Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Christians demanding special treatment again

I've spent the past 24 hours in a rather irritated state of mind.

This is because of a letter signed by Christian MPs, including Lib Dem party president, Tim Farron, to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).

The letter is about an advert made by a group of Christians in Bath. The advert said (my emphasis in bold):
"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."
The ASA banned the advert because it breached the advertising regulations that the ASA are legally required to enforce. These regulations basically say that you cannot make any medical claim in an advert unless you can prove it.

Now let me point out right here that saying that prayer can heal is making a medical claim. Saying that "X treatment (prayer, drugs, exercise, snake oil, whatever) can heal Y illness" is a medical claim. Full stop.

But these MPs refuse to accept that. In their letter they say that they are very concerned about the decision and demand that the ASA prove that prayer can't heal (because the MPs give anecdotal evidence that it can) and that if the ASA doesn't then they will raise the issue in parliament.

My reaction to the letter itself (and Tim Farron signing it) is best summed up by Jennie's and Caron's blogposts about it.

But my reaction to the letter is not why I'm writing this post.

The reason I'm writing this post is out of frustration with the attitudes the letter has revealed in some people I know. Some of them are Lib Dems. Some are people whom I used to hold in fairly high regard. People, in short, who ought to know better.

Basically, my position is this. The baseline for medical claims to be allowed in adverts is that the medical product or treatment has to significantly outperform placebo in scientific, peer reviewed, randomised trials. Prayers fail to do this so they can't be advertised as healing people.

But a lot of people have crawled out of the woodwork to claim that this is unfair. That this is illiberal. That this is discrimination. That this is unfair. That this is denying Christians their freedom of speech. That this is a war on religion by "aggressive secularists".

What they are basically saying is that Christians should be allowed to make adverts claiming that prayer heals - despite them being unable to provide adequate proof that prayer can heal. In short, they want a double standard.

Well I have news for them. Not being able to get special treatment is NOT the same thing as being persecuted. There is no war on Christianity (if there was then why would the Pope's visit have been given massive amounts of media coverage? Why would we have Bishops in the House of Lords making laws that govern the entire country? Why would the media avidly report the views of people like the Archbishop of Canterbury whenever they make a pronouncement on anything other than religious matters? Why would we have a programme on the tv every Sunday entitled "Songs of Praise" and set in churches?). And it is not illiberal to deny a small group of Christians the right to advertise medical claims which they can't prove.

But some people obviously disagree with me. And I am of the opinion that they are talking complete and utter nonsense. And the arguments they make tend to prove this.

A good example of these arguments, purely the sake of convenience, is Spiderplantland's blogpost about the letter and the comments beneath the post.

I'm going to quote a lot of what was said in that post and in that comment thread, not out of any particular beef with Spidey, but because the arguments made there are typical of those made elsewhere.

One of the things that's really irritated me is the utter irrationality and blinkeredness that people like Spidey have shown. For example, Spidey said:
“Give me one piece of proof that says prayer cannot heal and I will take your point.” 
So I linked to this meta-study - looking at ten years worth of studies on prayer healing and whether it heals or not. Many of those individual studies were sponsored by religious groups who obviously weren't out to disprove the very thing that they believed in. On top of that, all the research is readily viewable so that anyone can look at it to check for any bias or flaws in the methodology. And what was the conclusion of that meta-study?

It was that prayer performed no better (and sometimes worse) than placebo. So there is no proof that prayer heals people. End of. And that means that the medical claim that prayer can heal people does not meet the standard of proof required by the ASA for medical claims. End of.

That doesn't mean that people can't claim that it does - it just means that they can't claim that it does in adverts.

So what was Spidey's response to this study? It was exactly the same as the response made by lots of other people, on other blogs, on twitter, on facebook, and god knows where else, when presented with proof that prayer does not heal people.

"It still not proof. Its also worth pointing out that the very study you quote is by the medical profession so again i point you to the vested interest point."
She then went on to make the following arguments. All of them being made by plenty of other people (including the MPs in their letter).
"Science can not disprove specific claims especially with regards to prayer. Faith is not quantifiable by science as by its very nature it is outside of the scope of investigation."
Fair enough. I myself believe in God (though not the Christian deity). And my belief is a matter of faith. No one can prove or disprove the existence of god.

But what can be proved or disproved are specific medical claims. And there is no proof that prayer can heal people.

That doesn't matter though, because Spidey went on to say:
"The power of prayer is incredibly strong for many people and has also been proven to have positive mental effects"
E.g. anecdotes and the placebo effect.

Now the problem with this is that it's moving the goalpost. And the simple fact that people move the goalpost to exclude any evidence by scientists or doctors means that they’ve excluded any independent third party from being able attempt to prove or disprove the claim that prayer heals.

Which means that the only way you can prove or disprove that prayer heals is by anecdote – and anecdotes are worthless in terms of proof as they can easily be falsified. For example, people claim that they have seen lizard men masquerading as police officers. People claim that the sugar pills they sell have cured cancer. People claim that vibrating crystals will have cured rheumatism.

But you can’t prove any of those statements based on anecdotes – because, and this is the shocking bit, people LIE, or MAKE THINGS UP, or MISINTERPRET WHAT HAS HAPPENED.

Mind you, none of this matters to people like Spidey. Because, even after all that:
"Let people claim they can cure people all they want. There is no harm in it. People will still go to hospital if they are feeling ill and in need of treatment. Suggesting that one poster for heeling ‘could’ prevent someone seeking treatment is knee jerking in the extreme. I refuse to believe that people are simply that blind. The majority are not."
Now that is complete nonsense. More than that, the assertion that there is "no harm in it" is a lie. And a dangerous lie.

Very few Christians would be irresponsible enough to go around actively telling people that they should stop taking medicine and rely entirely on prayer. But it's being disingenuous or naive in the extreme if you think that even claims that "prayer can heal" can't cause harm - because when people see a medical claim they usually take it at face value. And it's then very easy for some people to then think that, because X tells them that prayer heals, they no longer need to bother with actual medicine. And this, time and time again, produces fatal results.

"Thou shalt not kill" should not just be taken to mean that you shouldn't merely avoid killing anyone or avoid telling anyone directly to do something (like ignoring medical advice) that could kill them - it also means, or should be interpreted anyway, as meaning that you shouldn't do irresponsible things which could lead to other people making the leap to something that will kill themselves.

If you tell someone who is scared about immigration that, in ten years, the native inhabitants of a country will be outnumbered 2 to 1 by immigrants, and you also tell them that, in the long run, the only way to prevent this happening will be violent conflict, and they then go out and shoot some immigrants then you share responsibility in the deaths. You might not have started the fire but you gave them the matches.

So basically, the entire argument being made by the MPs, and people like Spidey, boils down to this:

“I believe that prayer heals. Some people claim it doesn’t and claim to have proved it doesn’t but those people are wrong and can’t be trusted. The reason they are wrong and can’t be trusted is because I say so. So since I believe this to be true, I should be allowed to make adverts saying it is true. Some people say that only medical claims that can be proved should be allowed to be made in adverts but these people ignore the fact that I am certain that prayer heals and have a story from a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend that proves it. If you disagree with me and say that that isn’t enough proof for me to be allowed to make an advert then you are illiberal and discriminating against me.”

That’s the argument they’re making. It’s the argument of the level that a child would make.

On the basis of that argument I could make adverts saying that drinking my urine heals people. Scientists and doctors might say I’m wrong but they’re just biased against what I know to be true.

And, even if my claim isn’t true, it doesn’t matter because drinking urine doesn’t hurt people (it’s a sterile liquid) - which actually makes it better than the claim that prayer heals because the claim that prayer heals has led to numerous deaths.

What this whole situation basically is is a minority of Christians who have a victim complex insisting, yet again, that anything that presents them from shoving their beliefs down the throats of others, regardless of the harm it might cause, is persecution.

Well I'm sorry but it's not. Being crucified is persecution. Being fed to the lions is persecution. Being tortured in attempts to make you renounce your faith is persecution. Being held to the same standards as everyone else in the country is not.

And that's what pisses me off so much about this that it's motivated me to write this ginormous rant. Not what some Christians might believe, but their bollocks claims about persecution and their thick-headed, wilful stupidity in the face of any and all attempts to have a reasoned debate. So don't blame me for the length of this blogpost - blame the Christians.

Well, maybe this is to blame as well.


  1. What George said.....

  2. No George, perhaps blame it on a few irrational Christians, but not all of them. Personally, I'm not at all religious, but I look at many aspects of society today and I look at the 10 commandments and it makes me wonder.

    PS. 2,000 words is a bit over the top.

    1. I don't mean to tar all christians with the same brush - I know the blinkered souls I spoke to only constitute a very small minority of the overall christian population.

  3. Maybe that's why we don't need ESA for more than 12 months, Tim Farron will pray for us and we'll all be cured!

  4. http://healingonthestreets.com/get-trained/

    These are the people who want to advertise.

    1. Well, all I can say is that if they get to advertise then I'm going to start putting up adverts claiming that reading my blog makes your sex life ten times better and boosts your IQ by 50 points ;)

    2. But no one would argue with that, would they, George?

      I wonder if the same claim had been made by Muslims or Jews, or Hindus, would the MPs have got themselves in such a tizz?

      I'm not religious. I don't have any faith in anything supernatural. But I don't say that, because I don't believe, it doesn't exist. For all I know there's a god somewhere... and if you believe in him/her/it, that may make you feel a lot better...

      ...Just like if your day goes well and people smile a lot at you and your boss isn't grumpy and stressed, you go home feeling lighter, younger and better, a belief in god and that that god is healing you may well make you feel better... but frankly I think it's a bit spooky to imagine that he/she/it actually "cures".

      And I too am fed up with religions (Christian mainly) being able to flout the law that exists for the rest of us... (employment laws, sex discrimination laws), and then whining on about being marginalised. Religion is, and should be, slowly put back into a place where those who believe can believe and those who do not, are free to live their lives without any interference from god.

      One of my pet "beefs" is that Christian groups are allowed to go around the doors evangelising... and not just Mormons. The Church of the Shining Light, or some such, were at my door the other night, just when I was about to step into the shower. If Muslims were to do that can you imagine the fuss!

      And then there are the people who demand the right to wear a cross in full view, when their job demands that no jewellery be worn... nurses for example!! And don't get me started on the automatic right for the C of E to send bishops to the retirement home at Westminster!

  5. They charge £400 a year for their "training" and say they have 700 churches on their books, that's £280,000 a year.

  6. What exactly is your issue with them? That are praying for people on the streets. How utterly threatening and terrifying that must be for you all.

    Good grief.

    1. I have no issue with them praying for people on the streets.

      My issue is with them demanding an exemption to the advertising rules so that they can make adverts containing medical claims which they can't prove.

      Or, to put it another way:


  7. George, none of what you say will reassure anyone who values freedom of speech. And that has nothing to with whether we think prayer heals, or is a load of rubbish. Let me explain.

    The group specifically told people not to give up any medical treatment and to follow their doctor's advice. So they are not setting themselves up as an alternative, but a supplement which might or might not work. Furthermore, they don't charge for their 'service'. So this isn't a case of people being sold anything, at all. People are - as far as I'm aware - free to be prayed for by this group, or free to tell them to get stuffed. No money is exchanged, no compulsion takes place.

    Now we can of course then have a robust argument with them about whether healing *does* work. But that is a different question to whether the ASA - and, by proxy, the state - should determine what this group can or cannot freely offer.

    At best, your implied argument for state regulation is that a vulnerable minority might get the wrong end of the stick, not read the leaflet, and get swept up in the hype and give up their medicines. I agree - and suspect this group would also agree - that would be a tragedy. But while I haven't heard of anyone doing that after prayer from this group, it's of course happened all over the place in all kinds of situations, some involving religion and some not. But if that's your only logic to support regulation, it sets a dangerous precedent for liberty. For example, surely the state should go into any church offering to pray to heal people (which most do) and shut them down?

    Or to follow logic in a different direction, must any public proclamation be supported by indisputable evidence? So when protestors wave placards saying "WAR IS WRONG", they have to prove that? It's an objective claim - it's not prefaced with "I think that...". So we have to have a state agency judging the evidence before someone can say something publicly or hand out leaflets?

    Good grief, indeed.

    Just because you think something is stupid, ridiculous, or not evidence based does not mean that the state should ban it. If you believe that, stop calling yourself a liberal.

    1. You're missing the point.

      Read the text of their advert. I quote it very early on in my post.

      This is an advert and they were making the claim that prayer could heal:

      "Back Pain, Arthritis, MS, Addiction ... Ulcers, Depression, Allergies, Fibromyalgia, Asthma, Paralysis, Crippling Disease, Phobias, Sleeping disorders or any other sickness"

      They have no proof that prayer can heal those ilnesses and therefore they have no right to make an advert claiming that. That is the job of the ASA. To rule whether adverts comply with regulations.

      No one is trying to stop them from trying to heal people through prayer or indeed claiming to be able to heal through prayer. What they cannot do is make that claim in an advert.

      So when you say:

      "whether the ASA - and, by proxy, the state - should determine what this group can or cannot freely offer."

      you are missing the point. Because no one is trying to stop them from offering their services. They just can't advertise their services. Just like snake oil salesmen can offer people sugar pills which they claim will heal cancer but can't advertise them.

      And, of course, if you read this group's website, while they might say they tell people to continue medical treatment they also claim that they see "cancerous growths disappearing on X-rays" as a result of their prayer. And that is a very dangerous claim. They can still make it however - just not in adverts.

      "must any public proclamation be supported by indisputable evidence? So when protestors wave placards saying "WAR IS WRONG", they have to prove that? It's an objective claim - it's not prefaced with "I think that...". So we have to have a state agency judging the evidence before someone can say something publicly or hand out leaflets?"

      This is a question to which the answer is no. Because those ARE NOT ADVERTS.

      Get this through your skull: Advertising is not the same thing as freedom of speech.

      And, since you seem to have missed me saying this in my blogpost, let me repet this one more time just to be 100% sure:



    2. So let me clarify, as far as you're concerned they can hand out leaflets saying "Prayer can heal", as long as they don't then follow that up by offering to do so?

      As a side note, you are an unnecessarily abusive person. At least those people handing out leaflets were polite about it.

    3. They can hand out leaflets saying "prayer can heal", they can offer to heal, through prayer, the people they give the leaflets to, but they can't make an advert saying "prayer can heal" unless they can prove it.

      Is that clear enough or do I need to clarify it further?

      As a side note, you seem to be mistaking "gives short shrift to people who clearly didn't read the OP" for "being abusive".

    4. Hey George

      I have a bit of a different take on all this. The ASA isn't trying to teach Doctors and Christians differently. It's trying to teach Christians and atheists the same. As I've explained here... http://aviewfromhamcommon.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/row-ive-been-trying-to-stay-out-of-and.html

    5. Hi Richard. I've already seen that post (I agree with it 100% actually) and you make a lot of good points.

      But it is essentially the same point that I've been making:

      a) This isn't specific persecutions against Christians because the ASA treats everyone the same


      b) Asking for an exemption for this particular advert is asking that the ASA treat one particular group differently from everyone else.

      Though you make the point much better and much less confrontationally than I do :)

  8. Although my memories of RE at school have faded, it was pretty clear what Jesus thought should be done with wealth generally and bankers (money lenders) in particular. It was a very simple, tenable argument that laudably promoted compassion and one with which it was easy to empathise, regardless of what the tangible reward might be.

    I have never since therefore been able to work out how the wealthy can claim to be Christians – they have obviously worked out something in their own minds that reconciles the two. I don’t quite see how this is possible, generally speaking.
    The point in the context of this blog is that these same (compromised) Christians will be just as able to promote self interest as anyone else and in reality are no different to any other lobbying group. I doubt however from the little I know that Jesus would have taken the same approach.


I'm indebted to Birkdale Focus for the following choice of words:

I am happy to address most contributions, even the drunken ones if they are coherent, but I am not going to engage with negative sniping from those who do not have the guts to add their names or a consistent on-line identity to their comments. Such postings will not be published.

Anonymous comments with a constructive contribution to make to the discussion, even if it is critical will continue to be posted. Libellous comments or remarks I think may be libellous will not be published.

I will also not tolerate personation so please do not add comments in the name of real people unless you are that person. If you do not like these rules then start your own blog.

Oh, and if you persist in repeating yourself despite the fact I have addressed your point I may get bored and reject your comment.

The views expressed in comments are those of the poster, not me.