In defending their practice of withholding medical treatment and looking solely to spiritual means for the cure of children’s illnesses, faith healers disseminate extremely dangerous misinformation.
They usually start by invoking the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom. They say it gives them the right to use religion instead of medical science for cures. But the right of religious freedom is not absolute, and government may limit it when there is a compelling need to protect the public health, safety, or welfare.
Few interests are more compelling than protecting the health and lives of children. The U.S. Supreme Court has said, therefore, that the First Amendment does not give parents the right to use religion to endanger their children’s health. The court stated in the 1944 case of Prince v. Massachusetts: “The right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death.”
Supporters of faith healing also argue that its history contains numerous instances of seemingly miraculous cures occurring without medical intervention. But the same claim could be made about many religions, including religions of antiquity that are now universally considered false.
Science reveals that what the adherents of past and present religions thought were miraculous cures were, in all probability, nothing of the sort. Natural healing processes can be mistaken for miraculous cures in some circumstances.
For instance, science tells us a change in a person’s emotional state may sometimes alleviate certain physical illnesses. Because this effect can take place whether or not the emotional experience has anything to do with religion, the curative agent appears to be purely emotional and not spiritual.
Moreover, for some illnesses there is still a small but decreasing percentage of cures that science does not understand. These occurrences are called “spontaneous recoveries” in the medical field. Since the inexplicable cures happen to religionists and non-religionists alike, however, divine intervention is apparently not the explanation.
And some illnesses can go through cycles of increasing and decreasing symptoms. If faith healing is resorted to just before a period of retreating symptoms, there can be the illusion of a miraculous cure.
Additionally, as shown in James Randi’s book The Faith Healers, some who professed to have been miraculously cured were mistaken in believing they had the illness in the first place. Randi also mentions studies showing people claimed to have experienced supernatural healings even though they had received standard medical treatment.
Most importantly, Randi discusses the results of investigations into several alleged faith healers. These proved that what at first appeared to be miraculous cures were, in fact, outright frauds used to con religious people out of their money.
In proclaiming that miraculous cures took place when other explanations are far more plausible, faith healers cause some religionists to develop a very dangerous attitude. Because of their belief in faith healing, they conclude that resorting to medical science shows a lack of faith and can endanger their eternal salvation.
The resulting avoidance of medical care has produced immense suffering and countless preventable deaths throughout history. It continues to cause many tragedies, and often the victims are children.
Statistics on the problem are collected by the national group Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty (CHILD) (www.childrenshealthcare.org). This organization was formed to advocate the enactment of laws against using religion to withhold medical care from children.
For the years 1975-1995, CHILD documented 172 instances of children in the U.S. dying from treatable illnesses after their parents rejected standard medical care and relied solely on religion. CHILD’s president, Rita Swan, says the actual number is far higher.
Swan also states that numerous children have been disabled because of religiously based withholding of medical treatment. Some CHILD members trace their hearing loss to this neglect. One member became profoundly deaf at age seven after suffering a series of ear infections. Her Christian Science parents had refused medical treatment for her.
Additionally, Swan cites a 1972 outbreak of polio at a Christian Science boarding school in Connecticut. The disease caused 11 children to become paralyzed.
For children who are fortunate enough to avoid death and physical injury at the hands of faith healers, there is still a danger of emotional damage. This is particularly true for disabled children. After their disability is not cured by faith healing, they are not only severely disappointed but also may develop serious psychological problems. They often blame themselves and think God is punishing them for being too “sinful.”
When confronted with such evidence, faith healers respond that sometimes children who receive medical treatment die or are not cured. They accuse their opponents of unfairly making them guarantee that all children who receive faith healing will recover, while the same demand is not placed on medical science.
Contrary to their claims, no one is requiring parents or anyone else to guarantee that children will recover from all illnesses. What is being advocated is simply this: the best possible care for children.
And the fact is that overwhelming evidence proves that medical science is the most effective method of treating illnesses. Faith healing has no such evidence of effectiveness.
For example, during much of the Middle Ages in Europe, prayer and other religious rituals were often the exclusive means of attempting to prevent and cure diseases. In those deeply religious times, plagues kept reappearing and average life expectancy was 40 years or less.
Later, medical science arose and eliminated many of the same diseases that prayers had been ineffective against for centuries. Continued advancements in medical science have caused life expectancy to rise to more than 70 years in developed countries. These countries are much more secular and less religious than medieval Europe.
A similar phenomenon is revealed by international comparisons today. In scientifically advanced countries, life expectancy for theists and nontheists alike is longer by 30 years or more than in underdeveloped but more religious societies.
Andrew D. White’s classic book, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, discusses the historical record of medical science’s superiority over faith healing. He shows that the scientific methods of Hippocrates, the father of medical science, have been far more effective than religion in preventing and treating illnesses.
White summarizes the record: “Just in proportion as the world progressed from the sway of Hippocrates to that of the ages of faith, so it progressed in the frequency and severity of great pestilences; and . . . just in proportion as the world has receded from that period when theology was all-pervading and all-controlling, plague after plague has disappeared, and those remaining have become less and less frequent and virulent.”
Therefore, advocates of children’s rights maintain that sick or disabled children are entitled to the treatment having an empirically proven record of effectiveness. That is the treatment available from medical science. The American Academy of Pediatrics has data indicating that medical science could have saved 81% of the children who died after their religious parents refused medical care for them.
After reaching adulthood, people can decide for themselves whether to become religious martyrs by refusing medical care.
As the Supreme Court also stated in the Prince case: “Parents may be free to become martyrs themselves. But it does not follow that they are free, in identical circumstances, to make martyrs of their children before they have reached the age of full and legal discretion when they can make that choice for themselves.”