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Faith Healing and Neglect March 3, 2009

Posted 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?



1. Doug Anderson - March 3, 2009

I don’t have much time before the work day takes over but I have a few quick responses. First off, I don’t think all the examples you raise questions around are parrallel. What I mean is there are significant differences between the three scenarios: a child suffering as parents pray for healing while withholding medical treatment, an adult receiving bypass surgery but praying for healing at the same time and Abraham’s faith story. The child doesn’t make its own choice in the matter, the adult probably has the opportunity to refuse medical treatment to wait on a miracle if he/she wants and Abraham was specifically “told” by the Lord to go through the actions he did. Now, we don’t know exactly how Abraham was “told”, but the implication is that the directive was significant in its “presence”. So I don’t think the three compare at all.

Second, I want to touch on the “having your cake and eating it too”. I’m not sure I disagree with you. And I’m not sure most of us pray for healing “right” all the time. I don’t even know if there is a specifically mandated “right” way to do it (or Biblical imperative). If you look at the accounts of the miracles Christ performed, I think most are done after much effort to cure these people with their version of modern medicine.

It almost seems to me that its appropriate to do all we can to treat our ailments with the tools we have, turning to faith healing when all else fails. It also seems appropriate to start praying for healing the second you see a problem. But sometimes, healing can come from God just giving direction or wisdom to use the tools right in front of us. Is that miraculous? No, but I believe God more often works in the construct of His creation rather than outside it.

And the biggest thought that your entry above prompted was that God doesn’t call any of us to be idiots. And He loves life. If the solution to our suffering stands before us, ethically available, He wants us to use it. I guess where the difference of opinion arises is when things are considered “ethically available”.

2. Adam Heine - March 3, 2009

Really good questions, Casey. The whole faith healing thing is difficult for me. I believe God heals, yet I very often wonder why he doesn’t heal more. Is it my lack of faith? Is it a lack of faith of the person being prayed for? Is it just that I don’t understand faith healing, or am I making too much of the evidence I have for it?

Anyway, that’s beside the point. To the second question, I, at least, distance myself from the extremists in that I believe God has given us wisdom, intelligence, and free will for a reason. That is, we’re smart enough to figure out how to heal ourselves with medical science, and I think God wants us to take responsibility for ourselves just as much as he wants us to ask him for help.

Like me with my toddler. I love it when he asks me for help, and I want him to ask like all the time, but there are many times when my answer is, “You’re a big boy. You can do it. Just don’t give up.”

But that’s my belief and, per your first question, who’s to say I’m right? I don’t have an answer yet for the political question, but I’m really interested in hearing what others have to say.

3. Nancy O. - March 6, 2009


4. Terrence - March 9, 2009

I like Doug and Adam’s thoughts and don’t have much to add to that, but I can offer an anecdotal element to this. SDSU requires all students (at least grad students, but I assume undergrads, as well) to provide proof of inoculation against measles and rubella. I was surprised to find out, however, that a good friend of mine in the MBA program, who is a Christian Scientist, was waived from this requirement based on religious grounds. He told me how easy it was – just called them up and told them he was a Christian Scientist and that was it.

I don’t have much of a problem with this, and he certainly is assuming most of the risk by not getting inoculated, but in the rare case that he might actually contract measles and in the even rarer case that he might transmit it to me, well, in that extreme case I’d certainly have a problem with his religious views impinging on my right to a healthy public environment. So, in that sense, my classmates and I also assume a small amount of risk because he has chosen to reject standard medical attention.

5. Benjamin - March 15, 2009

Could we count scientific screw-ups turned successes as faith healing miracles in the context they were presented in the first post?


6. Mark - March 30, 2009

Been awhile since I’ve posted here, but been adrift in the blog world and found Casey’s post interesting. Christianity has, like other institutions, had to come to grips with changes technology, scientific discovery and social change. It has had to deal with these realities while turning to a document that while its broad lessons often find ready application – at times fails to adequately address new concerns. This job has been given to churches and church leaders that despite best intentions may fail because of experiential limitations – newness of the discovery/technology, prejudice based on personal rather than religious or social issues, lack of any true guidance in foundational documents, etc. This sets us adrift on our own path. Our own rationalization, our own sense of the divine order.

Very often the answer to this question for us is turning to prayer. We come to uncertainty with prayer and the answer shall be given. While I certainly do not discount the realness of prayer in peoples’ lives – any divinity understood from it is potentially problematic. Often it is our own voice we hear – the voice we want to hear. It is hard to come to a problem without prejudice and without predisposition. It is even more difficult to then distill the personal from what we may perceive as the divine.

This question becomes even more murky when we try to distill the divine from a thousand different voices with claim to the Truth. Christianity like any human institution is a product of our construction. We bring to it our gifts and our flaws. It’s various forms are a result of our variety of opinion and the varieties of our historical and modern social selves. A different sects of Christianity come from our uncertainty of the Truth and our differences in coming to and understanding that Truth. Catholics believe that the body and blood is truly Jesus, while many Christians see it as symbolic. This difference is not wrong, but it is a difference in our understanding of Jesus’ words at the Last Supper and their continued meaning.

The varieties of Christianity have had to come to turns with our continued and progressive understanding of the world around us. Science and technology present questions that are not readily answered by reference to the Bible. Many new human developments present a gray area.

As Doug noted – this leaves a question of ethics. But ethics is really our attempt to understand a human problem. The opinion we attribute God having to our “ethically available” answers is really ours. The question is one formed by our humanity (our science and discovery) and understood humanly.

Much of what we have discovered is not by divinity. Sure it is arguably made possible by it since you can certainly argue that God set this thing in motion. But truly many of our discoveries are made by simple human pursuit of progress – answers to our limitations and problems. Many are flawed because of it. Many are seemingly “miraculous” but are a product of human ingenuity. Something very unique and admirable about man.

I think the differences some Christians feel to the extreme groups is normal. To nearly any political or social question people, even within similar groups, feel differently. No matter how similar a group feels there is a distance between any two members. We do not always have to agree to feel community. I think the distance is normal, healthy and productive. It is simply a different reaction. A different feeling about the role of God or how active he is in modern human life. Whether he acts through our actions, or acts directly as he did in the Bible. It also deals with our feelings of the frequency of these “miracles” and our belief exposed by Doug of God’s agency.

These differences are to be expected when so much of our belief is based not on direct application of the Bible or God’s laws, but of what we believe and perceive them to be. We’ll continue to have differences – that is our political and social life – and I guess the hope is that we’ll find some understanding or rationalization that we find comfort in at least for the time being – until the next challenge presents itself.

7. Mark - March 30, 2009

Sorry to anyone who read this post for all the typos – some quick thoughts that didn’t get any editing. Ugh.

8. Nancy O. - April 12, 2009

Happy Easter! God is awesome!!! 🙂

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