MUMBAI: Merlyn D’Souza doesn’t count herself among pastor Benny Hinn‘s fans. Yet the musician, who plays at Jazz By the Bay, was impressed by his prayer rally.
“I came out of curiosity but I was inspired by what I saw around me,” she says. “The music created the right mood, Mr Hinn was a great orator, and to see faith bringing so many people together from all walks of life was extraordinary.”
It’s easy to see how this combination of stirring music, commanding rhetoric and a collective ebullience helps energise people, in much the same way as a rock concert galvanises its audience. But does healing actually happen?
Experts in the field of psychology say there is no proof whatsoever to show that illness can be cured by faith healing.
Some say, however, that there is a psychological factor at work in illness, which is played on at such prayer gatherings. “Call it the placebo effect,” says psychiatrist Rajesh Parikh.
“Studies have shown that even in the worst of illnesses, when people think they are taking medicines, there is a 40 per cent chance that they will get better. This is why, in the US , all medicines have to show an efficacy percentage much higher than 40 per cent to be passed by the FDA.”
Dr Parikh cites a mid-’70s’ US study on faith-healing which showed that a constellation of six factors can have a similar effect.
The recipe includes enormous arousal of hope and emotion, the provision of rationales for individual misfortune, examples of successful healing, highly susceptible humans and finally, simple faith.
“All doctors know that if patients believe they will get better, they will,” says Dr Parikh. How does this explain stories of lame people walking at these meetings? In some cases, say doctors, it may be temporary hypnotism.
“In the 19th century, there were experiments with hypnosis, in which a patient would be told that he or she will be all right, and the symptoms temporarily went away,” says psychoanalyst Shailesh Kapadia, adding, however, that this only works with psychosomatic illnesses. “As in cases of what used to be called hysterical blindness.”
A study conducted by Jaslok and Nair hospitals at city general practitioner clinics revealed that 40 per cent of patients were depressed or anxious.
“In cases with a significant psychological factor, a gush of energy may certainly enable the person to get up and walk a few steps,” says psychiatrist Harish Shetty.
However, he says patients with a genuine physical or neurological problem can never be healed in this way.
For this reason a paraplegic like Christopher Reeves is unlikely to be called upon at such meetings, adds another expert.
Both Dr Kapadia and Dr Shetty attribute the recent, disturbing rise in the number of faith-healers, religious TV channels and New Age cures to the general sense of anxiety and insecurity.
“India India is not shining,” says Dr Shetty. “The same TV channels may not have done so well a few decades ago when agrarian economies still flourished and the pace of life was slower.”
Actress Kiron Kher, who attended one of Hinn’s prayer meetings, agrees that urban stress plays a role in her “spiritual inclination”.
“How long can you go on partying? The human soul needs something deeper, more peaceful,” she says, adding that it is cynical to dismiss faith healing outright.
“There are a lot of unexplained mysteries in life. I choose not to be cynical.”