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“You don’t see faith healers working in hospitals for the same reason you don’t see psychics winning the lottery every week.”

Even if you find British comedian Ricky Gervais’ smart-ass brand of comedy annoying, as I do, he has still said a lot of true things about belief and disbelief over the years — as his quote in the attached photo illustration attests.

Every day, we see people behaving as if they believe things they should categorically reject as being so improbably true as to be almost certainly, if not certainly, false. Like truth-revealing crystals, horoscopes, invisible divinities and other “spirits,” homeopathy, telepathy and alien-made crop circles, as well as faith healers, future-foretelling psychics and the exact day End Times will commence.

But they all share the same flaw in reality — they offer no accessible, testable, material evidence that can be repeatedly corroborated. At their core is just a belief, an imagined hypothesis without true substance, whose doctrines begin and end with that belief, not irrefutable evidence. It’s eternally circular, ending nowhere.

So, what Gervais is saying in this quote above is verifiably credible. Hospitals don’t have paid faith healers on their staffs (although patients may invite them to the rooms of their loved ones), because what they claim to offer has no scientific backing, no evidence of efficacy. The equivalent of “quacks.” And if psychics actually could foretell the future, such as what the Powerball numbers will be next week, they would be among the only — if not the only — winners ever. But they don’t, so rationally speaking they’re not.

It’s important to point these discrepancies out between what is believed and what can be reasonably confirmed as true. Sometimes, however, we fudge with good intentions.

For example, I know a physician in Tucson, Arizona, who once worked for the government’s Indian Health Service. In treating Native American patients, she learned — in horror, at first — that the patients were comforted when a traditional tribal “medicine man” was allowed to utter incantations, burn sage and make ritual healing movements over them. Eventually, my friend looked the other way, after she discovered the healing power of some Indian patients’ belief in shamen’s healing powers.

But, and this is the rational part, she convinced patients to accept both kinds of treatments — scientific and supernatural. One treated the body mostly and the other the mind mostly, although together they were more formidable than apart.

However, it must be also pointed out that the medicine men did not actually “heal” anything, in effect, but helped patients heal themselves by providing comfort and existential confidence, although any connection between presumed cause to real effect was tenuous at best. In the end, modern medicine most powerfully contributed to healing. The balm of wishful thinking was secondary.

This post is just another excuse to reiterate this bit of practicality: if an assumption doesn’t seem to have any substance in reality (e.g., faith healers have magical powers), it’s probably just an unfounded belief, like in God. But beliefs are not necessarily inconsequential — they have powerful effects on people — and should be factored in to our overall understanding of the world.

Although that doesn’t mean we should blindly accept that what is believed is necessarily true.

Image/Philosophical Atheism

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Books by Rick Snedeker:

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...

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