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Canadian faith healer Benny Hinn tells a woman who has had a mastectomy and is suffering from cancer of the spine that she is cured, in a 1977 healing session: “The cancer is gone; I rebuke it.” Photo/Getty.

How faith healing 'works'

The good times keep rolling for faith healers and their New Age counterparts.

Derren Brown, master illusionist, hypnotist and atheist, has long been fascinated by faith healing. In 2011, for a TV special Miracles for Sale, he spent months training a former scuba diver called Nathan to emulate the behaviour of Christian faith healers. Nathan, rebranded as Pastor James, demonstrated how easy it was to dupe the faithful, as bogus faith healers have done for generations. (In a current Netflix series called Miracles, Brown himself adopts the persona of a faith healer, temporarily relieving the aches and pains of volunteers in the audience.)

The trick, the English mentalist and author says, is for the healer to project absolute confidence in his or her abilities and the subject will do the rest – no supernatural intervention required. The adrenalin rush from being singled out for healing will temporarily banish pain and can restore physical mobility. For a small number of people with psychosomatic disorders, the effects can be long-lasting. However, there have been no documented faith-healing cures of organic diseases such as cancer.

In an interview with Christian Radio, Brown was at pains to point out that his expose isn’t a condemnation of religion, and he’s “not in any way against the Church or religion, or even the idea of healing”. But he believes faith healing “is a scam that’s carried out against the Church and exploits those with sincerely held faith”, and he hopes that by debunking it, followers will pursue their spiritual healing separately from the physical.

Faith healing has been called the oldest profession. Shamans were healing people for millennia before Jesus started the Christian healing franchise. Despite the “miracles” of modern medicine, faith healing and its New-Age offshoot, energy healing, has not only persisted, but is a billion-dollar industry worldwide. As practised by American televangelists like Benny Hinn, it has become an unedifying extravaganza of mendacity at the expense of the devout and desperate. No condition, from cancer to blindness, is beyond Hinn’s apparent ability to heal; he has even claimed a man was raised from the dead during one of his shows.

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Faith healers like Hinn, who criss-cross the planet in private jets to service their global ministries, have been exposed as charlatans time and again but continue to operate their scams, mostly tax-free by registering as a church.

Those taken in by bogus faith healers have more to lose than their money. Dr Harriet Hall, who writes “The SkepDoc” column in US Skeptic magazine, tells the story of one hapless believer: “In one unfortunate case a woman was encouraged to get up out of her wheelchair and discard her brace at church. The faith healer proclaimed her ‘healed’. Unfortunately, her cancer of the spine had weakened her bones, and the activity caused bones in her spine to collapse; she died not long after. The faith healing hastened her death and caused her unnecessary agony. For the faith healer and the witnesses at church and for the patient herself that day, it appeared to be a miraculous healing. They couldn’t have been more wrong.”

Most people find Hinn and his ilk easy to dismiss, but what of the saintly healers who live ordinary lives and don’t charge for their services? Since the 1970s, Brazilian healer John of God, whose real name is João Teixeira de Faria, has drawn hundreds of thousands of sick people from around the world to the remote village of Abadiana. Faria claims to be guided by the spirits of King Solomon, St Ignatius and John the Baptist, and a host of gifted doctors who have passed over.

In 2010, he found international fame when Oprah Winfrey featured him both in her magazine and on TV, and later made the pilgrimage to Abadiana. But in December 2018, Faria was arrested on rape charges and is currently in prison. According to reports, police conducted raids on properties linked to Faria and found handguns, gemstones and a suitcase containing the equivalent of $US300,000 in cash. More than 600 women – varying in age from eight to 67 – have accused Faria of sexual assault. One of them, Dalva Teixeira, is his daughter; she labelled him “a monster”.

Faith healers themselves are often the first to denounce rivals as fake or dangerous. John Mellors, the Australian faith healer, was scathing when John of God invaded his turf with a show in Sydney. Mellors is big on demons. It’s the devil, he says, who is causing your arthritis or stomach pain. He told one woman suffering neck and shoulder pain that she’d invited demons into her life because she practised yoga. Which may explain a lot about those pretzel poses.

Probably the best known faith healer in New Zealand is Marist priest Father John Rea. On the official Society of Mary website, it states: “Among this list of those healed as a result of John’s prayer with them, includes a woman whose cancer disappeared, a child violinist whose crushed hand was cured, and a dumb teenager with paralysis whose paralysis and speech was reversed.” No evidence is provided to support these extraordinary claims.

New Age energy healers tend to be less melodramatic than their Christian counterparts. Another Australian, Charlie Goldsmith, nephew of Olivia Newton John, heals people by fluttering his eyelids for about 30 seconds. He now has his own US cable TV series The Healer and his own line of sugar-free chocolate.

Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam has lamented that the world is now “beyond satire”. It’s a truism that comes to mind when pondering the success of Croatian Braco the Gazer, a former economist turned psychic healer, who attracts sell-out crowds to his shows in the US, UK and Australia. Braco himself makes no claims to be a healer – he simply stands on a podium and silently gazes at the audience for six minutes. So powerful is Braco’s energy that his website warns: “Only adults (18 years+) may gaze with Braco. Children, and pregnant women past their third month, should not gaze, rather, someone close may hold the child’s or person’s photo during the gaze to bring them into the encounter.” Braco also has live-streaming healing sessions, but the same restrictions apply.

Thousands have come forward to claim he has cured them from everything from paraplegia to blocked nostrils.

This article was first published in the September 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.