Faith-healing and freedom – when should the law regulate religious speech?

by | Feb 2, 2018 | News | 1 comment

African campaigner Lamin Ceesay recently spoke out about having been forced to participate in a treatment programme trialling a supposed miracle cure for HIV, which had been invented by the then Gambian President, Yahya Jammeh.  The therapy entailed a mixture of herbal medicine and mysticism, and the enforced participants were deprived of the conventional drugs needed to manage their condition.  Ceesay was one of the few lucky enough to survive this  ordeal.  Fortunately, very few people would wish to defend compulsory human experimentation, not least when the therapy being trialled had no scientific basis, but the incident does raise some interesting questions about medicine and spirituality, and whether the legal framework ever needs to regulate their dialogue.

Of course it is important to stress from the outset that for very many people, there is a mutually supportive dynamic between conventional medicine and spiritual care.  Lots of doctors, nurses and allied professionals also happen to have a faith, and public healthcare in the UK expressly recognises the importance of addressing religious and spiritual needs. This philosophy is illustrated by the support to the NHS Chaplaincy Programme, and the very presence of paid chaplains.  Strikingly, even Humanist groups who express concern about some patients finding the religious nature of chaplaincy a barrier to accessing help, still recognise the necessity of addressing existential concerns as part of a holistic approach to healthcare. There is a general consensus that healing human beings is a complicated endeavour, it is not purely a mechanical task like fixing a car engine.

Yet accepting all of the above, there are still occasions when certain religious viewpoints adopt an oppositional stance towards conventional and evidence-based medicine.  The assertion can either be that recourse to doctors is unnecessary, because spiritual healing is superior, or that it is forbidden, either in the general or the specific (a particular treatment, such as a blood transfusion, might be contrary to the doctrines of the faith, or it could be that all medical help is seen as improperly interfering with the divine will). In both cases, there is a direct clash between religious teaching and medical advice, and the inevitable question of when, if ever, the legal system should get involved in such situations.  It goes without saying that special considerations apply to children, teenagers and adults with impaired capacity to make decisions, but what about other citizens?

Broadly speaking, the law robustly protects the right of individuals to make decisions about their own body and health, and adults are free to make choices which other people might deem irrational when it comes to medical care, even if their decisions are tantamount to suicide.   This must surely be correct, as any alternative would be a Kafkaesque and unquestionably a breach of fundamental human rights (in particular Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which recognises protection against torture, inhuman and degrading treatment, as well as Article 8, guaranteeing a right to private and family life).  However, acknowledging that people have every right to make self-destructive choices, is extremely different from suggesting that third parties should be entirely free to encourage them to do so.  Should there be any limit to the kind of messages and persuasion tactics which religious or spiritual groups engage in, particularly when addressing those who may be rendered very vulnerable through pain and fear?

On the one hand, disturbing stories along these lines are rarely out of the UK news, recent appalling examples include: HIV sufferers and cancer patients being encouraged to swap their drug treatment with “holy-water”, or mysterious concoctions such as a blackcurrant and olive oil mixture, fortified with prayer and incantation; drinking bleach being held out as a cure for autism and Alzheimer’s disease; and faith healers threatening curses if they are not paid spiritual protection money.  In the abstract, some of these promises seem to stretch credulity so far that it is difficult to understand how they gain any traction, but of course, the people who heed them are not doing so in the abstract.  They are faced with frightening, debilitating and sometimes life-limiting illnesses.  The degree to which stress, anguish and desperation may cloud anybody’s judgement should never be underestimated.

However, regulating religious speech of any sort is a thorny area, and when the speaker claims to have a benign motive and the audience are willing, it is difficult to justify imposing restrictions in a liberal democracy.   Criminal Law may step in when one party is attempting to obtain money by fraud, although proving dishonest intent in these kinds of cases can be a high hurdle to overcome.  Significantly, faith based assertions, by their very nature, cannot be subjected to independent verification; it is therefore challenging to demonstrate that the people pushing them do not hold any genuine belief in their effectiveness.  Despite the fact that there is statutory regulation in respect of cancer treatment, many claims will fall outside of its ambit.  Equally, where dangerous substances are being sold for human consumption, legal regulation of food stuffs and additives may be brought into play. Again though, in many cases this will not be relevant, as by no means all mystical cures demand ingesting anything at all, and many of those which do at least manage to offer products which are non-toxic.

The reality is that in many cases, preventing the religious assertions is neither practical or desirable, and a better approach would be to focus on helping and empowering those on the receiving end of such claims.  In the longer term, ensuring that all children receive a high-quality education which nurtures critical thinking skills, can only be a positive strategy.   This can (and of course does) already take place in a wide variety of contexts, faith based and otherwise, but further news reports today of young people in unregulated and inadequate schools are troubling.   The suggestion is certainly not to dispel faith with logic, but rather to give everybody the tools to weigh up differing kinds of claims for themselves.   Many religious people support scientific method and evidence based medicine, whilst some atheists or agnostics may opt for alternative, spiritual therapies.

More immediately, it is encouraging that the NHS seeks to provide clear and accessible information to patients about complementary and alternative medicine. Lastly but by no means least, the work of NHS based chaplains must also have a role to play. Where available, supportive voices from a position of faith, who may provide a different narrative from those who would seek to exploit or wield undue influence, have the potential to greatly assist in enabling people to come to the right decision for them.  Although we all have the unquestioned freedom to make whatever decision we wish about declining or rejecting medical treatment, whether or not third parties happen to consider us misguided, we also have the right to be supported in making what is truly our own choice, and this should undoubtedly be free from exploitation or pressure.

Related articles

Religious extremists trying to pervert education (BBC News 1/2/18)

The president who made people take his bogus HIV cure (BBC News 22/1/18)

Evil spirits, possessions and black magic, welcome to the Sheffield mosque providing Islamic exorcisms (Sheffield Star 22/1/18)

Warning issued to Leicester residents over bogus faith healers who threaten to curse victims (Leicester Mercury 13/1/18)

Miracle autism cure salesman exposed by BBC investigation (BBC News 11/6/15)

Gorton church sells olive oil and blackcurrant squash as a miracle ‘cure’ for cancer and HIV (Manchester Evening News 9/8/12)

Faith healers across England in HIV healing claims (BBC News 24/9/12)

Six deaths as British churches claim to cure HIV with prayer (International Business Times 27/11/11)

NHS Choices: Complementary and Alternative Medicine

NHS England Chaplaincy Programme

Cancer Act 1939


1 Comment

  1. Greg Fletcher

    I would be interested to hear from your students and staff how they would define religious extremism and to give me examples of such extremism, for I fear that the Government does not have an official definition which is clear in law. Thanks.


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