantt

    There are big lies and there are little lies. One could argue that the little ones are even more pernicious because we can be so careless with the truth that we become “unaware” that we’re corrupting it. And even when the little pricks of conscience do come, we assuage them with “that was a little white lie,” as if the end justifies the means and we were in pursuit of some greater good that warranted inventing or embellishing truth.

    Further, lying to ourselves is no less lying than lying to someone else.

    As you rightly point out, the blatant lies about God’s healing are easier to spot. The little ones – including the ones we tell ourselves – are thus, in the aggregate, more potent for corroding truth.

    Neither religious lying nor sports lying deserve defense – but the former is more odious. We’re more bothered by it. We should think about why that is.

  4. Ian

    “We should think about why that is.” You’re hinting at something here, I feel. Is it something you’d be willing to make explicit?

    I think religious lies are more odious than sporting lies because religion has more control over our society than sport. Political lies are more odious still, for the same reason. But I get the sense you’d make the judgement of relative odiousness based out of something more metaphysical.

  5. Ian

    …metaphysical not meant judgementally there, btw.

  6. The supposed healing power of religion has the benefit of being already attached to, or part of, a larger story. Modern science doesn’t. (At least, at first glance.) Modern pseudoscience, however, has spun some good tales. I remember walking through a museum exhibit of old trinkets, each of which claiming to restore virility, vitality, health, etc. The sales pitches were all quite similar: “using modern scientific techniques, we have developed a machine that cures … ” It was all quite amusing, and a little sad, to see what people would do for a little power and money.

  7. Mike Gantt

    I”m surprised that you consider political lies more offensive than religious ones. My observation of humanity would be the opposite. That is, people tend to assume a certain amount of lying is inherent in political discourse and therefore are more willing to tolerate a certain amount of it and factor for it. By contrast, I observe people to be very touchy about religious lying – and this is true for irreligious people as well as religious ones. Consider, for example, the late Christopher Hitchens who could take righteous indignation to rhetorical heights many preachers only can only hope to rival.

    I think humanity’s disposition – whether from a religious perspective or an irreligious one – to expect more sober and truthful speech when it comes to God is perfectly reasonable. I don’t understand, however, how you explain such an inclination if all we are is a set of atoms who’ve survived natural selection.

  8. Ian

    Dan, I couldn’t agree more. Perhaps moreso with healing than with other ‘supernatural’ phenomena of religion, things other than religion display the same features more strongly. I’d never want to suggest these patterns are either unique, or even relatively well developed, in the religions I know.

    It is somewhat like telling the future, which I wrote about before. Religions use prophecy as part of their evidence. But there are folks who specialise in prophetic bunkum who’ve honed the art to a finer edge.

  9. Ian

    Mike, thanks for that.

    Christopher Hitchens – yes, I agree. And I think for the same reasons as righteously indignant preachers: it is a feel-good spectacle for the faithful.

    I’m not sure I agree lying about God is really a special case, that draws disproportionate ire though. My experience has been that, although lip-service is paid to ‘truth’ in Christianity, most actual Christians I know have not been particularly committed to finding it, or particularly determined to correct falsity within their midst. Most often it is just dismissed with a shrug as well-meaning error. When someone they disagree with lies, then the lies are evidence of them being wrong. When it is someone they agree with, its no big deal.

    I see the same pattern in politics. Obama supporters cataloguing and shouting about every lie told by Romney, while Romney supporters did the same for Obama. Both groups dismissing accusations of lying from the other side by massaging the truth into the claim (“well technically it is right if you use just these statistics”), or shrugging it off as no big deal. As for blustering self-righteousness, I’d put Anne Coulter up with Christopher Hitchens any day!

  10. Mike Gantt


    As you’re probably aware, the Bible reports that God shares your indignation against people who profess His name while living in a manner inconsistent with His character (Rom 2:23-24 and elsewhere).

    That religious lying can resemble political lying is simply evidence of the inherent similarity between organized religion and politics – a point that most organized religionists would dispute, but can hardly disprove. The pity is that the truth some of them have is shrouded in so much that is wrong. It really does, sad to say, give truth a bad name.

    As for religious lying not being a special case, perhaps you are right. I can’t close without noting, however, that it was the kind of lying about which you chose to write the post.

  11. Ian

    … it is the topic of the blog, too! I’m just trying to figure if on average people are more concerned / incensed by it than other forms. I’m not trying to make a big point off that, just that it isn’t obvious to me that you’re right in according it a special status.

    I’ve written elsewhere on the blog, and I totally agree, that there are many many features of religion that are observable in all kinds of other human institutions. It is one reason (among others) I think religion is most likely just another human institution.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s