Prayers work, say British politicians

I admit to being the world’s worst advocate of democracy. It’s 38 years since I became of voting age and in all that time I’ve managed to put my X in the box twice in general elections. I do think that honest abstinence is a legitimate position, though.

I see that David Cameron is on the defensive after his former party treasurer was forced to quit after offering access to the Prime Minister and senior colleagues for money. This is only the latest in a string of scandals going back many years, and only a couple of years ago Parliament’s reputation suffered the biggest blow it has ever probably suffered in the so-called expenses scandal, as MP after MP was exposed systematically cheating or at best breaking the spirit of the law. My own MP, Bill Wiggin, claimed mortgage payments on a “second” home after buying a cheaper property outright.

This is one of the problems with democracy – you have to be very careful who you vote for. Actually the low esteem in which politicians are held is an argument for democracy, insofar as we can get rid of them, albeit sometimes it might seem akin to cleaning out the Augean Stables.

One can see that I’m not particularly enthusiastic about our legislators.  But if I lived and voted in South West Devon, South Luton or Westmorland right now it would just be too embarrassing. The members for these three constituencies are active in the “Christians in Parliament” group, and have written to the Chairman of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) attempting to get the authority to change its adjudication on a Christian group that claimed that God heals illnesses. As these claims were highly specific, naming particular illnesses, this could well be the easiest adjudication that the respected ASA has ever had to make.

Nevertheless, the three MPs are a bit miffed about this and have decided to embarrass themselves and their voters by sending the following letter:

Rt Hon Lord Smith of Finsbury
Chairman, Advertising Standards Agency
21st March 2012

We are writing on behalf of the all-party Christians in Parliament group in Westminster and your ruling that the Healing On The Streets ministry in Bath are no longer able to claim, in their advertising, that God can heal people from medical conditions.

We write to express our concern at this decision and to enquire about the basis on which it has been made. It appears to cut across two thousand years of Christian tradition and the very clear teaching in the Bible. Many of us have seen and experienced physical healing ourselves in our own families and churches and wonder why you have decided that this is not possible.

On what scientific research or empirical evidence have you based this decision?

You might be interested to know that I (Gary Streeter) received divine healing myself at a church meeting in 1983 on my right hand, which was in pain for many years. After prayer at that meeting, my hand was immediately free from pain and has been ever since. What does the ASA say about that? I would be the first to accept that prayed for people do not always get healed, but sometimes they do. That is all this sincere group of Christians in Bath are claiming.

It is interesting to note that since the traumatic collapse of the footballer Fabrice Muamba the whole nation appears to be praying for a physical healing for him. I enclose some media extracts. Are they wrong also and will you seek to intervene?

We invite your detailed response to this letter and unless you can persuade us that you have reached your ruling on the basis of indisputable scientific evidence, we intend to raise this matter in Parliament.

Yours sincerely,

Gary Streeter MP (Con)
Chair, Christians in Parliament

Gavin Shuker MP (Labour)
Vice Chair, Christians in Parliament

Tim Farron (Lib-Dem)
Vice Chair, Christians in Parliament

It’s difficult to express the feelings I have to think that we have legislators that consider faith-healing (for that is what it is) to be a legitimate activity and who genuinely appear to believe that Fabrice Muamba – who I’m happy to say is now well into his recovery – owes his life to prayers. I would also think it bad taste to use someone like Muamba, fighting for his life in hospital, to score cheap political points. We must remember that people who use faith healers are very often the most desperate people of all – it’s said that difficult situations concentrate the rational mind wonderfully but actually the opposite is true. The three MPs, if they had their way, would be guilty in many cases of acting against the interests of society’s most vulnerable.

The ASA is quite clear on this. Anyone or group advertising a product needs to be able to objectively back up any claims made. Testimonies, such as Streeter’s claim that his bad hand got better, are not sufficient in this respect. Healing on the Streets – the group in Bath – offered no evidence at all.

The last paragraph is a thinly-veiled threat. Scientific evidence by its nature is never indisputable. Yet, as is common among the religious, they are making unreasonable demands simply to allow room for their own unsubstantiated position. It would be good if the question was raised in Parliament if only to raise the profile of the witless threesome.

h/t Ophelia Benson


3 responses to “Prayers work, say British politicians

  • Keith

    This reminds me of some theists’ approach to the existence of God, namely asking atheists to prove that God does not exist (usually knowing full well that such a task is impossible).

    Atheists are under no such obligation, just as the ASA is under no obligation to refute the claim that faith-healing works. He who makes the positive claim must defend it, and the three MPs are the ones making the positive claim in this case. Show us the evidence, chaps!

  • scripturesearcher_20

    I have to disapprove strongly with a government agency making any regulation on religious advertising. Even if these people were outright lying, which is doubtful, there would have to be some sort of money or binding committment at issue in order for a government agency to step in.

    That’s just my opinion, of course. I do think it’s important to stay with individualism and religious freedom in order to create a society built on freedom of thought.

    Buyer – and prayer – beware. The responsibility is on the individual.

    • Headbutter of the Gods

      Coincidentally, I was in Bath when your reply was posted. It’s a lovely place and I recommend it to any foreign visitor. I would live there if I could afford it. There were no signs of religious groups making outrageous claims.

      The original post was about three politicians that indicated that they were prepared to sanction government interference in favour of Healing on the Streets. I appreciate that you come from a political tradition that values the choices that we make as individuals over and above those made for us, democratically or otherwise, and that libertarians see almost any government activity as a distortion of a rational market.

      But we all have to make choices, and the costs involved in determining the right choice are often excessive. Consequently, without costly perfect information, we can quite easily make the wrong choice, and very often do. The ASA (which is a quasi-government organisation not related to any political grouping, and is well-respected) can be seen to be part of the process of improving information in order for us to make informed, rational choices. Freedom of thought, of which I’m very much in favour, depends for its efficacy on having the right information to make the best-informed choices. I’m not sure if HotS demanded money (although where else would they get the money required to operate but from their converts?) but I’d imagine that binding commitments were very much part of their rationale.

      Having said that, it’s probably true that you or I would walk by and maybe have a laugh about it. The system does depend on individuals being sufficiently motivated to complain, and few of us do. But if we did want to complain as an individual, what recourse would we have in the absence of the ASA? WE would either have to pay for our own research, or get some other agency to do it for us. This other agency would in effect be the ASA, and if it was a private organisation paid for by individual subscription, the market would in effect be dictated by those individuals with the resources to pay for it. For an example, see the iniquitous English libel laws or “super injunctions“. These things are nothing more or less than a market distortion. The fact that we all pay, indirectly, for the ASA, doesn’t change much. Anyway, as individuals, we all contribute to market distortion. The entire insurance industry is built on paying over the true value for something based on imperfect information.

      I realise that this reply, as usual, barely scratches the surface of a very complex issue. By all means respond, but I suggest that you lay your thoughts out on your blog, or if you like you’re welcome to make a guest post on this one.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: