Justice for the Victims of Faith Healing

I’m still working through a backlog of interesting stories that accumulated during my vacation, so here’s the first of them.

As freethinkers know too well, claiming that your religion requires you to do or not do something is an almost all-purpose excuse for immoral behavior. It’s frustratingly rare for believers to be punished for wrongdoing when they invoke their faith as a shield. That’s why I’m so unexpectedly pleased to see that rationality is getting a foothold in Oregon, where more and more parents are being prosecuted for withholding medical treatment from their children in preference to faith healing.

Most of the attention is on the Followers of Christ, a small sect that, like the larger Christian Scientists, completely rejects modern medicine and “treats” disease only with prayer. Unsurprisingly, members of this church have a tendency to die of curable illnesses – but if they really want to throw their lives away, that’s their choice, as stupid and senseless as it is. Far more troubling is that their minor children, who can’t give rational assent to these beliefs, are also being allowed to suffer and die for the same reason.

The Followers of Christ first came to light in 1998 when local media reported that the church had a graveyard full of dead children, many of which could easily have been saved if they’d gotten medical attention. Prosecutors wanted to intervene, but their hands were tied by an Oregon law which protected parents who relied exclusively on faith healing. Showing some commendable good sense, the legislature repealed this exemption soon after, but it’s taken years for the police and prosecutors to begin moving cases through the pipeline. The first one was in 2008, and more are coming, like this appalling example:

At birth, the girl, Alayna, was a pink-cheeked bundle, but by 6 months, a growth the size of a baseball had consumed the left side of her face, pushing her eyeball out of its socket. The Wylands, members of the Followers of Christ Church, a faith-healing sect whose members shun medicine, would not take her to a doctor.

These parents are rightly standing trial for this horrific neglect, and their daughter was taken away from them to get the care she needed so badly. In another case, a couple was prosecuted and convicted for allowing their teenage son to die – of a blocked urinary tract, for truth’s sake, something I’m guessing any doctor could have cleared up in five minutes.

But Dr. Douglas S. Diekema, a medical ethicist at Children’s Hospital in Seattle, says that more harm than good may have been done to Alayna Wyland… “For me, the real question is, could you not have done that without taking the child from the parents?” he said. “I think you could accomplish getting some of these kids treated by getting a home health nurse — and if you need a police officer there, that’s fine. But taking a child away from their parents for two months causes harm. People don’t understand that.”

This is a truly absurd suggestion – that sick children of faith-healing cults should be kept at home, while the police show up every time a treatment is needed to restrain their parents. This is a ridiculous waste of scarce police resources, and shows how some people will bend over backwards to protect the unearned and undeserved privilege accorded to religion.

Under most circumstances, I’d agree that it’s better for children to be left with their parents, but these aren’t most circumstances. These couples are a clear and present danger to the lives and health of their children; they’ve proven themselves unfit to be parents, just as we consider drug addicts or violent abusers unfit parents. The motivation may be different, but the end result, unless the state intervenes, is the same: children dead, for no good reason or purpose.

Nor would sending parents to jail change their preference for faith healing, Dr. Diekema said.

That may well be true, as it’s well-known that religious fanatics consider their beliefs to trump the laws of democratic society. But so what? You might as well say that it’s pointless to jail al-Qaeda leaders because it won’t persuade them to renounce terrorist violence. Justice demands that people who’ve done wrong be punished accordingly, whether or not they admit the wrongfulness of their conduct.

I was happy to see that this article quotes Rita Swan, who’s made it her life’s work to protect children from being harmed or killed by faith-healing delusions, and equally happy that her campaign is bearing fruit. It takes time and persistence, but people’s opinions can be changed. For the children who badly need society’s protection from the dangerous delusions of their parents, that change can’t come quickly enough.

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About Adam Lee

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

  • Old Ari

    Darwin strikes again, survival of the fittest

  • Nathaniel

    Ugh. These people make me sick.

  • gamba

    Hi Ebon, good you are back (though i never missed you ‘cos the guest authors were super, to me). All the same you are welcome. I really don’t like commenting because mine might seem primitive or contradictory atleast, being from Africa. So i prefer to enjoy the thrill of reading from abroad.

  • http://www.unequally-yoked.com/ LeahAdmin

    And, of course, people with these possibly deadly beliefs are free to have foster children or adopt, while gay couples are banned. Grump.

  • Sarah Jane Braasch

    I agree these children should be removed from these homes. They are not and will not receive proper medical care in these homes. Even when their lives are not in danger.

    I would go further. Male and female circumcision. In most religious families, girl children are raised up to be nothing more than submissive sex slaves. Sexual, physical, and psychological abuse is rampant and undeterred in religious homes and communities.

    This is no different than that “baby factory” in Nigeria, which was just discovered, wherein a house full of teenage girls were being held captive to give birth to babies, which were then sold, etc.

    If that’s not abuse meriting state intervention, to protect the human rights of those girl children, then I don’t know what is.

    It’s time we started calling a spade a spade.

    Religious communities are baby factories wherein the girl children are brainwashed and held captive as sex slaves and baby incubators.

    And, I hold the mothers just as accountable as the fathers.

  • Sarah Jane Braasch

    I think never seeking legal/psychological assistance from state authorities on behalf of your children is just as abusive as never seeking medical assistance on behalf of your children.

    This is what JWs teach. (They also deny blood transfusions for their children.)

    They teach that the only thing that matters is not showing Jehovah in a negative light. So, they teach that a JW should never go to the police or a therapist. They teach that all matters of a criminal nature should be dealt with internally, intra-community.

    And, they also teach, much like in Islam, that there must be two competent, religiously adept, adult witnesses to any “sin” or “crime” for it to be adjudicated in their internal “tribunal” of elders (male leaders).

    So, basically, it’s a pedophile’s and abuser’s paradise, in which one can do whatever one wishes to one’s children with total impunity.

    This is another reason why I oppose home schooling and faith based schools. At least in the public schools, there are state authorities monitoring the children of religious families.

  • Sarah Jane Braasch

    Public school saved my life.

  • Sarah Jane Braasch

    My baby brother, Jacob, almost died when he was born, because my JW parents tried to deny him a blood transfusion.

    Fortunately, the state took him away and gave him a life-saving blood transfusion.

    Unfortunately, the state gave him back to them afterwards.

    If the state hadn’t, he would probably still be alive today.

    Instead, he’s dead.

  • Sarah Jane Braasch

    This is why, personally, I have little to no tolerance for accommodationist positions.

    Children’s lives are at stake.

  • spec

    This is a ridiculous waste of scarce police resources, and shows how some people will bend over backwards to protect the unearned and undeserved privilege accorded to religion.

    You’re making things up Ebon. The ethicist obviously doesn’t respect those religious beliefs of the parents – indeed his suggestion is completely opposite to the “protection” of those beliefs as any of those irrational parents would tell you. What he’s getting at, I imagine, is the importance of the parent-child relationship in youngsters’ development and stability, even when parents are crucially flawed. (Have you seen, e.g., the movie I am Sam?)

    they’ve proven themselves unfit to be parents, just as we consider drug addicts or violent abusers unfit parents.

    I’d say neglect is a different sort of abuse than violence, but I see what you’re getting at.

  • gamba

    Let me try; My senior brother, Godwin lost his first daughter, Princess, last year thanks to Pastor T.B Joshua. My senior sister Lydia (who is also a staunch supporter of T.B Joshua) is presently ”suffering and smiling” with her first son Saminu. Hope he will make it. I wish we had a system like that of the U.S that can seperate this child with my Godly sister who will refuse hospital for some bullshit prayers. God help Saminu.

  • kennypo65

    Just another example of religion as child abuse.

  • Sarah Jane Braasch

    Like communism, the nuclear family model, which was never the “traditional” family paradigm, is a failed social experiment, as is the institution of marriage itself.

    Wherever there exists a power differential coupled with a lack of transparency, the most egregious human rights violations are sure to follow.

    Religion is used to justify this scenario. Let’s face it: religion is legalized sex slavery and child abuse.

  • RipleyP

    I try to be imaginative and try to understand or at least consider things from the other person’s position.

    In this I fail, I cannot understand Faith Healing being my first stop for health care. I can imagine it as a last resort in a desperate grasp at anything to save a child after all else has proven ineffective. (I do not in this promote faith healing as realistic or effective heath care option).

    To use it as a first step and the only step is more than I can understand.

  • TommyP

    It’s so obvious that the Gods heal no one. Yet I used to pray desperately, hoping to be healed by my God. I wish I would have heard the message, in a convincing way, that I was wasting my time. I would have gone to the doctor. Luckily, my mom only waited for God/Jesus/Holy Spirit for so long; eventually she was good enough to take my siblings and I to the physician as needed. Kind of glad to have lived to see that amount of faith crushed out of her by the viciousness of her fellow Christians, as well as thankfully being smart enough to realize medicine really works.

  • Jeff

    But taking a child away from their parents for two months causes harm. People don’t understand that.

    Okay, here’s a better idea: kill the parents and give the children to people with functioning brain stems. That way, it isn’t just for two months.

  • keddaw

    “Nor would sending parents to jail change their preference for faith healing,” Dr. Diekema said.

    But it may encourage other parents to seek medical attention for their sick children rather than face jail time.

    It also shows that society is not willing to tolerate people who intentionally allow their children to come to harm.

  • 2-D Man

    Yeah, Jeff. It’s not taking the kids away that causes the harm; sending them back is what causes harm.

  • Kaelik

    @Sarah Jane Braasch

    If you had your way in inventing a new whatever, what would you advocate in place of “traditional nuclear family” and especially in place of “institution of marriage”?

  • Innominate

    Every time I hear a story like this, it makes me furious. Denying your children medical assistance which could easily save their life is every bit as reprehensible as denying them food, and worse even than denying them education. If your religious beliefs lead to an innocent child dying in agony, you should be tried for the harshest possible sentence.

  • TEP

    But taking a child away from their parents for two months causes harm.

    Right. So taking children away from parents who harm them causes harm to the children? Surely it’s the sending them back afterwards that is actually harmful.

  • Dark Jaguar

    I don’t think it’s a dichotomy. Taking kids away from their parents certainly causes harm. But, it must be weighed against the harm of leaving them there. It doesn’t help to pretend that since taking them away is for the best, that therefor it is completely harmless. The foster care system needs improvement.

    Now some have lived their whole lives in a nightmarish house of abuse day in and day out. I can’t possibly relate to something like that, and can only conclude that for them, leaving is the greatest day of their lives, with no love lost and no negative consequences. This isn’t quite like that. These parents are deluded and dangerous with respect to medicine. That, to me, is enough reason to remove the child at least until the parents can show they have their mind about medicine and care more about their children than their faith. However, I don’t see any notes that this bled into anything else. I’m sure the parents, deluded as they were, still cared about keeping their kids fed and happy, and as a result their kids built up a bond with them. That bond, if severed by (as the kids see it) total strangers abducting them to a strange place while watching their parents cry, is simply going to cause a lot of harm, and foster groups need to be better prepared for that sort of thing.

    I can from past experience that sometimes protective care can be a little trigger happy. Finding the right balance is very tough. I would never want them to be lax enough that even one kid slips through the crack, and yet I would never want someone to be ripped from a loving family due to a misunderstanding (this case of medicinal neglect is NOT a misunderstanding, I’m not talking about this sort of thing at the moment, just wanted to be clear). Yeah, due to a misunderstanding when I was young (a poor judgement call by someone when I was a kid is to blame, no excuse made for that, but the response was very overboard), my siblings and I were all taken to a foster center for a week. The whole ordeal was terribly handled. Essentially, we got locked outside the house one night by mistake due to a misunderstanding when we got dropped off. I won’t make excuses for it, they should have had all their ducks in a row there, and one should have confirmed that the other was there and had answered the door before leaving. That’s simply a fact, but it was an isolated incident of otherwise excellent parenting between the both of them and certainly wasn’t malicious or neglectful to the extent of a case like this.

    The “state” however were dead-set on their bygone conclusion that both our parents were horrible abusive parents deserving nothing more than contempt. The “counselling” we received that week fit that assumption. By their reckoning, we were just more victims of a broken home, and the whole week was spent trying to convince us that we’d never see them again, that that depressing place was our new life and we should just accept that. Before getting there, I recall some rather invasive picture sessions. Having been convinced that abuse MUST be happening, they tried to find any possible bruises or proof of it. There were none on any of us, save my youngest sister who had accidentally fell down the stairs one day when we were playing. Too bad “accidentally fell down the stairs” is such a stereotypical “coverup” excuse. My explanations went rather ignored. I wasn’t a fool as a kid. School had taught us enough about abuse for me to know what they were after. The place we were sent to, aside from being a small corner building on a busy street (not the stereotypical mansion behind a gate at all), had a bunch of workers who didn’t seem to care about anyone at an individual level. Sleeping was simply a bunch of cots in a large clinical room. Bathing meant we were treated like toddlers. It was rather uncomfortable and took a lot just to convince some of these people we could bathe ourselves and deserved a little privacy in the communal bath room. The whole place shunned individuality pretty starkly. While I’m sure these people are, with some exceptions, doing the best they can with limited resources, the fact is it’s still a traumatic loss. In the end, the courts decided to return us, and in our case, it was the best possible solution (though it was a little convoluted and took a few months before full custody was restored, at least we were staying with family we knew and cared about during that transition). We would most certainly have been worse off had we ended up stuck in foster care.

    So with all that said, does it affect my opinion on this case? Not very much. No matter what the parents think they are doing, they are still dangerously deluded, and that’s reason enough to remove the kids from their care until they “get better”. Consistent patterns of abuse or even one dramatic case like this are reason enough to remove the kids, and there are plenty of cases where returning the kids should never even be considered. In all honesty, as heavy handed and badly as our case was handled, I do understand why they got involved to start with. The only thing I will add is that the mental harm of the removal should be acknowledged, should be recognized as something that exists and must at least be dealt with if you conclude that removal is the best option for the children. At no point should foster care work to overly demonize the parents beyond making them realize what has happened, and should NEVER suggest that the kids “don’t know what love really is”.

  • Sarah Jane Braasch


    I would have people create the families of their own choosing — whatever they wish — siblings, cousins, friends, multiple households coming together, OR a nuclear family, BUT I would have them contract everything.

    Basing families upon fleeting romantic and/or sexual feelings is a recipe for disaster.

    It is not the state’s concern whom you love or have sex with.

    I think the answer is simple really. Simply contract.

    You could contract the running of the household, the raising of the children, the paying of expenses.

    You would have recourse to the courts for breach of contract.

    You could contract to stay together for however long.

    Basically, prenups for everyone with no discriminatory limitations on what constitutes a family.

    (I am actually living in a co-op right now with 56 other persons, and I had to sign a lengthy contract before I moved in. We have rules for the kitchen, the cleanliness of the house, work shifts. I pay rent. We have rules about conduct and behavior and the treatment of each other. We have meetings, and we vote on many different things.)

    I also think we should bring back state run orphanages to replace the current nightmare of a foster care system.

    The orphanages wouldn’t be the nightmares of old, like mental hospitals are no longer the nightmarish insane asylums of old.

    They could be really wonderful places for children to live, with enough oversight, and as long as they aren’t faith based. Think about it — it could be like camp or boarding school with proper healthcare and nutrition and education.

    The problem with foster care is the same problem as with the nuclear family model — a power differential coupled with a lack of transparency.

    Power differentials and a lack of transparency is always a surefire recipe for human rights abuses, especially for women and children.

    I have decided that I am not a secular humanist. I have no faith in humanity or the goodness of people. I think the vast, vast majority of people pretty much suck. I think the evidence bears me out on this point.

    This is why I think that perpetuating a hermetic nuclear family model with an unequal power distribution, and just pretending that everyone will be good, because they love one another, and hoping for the best, is a recipe for disaster.

  • Kaelik

    1) How do you deal with people who don’t want to sign a contract.

    2) What power differential, no seriously, you keep saying that, and it’s meaningless. Do you mean that men are often physically stronger? Why do you think that would change? They are supposed to be punished for using that now under the current system. Do you mean inequality of income? That will continue to be true forever, and is just as much of a problem under your system.

    3) People can already have extended families or whatever they want under the current system, I don’t know why you think allowing people to make decisions they are already allowed to make will change anything.

    4) People can contract all those things now, they just don’t because people don’t like to do that.

    Ultimately the problem with your idea is that it is literally identical to what we already have, except of course, the fact that contracts aren’t mandatory, so people don’t do them. And so unless you actually intend to make contracts mandatory, you are advocating that everything stay exactly the same.

  • Sarah Jane Braasch


    Are you being serious?

    So, all of those gay rights activists are fighting to maintain the status quo?

    I can’t take your comment seriously, and I’m not in the mood. Pick an argument with someone else.

    Have a great Sunday.

  • Kaelik

    Uh… what? You were arguing about how people should live. Gay people can already live together. They can already make contracts with each other, they choose not to, because it’s a lot of damn work, and they want to get married, you know, traditionally, the thing you were whining about being bad, because that’s easier than making contracts.

    This has nothing to do with gay rights, because the only rights they are fighting for are:

    1) Things completely irrelevant to the discussion of marriage.

    2) The right to get married traditionally, instead of having to make contracts, like you want.

    So the gay rights movement is literally the exact opposite of what you are suggesting.

  • Sarah Jane Braasch

    The fight is about the legal recognition of families in the US. Did you know that zoning laws often discriminate against one type of family or another? Trusts, wills, and estates law discriminates against one type of family or another. Etc. And, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. So, this idea that people can form whatever families they want, and have the same rights and opportunities as the “traditional” nuclear family wherein the father and mother are legally married, as recognized by the state, and share housing with their own biological children, is ludicrous.

    The fight is about the antiquated and patriarchal nature of family law in the US (family law is a state law matter in the US). Children are regarded as more or less the property of their biological parents. When I speak of a power differential, I am speaking of a legal power differential. I am speaking of different levels of access to one’s human, civil, and constitutional rights. This can also result from the state authority ceding its authority to a religious or other community under customary or religious law.

    The fight is about how we’ve abandoned the private sphere to religious communitarianism. Did you know that some communities have been allowed, either explicitly or de facto, to adjudicate family law matters in religious courts? Did you know that the Jehovah’s Witnesses do this? Did you know that some US states still distinguish marital rape from other forms of rape?

    I strongly suggest that you read up on family law in the US.

    And, to bring it back to the point of the thread — faith healing by religious wacko parents who deny their children medical care with the acquiescence of the secular public authority.

    This is the perfect example of a legalized power differential coupled with a lack of transparency (based upon the “traditional” and religious understanding of a nuclear family model) resulting in unfathomable human rights abuses.

    Enough said.

  • Kogo

    I have never heard a “bioethicist” or “medical ethicist” speak words I considered good sense. Their role mostly seems to be to give gormless interview statements like this, needlessly complicate simple situations and decisions, and suck up medical and educational dollars.

    They’re so clearly transported with visions of themselves as purveyors of Sage Wisdom. Meantime, what’s that old saw? “The first thing a Strict Principle does is kill someone”?

    In a century, we’ll probably look back at “medical ethicist” as a job similar to the way we now look back on phrenologists and peddlers of patent medicines (and, hopefully, theologians).