On Faith Healing Delusions

In April, I wrote about religious exemptions from child abuse laws, and today I want to revisit the topic.

I bring this up because, a few weeks ago, I was walking by a Christian Science church and decided to take some of the free literature they had in a box out front. The literature turned out to be issues of the Christian Science Sentinel, a magazine which discusses world events and everyday life from the church’s perspective. Most importantly, it contains numerous stories of “healings”.



It’s fairly well known that the Christian Scientists forsake modern medicine in favor of prayer, but you may think – as I once did – that this is a minor tenet of their faith, a small quirk, or something that only the hardcore members believe in. None of those things are true. To judge by this magazine, the total refusal of any and all medical care, regardless of the circumstances, is a central and fundamental tenet of Christian Science, as important to its members as transubstantiation is to Catholics or being “born again” is to evangelicals.

As you can see from these scans, every issue of this magazine is packed with stories of people who, we are told, miraculously recovered from illness or injury after praying and reading the writings of the church. But of course, the church is only going to present stories, real, exaggerated or fictional, which make themselves look good. How do Christian Science doctrines fare in the real world, without the rosy glow of apologetic distortion?

Here’s how:

At the branch church my family attended, no one ever acknowledged the obvious illnesses or infirmities of any other members—the man with the goiter, the elderly woman whose arthritis was so bad she could barely walk, the woman with a disfiguring skin condition. The protocol was to pretend that these things simply didn’t exist.

A fourth-generation Christian Scientist, Shepard has seen many members of her family die prematurely and terribly. Her mother died at age fifty of untreated cervical cancer; her stepmother died of a melanoma on her chest which metastasized; her grandfather developed a melanoma on his cheek which ate completely through the flesh.

She remembers two children in particular. The parents of a six-year-old girl called to ask her to pray for the child because she had fallen and bruised her arm. The girl herself later called Shepard, crying uncontrollably. Shepard drove to her home and found her alone, lying on the floor with a protruding broken collarbone. Her parents had gone to work and left her on the floor with the telephone.

The fact that delusions of faith healing cause Christian Scientists and other believers to suffer terrible, needless agony is bad enough. That this suffering is inflicted on innocent children in the name of faith is truly horrifying. But the very worst aspect of this gruesome delusion is that, often, when Christian Scientists’ children are desperately ill, their parents not only do not seek care for them but react to their suffering with indifference or even active hostility – since acknowledging illness is a sign that the believer is failing to trust in the Christian Science teaching that all disease is illusionary. Sickening episodes like these show the monstrous power of religion to warp and destroy even a parent’s love for their own children.

Rita Swan’s organization, CHILD, gives another example:

At the age of five, Nancy Brewster of El Paso, Texas, developed lumps on her neck and threw up repeatedly. She was too sick to go to school after first grade. A Christian Science practitioner prayed for Nancy. She urged the girl and her mother to deny the symptoms of the illness as an illusion. Nancy was constantly told that she was God’s perfect child and nothing could be wrong with her.

Nancy was made to exercise in 100 degree–plus heat and forced to eat even though she was vomiting. Both her mother and the practitioner believed that Nancy was just being stubborn. Her mother sometimes even beat Nancy and blamed her for not getting healed. Nancy got no pain relief, even an aspirin. She was not held or comforted because that would be giving reality to the disease…

Nancy died September 29, 1963, at age 7… She had no obituary or funeral service. Her mother told her siblings to think that Nancy had just gone on a trip to Africa. In her family home, Nancy was never spoken of again.

You might wonder what happens to Christian Scientists who develop diabetes, or appendicitis, or other common ailments that are easily cured by modern medicine but usually fatal otherwise. The answer, in many cases, is that they die. Both CHILD and the Atlantic article testify to examples of this. I don’t know if any studies have been done of life expectancy among Christian Science believers as compared to the rest of the population, but I feel a grim certainty as to what the answer would be.

As Richard Dawkins famously argued, some especially malevolent forms of religion can be likened to child abuse. But in the case of Christian Science, the comparison is not metaphorical. Parents like Nancy Brewster’s, parents who leave wounded children with broken collarbones to lie on the floor in agony, are little different from Islamic fundamentalists who murder their own children for acts of disobedience. The only difference is that the cruelty comes by omission rather than commission, but for the innocent victims of religious delusion, that is a distinction without a difference.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • lpetrich

    However, some Christian Scientists don’t seem to have the courage of their convictions to give up air conditioners, as Isaac Asimov had discovered one day (Of Matters Great and Small, Chap. 6, “Dance of the Luminaries”). He tracked down a strange rumbling sound on Sunday mornings to a Christian Science church’s air conditioner, he thought about Christian Science beliefs, and he laughed long and loud about how they introduced such a materialistic contraption into their church when they could convince themselves that hot weather isn’t really hot.

    And Mary Baker Eddy herself was known to wear glasses and take laudanum, an alcoholic morphine preparation.

  • mikespeir

    I also understand that Mary Baker Eddy took morphine later in life because of kidney stones.

  • D

    Ugh… I feel ill. Reading that nearly made me cry.

    This kind of stuff is truly despicable. I can’t even wrap my head around it. Even harder to comprehend are the people on the outside of these bubbles who want to say that such calamities are nothing to do with the religion. What fuels the desire to try to protect something so disgusting?

  • http://forknowledge.wordpress.com Penguin_Factory

    If anything demonstrates the true evil that religion is capable of causing, it’s this. Political dogmas and poverty may throw entire countries into the sort of chaos that facilitates this kind of madness, but to create that same madness in a stable, rich democracy- you need religion for that.

  • Joffan

    I usually avoid any implication that violence is a solution to any problem, but in the case of Christian Scientists, who claim that pain is illusory anyway, the baseball bat argument might be arguably legitimate.

  • Christopher

    With letting all their members die of treatable diseases, it’s a wonder there are any of these fools left – you’d think they would have all died out by now…

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    WTF?????

    I knew Christian Science was bad. But I didn’t know it was this bad.

    How the fuck can a religious belief make you deny reality to that degree? How can it be so important that it leads you to ignore one of the most powerful instincts we have — the instinct to care for our children and keep them safe from harm? How can it actually let you pretend illness and injury aren’t really happening — and make you feel wicked if you don’t?

    I think I’m going to be sick.

  • velkyn

    If one can believe in magic beings in the sky, I suppose it’s not so hard to “pretend” that people don’t get sick and die.

    Utterly disgusting, what these people do. For a supposedly benevolent being, God is not so strangely uninvolved in cleaning up after its believers and what they do in its name.

  • bestonnet

    Original Post:

    I don’t know if any studies have been done of life expectancy among Christian Science believers as compared to the rest of the population, but I feel a grim certainty as to what the answer would be.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2769921?dopt=Abstract

    The cumulative death rate of Christian Scientists who received an undergraduate college education at Principia College in Elsah, III, a liberal arts college for Christian Scientists, was compared with that of a control population that received an undergraduate college education in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. In this study, the cumulative death rate is expressed as the percentage of the graduating class known to have died as of June 1987. The study included the graduating classes from 1934 to 1983. The graduates from Principia College had a significantly higher death rate than the control population.

  • http://chromiumoxidegreen.blogspot.com Maria

    It’s just horrifying that this is happening, and that there are communities where it might seem a regular occurence. I’m finding it difficult to read the full Atlantic article. There’s no reason why these cases of denied medical treatment should be treated any differently from other kinds of child abuse, and allowed to continue as it is.

  • http://www.synapticplastic.blogspot.com InTheImageOfDNA

    I’m reading the book “What is Your Dangerous Idea” edited by John Brockman. In it there’s a short essay by David Lykken called “Parental Licensure.”

  • Andrew

    It is just so sad…it makes me wonder at what point there is a moral/ethical responsibility to step in and do something even though religious beliefs are involved. As much as religion interferes in the affairs of the state, the state (or law) should clearly have more influence in cases such as this. We should never underestimate the influence and damage of absolute beliefs.

  • Brad

    Wow, Nancy gets more acknowledgment from the outside world than she got from her own family. That’s quite depressing.

    Does Christian Science have beliefs that directly conflict with having air conditioners? If so, I would be delighted to use that fact in its church members’ faces.

    … Heh, I was waiting for you to say just that, Christopher. Really, I think similar things could be asked of other religious cultures – like impoverished hyper-Islamic nations. Yet I would rather see these religious structures taken down than see them take their own members down, personally.

    How the fuck can a religious belief make you deny reality to that degree?

    I think religion makes us fundamentally misunderstand not only reality, in many cases, but to fundamentally misunderstand our own selves and other people. That is why it is divisive between people, many of its members are sexually repressed, and it causes so much low self-esteem, for example. The final ends of irrational premises are detrimental conclusions.

    It is just so sad…it makes me wonder at what point there is a moral/ethical responsibility to step in and do something even though religious beliefs are involved.

    Well, for one, we can implicate false advertisement. Religious or secular in nature, misleading people to there own demise is illegal. Criminal negligence is also illegal. There is the concept of the search warrant with probable cause as well, but perhaps I’m getting too authoritarian going there. (Or perhaps not – some children really need outside help.)

  • http://thegreenbelt.blogspot.com The Ridger

    I have to say that my grandmother was a Christian Scientist, and yet my mother and uncle were taken to the doctor regularly because they were children and not expected to have the developed faith to protect themselves. Granted, this was in the 20s and early 30s, but still.

  • Alan Slipp

    One of the saddest bits of news I ever heard as a child was that Jim Henson had died, of a perfectly treatable ailment no less, because of Christian “Science”. I have never understood why anyone would believe that they could wish away injuries and disease – and make their children believe the same. How is it possible for anyone to *start* believing these things when they’re so obviously false?

  • Christopher

    Brad,

    … Heh, I was waiting for you to say just that, Christopher. Really, I think similar things could be asked of other religious cultures – like impoverished hyper-Islamic nations. Yet I would rather see these religious structures taken down than see them take their own members down, personally.

    At least in Islamic fundamentalist cultures they try to help each their own survive (well, at least long enough to reproduce and go suicide-bomb some infidels anyway…), but these so-call Christian “science” folks don’t even go that far! You’d think they would have wiped themselves out by now due to lack of even the basic common sense to look after themselves and their own.

  • lpetrich

    There is nothing specific against air conditioning in Christian Science teaching, as far as I know. It’s just that an air conditioner ought to be unnecessary.

    There are disease conditions associated with excessively high external temperature: hyperthermia, heat stroke, and burns, so if Christian Science is such great therapy, it ought to work against overheating-induced disease.

    So a Christian Scientist ought to be able to pray away overheating as false belief, rather than depend on an air conditioner to keep it from happening.

  • bestonnet

    It’s no different from back when we lived as hunter-gatherers without modern medicine, people died a lot back then (and the life expectancy was very low) but enough managed to survive and reproduce for us not to go extinct.

    That’s what’s happening with the Mary Baker Eddy cultists (using the word “scientist” in reference to them is insulting to real scientists and inaccurate).

  • Leum

    WTF?????

    I knew Christian Science was bad. But I didn’t know it was this bad.

    How the fuck can a religious belief make you deny reality to that degree? How can it be so important that it leads you to ignore one of the most powerful instincts we have — the instinct to care for our children and keep them safe from harm? How can it actually let you pretend illness and injury aren’t really happening — and make you feel wicked if you don’t?

    I think I’m going to be sick.

    And this is why the horrors of Christian Science (and faith healing in general) need to be more widely proclaimed. If a woman as well-informed as Greta Christina didn’t realize how insane the delusion is, what do most people know about it?

    So, thank you for this post, Ebon. I only wish similar articles were appearing in my local newspaper. Unless we raise awareness of the situation we can expect people to oppose laws designed to protect children whose parents suffer from the delusion of faith healing.

    As for how it happens, I suspect fractal wrongness and a strong commitment to authoritarian morality (oh, and hypocrisy).

  • Lux Aeterna

    In a sense, the parents themselves are victims. Most of them are brainwashed from young, and probably subjected to the same treatment they inflict upon their children. And the very same children we read about in this post will grow up and do likewise. It’s a vicious cycle that needs to be stopped.

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    Thanks for an enlightening post, Ebon. I’ve never paid any attention to Christian Science. I know the saner religious proponents will say, “they’re just extremists, that’s not really what faith is supposed to be about.” The question is, why don’t believers agree about where to draw the lines between faith and rationality? Once any degree of magical thinking is legitimized, conditions quickly deteriorate to the point where anything goes. Christian Science is an example of such a case.

  • http://www.croonersunlimited.com jimspeiser

    I have been considering the creation of an organization that specifically targets young victims of religion, for the express purpose of combatting overt cases of child abuse engendered by religious beliefs. Such an organization would assume as its mission the mitigation of children’s pain and suffering at the hands of their religious fundamentalist parents, whether through denial of necessary medical attention or through ritualized sexual abuse (as in the case of the Texas “Little House on the Prairie” cult). The organization would limit itself to overt, demonstrable abuse, as opposed to philosophical abuse (i.e., the notion that all religion is a form of child abuse).

    The methods would include primarily jurisprudential (hiring attorneys to use the courts to intervene in specific cases), statutory (lobbying to amend state laws that protect fundamentalist parents in religious child abuse cases), informational (initiating a PR campaign to raise awareness of the extent of the problem) and perhaps even interventional (creating safe houses where children can go or be taken by authorities to be examined by medical personnel and evaluated without parental interference). I have not taken step one in this direction, but perhaps its time. Does the readership here agree that such an organization is needed, and has a chance of success? Is anyone aware of any overlap with other, established organizations? You can email me at jimspeiser@yahoo.com.

  • Brad

    Is anyone aware of any overlap with other, established organizations?

    My question is why organizations not specific to religiously-motivated child abuse aren’t still going after said abuse. It seems to be that either religion is overly-respected just for being religion, or that these organizations are blind to the threat of this kind of religion. I think we need to encourage these religion-nonspecific organizations to investigate the threat of certain religious activities to show them the dangers of extremism that they can battle. This method would be more practical than trying to support an organization that specifically targets young victims of religion, as that might be too narrow to receive enough support.

    Just to add on to the original post’s idea of child abuse, here’s an excerpt from Litigating Child Custody with Religious Cults:

    Upon his return from 6 weeks of summer vacation with his Scientologist father, his mother described him as emotionally “beyond contact.” Whenever he returned from a vacation with his father, he was “out of touch” for two or three days. He started to refuse to kiss his mother goodnight at bedtime. Finally, one day after school he rode his bike 10 miles to a ferry, sailed across the bay, and then rode through a bad area of a major city to the Scientology headquarters where his father was waiting.

    Excerpt from Time’s article Freedom of Religion or State-Sanctioned Child Abuse?:

    So why does the legal protection derived from so-called individual “freedom of religion” cover these injuries the devout inflict on others — including family members incapable of making informed consent? In all but four states (Hawaii, Massachusetts, Nebraska and North Carolina) parents can use their religious ideology as a shield against prosecution for withholding medical treatment from their children.

  • Leum

    @jimspeiser:

    More organizations like you’ve described are absolutely needed. Massachusetts Citizens for Children has countering child abuse via religious exemption as one its goals (read their report here).

    Would it have a chance at success? I think so. Even most religious people (heck, probably a good number of fundamentalists) regard this stuff as completely immoral. Personally, I think the PR aspect would be the most important, as laws that impinge on religion at all tend to be opposed automatically.

  • Alison Robin

    Those Christian Science guys should be sued for false advertising. Never have I seen such a blatant oxymoron.

  • Brad

    At least in Islamic fundamentalist cultures they try to help each their own survive, …

    Not quite. (Not to say anything about all Muslims in general.) I’ll drop the tangent here.

  • Brad

    One last reference, for those who are still interested: When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children, and the Law by Shawn Peters. I found it browsing Internet Infidels today.

  • Christopher

    Not quite. (Not to say anything about all Muslims in general.)

    As far as the family was concerned, the daughter betrayed them – and thus no longer one of their own. It soun ds crazy to folks like you or me, but that’s what the whole “death before dishonor” mentallity gets you.

    Come to think of it, those Christian “Science” folks seem to have a similar mentallity towards even more mundane things: it seems to me as though they would rather die than admit that they have any problems (as such admissions are signs of “sin” in that fucked-up little world of theirs).

  • Leum

    …it seems to me as though they would rather die than admit that they have any problems (as such admissions are signs of “sin” in that fucked-up little world of theirs).

    Absolutely. To make matters worse, I strongly suspect that the people who do die of kidney failure, appendicitis, or gangrene achieve martyr status and are held up as an example to the community (I know it happens with Jehovah’s Witnesses who refuse blood transfusions).

  • Entomologista

    It’s no different from back when we lived as hunter-gatherers without modern medicine, people died a lot back then (and the life expectancy was very low) but enough managed to survive and reproduce for us not to go extinct.

    No, I imagine even cavemen took care of their injured and sick as best they could. They could at least do things like set bones or treat fevers, which is more than Christian Scientists are willing to do. One of the reasons a larger number of them haven’t died out is because they benefit from herd immunity. That means they at least survive most childhood illnesses to reach reproductive age.

  • bestonnet

    Cavemen just didn’t have the medical knowledge to treat anything that wouldn’t be able to fix itself, all the things that Mary Baker Eddy cultists claim their members have been healed from that I’ve heard of are conditions that go away over time if you do nothing (just as most things that get ‘cured’ by quacks are self-limiting conditions).

  • Christopher

    No, I imagine even cavemen took care of their injured and sick as best they could. They could at least do things like set bones or treat fevers, which is more than Christian Scientists are willing to do.

    That’s just what I was getting at!

    Those primitive cultures may not have had much knowledge of medicine, but at least they would try to fix broken bones or mix protective salves from local plants to treat wounds and make attempts to brew healing potices (the reliablity of such potices being highly questionable, of course) – but these dummies don’t even go that far. If you broke a bone, you’re really fine and just have to walk it off; if you are burning up with fever, you just have to tough it out; if you’re puking you guts out, just sit down and eat with the rest of the family.

    Like I said before – it’s a wonder that any of them are still alive in spite of their obliviousness to reality.

  • Brad

    I honestly wonder, perhaps out of morbid curiosity, what a Christian Scientist would say to an amputee.

  • Christopher

    Brad,

    I honestly wonder, perhaps out of morbid curiosity, what a Christian Scientist would say to an amputee.

    Probably something like “it only appears that your hand is missing, but it’s still there – now come on, move those fingers!”

  • Leum

    I honestly wonder, perhaps out of morbid curiosity, what a Christian Scientist would say to an amputee.

    I did some research, and while I can’t say what they tell amputees, I know what they tell people who need amputation (trigger warning, it isn’t pretty, but none of the links have pictures, thank goodness):

    From Christian Science Forums:

    One experience I had was that a friend asked me to work on her mothers husbands “spirit, as he is depressed.” He was depressed because he had a diabetic wound and had been in the hospital for a long time and the DRs were now saying they had exhausted all possible treatments and had to amputate his foot.

    Well, my friend called and said the Dr. had woken up the next morning and run into the room and said he had miraculously thought of a new treatment and no amputation was necessary. Now the patient is home and using a walker. (source)

    From Christian Science Churches of Ventura, California:

    An infected leg was healed through the prayer of a practitioner. My husband, a hospital corpsman in the Navy, offered (but did not insist – for which I am very grateful) to take me to the hospital, as he feared gangrene had set in and the possibility of amputation threatened. This proved to be a time to take a firm stand for Christian Science treatment, and the healing came quickly. The autumn after this healing, I joined The Mother Church. (emphasis added, source)

    From Religious Tolerance:

    Ashley King died in 1988 at the age of 12. Her parents, John and Catherine King had withdrawn her from her Phoenix, AZ school in 1987 because of “a problem with her leg.” CPS gained temporary custody of the child and took her to the hospital. She had a tumor on her right leg that was 41 inches in circumference. The attending doctor estimated that she would have had a 55 to 60% chance of recovery if she had received prompt medical attention earlier. He recommended that her leg be amputated “to reduce her pain in the time she had remaining.” The parents refused, and transferred her to a Christian Science nursing home where she received only non-medical care. She allegedly died in extreme pain. (emphasis added, source)

    Finally, a ray of hope from the New York Times:

    …Mrs. Robinson injured her foot last July, whereupon blood poisoning set in; that being a Christian Scientist, she did not call in a physician, but about a week ago a surgeon was called in, who immediately amputated the leg above the ankle. Mrs. Robinson’s neighbors said that Mr. Robinson called in the doctor. -There was a trained nurse at Mr. Robinson’s home yesterday, and the members of the household whispered, “Just as people not Christian Scientists do when some one is really physically ill.” (source)

  • Brad

    It’s ironic you found the respective articles from RT and NYT, Leum. I would have expected them the other way around.

  • Adele

    I think this is absolutely disgusting. It’s bad enough that religious institutions recieve tax-exempt status even WITHOUT this kind of child abuse. This is absolutely something that has GOT to be stopped and had I the time or resources I would most certainly join jimspeiser in founding his organization. Just a question – are there any similar organizations out there that I could donate to?