This article previously appeared on BeyondPositive here.
Recently on the BBC’s ‘The Big Questions’ they posed the question ‘can illness be cured by prayer?’
While it is easy to put down the question as idiotic, and condemn it to the same place as other stupid questions like when in 2009 when BBC News’s ‘Have Your Say’ asked: “Should homosexuals be executed?” I think this it is important to offer a reaction.
BeyondPositive‘s reply was: “We’ve seen too many people living with HIV hurt or even killed by religious doctrine telling them to swap their meds for prayer.”
There have been so many countless people hurt, both physically and mentally, by the belief that prayer can heal. It can cause lasting emotional damage and also lead people to blame themselves when it turns out to be ineffective.
I would like to share my story with you on this subject. At one of the hardest and lowest points of my life I was pushed into this kind of thinking. At the least, I hope to add to the ongoing debate, and that people will realise actually how common this is and the real damage that can be done by relying on faith and throwing out life-saving treatment.
A month after I was diagnosed with HIV I went along to Christian festival with my local church youth group. It was a hard week for me because the main focus of the week seemed to be on people being healed by prayer. There were lots of stories of how people had been healed of their illnesses with the ‘power of prayer and faith.’
One evening I was encouraged to go and talk to one of the senior leaders of the festival about how I was feeling and my health situation, I was so scared as at this point I had only trusted that information to a handful of people.
He told me that if I had enough faith then God would cure me of my HIV because nothing was too big for him. He prayed for me for about 15 minutes and told me to have faith. He left me feeling so much better about my situation.
With that ringing in my ears for months I was reluctant to go back to the clinic for blood tests or to receive treatment. I believed whole-heartedly that I had been cured and had nothing to worry about. I thought, surely if God had cured these other people of their illnesses then surely he would also cure me. Being a Christian at the time I felt that God was all I needed and that medication was just a waste of time and money.
When I finally plucked up the courage to go and find my nearest clinic I was convinced that I was cured and had nothing to worry about. Well this was not the case. My health was deteriorating, with my viral load being high and my CD4 count being low. I was heartbroken. All the faith and prayer had not worked. Everything I believed and everything I had tried was worthless,
I felt let down and grew to believe that I hadn’t been cured because I hadn’t prayed enough or had enough faith. I even thought that maybe God could heal me and he had chosen not to cure me because I had contracted HIV and it was my fault and not his.
As you can imagine it was devastating and completely screwed with my head. This had a massive impact on my faith and even though outwardly I didn’t show it, inside I was devastated and it crushed the belief that I had.
Looking back now I know that what I did to my body by not taking my meds and avoiding getting treatment could have had very severe consequences in the long term. I was so foolish to think I could be cured this way.
Last week I watched Dr Christian Jessen’s programme on gay cures. It was nothing but torture. It brought back so many memories of the past but also brought home the realisation that so many people out there still think that prayer is the answer and we still have a long way to go in stopping this kind of thinking.
Two years ago the president of Gambia claimed that he had found a natural remedy, and that he had cured 68 people of HIV. Medical professionals around the world were up in arms, understandably, at the false hope given to people living with HIV.
A year before, an undercover Sky News investigation linked at least six deaths in the UK to evangelical churches up and down the country which had been telling worshippers they could heal them of HIV.
Convincing people that prayer and faith are the answer to curing illness is unbelievably dangerous and can have lasting mental and physical implications. It is irresponsible of the BBC to ask questions like ‘can prayer cure illnesses?’, as merely posing a question perpetuates the idea through false hope.
More needs to be done to open people’s eyes to the reality of these kinds of beliefs, for them to know that this kind of thinking and behaviour is still very active in current society and for people everywhere to realise the severity of it.
The last thing I would want is to give the impression that I am anti-religion. There is no doubt that religion can give people a support network and something to believe in but it cannot be a substitute for treatment. People need to see the harm that can be done.
Having HIV is a huge deal, I have struggled with it for almost six years now and I couldn’t have got to where I am now without the amazing support of doctors, nurses and other health care professionals that have helped me along the way.
Some days I do wish that God did exist and that he could cure me, but I know it is more fantasy than reality. I do however have faith and hope that one day medical research will find the cure for HIV and that in the mea time we can reduce the stigma attached to it.
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