Praying away the burden of proof

Three MPs, representing the three main political parties as well as the ‘Christians in Parliament’ group, have written to the Advertising Standards Agency demanding that they reverse their ban on leaflets suggesting that God can heal, or provide evidence that He doesn’t. The whole situation has, hilariously, put the ASA in the unenviable position of deciding whether or not God and his blessings are actually real. They had previously ruled that the contents of the leaflets both provided false hope to those suffering from a number of ailments, and ran the risk of misleading people to the extent that they wouldn’t seek out conventional treatment. All of this was based upon what appears a fairly reasonable assertion that, when it comes to the realm of medicine and science, ‘amen’ has got nothing on penicillin.

Gary Streeter and his Christian colleagues, however, disagree. They have called for the ASA to provide hard empirical evidence that a good prostration session isn’t just as effective as a round of antibiotics. In doing so, they have handily illustrated a serious question on the legal administration of matters such as this – on whom does the burden of proof fall? The answer seems fairly obvious. If you make a claim, in a public and regulated sphere such as advertising, and there is a conflict as to its factual basis, then you had better have your evidence in order to combat it.

Streeter and his associates are creating an absurdity. It’s the equivalent of me claiming that a higher power forced me into robbing a bank, and then insisting that unless the police could prove that Thor hadn’t made me do it, that I should be allowed to walk free, until they solved this whole “religion” business once and for all.

Here’s the best thing though – even if the ASA were to accept the ridiculous challenge imposed upon them, they could meet it with some strength. A study was conducted by the New York Times comparing the results of similar, routine surgeries, some of which had people praying for the result. Not only did the study find no correlation, it found evidence that prayer was actively damaging, perhaps because when under the impression they were safe, the recipients of prayers would relax unduly, or cease battling, so to speak.

The MPs are damned either way. They are completely wrong to expect the ASA to provide the evidence, but as it happens, the ASA can anyway. Hopefully it gets thrown out as quickly as possible so the government can get back to the important task of arguing about pasties and petrol.

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