Why I can’t defend Tim Farron, the ASA, Healing on the Streets… or the terms of this debate

Tim Farron must be wondering when he became quite such a powerful man. Becoming President of the Lib Dems was one thing, but the mere act of appending his name to a letter has, I hope briefly, let slip the dogs of war within the party. Lib Dems everywhere seemed to decide Tim had made a catastrophic Faith Heal Turn. As I am both a member of the party and an evangelical Christian, I thought I would attempt to set out why the terms of this debate, in my view, are misguided.

I have great respect for Tim. I find his clear-sighted commitment to his political and religious principles inspiring. He’s also a friendly, sincere and caring man. His decision to own up to the fact that he shouldn’t have signed the letter is typically frank and straightforward. And it’s been good to see people welcoming his candour.

But however misguided the letter itself was, it was groping, however blindly, towards a fair point, which is why I can’t defend the Advertising Standards Agency either. Their decision to prevent Healing on the Streets from ‘advertising’ that ‘God can heal’ is defensible – but only if you consider religious speech ‘advertising’. This is surely the nub of the issue.

To be fair to the ASA, it is not up to them to set the Code by which they judge advertisements, nor to define the scope of what constitutes ‘advertising’. That is the job of the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP). So Tim and friends should really have written to them instead. However, I still can’t entirely defend the ASA, because their judgement on this case did not raise the issue of whether metaphysical statements like ‘God can heal’ should fall into their remit. Given the fervent debate that has subsequently developed, perhaps it should have raised that issue.

I understand why non-believers would see ‘God can heal’ as a medical claim, especially when the group using that phrase decides to accompany it with references to specific conditions. That, incidentally, is one of the reasons why I can’t simply defend Healing on the Streets (for the others, which are more theological in basis, feel free to contact me!). Although I understand that they did actually go out of their way to encourage people to continue to consult medical professionals throughout, there have been far too many appalling examples of purported Christians doing precisely the opposite.

But the ‘medical claim’ issue is, nonetheless, the nub of this debate. And ‘God can heal’ isn’t, in this case, a medical claim.

What mainstream Christianity teaches about prayer makes its effects entirely unprovable from a scientific viewpoint. Christians believe that God hears and answers prayer, and that God heals; very few Christians I know in this country, from any kind of theological background, would claim that the latter is directly attributable to the former, still less that their own specific prayer ‘caused’ healing.

There is thus no way to run a clinical trial that tests the effects of prayer. No Christian that I know of presumes to be able to interpret the results of prayer, nor claims that the results of prayer are guaranteed or even knowable. This is entirely logical if one considers for a moment that most Christians believe in an omnipotent and omniscient God who stands outside the natural laws of our universe.

Studies that purport to measure the effect of prayer, by contrast, start from a necessarily materialistic viewpoint that leaves no room – quite rightly, according to the scientific method – for supernatural intervention (whether ‘healing’ or otherwise). Whether or not you believe in a god, therefore, you must recognise that these trials do not actually test what most Christians claim to believe in – and they therefore do not speak to this debate.

In short, then, there is indeed a freedom of speech element to this – and what is required is a careful consideration of what constitutes ‘advertising’ and what does not. We already have exemptions for political communications; it seems to me self-evident that such material is actually closer to genuine marketing than metaphysical, existential claims of the sort we are debating here.

However, the lessons do not end there. This debate has highlighted an increasing inability on both sides of the debate to ‘think in the other side’s shoes’. Some of the rhetoric thrown about, on both sides, has been abusive and unnecessary – some might even say authoritarian. I find it profoundly depressing that discussion of religion and politics is becoming increasingly polarised. That trend should concern all of us, whether we are atheists, agnostics or believers.

* Tom King is Head of Policy at Liberal Insight

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21 Comments

  • Nonconformistradical 29th Mar '12 - 3:04pm

    “You get Christians to pray for someone (usually a fellow Christian) and see if their condition is healed. You then repeat that thousands of times until you have a balanced clinical trial.”

    I wouldn’t call that a balanced trial. You have to have a control group at the very least. You need a load of people with similar medical conditions, randomly divided into 2 groups.You get Christians to pray for the members of one group and the othergroup is a control group of people who are not being prayed for. None of the people in either group should know which group they are in (i.e. whether or not they are being prayed for) – so as to distinguish any possible effect of prayer from a placebo effect.

    This still wouldn’t be a proper double blind trial – to do that the Christians should not know the names of the people for whom they are praying. That might involve issuing aliases on a random basis to the subjects of the trial, with the Christians praying for the person by their alias instead of their real name. Some of the subjects of the trial (in both groups) ought to be Christians themselves (i.e. willing to believe the power of prayer) and some should not be – but again the Christians who are praying should not know which subjects are Christian and which are not.

  • Richard Dean 29th Mar '12 - 3:14pm

    They weren’t advertising that God can heal. They were advertising their religious ministrations. They were claiming that God can heal some listed serious medical conditions, and that they know how to get God to do this.

  • Either prayer has some (non-placebo/social) impact on this world or it doesn’t. And I’m not sure why God goes to such lengths to avoid revealing his existence.

    And if prayer doesn’t ‘cause’ healing, what was the point of the advertisement? The implication was that God would be more likely to heal you if you spent time with this organisation which would then pray for you. If the act of them praying specifically for you isn’t helpful (general prayers and God’s love being sufficient?), was the advertisement not just a way to attract adherents by preying on people’s ill-health (even if all done with the best will in the world)?

  • Gavin Barrass 29th Mar '12 - 3:25pm

    I am happy to engage with metaphyical discussions, and I would not expect a normative claim to be demostrated empirically – that wouldn’t make sense. But if an axiom is being claimed which would lead to results which are observable, then surely that observation is not unduly ignoring the differing normative claims. Trials test the variables which lead to outcomes controlling if there are supernational variables which affect the outcomes why would they not oberver them? Someone who is prayed for or has a faith may get better quicker than someone who is not prayed for or does not have a thiestic faith (specific or otherwise). Someone may explain a positive phenomena like this with the placebo effect but that would be where the metaphysics would come in. But if there is an inpact with trials and evidence biulding up the evidence would become over whelming.

    but what is being claimed?

    “Christians believe that God hears and answers prayer, and that God heals; very few Christians I know in this country, from any kind of theological background, would claim that the latter is directly attributable to the former, still less that their own specific prayer ‘caused’ healing.” What is the claim that is being made then? Pray is unrelated to healing?

    There seems to be a parallel language here where “healing” does not mean “healing”, I am happy for people to claim a “propensity” rather than a “cause”. Is the statement that is being made more clearly that:
    1. God heals.
    2. God hears prays and answers then but that does not results in actions.
    But where is this relavent to healing? The otherway round makes it look like prays are answered with healing rather than god healing anyway as is his whim.
    As opposed to
    1. Person in distress prays for help.
    2. God hears that pray.
    3. This inspires God takes action to alleviate the distress.
    Thus the causal relationship which should be shown by comparative studies or controlled trial.

  • Andreas Christodoulou 29th Mar '12 - 3:32pm

    To emphasize how amazingly ridiculous this sounds, consider if I were to claim I had a coin which was blessed by God and would come up as heads if you prayed hard enough. You say this is mad, and I pray in whatever I believe to be the appropriate manner, toss the coin and get either heads or tails.

    Whatever result I get, I claim this vindicates my position. If challenged I claim that you don’t understand how the coin works and sigh protractedly.

    This may assist the religious in understanding how their thoughts on prayer are interpreted.

  • Nick (not Clegg) 29th Mar '12 - 4:04pm

    I am an atheist. But,suspending my disbelief for a moment, I hope that , if there is a god, (s)he has a sense of humour; if so, (s)he must be laughing out loud at this debate by now.

  • I am not sure whether to be amused or depressed that the majority of above comments on Tom’s post appear to have completely ignored the points he makes. It’s one thing to disagree and give considered reasons for doing so, but it’s quite another and quite illiberal to simply disagree point blank with no attempt to see the other side.

    I am not interested – here, at least – in having an argument about whether or not God can heal (less so whether you can ‘prove’ it either way). But I am very interested in whether the state is going to tell me what I can and cannot say. And it is deeply concerning to me that so many so-called liberals who are members of this party have been so quick to say that the state should indeed be able to tell us what we can and cannot say. That alarms me.

  • Richard Dean 29th Mar '12 - 4:36pm

    Ben. Of course the state has a right, even duty, to limit what we “can” say. Words mean things, and in some societies (including gangland) the perceived meaning leads to reactions that can kill. Libel is an offence, and many people agree that it should be one. On a differet posting on this website, people are complaining about a conservative MP who published email and physical addresses without permission. In short, there are all sorts of situations in which we all agree that the state has a right to limit the information in our communications, or the nature of our communications,

  • I’ve read the second half of this several times and I still don’t get its relevance. You seem to be trying to separate the cliam that God can heal from the actual act of prayer. That might be how you or ‘mainstream Christianity’ apparently view the issue, but we are discussing the following statement:

    “NEED HEALING? GOD CAN HEAL TODAY! Do you suffer from Back Pain, Arthritis, MS, Addiction … Ulcers, Depression, Allergies, Fibromyalgia, Asthma, Paralysis, Crippling Disease, Phobias, Sleeping disorders or any other sickness? We’d love to pray for your healing right now! We’re Christian from churches in Bath and we pray in the name of Jesus. We believe that God loves you and can heal you from any sickness”.

  • Richard Dean 29th Mar '12 - 5:06pm

    Aaron. very interesting … and there was no mention of the fee! Good to see ASA doing its job of preventing cynical commercial exploitation of vulnerable people.

  • “In short, then, there is indeed a freedom of speech element to this – and what is required is a careful consideration of what constitutes ‘advertising’ and what does not.”

    According to the ASA’s code, it ha s to be “directly connected with the supply or transfer of goods, services, opportunities and gifts, or … consist of direct solicitations of donations as part of their own fund-raising activities.”

    But regardless of the definition, there is not in fact any freedom of speech element to the ASA ruling per se. The ASA administers a voluntary system of self-regulation by advertisers. Its rulings don’t have any legal force. And because the group concerned has chosen to comply, there is no prospect of the legality of its actions being tested in the courts.

  • Graham Goldsmith 30th Mar '12 - 12:19am

    The A.S.A ruled that it was O.K for Bath H.O.T.S. to claim God could heal spiritually but not physically because physical healing could not be scientifically proved. So how do you prove spiritual healing. ? Some people will believe that prayer heals and others will not. This is pretty much determined by if you believe in God or not or if you have received healing or not. I was healed following prayer of a long standing back complaint, the people who prayed over me made no claim about healing at all and i don’t think Christians need to make any claim. The H.O.T.S. teams should offer to pray for people with medical conditions and leave the people to give testimony to their healing if it takes place. I Think the regulations are too restrictive where leaflets are claiming that God may or can heal rather than will. Particularly as people are urged not to discontinue medical treatment. Its really about freedom of expression particularly where no money is changing hands and the worst that someone might suffer is disappointment. Well people get disappointed with conventional medicine and not everyone is healed by physicians. What medical scientific evidence is there for Raiki, Reflexology, Aromatherapy, Acupuncture,Herbalism, Homeopathy, Many G.P.s remain sceptical of their efficacy but they all seem to advertise quite happily in the yellow pages.

  • “I’m not sure that’s the case. You are quoting from item (Ih) in the code. But there are also seven other separate sections.”

    I should have said that what I quoted is the criterion for material on a website, which was my main concern when I first read the report.

    To be honest I think the ASA’s “sanctions” sound rather weak, as far as they can be understood from the description you quote. “Advising” media to withhold advertising space, the possibility of Royal Mail withdrawing its bulk email discount, “asking” search engines to remove paid-for search advertisements. None of this really gives me a feeling that freedom of speech is under threat from this system.

  • I am not a practicing Christian but I am fortunate to be married to one. She has believed in Christian Healing all her life. Her church has weekly Testimony meetings where people can and do testify to healings which they have experienced. I am confident that there will be those who regard them as deluded and lacking in proof but they seem perfectly sane to me.
    Surely everyone is aware of the healing ministry of Jesus, Paul and the Apostles which formed the basis of primitive Christianity whether you believe it or not. Seems reasonable to me that those who do might wish to share it and I can’t understand why an arbirary judgement by the ASA should seek to suppress it. Glad I voted for Tim

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