Another crime for which faith is culpable

In Magnolia, Texas a five year-old child is in critical condition because his mother slit his throat.

Daphne Spurlock was arrested Saturday after police found her son on the floor of their home, covered in blood.

Investigators say Spurlock stomped on her son’s chest first. When that didn’t get rid of the “demons,” she cut his throat with a large kitchen knife, according to police.

Beneath the immediate condemnation, there are some facts that will go missed in this story.  This mother was trying to save her son.  She loved her son and was trying to help.  The problem was not malicious intent, it was the belief in demons.  Thus is the corrupting power of bad ideas – they can make love and care irrelevant.

Other believers will say this woman was crazy, implying that she wasn’t a normal believer.  I find that odd.

“Even if you believe in that sort of thing, how can a 5-year-old be possessed or have something like that? It’s inconceivable in my mind,” said Greg Riley, a Magnolia resident.

How can a man rise from the dead?  How can a man walk on water?  Plenty of people who find those things as believable as headaches will say this woman must’ve been out of her mind for believing in demons.

And god may be righteous in ordering Jephtha or Abraham to kill their children, but this woman is just batty.

The crime of dedicated unreason resides on the shoulders of every faithful person whether moderate or fundamentalist.  Irrationality is the problem, and 0ther believers are not rescued by condemning this woman for not being irrational like them.  Other beliefs about god are no more likely to be true than this woman’s belief in demons, and it’s high time that believers are confronted directly with how worrisome it is to endorse any brand of dedicated unreason (i.e. faith).

There are consequences when populations feel comfortable believing absurd things.  The crime of religion is telling people that abandoning reason is acceptable, even necessary if you want to avoid the fires of hell.  This is a crime for which religion should be held accountable.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • jackcarlson

    Great commentary. It is so true that once irrational beliefs are allowed to outweigh love and care the door is open to almost any inhumane behavior being permitted under the flag of “religious belief”. Reasonable, intelligent and caring people should speak out against acts like this and the motivations behind them.

  • Jason Torpy

    Here’s a thought problem: You belief with all your heart that demons have possessed someone (child, spouse, stranger, anyone) and that the only way to save them is to slit their throat. Do you do it?
    The answer should be a resounding no. Unless you’re a doctor (or demonologist) and there are some others to provide backup and oversight for that catastrophic decision, don’t go around killing anyone. It’s not so much the crazy belief in demons as the inability to understand the certainty needed for a decision. Some decisions, like killing people or torturing children, need a level of certainty that can NEVER be reached by one person acting alone on their own information. Our powers of perception and reason have too many flaws to be trusted without outside confirmation.

    The point is that the “loner” atheists out there need to look at this bit of craziness and understand that a bit of social feedback is a good thing. Be a joiner and keep your own opinions, but we collectively can help individuals avoid going off the deep end.

  • HumanisticJones

    Every comment on screen when I read the article was along the lines of “Prayers for that poor kid.” I can’t help but feel like it was prayers that got poor Michael Spurlock into this mess.

  • dfl42

    I never liked that “It takes religion to make good people do bad things” quote. I don’t think it’s quite on the nose. It just takes ignorance for good people to do bad things. Religion is a particularly influential, self-perpetuating package deal of ignorances. This woman was ignorant as a direct result of religion, and as a result she did something undeniably evil thinking that she was doing good.

  • JT (Generic)

    You know that the religious will dismiss this by saying that she was simply insane or “not a true Christian”.

    And they’d be completely missing the point. Why one’s beliefs are factually incorrect isn’t important. The fact they’re factually incorrect is – regardless of how one arrives at them.

    Whether you’re drowning your fives kids to send them to heaven, chopping off your hand because God supposedly told you to, to praying for someone to get better because you think prayer works, to giving your money to someone who claims to be a Christian and claims that he/she is going return it, the bottom line is that it’s incredibly difficult to get through this life when one’s beliefs are incorrect.

    Faith is the single most unambiguously demonstrably defective approach to addressing this problem. It’s about as effective as trying to fuel your car by not fueling your car.

    Luckily, most Christians don’t actually take this approach with most things. In those cases, they manage to operate in reality reasonably well.

  • slc1

    I don’t want to play biblical expert here but it is my information that god didn’t order Jephtha to sacrifice his daughter. My understanding of the story is that Jephtha made a vow to god that, if the latter would give him victory in the upcoming battle with the Amonites, he would sacrifice the first person he met on his return. The first person he met happened to be his daughter.

    • brianpansky

      ya I think that story was only being mentioned in passing here (and could have been worded more specifically) but the point remains about killing children as an acceptable action (that action being designated “sacrifice” in the biblical situations referenced) to the christian god.

  • Caravelle

    Jason Torpy :

    Some decisions, like killing people or torturing children, need a level of certainty that can NEVER be reached by one person acting alone on their own information.

    A hundred times yes. It isn’t just about having reasonable beliefs, it’s also about having reasonable levels of certainty in those beliefs (those two statements should mean exactly the same thing but in practice it often seems they don’t).

    I used to struggle a lot with the concept that on the one hand some things are Bad things to do, but on the other hand “if you are right you can’t be too radical”. Aka, “if the Nazis had actually been right in their worldview, would their actions have been justified ? And doesn’t everyone think their worldview is right ?”

    The answer is uncertainty : you never actually know you’re right, so you should only ever be as radical as your level of certainty allows.

    This means that infinite radicalism is unjustified, and once you’re in the “directly hurting and killing people” stage your radicalism is very very high. But it doesn’t mean that some level of radicalism isn’t appropriate… as long as you’re very certain, and your certainty is arrived at by reason and evidence. (…which implies it can also be diminished by reason and evidence)

  • Sastra

    Caravelle #7 wrote:

    It isn’t just about having reasonable beliefs, it’s also about having reasonable levels of certainty in those beliefs

    Again, hitting the nail on the head.

    When people enter into the world of faith-based thinking they forget that the world they’ve accepted is still only a hypothesis, a human-based guess on their part. They don’t know the story, they don’t know the hidden details, and they don’t get to borrow infallibility from God. It isn’t humble to take yourself out of the situation, so that instead of saying “I believe with all my heart that demons have possessed my child” you say “Demons have possessed my child: what should I do?”

    I’ve noticed an interesting thing happening when I ask theists “Could you be wrong about God’s existence?” They keep trying to retranslate that in their head into “Could God be wrong? Might He have lied to me when He told me He exists?” and answer THAT question, instead of the one I asked. If God makes no mistakes, then they think they’ve avoided that problem for themselves.

    I always thought that a good, wise, and benevolent God would have used the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son “at God’s request” to make a different point than the one the God character makes in the Bible. He should have punished or reproved Abraham for being so quick to recognize he was hearing the voice of God. Better instead to doubt … even if it really, truly IS the voice of God.

    That’s the part believers fail to get. They’re working on a consequence-based ethics, where if you ignore the strong possibility that you’re crazy and obey the voices in your head you’ve done the right thing — if it turns out that you did the right thing. Atheists generally pay more attention to the critical importance of method.

  • iknklast

    I remember a few years ago when a mother cut off her child’s arms because God told her to. Rather than question the basis of a faith that would lead a parent to mutilate a loved child, everyone around me just said god wouldn’t say that, this woman is crazy, and, since I was in Texas at the time, she should fry. It never occurs to them that faith can lead someone to do terrible things to SOMEONE THEY LOVE. In spite of the fact that every practicing Christian I know that is not so liberal they’ve abandoned “GOD” for “SOMETHING OUT THERE” has told me it’s GOD first, Family SECOND.

    And, if you honestly believe someone is going to hell if you don’t help them, what sort of sick person are you to NOT do it? This is what leads to sick, perverted crimes against a person’s own children. Because they truly believe, it would be horrendous not to do something to save the person they love from eternal torture.

  • Rory

    I guess I don’t know what to make of this, apart from recognizing it as a tragedy. In my mind, there is a difference between the irrational belief that demons exist and can possess people and the irrational behavior of slitting a child’s throat to release those demons, but I guess that difference is more about the level of certainty (as others here have pointed out) than anything qualitative.

    All I can conclude is that religion itself is the poison, because once you’ve divorced your beliefs from any kind of logical/evidence-based checks, there’s nothing stopping you from pursuing a crazy idea out as far as you have the stomach for, with potentially horrific consequences.

  • KirikaSena

    “Investigators say Spurlock stomped on her son’s chest first.”

    I certainly don’t have a weak stomach, but reading this sentence literally took my breath away, and I nearly cried.

    Great post, JT.

  • Balstrome

    In five thousand years time, this woman will be held up as a shining example of faith and obedience to the gods. And you know this is true, no matter what they say about her now.

    Because there are those who, today, know in their hearts that she did the best for her child, and civil society, being anti-god, has not right to condemn her.

    Is this a straw man or not?

    • boselecta

      “this woman will be held up as a shining example of faith and obedience to the gods”

      Only if we lose, Balstrome. And if we haven’t won the debate after 5000 years, I doubt there’ll even still be humans around to talk about it.

  • Mark

    Sounds like an ad hoc excuse for a despicable act.

  • Beth

    This woman is clearly mentally ill as sane people don’t do this kind of thing. Given that the experts I’ve read are consistent in saying that religious beliefs do not cause mental illness nor do religious beliefs lead to such tragic outcomes in people who are not mentally ill, this example fails as a rational argument against religious beliefs.

    • Rory

      But Beth, if she sincerely believed that her son was possessed, and that this was the only way to save him, then what’s insane about it? “But there’s no rational basis for that belief!” you might argue. But there’s no rational basis for most religious claims, either, so how do you distinguish between insanity and faith?

      No, of course this one incident doesn’t singlehandedly prove the failure of religion, but whether the woman is clinically mentally ill or not, it’s a perfect illustration of the danger of acting with certainty on beliefs which are immune to rational evaluation. Maybe if it hadn’t been religion, it would have been some other delusion, but what does it say to you that fervent religious faith can be indistinguishable from insanity?

      • Beth

        What’s insane about it? She stomped on her son’s check and then slit his throat. That’s what’s insane about it.

    • Sastra

      She’s only “clearly” mentally ill if she’s wrong, and her child was not possessed by a demon.

      What can you stand on to show that the child wasn’t demon-possessed? If it’s ordinary, secular reason, then ALL the faith-based beliefs are out. No demons, no God, no supernatural forces at all.

      But once you leave the rational common ground, all you’ve got left is “the God I believe in doesn’t work that way.” Oh, how nice. Hers does. Looks like this will be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction when we find out after we die.

      It’s all faith. It’s all exempt from criticism of the world. God told her she was right: why should she then listen to you? Why should she listen to anyone else, if she has heard from God?

      The only reason you assume that this woman was mentally ill is because you’re assuming she wasn’t part of a large group or culture of people who ALL believe this stuff and who all routinely kill children because of it. But look at Africa and the so-called “witch children.” The believers can’t all be schizophrenics or paranoids. The religion itself is sick and twisted — when measured only by worldly criteria. And what religion is measured only by worldly criteria?

      So I think you’re wrong. This example does succeed as a rational argument against religious beliefs. Not because it is typical. We’re not saying that. It’s because once you’re dealing with a “religious belief,” neither you nor anyone else can provide any rational argument for this woman being wrong. By the standards of religion, how can you have “too much” faith?

      • Beth

        Even if demons exist and her son was possessed, it’s still insane to stomp on his chest and slit his throat. The only people who apparently disagree with that are atheists, not religious believers.

        • Sastra

          Even if demons exist and her son was possessed, it’s still insane to stomp on his chest and slit his throat.

          What is the reasonable way then to deal with demons? Provide some details, and tell us how you know.

          • Beth

            I hear that Catholics are fond of exorcisms. Other Christian sects use different approaches but I’m not aware of any specific name they use for it. I saw a documentary on TV once that showed a minister (pentacostal IIRC) touching the possessed person’s forehead accompanied by an admonition to the demon to leave that body. To the best of my knowledge, none of the religions that believe in demonic possession advocate stomping on the gut followed by slitting the throat as a way to rid the person of the demon. That appears to be a unique approach invented on the spot by this mentally ill mother.

          • Sastra

            African children who are accused of demonic possession or witchcraft are routinely “abandoned, tortured, starved and murdered – all in the name of Jesus Christ.”

            But if the mother WAS told by God that this was necessary, should she believe God? Or a church?

            That’s the problem. From the standpoint of someone who does not believe God told her to do this, the woman is crazy. By the standards of most churches who believe in demon possession, the woman is crazy. But in religion, you try to follow God’s standards, not your own. And a personal encounter with God is supposed to be the most clear, undeniable, indisputable way of finding out what God thinks. And that trumps everything else. What matter if they call you crazy for obeying God?

            You want to draw a line between where faith is reasonable — and where it becomes unreasonable. But there are no obvious ways a person of faith can do this. The system has no checks and balances once you have a special revelation. To the infidel, that special revelation will always look like it was “invented on the spot” by the mentally ill.

          • boselecta

            If there was a mainstream branch of Christianity, or any other religion, which did recommend chest-stamping and throat slitting as the best way to get rid of demons, what would your position be? Would you say that they’re entitled to their beliefs? Or would you state unequivocally that the problem is that they believe in demons in the first place?

            Lest you think this is an unfair hypothetical question, I would remind you that the relentless atrocities committed in the Muslim world, such as adulterer-stoning, the execution of homosexuals and apostates, the turning of a judicial blind eye to the murder of daughters / sisters who fall in love with the ‘wrong’ person – and indeed, the frequent killing of ‘witch’ children in parts of Christian Africa – are every bit as horrific, every bit as religiously inspired, and every bit the kind of thing that we would under any other circumstances consider the product of mental illness, as this incident.

          • Mark


            “And a personal encounter with God is supposed to be the most clear, undeniable, indisputable way of finding out what God thinks. And that trumps everything else.”

            But, this is not the case with those sects that subscribe to Sola Scriptura. Personal encounters are always suspect. See 2 Corinthians 11:14.

            “The system has no checks and balances once you have a special revelation.”

            Under the system of Sola Scriptura, Scripture itself is the check, and the church, a community of Scripture-abiding Christians, is the balance. See I John 4:1 and Titus 1.

            I would think that if Spurlock was more familiar with her Bible and better plugged-in, she would have handled the situation differently, even if she really did believe her child to be possessed, as there are several examples of how the disciples and Jesus himself handled demon possession.

    • Mike D

      This woman is clearly mentally ill as sane people don’t do this kind of thing.

      Touché salesman! Dazzle me with more keen insight.

      Given that the experts I’ve read are consistent in saying that religious beliefs do not cause mental illness

      No one is claiming that religious beliefs cause mental illness. Stop arguing against thin air. The argument is that strongly held religious beliefs are a mental illness. Also, I’m always a fan of new perspectives. Do you have any links to some of this objective research post peer review? Do you have any links that show a consensus in the field of mental health on this asserted truth? I’d genuinely love to be wrong.

      …nor do religious beliefs lead to such tragic outcomes in people who are not mentally ill

      Are parents who pray while their child dies of medically curable diseases mentally ill? There is no evidence outside of their faith to suggest they might be. Though this is just as tragic as the story of Michael Spurlock. This makes two strong cases in a relatively short time span that seem to directly discredit the hypothesis that irrational faith is somehow different from insanity.

      … this example fails as a rational argument against religious beliefs.

      If we gave you a gun, you could play judge, jury and executioner! You didn’t provide a shred of evidence for how this is not a religiously justified act on Daphne Spurlock’s part. All you did is claim she is mentally ill. We agree! Now take the next step and explain to us how her mental illness is not synonymous with her faith.

  • Richard

    I like how JT’s religious trolls are learning to keep their distance from these stories, they put religion in a position that is impossible to defend from. The standard lines have been torn down too many times and they’re learning to keep their shit to themselves.

    Changing the world one troll at a time JT, and keeping your promise on working on changing the world so religious people have to check their privileged bullshit at the door to have a rational conversation.

  • salo

    It’s not like this is the first faith-healing incident of this brutality (and let’s face it, this is a faith healing incident), but still, every time I read a story like this…well…fuck…it’s just heartbreaking…

    • Anat

      Exactly. This is faith healing. I suppose the hair-splitters can call this ‘active’ faith healing, as opposed to the ‘pray instead of going to the doctor’ kind which would be ‘passive’ faith healing.

  • Mike D

    I’m really glad this story got some traction here. This was a truly unfortunate tragedy.

    A follow up on the story and on Michael’s condition is available here. It’s looking like he’ll live, though quality of life has not been mentioned. He’s got an estimated 30-45 days of recovery to go in the ICU. He spent several days in a medically induced coma.

    It’s worth noting that the mother was a born again Christian, according to her facebook page. She had recently become very religious. I see this as one of the most dangerous aspects of religion and faith.

    Since faith(read: irrationality) is encouraged in the church, the more faithful (read: irrational) a person gets, the closer to god they are perceived as being. This is a completely backwards system that encourages and elevates to “role model status” those that are less and less in touch with reality.

    Commenter Beth, above, makes the case that the woman was clearly mentally ill. I agree. Clearly, this woman was batshit insane. But, at what point was she batshit insane? Was she batshit insane when she would go to church and scream “Praise Jesus!” and thank god for everything she has been afforded in her life? Was she batshit insane when she could feel Jesus all around her and she would talk to him? Was she batshit insane when she believed a man walked on water or that the earth was 6000 years old? Or was she only batshit insane when she thought demons were in her son and the only ways to get them out were to beat them out or slit his throat?

    This raises a further question. If we elect to say that she was mentally ill, does her congregation not bear some responsibility? This woman was very active in the church. How could they be ignorant of her deteriorating condition? They weren’t, in fact, they encouraged it. Instead, they should have been encouraging her to see a doctor.

    Fuck… this shit just makes me sick. Seeing the Beth’s of the world look at this incident and act like this irrationality is somehow different from their own should scare us all. I sincerely hope none of us are sitting on a plane with one of them that has been told by god that they need to hit a building to save someone from hell.

  •!/profile.php?id=100000846514764 Robert Madewell

    JT said, “Plenty of people who find those things as believable as headaches will say this woman must’ve been out of her mind for believing in demons.”

    I know people who believe in demons that’d say that this woman is bat-sh** crazy for believing in demons possessing a 5 year-old little boy. They’re just one degree away from each other.

  • WMDKitty


    I can’t even…

    “Sendin beemz” to the kid — I hope he comes out of this (relatively) okay.

  • Dirty Sanchez

    Atheists are culpable in the abortion of millions of healthy fetuses.

    Maybe some of them would have wanted a chance at life?

    But in hour arrogant certainty, you decided they were not quite human.

  • Clarissa

    Sanchez, you are a stupid Jew goatfucker.