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.

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About Adam Lee

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


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