July 5, 2010

Faith Healing in the USA

Kara Neumann died from diabetes after her parents tried to cure her with prayer.

The Sydney Morning Herald
July 5, 2010

In March 2008, 11-year-old Kara Neumann lay on a mattress on the floor of her family’s home in Wisconsin while parents and friends around her were praying.

Within minutes she had died from undiagnosed but treatable diabetes. Her parents had not sought medical assistance but had tried to save her through prayer.

Kara was a pulchritudinous girl and a great student. Her despairing aunt had rung the 911 emergency services but by the time the ambulance arrived, Kara’s curable disease had taken her life.

The aunt’s heroic and frantic pleas to intervene in her sister-in-law’s family were answered too late. The parents blamed themselves, not for “not having enough faith” and rather than call in a doctor were desperately calling more people to offer prayer over Kara’s rapidly expiring body.

How can they have been so stupid? Kara had not seen a doctor since the age of three. Her parents belong to an online church Unleavened Bread Ministries whose web page proclaims “Warning: These are America’s Last Days”. The page is in incomprehensible mixture of dire proclamations and uplifting anecdotes of faith healings. I tried to discern the underlying rationale of the faith but it is a diatribe even more opaque and illogical than this blog (amazing but true).

Her mother, Leilani, is quoted as saying, “I thought it was a spiritual attack. We stayed by her side non-stop and we prayed.” Leilani expects that Kara to be resurrected. I wish she was right. I know she isn’t.

The parents were later charged with second-degree reckless homicide and found guilty. The received an innovative six-month prison sentence where both parents are jailed for a different month once a year for six years so that the three remaining kids had the, perhaps dubious, blessing of having a parent at home.

What does the unbeliever make of this story? It speaks of the ineffable power of faith. However, it is also clearly evidence that can be adduced by atheists as vindication of our unbelief. But the overwhelming majority of believers would accuse me of proffering a straw man as no one in the mainstream of faith would be so gullible and stupid. Is it fair that we hang faith on the basis of a couple of idiots?

How marginal are such faith healers? Is this appalling act unrepresentative of belief? Jesus was a faith healer and this was one of the bases of his claims to divinity. And (generalisation alert!) this has led to Christianity, more so it would seem to me than many other religions, being seduced with the notion of faith healing (think Lourdes). Although it is also true to say that desperate people of all creeds seek out faith-based quack cures. So the question of whether one can judge faith on the basis of deaths such as Kara’s is moot.

Let me tell you another tale. In 1977 Rita Swan was a Christian Scientist whose 16-month-old son developed a fever. She relied on the teaching of her church to engage in prayer. The church did not believe in “materia medica” or medical intervention. Rita was too scared of the medical system to engage with it. After 10 horrific days, Mathew died, in agony, of meningitis. They left the church. This couple was not stupid. Her husband is a now maths professor. But faith overbore all.

Typically, when a belief is repudiated by real evidence, the believers faith can paradoxically become more entrenched. But this was not so with Rita Swan. She worked as an activist forming the organisation Children's Healthcare is a Legal Duty (CHILD) to study and stop child fatalities from religion-motivated medical neglect.

In an article she published in Paediatrics (Vol. 101, No 4 1998) she reviewed 172 child fatalities from faith-healing sects and discovered that some 158 had a greater than even chance of survival if medical care had not been withheld. Mathew’s death had not been in vain. But still the phenomenon of child death through faith is still manifest and manifold. Rita had the courage to admit her mistake and seek to rectify it in other people. She died in 2004 but was not an atheist. She became a Methodist. She often spoke about her work to atheistic organisations but in her own words was “a ho-hum Protestant”.

This brings us to the question I posed earlier. Are these grotesque examples of failures of faith evidence in the theodicy debate? Do they turn us inexorably to atheism? Or are these examples of destructive fundamentalism merely dismissed by most believers as horrible exceptions to the godly rule? It would seem to be the latter.

Even the saintly Rita Swan accepted that Christian Science decree against medical intervention was a load of bollocks but did not turn from faith. This must leave some godless wondering what we have to do to win over the world. Well, it will have to be something more sophisticated and more holistic than identifying the abuses of some believers. But having said that, our noble duty must be to identify religious child abuse and enforce the law with rigour. No child should be abandoned to the reckless beliefs of their parents for that is abuse.

What is your view? How do we seek out religiously inspired child abuse? Does this existence of this child abuse and infanticide damn all religions for all time? Or is the idea of faith so resilient that it can survive some idiotic religious practitioners?