Faith and Healing

Science, technology, and life.
Jan. 21 2009 11:10 AM

Faith and Healing

Should parents go to jail for believing so devoutly in faith healing that they don't seek lifesaving medical treatment for their children?

Leilani and Dale Neumann of Wausau, Wis., will soon find out. Their 11-year-old daughter died of diabetic complications after they relied on prayer rather than doctors to heal her. Now they face trial for reckless endangerment and a potential prison sentence of 25 years. They're the third couple slapped with criminal charges in the last year for failing to seek treatment for a child. In today's New York Times , Dirk Johnson reports :

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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About 300 children have died in the United States in the last 25 years after medical care was withheld on religious grounds, said Rita Swan, executive director of Children's Health Care Is a Legal Duty ... Criminal codes in 30 states, including Wisconsin, provide some form of protection for practitioners of faith healing in cases of child neglect and other matters ...

Swan lost her own son after failing to seek prompt medical attention. She says she waited, catastrophically, because she thought "once we went to the doctor, we'd be cut off from God." The Neumanns seem to have been under the same impression. Johnson reports that they're "followers of an online faith outreach group" (on the Web here ) that includes, among other things, an essay preaching that "Jesus never sent anyone to a doctor or a hospital. Jesus offered healing by one means only! Healing was by faith."

I don't know how the case will turn out. But the more important thing to communicate to parents is that this is bad religion. Science is a way of grappling with what we can know empirically. Religion is a way of grappling with what we can't. Each of these disciplines must recognize its limits and defer, beyond that, to its counterpart. Properly understood, there's nothing unscientific about religion, and there's nothing irreligious about science.

I'm not saying the distinction is perfectly clean. It isn't. Sometimes religion and science have to work together. But it's crucial to ask which kind of question you're facing. Healing is a physical phenomenon. Can faith influence it? Yes. Look at the latest study on acupuncture : It sometimes works, apparently because patients believe in it . But what happens when people pray for your recovery without you knowing about it? Answer: Nothing . Belief, not God, is the medically salient factor.

That's how science, at its best, works with religion. It doesn't claim to disprove God's existence. It can't. It addresses only empirically testable ideas, including faith healing. And it reports whatever its methods find. Instead of laughing at acupuncture, it looks at the evidence, admits that acupuncture sometimes works, and tries to figure out why.

Religion, at its best, needs the same humility. God isn't stupid. He doesn't give you a hammer and insist that you bang nails with your head. If this is his world, then so are the tools he has given you: doctors, medicine, and your brain. In the time of Jesus , most people died in childhood . Do you want to go back to that? Do you think that those deaths were God's will—but that today's long lives, made possible by modern medicine, aren't?

As medicine advances, difficult moral questions will arise. If failure to seek available treatment is reckless endangerment, what happens when the available treatment comes, for example, from destroying embryos to get stem cells? Can you be jailed for refusing to give your daughter treatment that's based on what you regard as killing? Or take embryo screening: Already, it has advanced to the point where parents who make babies the old-fashioned way, with all its risks, are seen as " inflicting " genetic maladies on their kids.

But taking your gravely ill child to the doctor isn't one of those tough calls. God doesn't hate doctors. He made them. Want to show your faith? Use what he gave you.

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