Faith Healing and Neglect March 3, 2009Posted by caseyww in Faith, Politics, Skepticism.
As I’ve said before I’m a bit of a podcast junky. One of my favorites is called The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe which is, you guessed it, a podcast dedicated to what they brand as scientific skepticism. A far cry from what many imagine skeptics to be (that is, cynical), these guys do a great job of both explaining current science issues and also debunking a lot of the paranormal claims out there, all with a secure rational basis and a humorous edge. If you boast an inner nerd, or have ever dreamt of adopting one, this is the podcast for you. It’s usually an hour long but they also provide short format discussions tackling just one topic at a time. One of their recent topics has been nagging at me and I’d love to hear what you guys think.
Perhaps it’s my masochistic side which thinks it’s a good idea to poke at the hornet’s nest of faith healing. Descriptions of children dying slow horrible deaths from neglect are never pretty and I suspect that no matter the diversity of religious convictions represented here at Valence most of us will naturally distance ourselves from such extremism. I recognize that, for most believers, the kind of anti-medical stance defended by fringe groups like Christian Scientists or the Followers of Christ Church aren’t even an option. Don’t worry, I’m not here to point fingers and make believers defend a faith healing position they themselves don’t even hold. However, I also think it’s a mistake to just dismiss non-mainstream faiths as misguided without wrestling with the similarities and implications to our variety of faith. There is a tough but valuable conversation to be had here which brings up two main questions for me:
One is political: What should the limits on religious freedom be in terms of protecting the innocent?
When the innocent are children and the protection is from wrongful death I think this question is pretty easy to answer but still not without its sticky points. In the clip above Steve Novella stated that:
…when you’re trying to balance the freedom of religion and the rights of a parent over their children with the duty to protect a child and to give at least the basic necessities of life, it’s a very thorny issue. But I think that there is a general consensus that children should not be neglected to point of permanent harm or death, regardless of what the views of their parents are.
The definition of neglect is where things get sticky for me. I truly think the parents in question were being as genuine as they knew how. Allow me to try and put myself in their shoes for a second. They felt like the most responsible thing to do for their child was to wait on an all powerful God to act. They viewed a reliance on the human medicine as betrayal to God’s promises for supernatural healings. To betray God as such would be neglect of a different kind. They would be neglecting their child’s soul, which would be argued to be more important than this transient life anyways. Their definition of neglect focuses on the eternal while our political definition of neglect focuses on physical health. Do we as a society have the right or, even better, a responsibility to impose a secular and physical perspective of neglect on those who prioritize the supernatural? I’d argue yes, but I’ll admit it does feel intrusive to say so.
Similar to laws barring polygamy and animal sacrifice I think the government does have the responsibility to severely restrict the religious practice of parents when they threaten the health of their children. However, “protecting the innocent” line of thought isn’t limited to faith healing and wrongful death. The move to limiting parents’ rights also has a related argument in the choice of parents not to vaccinate their children or an even tougher correlate in whether children have educational rights which should be protected from the misguided notions of their parents. Who decides what’s misguided? Well that’s the rub isn’t it?
The other question hits closer to home: What can we glean from the similarities and differences between “mainstream” Christianity and its cultish cousins?
(I don’t mean to be reductionist by too clearly delineating between mainstream and non-mainstream faiths. I’d actually argue that there is a pretty well graded spectrum from typical evangelical faith all the way to extreme examples like the Followers of Christ Church. However, I think it’s reasonable to address the majority of those who believe in supernatural healing while still trusting in medical science as a cohesive group.)
When ‘mainstream’ Christians ask for miracles what is the proper commitment to waiting for God to act? One thing the Followers of Christ do not lack is investment in their faith. The rest of us often have our cake and eat it too in that we’ll pray for a miracle but still see a doctor just in case.
If your feathers are getting ruffled by that last sentence I imagine you would argue that “God can work through doctors too” and that I shouldn’t “put God in a box” for what kind of miracles count as miraculous. Why isn’t an elegant heart bypass by a skilled surgeon just as much evidence for God’s healing power as a pure faith healing? This is a huge topic and a great question but I’ll say briefly now that I have a problem with this stance because it seems to dilute the definition of what is and what is not miraculous to the point of losing almost all meaning. That is, God working vs God not working becomes a moot point when we fail to arbitrate what either looks like by claiming it all to be divine.
That said, I find my sickening gut reaction (our gut reaction?) to stories about watching children slowly die in the name of faith to be telling. I think this reaction is indicative of a moral sense that it is wrong and selfish to prioritize one’s personal faith over the health and happiness of another human being. I think this reaction is healthy even though it runs against the biblical grain. That is, I’m not sure the Followers of Christ Church really misinterpreted the implication of stories like Abraham who is applauded for his willingness to sacrifice his son for faith’s sake. Perhaps they followed the Biblical call to trust in God’s healing or to suffer as Christ suffered to its intended conclusion? That is, what if their interpretation is right and it’s the biblical imperative itself that is wrong, as born out in such stark relief with these children? Could our innate reaction to distance ourselves from these extremist groups signal that we don’t actually believe such biblical imperatives to be moral in and of themselves? I don’t think this is an unlikely scenario, but I suspect a few of you may have something to add. What do you think?