Book Review - The Faith Healers

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1988, Volume 5., Number 2, pages 252-253. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.

Book Review - The Faith Healers 

James Randi. Prometheus Books, Buffalo, New York, 1987 

James Randi is a skillful, wittily entertaining professional illusionist and magician. This reviewer witnessed a performance in which Randi, up to his armpits in gore, seemingly pulled endless entrails out of the stomachs of living human subjects, in an exercise called "psychic surgery." But in this book, The Faith Healers, there is no wit or entertainment or, for that matter, human gore; there is merely a dissection of religious faith healers - particularly those that appear on TV - whose moral entrails are held up to Randi's angry public scorn.

In examining the claims of faith healers, Randi acknowledges his own medical and legal limitations, and he claims to take a similar exemption toward religion. But in fact, this book is about as strongly anti-religious medicine as this reviewer has encountered in recent reading, despite some quotes from mainstream religious groups which attack faith healers, and a discussion of the French attitude toward faith healing that is far more tolerant than Randi's .

Some of Randi's critics take exception to the deception to which he sometimes resorts to "get the goods" on quacks and charlatans, as he fights fire with fire. But others - and this evidently includes Carl Sagan who contributes an introduction to the book - would take exception not only to the means but to the ends as being unworthy of the emotional investment Randi makes in his cause, as he pursues one charlatan after another in a series of essentially repetitive chapters that do not make for very interesting reading.

It is tempting to speculate what kind of book Randi would have written about faith healers if he himself had been a deeply religious man. One imagines that he could rail even more vehemently against the perversions of religion represented by the crude chicaneries and opportunism of many of the faith healers. One imagines also that if he had been such a man, he would resist temptations to resort to the dubious methods that are a feature of the Randi ethic.

But that would not be a Randi book in the now-established tradition of the group of anti-religious debunkers among whom James Randi is the prominent figure. That group centers around Prof. Paul Kurtz, the principal person in Prometheus Books, and Chairman of the Committee for the Scientific Study of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). For members of that group the line between attacks on fraud, superstition, and pseudoscience on the one hand, and religion on the other, is a very uncertain one. And critics of that position would assert that the use of dubious investigative methods exposes a deep moral and even a philosophic flaw in the Randi-CSICOP program to expose pseudoscience.

Randi-CSICOP consider themselves scientific, but at the same time they are stubbornly anti-clerical and left-leaning in their politics, as is evident from the Sagan introduction and the attacks in the book on Pat Robertson. The idea that religion - particularly in the West - has contributed to faith in reason, and in natural and moral law, finds no place in the annals of Randi-CSICOP.

A broader, more interesting, and better balanced book might compare the faith healers who base their healing claims on the easy promises of Das Kapital and the Communist Manifesto with those that allegedly derive from the Bible. Economic and political pseudoscience have done vastly more damage to mind and body in the last century than medical quackery. The Faith Healers is best seen as a warning not merely against fakers promising easy cures for every kind of physical malady, but against fakers who promise easy cures for every kind of misfortune to which man may fall victim.

Lawrence Cranberg, Ph.D., Austin Society to Oppose Pseudoscience

Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 5, No. 2, 1988