Has Tim Farron got a prayer against the Advertising Standards Authority?

In a rather unexpected departure from the usual activities of the Party Presidency, Tim Farron, in his role as a Vice Chair of the ‘Christians in Parliament’ group, has co-signed a letter to the Advertising Standards Agency;

Rt Hon Lord Smith of Finsbury
Chairman, Advertising Standards Agency
21st March 2012

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?

The letter goes on to suggest that, unless Lord Smith can persuade them that he has reached his ruling on the basis of indisputable scientific evidence, they intend to raise this matter in Parliament.

The reaction so far has been mostly negative, with a definite leaning towards an opposing view. Jonathan Calder, writing at Liberal England, writes;

… it has to be admitted that this is a pretty dreadful letter. And it is dreadful because it makes God look silly. The picture of the Almighty that emerges of it is of someone who is obsessed with celebrity – why is a Premiership footballer more deserving of healing and anyone else.

Martin Robbins, in the Guardian, is rather less subtle;

If you live in South Luton, South-West Devon, or the Westmorland and Lonsdale constituency in Southern Cumbria, then congratulations; your neighbours have elected MPs who believe that prayer can heal the sick, and that any quack with a Bible should be able to pimp God’s services to the masses, free of pesky regulation.

And the last word must go to Jennie Rigg, who addresses the issue on her own, inimitable manner (contains language that might upset your granny);

Why should Christianity be held to a lower standard than L’Oreal or I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter? If prayer actually works, Christians, I think it’s up to you lot to prove it, not to demand that the rest of us prove that it doesn’t.

Hot on the heels of continued controversy over Tim’s use of interns sponsored by CARE, it will be interesting to see what effect this has on his approval ratings in future member surveys.

So, what do Liberal Democrat Voice readers make of it all?

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45 Comments

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 27th Mar '12 - 8:18am

    In terms of the letter to which Tim is a co-signatory, I have to be honest and say that I don’t agree with one single word of it.

    I think we should be clear, though, that he was not doing this in his capacity as Party President. If he was saying these things in my name on behalf of the Party, I’d be the first person banging on his office door in a blind fury.

    The very idea that any religious organisation should have a lesser burden of proof just because their claims are based on faith is not my cup of tea at all. However, that doesn’t mean to say that I think that people should be stopped from expressing that view.

    If we want our politicians to be open people who are free to speak their minds, not just identikit clones who never say anything interesting, then we have to appreciate that sometimes they will say things that are way out of our comfort zone.

    If Tim wants to make that argument, let him. He is bound to know that his opinion will be in the minority within the party, but since when were we a party which stopped minority views being expressed?

  • I don’t agree with him on this but we are liberals and surely we should defend his right to say it.

    Also Tim has been a fantastic and incredibly visible President. He’s done a good job!

  • It makes Farron look at best flakey, and at worst, a crank.

    While I am sure Farron’s intentions are honourable, what this effectively demands is that religion be allowed to make claims in advertising that are falsified by empirical evidence, thus privileging religious views in society (or that bit of society that sells product).

    Frankly, this a bit theocratic and surely questions the suitability of Farron to preside over a party that claims to be ‘liberal’.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 27th Mar '12 - 8:24am

    Moggy, the atheist advertising was, as far as I can remember “there probably isn’t a god” which is fine, as are generic statements like “God is love” or “God is with us”.

    The problems start when an organisation starts to make claims, like “God heals” that cannot be proven. If that’s allowed, then the manufacturers of baby milks and face creams, both serial offenders as far as the ASA are concerned, would surely be entitled to think that they had the right to make claims which can’t be substantiated by evidence.

    If rules apply, they have to apply to everyone equally. Just because some people claim the backing of a supernatural entity, it doesn’t mean that they should have some sort of special status.

  • Richard Church 27th Mar '12 - 8:25am

    The letter’s complaint seems to be that it is specifically this country’s 2,000 year old christian tradition that should allow Christinaity to make unproven claims in an advert, but not snake-oil salesmen. If christians can be excused from the requirements of the ASA, why not pagans and witchdoctors?

  • Richard Dean 27th Mar '12 - 8:41am

    There us no evidence that God exists, let alone being able to heal people! But I suspect there is evidence that prayer and being prayed for helps the body’s natural healing processes; belief and prayer has a calming effect which is often helpful medically, and a feeling of being wanted (through belief or through being prayed for) is motivational and this too is well-recognized as significant as helping the body’s natural healing. It’s partly about how the mind controls the body, and anyone with a toothache can test this – think of sex and the toothache will often go away!

    The placebo effect – in which people recover as a result of taking a pill even if it has no medical/physical effect – is becoming an established fact (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=placebo-effect-a-cure-in-the-mind). But this is what the reference cited by Prateek says: “These findings are equivocal and, although some of the results of individual studies suggest a positive effect of intercessory prayer, the majority do not “. If this is the best that science can do, I guess the scientific evidence is lacking. Religions do need to be limited. Would Tim be happy with a religion saying that killing people is a good thing? How about predicting the future using psychics?

  • Better for Christians and indeed other faiths to say “We believe God can…”

  • Jennie Rigg 27th Mar '12 - 9:29am

    Caron: Tim Farron absolutely should have the right to say whatever he likes; similarly, the rest of us should have the right to tell him he’s making himself look like an ill educated fool.

    Simon: this is not about the state interfering with what religions can say, this is about religions having to follow the same rules as the rest of us. If everyone else has to prove their claims in an advert (which is why the atheists had to have a probably) then so should religions. Why should religions get special treatment?

    On the power of prayer, there is research which suggests that praying for people can actually make things worse, not better: http://t.co/AuXXFgcy To me, this puts the seal on it.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 27th Mar '12 - 9:50am

    Jennie, I totally agree with you that we should be telling Tim exactly why we think he’s wrong. In some ways it’s good that he started all this, though, because it means that we can try and get more evidence based thinking out there.

    It does, though, make you yearn for the days when all we had to worry about was Lembit going on about asteroids – and at least that was based on fact.

  • I am not a Christian but I think we should temper our language…calling people ‘ill-educated fool’ or fools just undercuts peoples argument. It also alienates people’s faith. Something we should be against. Faith is important to people and if we just disregard it – that is wrong and totally illiberal. Faith and prayer might comfort and help – they don’t help me but I’m not closed minded enough to think it won’t help others.

    I repeat Tim has been a brilliant President – I have to say far better than Mark’s wife (who was good but I think Tim is better)

  • I am all for freedom of speech, however what concerns me are the wider ramifications of such an argument.

    There have been terrible stories in the past of people, many children, being beaten and starved, by parents and carers in certain sections of the community, because they are seen as being ‘Possessed’. That the perpetrators were under the illusion that they were being healed by God through prayer and the abuse inflicted to rid them of the Evil spirits or Demons. By trying to justify and defend the presence of ‘God’ in prayer to heal, they are giving credence to the more extreme and misguided views held by some, as to the power of prayer as a healing medium.

  • Andreas Christodoulou 27th Mar '12 - 10:19am

    Of course, no-one will argue Tim should not have the right to think (or say) that speaking to an imaginary friend has magical healing powers, to do so would be an unjustifiable imposition on his free speech.

    However, is it disappointing to hear people argue that they should be exempt from the requirement to prove that medical products and servives work beyond a placebo effect. The ASA should stand against quackery and religion infesting our pharmacies and hospitals in this modern age.

  • Tracy Connell 27th Mar '12 - 10:34am

    I can’t agree with the letter. I do not agree with the promotion of religion. People may believe that prayer helps – if so then that is up to them and it probably does have a psychological effect. However, to claim that “God can heal people” is another thing, because, firstly, the existence of God is not proven, never mind ‘his’ healing powers, and secondly, it should not be up to ASA or anyone else to provide proof of the non-existence of God or of this claim. In science a hypothesis must be proved and not disproved. Provide evidence of the existence of God (solid evidence, not some flaky healing story) and I’ll let him off with it.

    Advertising Standards, however, are somewhat lacking in obtaining evidence on something before letting people advertise. All these anti-ageing products and wrinkle creams etc – where is the non-airbrushed proof that they work?

    Tim is free to express his views, but I reserve the right to disagree in this instance.

  • Penny Burgess 27th Mar '12 - 10:47am

    These are the people behind the advert,

    http://healingonthestreets.com/get-trained/
    They believe that prayer can make legs grow:

    https://www.facebook.com/groups/105607249501449/328495827212589/?notif_t=group_activity

    Whilst they have every right to claim this, and believe in what they want, what they can’t do is advertise it as truth, when there is no empirical research to back it up.

  • In the ten years since I stood down from Southwark council many pubs, shops and cafes in and around my old ward have been replaced by West African Christian churches. When my baby daughter was gravely ill two of those churches (unbeknownst to me but at the behest my Mum) prayed for her recovery. My daughter got well. I put her recovery largely down to elephantine doses of antibiotics but I was still very touched by the kindness of those people who prayed for her.

    I am however, as I chug down the Walworth Road on a slow moving bus, concerned at just how many adverts I see for churches offering visions and miracles. These are sometimes presented in a very extreme way with talk of exorcisms and
    purification. My old ward is a beautiful and diverse place but like anywhere in the inner-cities it has more than its fair share of the isolated, the poor and the vulnerable. I worry about the way the more extreme churches exploit vulnerable people.

    If the ASA is venturing into tackling this medieval territory I for one shall rejoice!

  • Paul Pettinger 27th Mar '12 - 12:41pm

    Bring back Nick Clegg – all is forgiven!

  • Richard Dean 27th Mar '12 - 1:07pm

    It is not illiberal to want to protect vulnerable people.

  • Penny Burgess 27th Mar '12 - 1:08pm

    @ Simon McGrath

    Good grief Simon, talk about twisting words. Ruth didn’t mean that at all! This has nothing to do with religion, it is about truth in advertising. The advert breaches the standard by which such things are judged.

  • Nikki Thomson 27th Mar '12 - 1:39pm

    I was renewing my car insurance last week. One of the companies that’s not on comparison sites claimed it could give me a better deal than anyone else: their quoted premium was £350 higher than the one I went with. So it lied – why isn’t the ASA doing anything about that?

    And can any soap powder really wash whiter than white if tackling a load of blood-soaked washing? Mine can’t, despite its claims, and the stain removing agent is also useless. So why are they allowed to peddle their claims which are built on lies, damned lies and fairly dubious statistics?

    Let’s be honest: how many of us really believe any of the claims made by any of the adverts we see? They all contain weasel-words to explain why their product won’t produce the desired effect for any individual customer, which will probably be you – caveat emptor and all that.

    That being the case, why shouldn’t Christian healing organisations have just as much right to advertise as anyone else? If we don’t believe the hype, it doesn’t matter who’s selling it or who’s policing it because we won’t believe it.

  • I think Tim Farron did the right thing by signing that letter. God can and does heal people, and I think it is perfectly right to defend those who wish to say so publicly.

  • Nick (not Clegg) 27th Mar '12 - 3:20pm

    So. if God can cure people, why has Parliament just passed legislation to give responsibility for commissioning treatment providers to GPs and not to priests?

  • @SimonMcgrath

    “Secondly for doing something which he must know will make him unpopular with many of his supporters in the Party.”

    So you are saying Tim Farron should be congratulated, in part, merely for doing something unpopular? That seems a little bizarre.

  • “I think Tim Farron did the right thing by signing that letter. God can and does heal people, and I think it is perfectly right to defend those who wish to say so publicly.”

    Where is the factual or scientific evidence that God can heal people’s medical ailments or that he does so through the use of human mediums?

  • @Tracy Connell

    Whilst I have to agree with most of what you write you are wrong on one important (but not particularly relevant matter) when you says: ‘In science a hypothesis must be proved and not disproved.’

    Now that is absolutely wrong. The aim of science is to test hypotheses and as such to attempt to disprove them. A theory that requires empirical evidence can never be fundamentally ‘proved’ precisely because it is never possible to empirically say that just because something has happened 100 times it will happen again this way on the 101st time (this is called the problem of induction in philosophy). If it did happen on the 101st time then the hypothesis would instantaneously be disproved, but the hypothesis can never be proved simply because we can never know a priori how a given experiment in the world will transpire.

    That said, although the aim of science IS in a sense to disprove scientific hypotheses, it is not the case that the ASA should be expected to disprove every claim. Instead, for simple practical and financial reasons the ASA quite reasonably expects people making claims about their products to provide empirical evidence themselves that these claims have some validity. In this case the burden of proof is on the person wishing to advertise their product, but this is not because it fits the scientific method but rather because it makes the most sense from a legal and legislative standpoint. In this instance the scientific method is irrelevant. If you want to sell or give your product to the public it is reasonable to expect you to provide proof that it does what you say it does.

    I know this was all a bit pedantic but saying that the aim of natural science is to prove things is one of the things that grinds my gears for some reason. Natural science cannot ever fundamentally prove anything, just hope to provide enough evidence to ensure that the truth of a hypothesis is beyond reasonable doubt.

  • “I was renewing my car insurance last week. One of the companies that’s not on comparison sites claimed it could give me a better deal than anyone else: their quoted premium was £350 higher than the one I went with. So it lied – why isn’t the ASA doing anything about that?

    And can any soap powder really wash whiter than white if tackling a load of blood-soaked washing? Mine can’t, despite its claims, and the stain removing agent is also useless. So why are they allowed to peddle their claims which are built on lies, damned lies and fairly dubious statistics?

    Let’s be honest: how many of us really believe any of the claims made by any of the adverts we see? They all contain weasel-words to explain why their product won’t produce the desired effect for any individual customer, which will probably be you – caveat emptor and all that.”

    So the crux of your argument is essentially ‘two wrongs make a right’, a logical fallacy?

    In any case there are a couple of important differences between this case and the case you sight. You point out that this insurance company and washing powder company use weasel-wording in their marketing. That is true (and I agree it is irritating and maybe should be stopped) but that is still different from stating an outright lie. The more expensive insurance company offering a ‘better deal’ is making an ambiguous statement, ‘a better deal’ doesn’t necessarily just mean a better price, it could mean any number number of factors. In the case of the ‘whiter than white’ washing powder your point is somewhat stronger, but even here it could be argue that this is a meaningless nonsense statement and it is reasonable to expect people to recognise it as such. Simply stating something along the lines of ‘spiritual healing can cure medical conditions’ is different precisely because it is a clear factual statement which can be challenged with empirical evidence. If this group had used weasel wording they probably wouldn’t have had this problem. Ultimately I don’t think that is necessarily wrong, because people, in general, can tell the difference between a factual statement and weasel-worded marketing. If you make a clear factual statement then I think it is reasonable to expect people to believe it is based on factual evidence, if you make an ambiguous weasel worded platitudinous statement then it is not necessarily reasonable to expect believe there is any evidence supporting this (because its very ambiguity means it obviously can’t be verified).

    The second important distinction is that the cases you sight don’t deal with medical matters, and the price for being deceived is potentially much lower. Spending an £350 on insurance or more money on washing powder is irritating, but potentially avoiding or ignoring medical consultation in favour of pseudo-scientific or faith based remedies is potentially debilitating or even life-threatening. If someone was to sell or even give a way a product of basil in a jar saying that ingesting it twice a day will cure cancer and therefore that they no longer seek medical treatment I do not think you would have the same attitude, so why would it be alright if you changed this by saying you must seek spiritual healing instead?

  • I meant cite*, whoops.

  • David Parkes 27th Mar '12 - 8:17pm

    Perhaps Tim Farron feels that it’s for the sceptic to disprove my assertion that we don’t need to feed the hungry because the Flying Spaghetti Monster, occasionally sheds a morsel of pasta for the needy and the faithful?

    I mean I was really hungry just now, but I had no food in the fridge so I said a few incantations to the Flying Spaghetti Monster and then there at the back of the cupboard I discovered a packet of Tesco Value Pasta Spirals. I swear it wasn’t there before. I know I never brought it, I shop at ASDA!

    I now challenge each of you to prove the Flying Spaghetti Monster didn’t bring me this delicious meal!

    Honestly! I mean, could you imagine if we allowed pharmaceuticals to sell medications without first scientifically demonstrating they were effective? We’d have a wonder cure on the market within days and by Tim Farron’s logic it would fall to sceptics to disprove the claims before they could be removed from sale.

  • Nikki Thomson 27th Mar '12 - 8:36pm

    Rob

    I accept your need for empirical evidence, and those who believe that prayer can heal, or that God can work miracles, will find example after example where this has happened, beginning with Lazarus and taking us through to the present day and the number of abandoned disability aids at Lourdes.

    And in some cases those who believe will be able to produce evidence that’s at least as statistically significant as some of the ads for beauty treatments currently get away with under ASA rules. But it’s not something that can be replicated under factory conditions (like my washing powder which really doesn’t wash very white at all).

    I have more of a problem with some of the companies that are already allowed to advertise than I do with religious or political advertising. I think it would be illiberal to ban adverts from religious groups unless they broke rules by, for instance, inciting hatred or intolerance of other religious views (and of none). However, this is only my opinion: as I don’t have ten cats I wasn’t able to ask eight of them to express a preference…

  • Nikki Thomson 27th Mar '12 - 8:44pm

    @ Douglas There are always people who will believe anything their religious leader tells them, but we cannot run our advertising industry solely for their protection. There are people who believe that their faith has healed them – and they have certainly been healed, so who are we to deny them their belief?

    To my mind, advertising such claims is brave – because it opens up the issue to a far wider and more sceptical audience. The same will happen once abortion clinics start advertising: and I quite like the delicious irony that the people who want the freedom to advertise about faith healing are likely to be the same people who want to deny abortion clinics the freedom to advertise.

  • Nikki Thomson

    Can you explain to me the links between claiming something in an advertisement that is not true (i.e. faith healing works) based on all current evidence and advertising abortion services (which I presume the advertiser would be able to deliver) which is prohibited (wrongly) for ‘political’ reasons

  • Nikki… the problem is that people DO believe the hype. they believe what they read in the newspapers hence the difficulties that LibDems have in getting the message heard. The difficulties with student fees and the ‘grannytax’ are all about the media being allowed to twist stories to suit their agenda, and they are continuing to be allowed to do so. At least the ASA are on the side of honesty, I wonder whether Leveson will be too.

  • Nick (not Clegg) 28th Mar '12 - 5:23pm

    @ Simon Banks

    I did not know that Tim had referred to those of us who have left the party as “quitters”. Perhaps he feels that we should have “kept the faith”.

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