Healing and Homeopathy

I’m periodically involved in discussions about claims of miraculous healing in answer to prayer. My typical position, unsurprisingly, is to be extremely dubious, and with good reason. The condition being “healed” is often minor, self-limiting or liable to spontaneous remission. When more extravagant claims are made, the story tends to be hyped, at least in my experience, but little effort is made to verify details. If I was going to tell people that God made me walk again, I think I’d want some sort of medical opinion to show that even if I’m mistaken, at least I’m not crazy.

Actually, this is one area where I respect the Roman Catholics. Whatever else they might get wrong, they instituted a thorough process for confirming any claimed healings at Lourdes over 100 years ago, with detailed investigations and so on. The investigating committee is so rigorous that only 67 healings have been given the church’s seal of approval in the last century. It makes you wonder why people are so desperate to make their pilgrimage, and pales into insignificance when as many as 5 million pilgrims visit the site each year, but that’s another matter. To be honest, those few “official healings”, and a few from other sources where there appears to be a genuine medical record of a dramatic change, do make me wonder. Even though it would make no sense theologically, and the overwhelming body of evidence is that miraculous healing doesn’t happen, it’s hard to simply dismiss stories like that as fabrication or exaggeration. But I’ve come up with an interesting new angle of attack – homeopathy.

Basically, homeopathy is pseudoscientific drivel. Although science interests me, I’m not really a science blogger, so if you want a more comprehensive treatment of it you might be better off trying here or here. But in summary, homeopathy starts out with the not-quite-completely-implausible idea that like cures like, and then piles on more and more ridiculous ideas, like the belief that diluting the cure makes it more potent (but only if you bash, or “succuss” the solution repeatedly – no, I’m not making this up), or that the water “remembers” that it used to contain the cure, even when diluted to the point that not a single molecule of the cure is left. If homeopathy were ever proved true, the resulting rewriting of our understanding of science would make faster-than-light neutrinos look like a minor niggle.

This is relevant because homeopaths and supporters of homeopathy will often resort to anecdote to support the efficacy of their magic water. They’ll point to people who instantly got better from their bad back, or saw an improvement in minor chronic ailments. Very occasionally, someone will ascribe an unexpected improvement in their cancer prognosis to a course of homeopathic treatment with precisely no active ingredient. And this range of “cures” is very interesting.

Although the details aren’t exactly the same (homeopathy doesn’t tend to lengthen many legs, which God seems to specialise in), the mix of cases is basically the same as the Christian healings, with most being self-limiting conditions, some serious recoveries being obvious misunderstandings or misrepresentations, and just a few cases which merit serious consideration. But basic scientific investigation can tell us that homeopathy is total nonsense, without even the possibility of the old “God works in mysterious ways” defence. Isn’t that interesting?

Because I’ll say it again – homeopathy is obvious nonsense from start to finish. Any claims made by homeopathy should be the baseline comparison for any form of healing, just as the magic water itself is tested (and repeatedly fails) against placebo. And that’s bad news for the church, as it leaves the claims of miraculous healing looking much less convincing. Where I used to think that the few serious claims which hadn’t been debunked deserved consideration, even if they looked suspiciously like another God of the Gaps, now I’m increasingly likely to say “Is that all? I could get that from homeopathy!” Given that homeopathy is obvious nonsense, and has been repeatedly shown to be no better than placebo, that’s not exactly something to aspire to.

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

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