Magazine article The Spectator

Christianity Is Just an Advertising Puff

Magazine article The Spectator

Christianity Is Just an Advertising Puff

Article excerpt

This week the Advertising Standards Authority upheld a complaint against the Peniel Pentecostal Church in Brentwood, which had claimed that faith had healed a sick worshipper at one of their services. A Mr David Gregg had entered its church ill, said its newspaper advertisement, and left cured.

Decent? Legal? Honest? The complaint was that this claim was not true. After investigating, the ASA found there was insufficient evidence of any miracle for this cure to be advertised, as it had been, as a fact. They were not convinced that Mr Gregg had recovered so completely so fast.

The Authority's ruling raises more questions than it answers. Implicit in any claim that a man has been healed by faith are three quite separable assertions, of which the ASA has adjudicated only the first and the least interesting: the claim that someone has been healed. The Authority were unconvinced that this man was healed, so their investigation ended there.

But what if he had been healed? The Authority never proceeded to test the two linked assertions the church drew from the claim: that faith, rather than some other factor, was the cause; and that the God in whom faith was reposed played some active part in it.

This last assertion is critical, for many even atheists - can accept that people are helped by having `something to believe in'; even a dummy God will do, say psychiatrists, because it is the belief rather than the believed-in which heals the believer. So the church needed to show not only that it was Mr Gregg's faith that had made him whole, but that the God invoked in Brentwood was no creature of fancy, but the real cause.

Unless I am wrong, the ASA are perfectly competent to consider both the instrumentality of faith, and the participation of God. This is because the church advertised itself and its God as a medical remedy, and the advertising of alleged cures must be within any such regulatory body's remit.

Let us start with the first untested assertion: the instrumentality of faith. If the patient were indeed cured on leaving the church, but this was only coincidental to what took place within it (if, for instance, his affliction were shown medically to be of a temporary nature), then it would not be honest of the church to advertise its services, or God's, as having been instrumental. After all, if a Boots advertisement for a patent pill were to cite a case in which a sick man took the pill and at once recovered, the Authority could require them to show evidence for the instrumentality of the pill rather than (for instance) a change of diet, or the weather.

But is it fair to ask a church to substantiate a claim about the instrumentality of faith? I think it is, and that it does lie within a church's power to offer evidence for such claims - indeed the Gospels purport to do so. First, you have the subjective witness of the healed patient - he felt the faith doing him good; as evidence this is helpful if not conclusive. Then you have the testimony of others who may have seen the cure take place. Finally (to counter the objection that the cure and the church attendance might have been coincidental), you can present evidence of many other such apparent healings. I see no reason why, professionally advised, a church could not offer what might fall short of absolute proof of cureby-faith, but would be quite enough to persuade a fair-minded ASA that its claims were not dishonest. …

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