Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Limits of Faith

People living closer to the action have probably already heard about this case, in which a Wisconsin family failed to get their daughter medical care--opting instead to pray--and watched her die of untreated diabetes. Let's let the family explain:

Leilani Neumann said during videotaped testimony that the family believes the Bible says healing comes from God and that she never expected her daughter to die. The Neumanns said the girl had not been to a doctor since she was 3.

A criminal complaint said Dale Neumann told police he believed God would heal his daughter right up until she stopped breathing. He also "professed to believe God was going to bring Madeline back to life."

This case is a good example of why Richard Dawkins and Cristopher Hitchens (and to a lesser extent Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett) write against religious faith in such polarizing terms. Dawkins even calls religious indoctrination child abuse in his book The God Delusion. I don't know about indoctrination, but this kind of nonsense certainly can't be explained away with vague pronouncements of freedom of religion.

To give some idea of how avoidable this death was, here's the testimony of medical experts:

Madeline's gradually declining health would have gotten acute three or four days before she died as her body began shutting down. But despite being unresponsive and in a coma, the girl could have been saved very late into the day of her death with the proper treatment.

Even people who don't wield the First Amendment in a case like this can have variations of this disorder. "It's what I believe," they say. "My belief's as valid as yours." I've even heard people talking about their own "subjective truth," as if that made any sense. But not all beliefs are valid, and there are times when the evidence has to overrule conviction. That's why actual thinkers get so frustrated with Holocaust deniers and Young Earth Creationists and people who believe God will cure diabetes or raise children from the dead because somebody wrote something 1900 years ago about a guy who lived forty years before that who is alleged to have done those things.


Carl said...


When I flip the switch the lights go on every time, and it's not because the fire gods keep being pleased with my invocation.

Jason said...

Exactly. And I'd be an idiot to walk into a dark room and pray for light rather than flip the switch, no matter how bored I thought those fire gods were.

Jim said...

Religion clouds the mind. Perfectly intelligent people who are capable of critical reasoning tend to, when faced with religion, take a step into lunacy when they repeat over and over that faith can explain the existence of God, even in the face of contradicting evidence.

Baritonality said...

While your points are valid, generally the people on the extreme of this (i.e. the family we are talking about) are not of the thinking variety. If they were, they would realize that the God to whom they pray has answered their prayers with a little thing I call insulin.
I do a lot of volunteering for the Am. Diabetes Assoc. and it sickens me to hear and read about idiots who won't, can't and don't realize that the lives of thousands who are insulin dependent are just as happy as someone with a "healthy" pancreas.

Jason said...

In most cases, the belief in supernatural entities is harmless, even if a general belief in the existence of Jahweh or Ganesha is no better founded than the one that God will cure diabetes through prayer. But the stakes are too high in a case like this, and if Dawkins and Hitchens are right, it's the more benign belief that allows space for and encourages the harmful one.

Jim said...

While my points are valid, I suspect you also missed it, Baritonality. In my convoluted way I was attempting to say that even the smartest people are susceptible to self delusion. Thus, it should be no surprise that the dimwitted, who do not know how or simply refuse to think are capable of such extreme devotion.

Jason, I disagree that belief in supernatural entities is mostly harmless in that it requires a constant application of delusion to hold with the belief of the existence of any thing supernatural.

Baritonality said...

Being what I consider a smart person with what has been called self-delusion, I didn't miss it, I just ignored it. It's not a point I thought appropriate for debate in this format.
I wholly agree that even if belief in a supernatural deity is normally harmless, those that push their belief to an extreme, in any direction, are to be feared. Religion, used to elevate oneself, is dangerous. Holding on to this so called delusion does not harm the believer, nor does it cause one to do harmful things. Those that claim evil actions in the name of some religion or another would still do the evil action, just under a different justification.