Last weekend I was handed a flyer on the street for something called the Revival Fellowship. Well, that’s not strictly true – it was actually a friend of my girlfriend’s who was given the flyer, with the specific reason that she knew it would annoy the hell out of me, and she was right. Because the Revival Fellowship is a ‘prayer heals’ kind of organisation, going so far as to make some extraordinarily outrageous claims. The flyer – which is a pretty well-made affair, I might add (you can view it right there on the right) – claims to be ‘Totally Different from anything you’ve heard before’. Bold claims. Turn the flyer over, and you’ll see the happy faces of various healees (it’s not a word, I know, but I like it). Beside the face of the first healee, the flyer proclaims:
“After prayer, Russell was healed from a severe food allergy and Autism. He now leads a completely normal life”
This struck my girlfriend as odd, and it definitely strikes me as odd. First of all, I like how the statement goes with the big claims first – namely that he was healed from a severe food allergy? Wow, that’s an amazing claim! Oh yeah, and he was healed from the hitherto-untreatable autism too, but that’s by the by… And that’s not the only extraordinary claim. Next up, we have the story of Granville:
“In 1984, Granville suffered another brain haemorrage and died 3 times. After prayer, he came alive. He still lives today”
Now here’s a bizarre claim. So Granville died three times, and then prayer brought him back to life? The question we need to ask ourselves, as skeptics and adherents to logic and reason, is what brought him back to life after the first and the second times he died? And specifically how dead was he that he could be brought back those two occasions without reverting to magic prayer?! Also, it’s interesting to note, there’s nothing to say that prayer itself brought him back to life – just that he came back to life after someone prayed. I got in my car after I had breakfast – my breakfast did not transport me to my car. Correlation causation, people. There’s also claims regarding a child who was ‘incompatible with life’ (with no scientific or medical definitions as to what that means or how it was solves) and healing from a broken heart, as well as the following health claim:
“A severe car accident had Don in agony for four years. He was instantly healed of a broken vertebrae upon baptism in water”
This is an amazing claim, genuinely! Fortunately they took X-Rays immediately before and after the baptism, showing the miraculous recovery. I mean, I presume they took X-Rays, or else how would they know it was the magic baptism water that was responsible? I thought I better check their website, in case there were some clues as to medical proof there… but disappointingly (if not surprisingly), there was nothing. It’s almost as if the claims were unsubstantiated… What the site did offer us is the following:
“When you read the following accounts, we want you to ask yourself if Jesus Christ is dead, how did these things happen? And, if He is alive, where does that leave you? What He did for these people yesterday, He can do for you today. The Bible offers you evidence. It’s an experience, not a theory.”
Taking these assertions in order, how did these things happen if Jesus Christ is dead? Erm, they most likely didn’t? Russell most likely wasn’t healed from Autism – he might have had a diagnosis that was low on the spectrum scale which then was redefined off the scale as he grew older. That’s one way, for example. Whatever brought Granville back from the dead the first couple of times – modern medicine, say – went on to manage it for a fourth time. Just an idea. The vertebrae that Dan was left with might not have been broken, or might not have been fixed – back pain is a notoriously tricky area to diagnose pain, and most susceptible to placebos and quack remedies. For example. None of these require Jesus to be involved, or for him to be real for that matter. I’m not saying absolutely that this is the story behind each of these miraculous claims – but these are possible solutions, that need to be addressed before the claims are used to convert.
The UK and Ireland are not the only places where the Revival Fellowship operates – indeed the organisation is part of a global network of local level sites, operating in many countries including Australia, Hungary, India and South Africa. I checked websites from those countries for similar claims, and again found anecdotes regarding all manner of healing miracles, with no manner of evidence. For example, the South African site had a story about a pregnant woman who contracted German Measles, and was told there was a chance her baby would be born deformed:
In 1995 I fell pregnant with my daughter Tracy, but in the 1st trimester I contracted German measles. The doctors told me that the effects on my unborn baby could be catastrophic – she could be born blind or deformed or badly retarded. I was strongly advised to terminate the pregnancy. I decided to trust God’s promises, and I knew that He could heal any problem that Tracy might have. When she was born, she was a perfect little girl. God had protected her completely.
What’s interesting here is that there wasn’t even a disease or affliction being healed – there was a chance the unborn child could have been adversely effected, admittedly severely, by the condition of the mother. A chance. Which means there was a chance that the child WOULDN’T be. I’m not saying for a moment that it isn’t a wonderful thing that Rowena’s baby was born without affliction – it is, it’s a truly beautiful thing. But even if the chances of deformation were as high as 99.9% (which they weren’t), that would still mean that 1 in 1000 babies born in similar circumstances would be unafflicted. If 1000 pregnant women with measles decided to turn to prayer over medical advice, statistically, on average, 999 of those mother’s prayers would not be answered.
There’s also an overall global site, and it’s here that the real impressive claims are kept. Headings under their ‘Healing’ section include Blindness, Coeliac Disease, Glaucoma, Leukaemia, Spine Degeneration, HIV AIDS and Death. Prayer heals AIDS? So we’re lead to believe – yet their evidence is, of course, a personal anecdote which runs along the lines of ‘Rebecca was diagnosed with AIDS, joined the fellowship, was baptised, spoke in tongues, and a year later blood tests showed she didn’t have AIDS’.
Now, if we take that as true, surely the whole thing could be easily explained as a false positive in the first test. There’s no mention of a second test which also proved positive, which is standard practice in the Western world when it comes to positive results in HIV test – but of course in Papua New Guinea I don’t think it’s a stretch to say repeating AIDS tests is not a priority, the priority instead would be to treat so as to minimise spread and infection. Notably there are no tales of prayer curing AIDS in the developed Western world, where there are the time and resources to re-test, and there are no medical proofs offered of any of these cases.
So, what’s the harm here? I think it’s clear – if you teach people that magical thinking will cure their serious and deadly diseases, they will turn their back on real medicine. Miraculous recoveries will happen – they’re statistically unlikely, but crucially it only takes one anomaly to make a great testimonial. For every miraculous recovery from a seemingly deadly disease, how many followers will die from an untreated illness? How many people will waste their last days in this life believing in magic water and speaking in tongues, when they could be getting real treatment? I don’t think for one moment that the Revival Fellowship is twisting the cases it presents in order to convert people – I’m sure they strongly believe the healing stories they tell and the anecdotes they put forward.
But when it comes to illnesses, and the death of real people, it’s vital we look beyond anecdotes, and explore every Earthly possibility before we allow for a more mystical conclusion, lest real people will get hurt.