No Payment For Prayer: Christian Science and Health Care Reform

With the historic passage of sweeping health insurance reform, Americans have reason to rejoice this week. For the first time, and despite hysterical opposition from the party of conspiracy nuts and theocrats, our government has enshrined in law the idea that every citizen has a right to affordable health care. Even if the law is far from perfect, it’s still a huge advance over the alternative of doing nothing – and history shows that most major pieces of progressive social legislation, including Social Security and Medicare, started out flawed and were improved over time. With this bill now signed into law, we have a foundation to build on.

Atheists and freethinkers have another reason to celebrate (in addition to the removal of the noxious, theocratic Stupak language on abortion). Namely, one of the worst provisions of the bill – a clause mandating that health insurance companies pay for prayer – was removed in committee and didn’t make it into the final legislation. This clause was originally inserted at the urging of the Christian Science church, the cult which shuns all modern medicine in favor of faith healing delusions and would rather see children suffer agonizingly and die slowly than take them to a doctor.

Or at least, that used to be the party line. In the last few decades, Christian Scientists’ numbers have been in steady decline, and there are signs that the church may be giving ground on its absolute stance, as the New York Times reports:

Though officials do not provide membership statistics, scholars estimate that the church’s numbers have dropped to under 100,000 from a peak of about twice that at the turn of the 20th century…. In New York City, falling membership forced the Christian Science church on Park Avenue to lease its building part time to a catering service in 2006. Another Manhattan church remains open; a third closed in 2005.

It’d be easy to snark that the reason Christian Scientists’ numbers are dwindling is that so many of them tend to die. But I don’t think it’s sheer attrition that’s the cause. In the past few years, there have been more and more cases of parents prosecuted for letting their children die of completely treatable illnesses. I think it’s the onslaught of bad publicity and the church’s public intransigence that have been turning people off – not to mention the fact that, as scientific medicine gets better and better and its benefits become more and more apparent, there are increasingly few people willing to give it up.

Like most churches in decline, Christian Scientists have turned to the state to prop them up. The healthcare reform bill was a perfect example, where church lobbyists pleaded with the government to force insurers to pay them for praying. Christian Science practitioners charge $25 to $50 per session, but since their “treatment” of the sick consists of nothing more than babbling superstitious gibberish, anything other than zero is far too high a price to pay. And if every sect or cult under the sun could demand payment in exchange for carrying out their own magic rituals, where would it end? Why should the rest of us have to subsidize, through higher insurance premiums, the religious nonsense of modern-day witch doctors?

The American Academy of Pediatrics deserves commendation for their strong stand against treating prayer as the equivalent of medicine:

“Given the complete lack of scientific evidence of the efficacy of prayer in treating any illness or disorder in children,” academy officials wrote Senate leaders in October, “mandating coverage for these services runs counter to the principles of evidence-based medicine.”

But, as I said, there are signs that the Christian Scientists have started to relax their absolutist stance – the pronouncements of their lunatic founder, Mary Baker Eddy, notwithstanding. Though Eddy demanded that believers forsake medicine under all circumstances, some modern members are taking a more tolerant stance and starting to push prayer as an alternative, rather than a replacement, for conventional, evidence-based treatment.

The faith’s guiding textbook forbids mixing medical care with Christian Science healing, which is a form of transcendental prayer intended to realign a patient’s soul with God…. Mary Baker Eddy, who founded the Church of Christ, Scientist, in 1879 in Boston, wrote in the church’s textbook, “Science and Health With Key to the Scriptures,” that anyone inviting a doctor to his sickbed “invites defeat.”

But faced with dwindling membership and blows to their church’s reputation… Christian Science leaders have recently found a new tolerance for medical care. For more than a year, leaders say, they have been encouraging members to see a physician if they feel it is necessary.

…”In the last year, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been called to pray at a patient’s bedside in a hospital,” said Philip Davis, 59, the church’s national spokesman, who has been tending to the sick for three decades as a Christian Science practitioner.

This may end up being one of the very rare cases where a religion is forced to change by the sheer weight of the evidence against it. The Christian Science church is still going through a process of smoothing out the rough edges, and as the benefits of modern medicine become increasingly obvious, their leaders may no longer be able to persuade the rest to forsake it. We may wind up with a situation like modern Roman Catholicism, where the bishops and the Pope continue to preach against contraception, but the official teaching is almost universally ignored among educated followers. And the happy fact that payment for prayer was removed from the health care law – a rare triumph of rationality in Washington – can only speed that outcome.

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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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