James Randi – The Faith Healers

July 10, 2009

James “The Amazing” Randi is a world-renowned magician, skeptic and investigator of paranormal claims and is a central figure in the founding of the world-wide skeptical movement. Perhaps best known for the One Million Dollar Challenge, in which his educational foundation awards $1,000,000 to anyone who is able to show evidence of any paranormal, supernatural or occult power or event, under test conditions agreed to by both parties. Randi has appeared widely in the media, including on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show at least 22 times and he is also a regular on Penn and Teller’s Showtime series, Bullshit! He has received numerous awards and recognitions, including the MacArthur Genius Grant, and the American Physical Society’s Forum Award for Promoting Public Understanding of the Relation of Physics to Society. He is the author of many books, including The Truth About Uri Geller, Flim-Flam! and The Faith Healers.

In this interview with D.J. Grothe, James Randi talks about the future of The Amazing Meeting, his annual popular critical thinking convention in Las Vegas. He also discusses various faith healers he has investigated, and his real motivations in doing so. He talks about the first faith healer he exposed in Toronto as a teenager. He explores reasons why faith healers he has debunked still persist in their TV empires. He shares his views of Ernest Angley. He recounts his expose of Peter Popoff, including Popoff’s use of an earpiece to receive information about his congregants that they believed was revealed by the Holy Spirit. He explains why people believe in faith healers despite evidence to the contrary. Other faith healers he criticizes include Pat Robertson and his “Words of Knowledge,” V.A. Grant, Oral Roberts, and Filipino psychic surgeons, recounting some of their deceptive methods they use to beguile believers. He talks about the special place “psychic surgery” has in the Pentecostal Church. He compares faith healers’ methods to the methods of psychics and “cold readers” such as John Edward, and explores whether faith healers are deliberately deceptive or are merely self-deceptive. He also debates whether faith healing might actually work on occasion, due to psychological phenomena such as the placebo effect. And he talks about the role that magicians should play in exposing frauds in the public interest.

Also in this interview, James Underdown, scientific paranormal investigator and executive director of CFI’s Hollywood branch, recounts his experiences with Benny Hinn’s healing crusades, and talks about how Benny Hinn may or may not be like Adolph Hitler.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Friday, July 10th, 2009. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe a point of inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values and public affairs and at the grassroots. Before I get to this week’s guest, here’s a word from Jim Underdown. He’s a scientific paranormal investigator and also executive director of the Center for Inquiry’s flagship branch there in Hollywood, California, where we also run the celebrated Steve Allen theater. 

Jim is going to recount his experience with the amazing faith healer Benny Hinn. 

The first time I saw Benny Hinn in concert was at the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim, California in the mid 90s. My friend Rob and I went down there to see the show live for ourselves. Our seats were on the floor of the arena, about 10 rows from the action. And wow, what an eye opener it was. We were staring in the face of a big time production. I’m talking about a full choir singing into a major league sound system, theatrical lighting and multiple cameras to catch everything for his TV show. I’ve worked for multi-million dollar theater productions. And this Miracle Service or crusade or whatever you want to call it, was every bit as technically advanced as Phantom of the Opera on Broadway. So there we sat, two atheists in a sea of about 20000 passionate Christians, eager to witness a miracle with their own eyes. And man, were they hooked. People stood up. Tears flowing from their eyes. They raised their hands just to be a little closer to God. It was intense. And I have to admit. Benny Hinn played that crowd like a fine fiddle. The music and lights and choreography were all in perfect sync to get the people into an almost ecstatic state when the healing time came. It was kind of creepy in a way. 

I had this overwhelming feeling of being at a Nuremberg rally in the thirties. We dared not identify ourselves as members of the other team. Everyone was there in lockstep. At one time to worship one man and be a better God damn well beyond board. All right. 

I’m not trying to say that Benny Hinn is like Hitler, but there was something very similar about how each whipped up his followers into a fevered emotional state. And the show elements all built up to a crescendo when it was time for the man in White himself to be on stage. He spoke about the Bible and their crusade for a bit, but it was the healing that people were really there for. At one point, Pastor Hyn announced that God was curing people in this very crowd and rattled off some ailments. Someone with a bad back, someone with heart problems, someone whose stomach hurts. A short while later, he asked people to come down to testify about being cured. Note the order in which that happened. God cured. Then Benny asked for testimony from those who had already been cured. So technically, Benny himself is not actually curing anyone. I think he does this for legal reasons, even though he does lay hands on people and gives the unmistakable impression that the power of God flows through his hands. It’s technically God doing the actual healing. So if your lumbago comes back in the morning, pastor him is not to blame. Your quarrel is with God. Try to recover anything from that court case. Here’s another thing. The people who are really sick, the frail people on gurneys and the quadriplegics in wheelchairs are not allowed onstage to be healed. They are parked in the back of the arena where they remain throughout the whole service. Only those who could already walk are invited up to tell their stories and praise God for being cured. God apparently only cares those who only might be sick. But there were lots of people standing in line to be healed who also never made it on stage. I wondered how one got selected to be, you know, healed. It would be years later before I found out maybe it was 2001 or 2002 when I brought a team from my independent investigations group to see pastor in again in Anaheim. This time I would try to get on stage. Now, when Benny started rattling off cures, I leapt up and made my way to the healing line. I was healed. I said to the guy managing the line, electricity raced through my body and I can walk again. Come this way, he said. And I followed him past about half the people in the line. Tell him what happened, he said to me, motioning to an official looking guy. I hurt my knee in 1978 and I had to have an operation that was true. I missed half the football season, my senior year of high school. I haven’t been able to walk right until tonight. Okay. That wasn’t quite true. I played four years of college football after my knee operation. This guy said okay and took me to the front of the line and introduced me to so many said was a doctor. She asked what was wrong. I started my spiel again and she interrupted me. No, tell me medically what is wrong with your knee? It was a torn exterior cruciate ligament. I told her I wondered if she knew there was no such thing as an exterior cruciate ligament. There are anterior and poster cruciate ligament, but no exterior. OK, step over here. I was now among four people near the stairs to the stage waiting for my miracle. But alas, that was not to happen. Pastor Hinde concluded the healing part of the service with me at No. Three in line. It was time to start passing out the contribution buckets to be filled by the good believers. So Pastor Hand could continue living in his multi-million dollar house and riding in his luxury automobiles. I mostly healed. Twenty three year old knee injury would have to wait. What would I have done had I gotten onstage? Maybe someday we’ll find out. 

It is a great pleasure for me to have James Randi back on point of inquiry. 

He’s a world renowned magician and skeptic. He’s an investigator of paranormal claims. He’s really had a central role in the founding of the organized skeptical movement. He’s maybe best well known for his one million dollar challenge. It’s where his foundation is going to award a million dollars to anyone who is able to show evidence of any paranormal, supernatural or cult power or event under test conditions that both parties agree to. Randy has appeared widely in the media, including on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show at least 22 times. He’s also a regular on Pendent Tellers Showtime series Bullshit. He’s received numerous awards and recognitions, including a MacArthur Genius Grant and the Forum Award from the American Physical Society for promoting the public understanding of the relation of physics to society. He’s the author of a number of books, notably The Truth about Uri Geller, one of my favorites, and the Faith Healers, which he’s going to talk with me about today. Welcome back to a point of inquiry. James? 

Randi, good to be here. Randi, before we get to why I asked you on the show, we want to talk about your investigating faith healers. Well, I just returned from Tamme, your amazing meeting in Las Vegas. And let me say, look, it’s the you know, this, but I. All of our listeners might not. It’s easily the best thing that’s kind out there. Let me ask you, where do you see it all going? Is it just gonna get bigger and bigger? Or you’ll have them more frequently. What? 

Well, children tend to grow, I guess, and get fatter and meaner and need more attention. So I guess that’s the way it’s going to go. I think that it was a huge success. So we’re getting nothing but accolades know and very, very few complaints. And everyone seems to have had a good time. And that’s not the fight, of course. The point is to have a time that they’re trying to acquaint you with more of the facts of life and how the world really works and what the skeptical movement is all about. 

Mm hmm. It was a beautiful time in such a sense of community, also kind of cropping up around the whole idea. And over a thousand people this year. So it’s just a beautiful time. On to faith healing. You’re a magician. You’re actually a really important figure in the history of contemporary conjuring. But not just that. You’ve used your background. Most of our listeners know this to bust frauds and charlatans, hucksters. One kind of fraud you’ve zeroed in on are faith healers. Let me ask, is that just because you want to stick it to people’s religious belief, you’re out as an atheist? Or are you just trying to make more atheists by, you know, attacking faith healers? 

Oh, not at all. I’m not trying to convert people from one philosophy to the other, except that I would like them to face the reality of how the real world works. And most religious people don’t want a face that they would rather have a bit of mythology going in the background. And that’s OK with me, too, except for the fact that they also vote. And that’s why I wrote the piece. Many of my purposes, perhaps, but I’m not out to convert anybody. No, I’m just out to try to encourage people to think rationally. 

Randy, who is the first faith healer that you exposed? I mean, how did a magician get into that line of work? 

Well, I happened when I was 17 years of age, as a matter of fact, up in Toronto, Canada. There was a young man, blond and dressed in shorts, looking very romantic and carefree. He called himself a little David, and he was prancing around in a church there. And we try to mesh several of his a trick gimmick. Should he have a couple of balanced stunts and such? And that was essentially heck a. 

So he was doing tricks on you and you caught him doing tricks, but he was doing it in church as kind of a religious act. Yeah. I see in your book Faith Healers, which I’d like to let our listeners know is available through our Web site. You cover tons of these guys. Ernest Ainslie, Peter Popoff, Oral Roberts, even Pat Robertson. You’ll still see him on TV. Some of these guys. They’re still just as popular. And that really amazes me. I’d like to talk to you about that in a bit in a if we get to it. But let’s touch on a couple of these. More specifically, first, Ernest Ainslie, Akron, Ohio. This guy is so over the top, he’s the one Robin Williams used to do this great parody of. He’s still on the air, right? 

Oh, yeah. They’re all still on there, are they? There’s no such thing. These people, they have to die before they get off air. 

So it’s not just that he’s a parody. You exposed them. You’ve written about him. He’s still around. But it’s not just that he’s a joke. It’s not just something skeptic’s can make fun of. Ernest Angels’ has taught some really vile things as as you know, he’s been on these crusades in Africa, these miracle crusades, tens of thousands of people at. And any preachers that he can heal, people of HIV AIDS. So, of course, that undermines, you know, what the work of, you know, public health workers, all that. So believing this stuff isn’t just a matter of privacy. This stuff can actually get you killed. 


What I’ve often said about HIV is, first of all, as you can see, he wears a toupee that looks like it was made out of cast iron. Now, if that thing were to fall off on the floor and he would have to heal it or something, it would walk away. Now, then then we’ve had something going. If he or if he had even brought hair. I can’t do that. And I don’t think that Ernest can do it either. For. He’s got this this exposure to the to the elements and to lightning. And, hey, that’s a good idea. I never thought of that. But nonetheless, if he had any moral power, if he certainly would have grown some air by now or had his toupee take life and walk away. 

Reminds me about the inconsistency with Peter Popoff, who wore a hearing aid. But if he had healing powers, why would he need one? Tell me that story, how you actually caught him red handed. 

Well, Popoff is not hard of hearing. Even today, I don’t think he was wearing not a hearing aid. 

It was actually an assist. It was an assist to run by his wife backstage who was broadcasting around 3:00. They had an earpiece. The information about people in the audience that she had gained from previous interviews before Popoff got into the theater Jim Underdown. 

So people in the audience or the congregation, whatever their healing event, they thought Popoff was using what like holy psychic powers to call up the names and details of various audience members. He was actually being fed all this from his loving wife backstage. 

That’s right. And they thought that was the power of knowledge that is described in the Bible. And apparently he claimed that he had that sort of thing and they believed that because they don’t know any better. And even after it was exposed on the Carson show, so definitively, it didn’t make any difference to people still flock to him and they still do today. So, matter of fact, Johnny Carson called me one time just after his retirement and he said, hey, I felt Popoff back on television again. I thought we wiped the vote. And I told him, John. These are unthinkable oviduct. There’s nothing you’re ever going to do about that. So you’ve just got to be controlled by the fact that apparently you’ll eventually die of old age or be struck by lightning, perhaps justifiably. And that’s where I feel there’s kind of part of our business. But Carson was annoyed at that and he didn’t understand how it could happen. 

But of course, I know because I’ve been in the business for a long time, just that the power of belief is that strong or what? Here in St. Louis, Peter Popoff is on Beatty all the time. Even on the learning channel, TLC used to be kind of stand for the learning channel. Do you have any answers as as to why these beliefs in those claims actually persist? You debunk them, you expose them on national television. Johnny Carson show and pop off was exposed and people still believe, despite evidence to the contrary. 

Well, it’s because people aren’t very smart. That may have gone on for a long time ago. And if not, this is a revelation. Hallelujah. People are very smart. They don’t listen to what they’re being told and what’s being proven and shown to them by evidence because they prefer the mythology. They like the magic better than reality. Jim Underdown. 

I want to touch on a couple of these other characters, if we can. Let’s talk about Pat Robertson. You can still see him on the Seven Hundred Club everyday. I watch him. Maybe I shouldn’t say that, but I can. You know, watch these things. They’re interesting in a sense. One of the things that I’ve seen him do is kind of act like a psychic doing cold reading. He does what you just mentioned, this word of knowledge where he looks at the camera. He’s supposedly, you know, receiving enough information from the Holy Spirit, telling him about the L man of a viewer or how he or she’s going to get healed right then and there. Do you think that Robertson or, you know, these guys in general, maybe not just Robertson, but other people who do this word of knowledge, stuff like Paul and Jan Crouch or Benny Hinn, Robert Tilton when they’ve done it? Do you think that they know they’re deceiving or do you think that they you know, they believe it themselves, they’re self deceived? 

Well, T.J., I’ve often said you can’t expect a man who has never seen a violin to pick up the violin and play Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. If he doesn’t know how you have to know what you’re doing and these people don’t do this anymore than anyone can drive a car, never having driven a car before. They can’t do it unless they learn how to do it. So they know what they’re doing. Of course. 

So it’s a skill set that has to be learned. And you see them exhibiting that skill set? 

Yes, indeed. It’s very, very evident to me. 

Let me just quickly tell me what. Relationship varies between what they’re doing and what you see some psychics do, John Edward, others maybe. You know, when they looked into an audience, it really seems to be the same. What skillset? 

Oh, it’s essentially the same thing. They’re just giving it a different name. They look different. They they they use a different premise. But they’re doing, in fact, the same thing. They’re lying to people by using the art of what we call cold reading, throwing out glasses and waiting until people respond to them and ignoring everything that doesn’t work. 

And people want to believe so much that they remember the hits, forget the misses. 

Yeah, well, they also need to believe. Right. And just want to believe they need it. They need some sort of magic in their life and they will ignore all evidence to the contrary very studiously. 

They’ll go out of their way to ignore the evidence. I remember one lady was at a there was a W v grant crusade, I believe, in New York City. I went there with a CBF TV crew and we filmed a number of people apparently being healed in the audience. And I recognized one of the women had seen here at previous services and she was in a wheelchair and she rose up out of the wheelchair. And as she walked in, the crowd went crazy, yelled, Hallelujah. Pyhrric hail Jesus, the whole thing. And when we grabbed her out of the audience following the show and everyone was leaving, I after I said, But you didn’t need that wheelchair, you could walk. And she said, yes. And I said that people thought would you stood up out of the wheelchair, that you were healed because you couldn’t walk. And she said, Well, yes. I said, Don’t you think I deceptive? And again, she said, Well, yes. 

But I still believe there’s no convincing these people. There are determined to be stupid. They’re determined to be ignorant about these things. They need it. They want it. They prefer it. And hey, that’s your right to have what you want as long as you don’t step on other people and the human mind has a brilliant capacity to self justify. 

So you can know you’re lying on the one hand and still feel justified or like you’re saying, you know, the bigger truths on the other hand. 

Yeah, exactly. 

Randy, you cover so many others in your book. Oral Roberts, you mentioned just now, W v Grant. You talk about Catholic faith healers, Katherine Coleman, who innocense spawned Benny Hinn, AA Allen from way back. So there’s all of these you say people will believe in them despite their being exposed is another reason that people might still believe in faith healing. Might it actually, on some level work sometimes, you know, the placebo effect. It’s a real effect. Might that actually work for some of these congregants? 

Placebo effect doesn’t feel anything. It makes people feel better. Feeling better is not being better. And the question is, if you want to be better or do you just want to feel better? So that’s the difference right there. That receivable effect doesn’t heal anybody. It just makes them believe that they’ve been healed and it can relieve certain anxiety. So that’s very true. But it’s all pretend. And they they find at the end of the day that it has been all pretend. And many of them just go into total collapse at that point. 

And there and there’s a lot of documentation of people who thought they were healed and suffered the negative health consequences by being deceived. Yeah. What I was getting at with my previous question, though, is, of course, neither you nor I believe in the supernatural. But do you think that nonetheless, sometimes or in some ways people go to these faith healing things, they go sick and they come home feeling healed or actually being healed? Or is that just all this deception thing? 

I don’t know. I’d have to have each individual occasion. There are hundreds or thousands of them. I don’t really have the time to do that. But I have never come upon a case where people have been healed only by the actions and the words and the intentions of the so called faith healer of the so-called faith healer that you have on good evidence is actually deceiving. 

So if someone could actually heal people, why would he have to lie in order to do so? 

Well, that’s that’s that’s true. But we don’t know. There may be mysterious reasons that we just don’t understand. The point is that none of the faith here, none of them have ever applied for our million dollar prize, which is very easily obtained rythm. All you have to do is show that the whatever healing they claim resulted directly from their interference with nature or with the person. And that’s if we can prove that. And they say they can, then they win the dollars. But none of them have ever come towards us. They’re not very precious. And I’ve even written this. So that might be an indication someplace. 

Before we finish up, Randy. Would you tell me about your busting of the psychic surgeons? Do people’s. So believe in psychic surgeons today or did did you actually put a nail in that call? 

Oh, no, I’m not. Shall I? I never got a chance to actually investigate the safety of surgeons in the Philippines. I went there for that purpose. And what I lathers why they got off the plane. My passport was taken. I was taken to a hotel under armed guard. And I was put in the hotel and kept there for four days with my passport taken away. And we’re not allowed to leave the hotel because the what was his name? Fernando Marcos, the dictator of the Philippines at that time, was making a lot of money from the five heroes. He knew that they were very at the primary, the flight surgeons, I should say. He knew that they were very good business for the Philippines. They were bringing in tens of millions of dollars a year. And he had a good part of that action. And he just didn’t want me out. I finally had to call the British consulate, though I was an American citizen, the American consulate wouldn’t respond to me. I had to call the British consulate and they used their influence on the American consulate. They came and got me and took me back to the airport. So I never got a chance to actually investigate them in person. 

So even though you didn’t investigate them in person, I just want to touch on the whole concept. It’s different than what Benny Hinn or Robert Tilton or the folks that you did investigate, people you know, like you’ve written about WBC Grand Oral Roberts pop off. The psychic surgeons did something completely different. They did something like, you know, physical manifestations, not just words in any kind of psychological tricks. 

Yeah, it’s a little plastic bags full of chicken livers and and chicken blood and whatnot that they palmed onto the surface of a person’s body. Then they would burst them and the blood would flow apart and they say that was a tumor and they’d throw it away and wash up the patient. No incision had been made at all, but people thought they were healed and they went home today. 

Mm hmm. Well, so what sect were these? It wasn’t just like a fringe Christian sect. It seems most of them were Pentecostal. Okay. 

So the kind that speak in tongues and all that stuff. And I know that you’ve demonstrated all over the country at times how you think the psychic surgeons did what they did. Why do you think it never really caught on mainstream in American Christianity? 

You mean the psyche? Sure, yeah. Yeah. Which very big in America. Oh, Feyenoord. So. Oh, this is very big in America even right now. Yes. You’ve done. It’s done very covertly. You know, the Pentecostal churches are very big. And what they do is they send out notices to the parishioners and they say it’ll cost you 30 dollars to attend or whatever the price is. Right. I I’ve heard it as high as 250 dollars. And you can bring your loved ones out and they they’ll be operated on. But they say you’ve got to keep it very, very quiet. We don’t say either we lock up for church or date because this is actually legal in this country to pretend to do medical services when you’re not doing them. They could get arrested for it. And so it does take place. It’s sub rosa, so to speak, but it’s done all over the United States. Still, it’s not as popular as it used to be, but it still has been done Jim Underdown and it’s going to continue being done despite people exposing it. 

Oh, absolutely. Exposure have very little to do with it. It may slow them down a bit, but they’ll be right back and forth because there’s big, big money. 

All right. Last question, Randy. You’re a magician. You have this kind of role in the history of contemporary conjuring. What business does a magician. A guy who gets up there entertains audiences by doing, you know, amazing things. What role does he have investigating religious leaders? Are you just doing this as a concerned citizen or do you think your background in magic somehow kind of equips you to expose these kind of hucksters? 

Well, first of all, I don’t investigate just religious leaders, not at all. Any scam artists who are taking money from people by pretending they have paranormal or supernatural powers are the ones that I investigate. But the magician has the knowledge of how these things are done. Scientists don’t. And certainly the layman will not have any knowledge of how their tricks are done. But we do know how they’re done and we expose them. 

So magicians have a unique role to play. You’re almost a it’s a in my head, maybe a you know, I’m just hoping for this, right. That you’re going to deputize a whole new generation of magicians to go out there in the public’s interest. 

Oh, they’re out there already. And I think that I think that they’ll probably take over after I’m gone. 

I hope that’s a long time from now. I am certainly. I was gonna say I was praying for it, but I guess not. Now, the point is, I must say something else. At the same time, my voice sounds very strained. 

And the reason is that I just had a big encounter with chemotherapy. I’m not quite recovered from it yet, so my voice sounds that way because I have had some tubes down my throat and such, but I couldn’t miss advertising. Talk to your folks. 

Yeah. And for that, Randi, I am very, very grateful. And I’d like to thank you for joining me on Point of Inquiry. Thank you very much. 

We’ll do it again sometime. 

DJ Grothe very soon. Yes, hopefully. 

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Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded from St. Louis, Missouri, Point of inquiries. Music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Quailing. Contributors to today’s show included Sarah Jordan and Debbie Goddard. I’m your host, DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.