Medical Frauds, Fakes, and Hoaxes: Faith Healing

Written by:  Robyn Broyles • Edited by: Leigh A. Zaykoski
Updated Mar 31, 2009

What is faith healing? How do faith healers deceive vulnerable people? What is psychic surgery? Read about this fascinating form of medical deception, which preys on people's faith.

Humans have always turned to the spiritual world to request healing and recovery from illness. Asking God for positive interventions in one's health is a central part of many major religions. Since science can only investigate the natural world, it cannot definitively show whether supernatural intervention is possible; that question can only be answered by a person's faith.

Among the religious ministers who operate, so to speak, "in good faith," lurks another kind of faith healer: those whose practice of faith healing is deliberate hoax. Their motivation is money and fame, so it is no surprise that they tend to operate through very public performances.

"Miraculous" Knowledge

Some faith healers claim to get medical information from God about the ailments of their audience members. Their unexplained knowledge is given as evidence of their divine healing ability, but in reality, they obtain this information through ordinary means.

Peter Popoff was one such notorious faith healer. He was fed information via a radio receiver from his wife, who in turn obtained the information from confederates scattered throughout the audience. Popoff's fraud was exposed on the Johnny Carson Show by faith-healing expert James Randi.

A similar fraud was committed by W.V. Grant, an evangelist who obtained his "miraculous" knowledge of people's afflictions from letters they sent him and from interacting with the audience before his shows. Grant used crib sheets and hand signals from confederates to help him remember details.

Psychic Surgery

A peculiar form of faith healing called psychic surgery is practiced in some parts of the world, notably Brazil and the Phillippines. In psychic surgery, the practitioner appears to reach through a patient's skin using bare hands without an incision, thereby supposedly curing some illness. Commonly, gory props are used to make the procedure appear legitimate, such as animal blood from a hidden squirt bottle or chicken innards "removed" from the patient's body.

One of the earliest psychic surgeons was Tony Agpaoa, who performed his fraud in Manila. Agpaoa was a fugitive from the United States, where he jumped $25,000 bail for fraud in 1967. Psychic surgery has since spread throughout the Phillippines. Other notorious psychic surgeons include Alex Orbito and Laurence Cacteng of the Phillippines; Chris Cole of Australia; and Stephen Turoff of the United Kingdom.

Faith Healing Fraud Tip-Offs

How can you identify a fraudulent faith healer? Faith healers are con artists seeking money. Their trade depends on lack of scientific or medical investigation. Accordingly, it is appropriate to view any person or ministry that asks for money in return for healing, and that tells the patient to avoid conventional medical care, with a healthy dose of skepticism.


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