Religion will always be a controversial subject, but its impact on health is one area that lends itself to objective investigation. Do religious people live longer? Are they healthier? Prayer, laying on of hands, pilgrimages to Lourdes, faith healing, and exorcism rituals might have a role in providing subjective comfort to some people; but do they have any objective, measurable influence on illness outcomes? Those are questions that science can ask and answer.
According to a 1999 study in the Lancet,1 79 percent of adults believe that spiritual faith can help people recover from disease and 25 percent use prayer as medical therapy. A poll of doctors attending a 1996 American Academy of Family Physicians meeting showed that 99 percent believed religious beliefs can heal and 75 percent believed the prayers of others can promote a patient’s recovery.2 There has even been talk of tearing down the wall of separation between medicine and religion. But the data don’t support those beliefs.
Some studies do appear to show reductions in morbidity and mortality associated with religious devotion. Dr. Oz has argued for the health benefits of religion, claiming that attending religious services can protect against age-related memory loss and thinking problems, can cut the risk of high blood pressure by 40 percent, and can reduce the risk of depression. Other sources have reported that people of faith were less likely to commit suicide. On the other hand, religious patients who believe their illness means punishment or abandonment by God have a 19 to 28 percent greater mortality.
But the studies that appear to support those claims are flawed and unconvincing. They find apparent associations, but association doesn’t necessarily mean causation. That’s the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy: the idea that if the sun comes up when the rooster crows, that must mean the rooster causes the sun to come up.
One of the problems with this kind of research is the inconsistency in definition of religiosity. Is it defined by church affiliation, by church attendance, by self-report of religious beliefs? What do those actually measure?
Another problem is that most studies have failed to adequately control for other factors that might have been responsible for the results. Church attendance is associated with better health (but only in women—why would this be?). People with poor health and decreased functional capacity are less likely to leave the house, so maybe health determines church attendance rather than the other way around. Some studies show decreased mortality with church attendance; others don’t. In studies of prayer, how is prayer defined and how could you control for other people’s prayers outside the study protocol?
One study found that Seventh-Day Adventists (SDAs) had lower total cholesterol levels than age-matched healthy controls,3 but SDAs are vegetarians who avoid alcohol and tobacco. So we might be seeing the effects of lifestyle rather than of religion.
A recent study at Harvard looked at response to treatment for depression and found that belief in God was associated with greater improvement, but those who believed in God also believed in doctors (that is, believed that treatment would be effective).4 In other words, it appears that some people are simply “faithful.” They have a tendency to believe in both doctors and preachers, and their faith is linked to optimism. It appears to be the personality trait of optimism that improves their mental health rather than a belief in God per se.
Most studies have failed to adequately control for confounders, covariates, and multiple endpoints. In a trial of intercessory prayer for patients in a coronary care unit (CCU)5 Byrd looked at twenty-nine endpoints. Patients who were prayed for did better on six measures, but those six were not independent of each other (for instance, pneumonia is linked to antibiotics and heart failure is linked to newly prescribed diuretics). There was no difference in the other twenty-three variables such as days in the CCU, length of stay in hospital, and number of discharge medications. When a study has that many endpoints, one can expect to find a few positive correlations just by chance. That study has never been replicated.
Sometimes researchers have even resorted to outright deception and fraud. In 2001, a randomized double-blind study published in the Journal of Reproductive Medicine reported that intercessory prayer doubled the pregnancy rate in women undergoing in vitro fertilization for infertility.6 The study’s design was bewilderingly complicated; it was unethical, with no informed consent and no review by an institutional review board (required to ensure protection of human subjects); and there were other suspicious discrepancies. One of the three listed authors, Rogerio Lobo, didn’t even know about the study until six to twelve months after it was completed, when he was asked to provide editorial assistance in writing the report. Another, Kwang Cha, initially failed to respond to inquiries, and later unsuccessfully sued a critic of the study for defamation. The third author, Daniel Wirth, was a parapsychologist with no medical training; he was a con man with a twenty-year history of criminal activities who had been investigated by the FBI and ended up in prison after he pled guilty to fraud. The study data can’t be trusted, the findings have never been replicated elsewhere, and even the authors claimed to have been surprised by the unlikely results. It was never retracted by the journal, and it’s still widely cited in the medical literature as “proof” of the efficacy of prayer. It isn’t proof of anything except the fact that faulty studies sometimes get published.7
And then there was Leonard Leibovici’s retroactive prayer study in 2001.8 He identified patients previously treated for blood infections at the Rabin Medical Center, randomized them into two groups, and then had people pray for patients in one of the groups—four to ten years after they had been discharged from the hospital! Then he reviewed their hospital records and found that length of hospitalization and duration of fever were significantly lower in the group that was prayed for. He later explained that his experiment was “intended lightheartedly to illustrate the importance of asking research questions that fit with scientific models.”9
The Catholic Church has long accepted medically unexplained healings as miracles on evidence that is far from compelling to the scientific mind. It has validated sixty-seven miracles at Lourdes. But two hundred million pilgrims have visited Lourdes since its establishment in 1860, so sixty-seven amounts to a success rate of only .0000335 percent or one in three million. Joe Nickell has pointed out that these “medically inexplicable” cases were actually explicable: they were virtually all conditions susceptible to psychosomatic influences or known to show spontaneous remissions. When Anatole France visited Lourdes and saw all the discarded crutches, he said, “What, what, no wooden legs?” No, there are no reports of amputated legs being inexplicably restored. Now that would be a miracle.10
After Mother Teresa died, the Catholic Church began the beatification process, a preliminary step to sainthood that requires a documented miracle attributable to the saint’s intercession. An Indian woman, Monica Besra, testified that a cancerous tumor in her abdomen had been cured by the application of a locket with Mother Teresa’s picture. She reportedly saw a beam of light emanating from the locket. The church believed it had verified her case as a miracle, and it approved Mother Teresa’s beatification. The patient’s own husband denied it: he said the doctors cured her! One doctor who was involved in her treatment told reporters that she never had cancer, only a cyst and tuberculosis that gradually resolved with anti-tuberculosis drugs over the course of a year. Some Catholic writers rationalized the criticism of her miracle as a “sign of contradiction”—a sign that indicates the presence of the divine when a holy person is subject to extreme opposition.11
Dr. Richard Sloan remains unconvinced. As he wrote in the Lancet,12 “Even in the best studies, the evidence of an association between religion, spirituality, and health is weak and inconsistent.” He wrote a book, Blind Faith: The Unholy Alliance of Religion and Medicine,13 examining all the published evidence and exposing the questionable research practices of scientists who manipulate scientific data and research results to support their unfounded belief that mystical interventions can heal.
There is no credible evidence from scientific studies that religion improves health, but there is clear evidence that it can harm. In his book In the Name of God: The True Story of the Fight to Save Children from Faith-Healing Homicide,14 Cameron Stauth reports:
Year after year, hundreds of people—possibly even thousands—were killed, maimed, disabled, and disfigured. Most of the victims were among America’s most vulnerable: children, women in childbirth, and the elderly. But it was extremely well hidden.
Christian Scientists believe “there is no life, truth, intelligence, or substance in matter. . . . Therefore, man is not material. He is spiritual.”15 They think illness is an illusion created by incorrect thoughts, so therefore it can be banished by correct thoughts. They not only deny the reality of illness, they deny the reality of the material world. Today they condone medical care in certain circumstances; but originally they didn’t accept any form of medical treatment, but only prayer by practitioners, usually in the patient’s home. The practitioners charge for their services. There are Christian Science nursing homes staffed with “nurses” who are trained in metaphysics, not in medicine. They provide only comfort care and are not even allowed to use a thermometer. The fees of Christian Science practitioners and nurses are covered by Medicare, Tricare, and many other government programs and private insurance companies. The IRS does not tax the income of practitioners, and their services are deductible as medical expenses. Essentially, nonbelievers are being compelled to subsidize religious beliefs.
Besides Christian Science, there are many other religious groups that prefer prayer and faith healing to medical care, and some that strictly prohibit any form of medical care. Jehovah’s Witnesses prohibit blood transfusions. Faith healing is practiced by Pentecostalists, the Church of the First Born, the Followers of Christ, and numerous smaller sects. It typically involves prayer, laying on of hands, anointing with oil, and sometimes exorcisms.
In his book In the Name of God Stauth tells horror stories about children dying in agony after prolonged suffering from conditions that could have been easily cured or controlled with proper medical care, such as appendicitis, hernias, infections, tumors, premature birth, and diabetes. He tells of children killed by suffocation or trauma during exorcisms or religion-motivated punishments. He tells about parents who starved a sixteen-month-old to death for refusing to say “Amen” and then carried his body around in a suitcase awaiting his resurrection.
Even those who might consider getting medical care in an emergency let their children die because they are too medically ignorant to recognize an emergency. When an infant went into convulsions, they interpreted it as an improvement because he was “more active.” A girl had been in a diabetic coma and was breathing noisily; eventually her body systems started to shut down and her breathing quieted. They thought she was improving because she was breathing more easily, but she died shortly afterward. When a child died of a fever and the authorities arrived to investigate, the corpse still had a temperature of 104 degrees hours after the time of death; one can only imagine how high it must have gone.
Adults are not just influenced but are often coerced by their coreligionists. In most faith-healing sects, wives have no role in medical decisions; they must defer to their husbands’ wishes in everything. And men coerce each other, too. In one case an older man with congestive heart failure was forcibly restrained by his two adult sons to keep him from going to the hospital. Semmelweis discovered how to prevent puerperal fever (childbed fever) in 1847, and today it is almost unheard of in the developed world. But a father who believed in faith healing intervened in a home delivery and cut his wife’s episiotomy with dirty scissors. She developed a uterine infection and died (and so did the baby).
Baby Justin Barnhart’s parents belonged to Faith Tabernacle. They prayed over his abdominal tumor as it gradually grew to the size of a volleyball and killed him at the age of two. It was a type of tumor that was curable with medical treatment in 90 percent of cases. Think of the size of a two-year-old and the size of a volleyball: it’s hard to understand how any parent could sit by and watch that happen without doing anything but praying.
Teenagers who refuse medical care are trying to please their parents and may not be competent to make their own decisions. A teen with severe asthma was forced by DHS (Department of Human Services) workers to get treatment against her parents’ wishes; she stopped treatment as soon as she turned eighteen, telling her doctor “I’m free now. I don’t have to see you anymore. God wants me to suffer.” How sad that she accepted suffering that could have so easily been prevented! How pathetic that she believed a “loving” God wanted her to suffer!
Rita Swan, a former Christian Scientist whose infant son died of untreated meningitis in 1977, has dedicated her life to preventing the deaths of other children. She founded the organization Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty (CHILD) and has campaigned across the country to abolish laws that exempt people with religious beliefs from prosecution for child abuse, neglect, and murder.
In 1998, she and pediatrician Seth Asser published a study titled “Child Fatalities from Religion-Motivated Medical Neglect” in the journal Pediatrics.16 They identified 172 well-documented cases of children who died between 1975 and 1995 from treatable illnesses with a good prognosis because parents withheld medical care for religious reasons. The cases spanned twenty-three sects in thirty-four states. There were many more cases with incomplete information or that were never reported. At the time, all but five states had religious shield laws to prevent prosecution of parents.
In most states, it is essentially legal to torture and murder a child as long as you believe you are following the precepts of your religion. For years, district attorneys refused to prosecute these cases; and when they did, juries were sympathetic to parents who obviously loved their children and thought they were doing what was best for them. Recently we have started to see convictions and changes in the laws.
Neal Beagley, whose parents were Followers of Christ in Oregon, was born with a congenital defect that caused repeated urinary tract infections. It could very easily have been repaired with surgery, but he was never treated and he suffered from ill health all his life until he died of kidney failure at age sixteen. Before his death, he became too weak to walk to the bathroom; but his father made a joke of it and carried him, refusing to see how sick he was. Neil’s parents were convicted of criminally negligent homicide and each served sixteen months, one after the other so their other children would always have a parent at home.17
Another Followers of Christ baby, Alayna Wyland, had a hemangioma above her eye that kept enlarging until it was a horrific baseball-sized purple mass that entirely covered her eye and obstructed her vision. Her parents prayed and anointed her with oils, confident that she would be healed. When she was nine months old, the courts removed her from her home, put her in foster care, and ordered medical treatment. Under the care of specialists, the mass largely disappeared and her previously hidden eye became visible again. Her vision in that eye was only 20/1000. They got to her in the nick of time to prevent permanent blindness, but she may still require years of treatment and they are not sure how much her vision will improve. Alayna’s parents were sentenced to ninety days in jail and three years of probation.18
In Pennsylvania, Herbert and Catherine Schaible, members of the fundamentalist First Century Gospel Church, let their two-year-old son die from untreated bacterial pneumonia. They were convicted of involuntary manslaughter and put on probation for ten years. The court ordered them to get medical insurance and to have a pediatrician care for their other children, but they ignored the terms of their probation and four years later they allowed a second child, their seven-month-old son, to die of exactly the same illness. They reasoned that it was more important to obey the laws of God than the laws of man. Their pastor said the parents lost their sons because of a “spiritual lack” in their lives. They were charged with murder and pleaded “no contest.” Their seven other children were put in foster care.19
In Oregon, Daryl and Shannon Hickman’s baby was delivered at home by an unqualified midwife. He was so premature that his lungs had not finished developing. His breathing seemed all right at first, then it deteriorated rapidly—a sequence that is typical for such a premature baby and would have been predicted and treated if the baby had been under competent medical care. They ignored his labored breathing until he died. They were convicted of second-degree manslaughter.20
It’s tragic when well-meaning parents go to prison and when the authorities have to take children away from parents who love them. No one wins. The parents are victims, too.
Can you imagine being a parent and watching your child suffer with illnesses like those? What’s it like to be immersed in that culture? Here’s an enlightening personal account from a woman who prefers to remain anonymous:
I am a former member of the Followers of Christ. I can only describe the deaths of their children as ritualistic torture. For anyone who is against changing laws to protect children, I ask you to read the coroner’s reports of the children who have died. Then think how you would feel if you were restrained for days while you screamed in pain until you were too weak to fight the disease any longer. It is not only the children who are suffering from this abuse. Many adults have begged to be taken to a doctor only to be told no and restrained.
I suffered for years from ear infections that progressed to the point of bleeding eardrums. I went to school with whooping cough. I often wonder how many kids I infected with contagious illnesses that could have been prevented.
I cannot begin to make people understand how horrific a life like this is. . . . My brother opted for no medical care because he didn’t believe in medicine. When his illness caused pain that was intolerable he went to the emergency room. The taxpayers in Idaho are now paying for hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills just so his life could be spared for another three years. He passed away earlier this year. Just think of the economical impact this could have on the U.S. . . .
I never wanted to be part of the church even as a child. I have always wondered why we never went to the dentist and eye doctor. Our animals always had vaccines and vet care. When I asked why . . . no one in the church ever gave me an answer. Children were to be seen and not heard. To completely understand where I am coming from you would have to know my whole story. I left the church and my family when I was 16. I chose to get married to escape the abuse at home.
The church members believe that medicine is a temptation from Satan and to go to a doctor is to give into that temptation. To them it shows a weakness in faith.21
Christian Science, faith healing sects, and many other religious groups reject vaccination. Most states allow religious exemptions for vaccines. This has reduced the herd immunity of the population and has contributed to numerous outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles, pertussis (whooping cough), and Hemophilus influenza B infections.
At a Christian Science school (Principia College in Missouri), there was an outbreak of measles in 1985 that affected 15 percent of the student body. It eventually caused 125 confirmed cases and 3 deaths. Public health investigators were thwarted at every turn. Quarantines were not enforced. For three weeks they were unable to get a blood sample to confirm a diagnosis: every time they would talk a child into it, school officials would persuade the child to refuse. They were not even allowed to take a throat swab for viral identification. Finally they succeeded in getting a blood sample from a victim who had caught the disease from her Christian Scientist brother but was not a Christian Scientist herself. When they interviewed students and asked how long they’d had the rash, they would respond, “What rash?” They even covered up mirrors so they wouldn’t accidentally see the rash. They refused to acknowledge it because they believed it was their own fault: any sign of illness meant their mind was not right with God.22
Incredibly, measles broke out again in the same school nine years later. There were 247 cases in that one school compared to 934 for the entire country that year.23
Smallpox was completely eradicated from the world by means of an aggressive vaccination campaign; the last case occurred in 1977. Like smallpox, measles is a human disease with no animal reservoir; vaccines had completely eliminated it in the United States by 2000. Cases since have occurred only when someone brings the virus in from another country, often unknowingly, since patients are contagious for up to four days before the rash appears. The vaccine is highly effective. 99.7 percent of children are protected after two doses, but that means three in one thousand do not develop immunity. That shouldn’t be a problem, because the disease can’t spread if there are enough immune people in the community to prevent it from propagating (that’s called herd immunity). But the recent increase in vaccine refusals (for religious reasons and from fears created by misinformation) has decreased the herd immunity in many communities to where the disease can spread. In Ashland, Oregon, there is 25 percent noncompliance citywide, and in individual schools the statistics are much worse. In one Waldorf School in California, a whopping 84 percent of kindergarteners were noncompliant. This is an epidemic waiting to happen. All it will take is one child returning by plane from a trip to a country where measles is still occurring.24 In its 2008 newsletter,25 CHILD reported for that year:
- A Washington measles outbreak with nineteen cases, sixteen in children who were unvaccinated because of their parents’ religious beliefs.
- In Illinois, there were fifty cases of pertussis compared to one in 2007. The index case had a religious exemption.
- One hundred forty cases of measles in the United States, where it had once been eradicated.
- Pennsylvania had seven cases of Hemophilus influenza and three deaths in an eight-month period, two in denominations strongly opposed to medical treatment. The Hib vaccine, introduced in 1985, had reduced the incidence of this disease by 99 percent and had reduced the deaths to ten a year for the entire country.
- Mississippi, one of only two states that don’t allow religious exemptions (the other is West Virginia), was the state with the lowest incidence of pertussis.
The majority of recent outbreaks have been in religious communities. In 2013, a member of a megachurch, Eagle Mountain Church in Newark, Texas, returned from a trip to Indonesia with measles and transmitted it to twenty-one people. Almost all the victims had refused vaccination because the church’s founder had spoken out against vaccines and encouraged faith over medicine. The church quickly organized vaccination clinics, but the pastor gave a decidedly unscientific mixed message: “So I’m going to tell you what the facts are, and the facts are the facts, but then we know the truth. That always overcomes facts.”26
Other Religious Exemptions
The revised 2011 law in Oregon eliminated religious beliefs as a legal defense for crimes against children, but it didn’t eliminate religious shields for caregivers of dependent adults. And it didn’t eliminate religious exemptions for immunizations, metabolic screening of newborns (for inherited diseases like phenylketonuria or PKU), newborn screening for hearing problems, vitamin K and prophylactic eye drops at birth, and bicycle helmets. Bicycle helmets? When I heard that, I wondered where in the Bible it says “Thou shalt not wear bicycle helmets.” I have read the entire Bible and don’t remember anything in it that suggests it is sinful to take reasonable precautions to prevent injury. I was relieved to learn that the exemption is probably intended for the benefit of Sikhs, whose religion requires them to wear turbans, and possibly for certain Orthodox Jews who are required to wear special headgear. Apparently wearing symbols of their religion is more important to them than the fact that serious head injury is five times more likely for those wearing a turban than a helmet.
A major public health effort is focused on screening newborns for conditions that may not be otherwise detected until irreversible damage has been done. The number and type of tests depends on the jurisdiction. The first test to be mandated was a blood test for phenylketonuria (PKU), a hereditary metabolic disorder where the inability to process the amino acid phenylalanine causes mental retardation unless the child is put on a phenylalanine-restricted diet early in life. The test is done by putting a drop of blood from a simple heel stick on filter paper. After it dries it can be easily mailed to a lab for analysis.
With time, other blood tests were added for fatty-acid-oxidation disorders, thyroid and adrenal disease, sickle-cell disease, organic acidemias, cystic fibrosis, urea-cycle disorders, and lysosomal-storage disorders. Newborns can also be screened for hearing loss with a bedside test, and for congenital heart defects with pulse oximetry (that’s like the little clip they put on your finger in the ER to monitor your blood oxygen level). Other conditions that are also screened for in some locales include severe combined immunodeficiency and Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy. And other tests are being considered for future additions to the list.
Four states prohibit parents from opting out of the testing: Nebraska, South Dakota, Michigan, and Montana. That has led to lawsuits arguing that religious exemptions should be allowed. Why would anyone object to screening an infant for these devastating but treatable diseases? Scientologists advocate silent birth (also called quiet birth). No one should speak during the birth process, no one should talk to the baby for the first week of life, and nothing should be done to cause the baby any discomfort (like drawing blood). They believe that words heard during that time or stressful conditions can create “engrams,” detailed recordings in the memory that create life problems and psychosomatic illnesses later in life and must be erased by expensive Scientology “auditings” with an E-meter.
Some religions believe that the Bible prohibits any drawing of blood. Sometimes they rely on Bible verses like “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man” (Genesis 9:6). And some go by the statement in Leviticus that “the life of the flesh is in the blood,” interpreting it to mean that removing blood will shorten life.
Criminal defendant Gregory Michael Zimmerman cited these verses when he refused to give a blood sample to law enforcement for DNA analysis. The United States Court of Appeals confirmed his right to refuse on religious grounds. Authorities managed to get his DNA anyway: they collected a sample by a cheek swab.
Other Medical Harms from Religion
For a long time, the pain of childbirth was seen as women’s punishment for Eve’s disobedience; and it was considered immoral to do anything to relieve the pain of divine punishment. Queen Victoria set an example by having Dr. John Snow administer chloroform for the delivery of her eighth and ninth babies. The social elite in London soon followed suit, and pain relief for childbirth was gradually accepted as the norm
A substantial number of Jehovah’s Witnesses have died because they refused lifesaving transfusions. One teenage Jehovah’s Witness in Portugal refused surgery for a tumor on his lip because he feared it would necessitate transfusions; for thirty-seven years the tumor grew and grew until it was fifteen inches long, weighed twelve pounds, and obscured his face.27 Often when the courts order transfusions the Jehovah’s Witnesses are relieved because they won’t have to take responsibility for letting their child die, an outcome that they do not want.
Scientology has been responsible for a number of deaths, especially in its Narconon programs for addicts. Patients have been taken off needed medication and have died when they were denied medical care for illnesses like cancer, a burst appendix, and epilepsy. Lisa McPherson died severely dehydrated, bruised, and underweight from Scientology attempts to treat her psychosis with an abusive “purification rundown.” Several other Scientologists with psychiatric illnesses are known to have committed suicide or murder.28
The sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests has been prominent in the news, and the church hierarchy has been implicated in covering it up. There is an online database of publicly accused (not necessarily sued or convicted) priests by diocese in the United States.29 Ninety-one are listed for Portland, Oregon, thirty-four for Seattle, sixty-five for New York City, two hundred forty five for Boston, two hundred sixty-five for Los Angeles, forty for Miami, and so on. An Oklahoma pastor called for a similar database for the Southern Baptist Convention, but it was rejected as “unfeasible.” Clerics of almost every religion have been accused of sexual abuse, including Mormons and Hasidic Jews. An imam in an Iowa mosque was charged with sexual abuse and argued that the charges “violated his religious freedom.” Rapists are more religious than average; religious patriarchal attitudes and the sexual repression due to a religious view of sex as sinful have been cited as possible contributing factors to sex crimes.
Homosexuality is considered a sin by many religions. Conversion therapy attempts to change homosexuals into heterosexuals. They try to “pray the gay away.” They also use aversive behavioral modification with nausea-inducing drugs and electrical shocks to the genitals. Gays are tortured for a natural trait that they were born with and can’t control, and the treatment doesn’t work. I read one account of a young man whose abusive parents had brainwashed him into believing that he was the only homosexual in America, and he was amazed when he met another one in college. California and New Jersey recently passed laws prohibiting therapy aimed at changing the sexual orientation of minors. The California law has been legally challenged and was upheld by a federal appeals court.
Religion has a bad attitude about sex in general. Religious parents continue to reject the HPV vaccine for their daughters on the grounds that it will encourage premarital sex, even though we now have evidence that vaccine recipients are not more sexually active. Religious parents have fought sex education in the schools, arguing that it will encourage premarital sex and promiscuity. They have pushed for “abstinence only” education even after it has been proven not to work.
Abortion is considered a sin, the murder of a fetus that has full rights of personhood because God breathes a soul into the embryo at the moment of conception. Monty Python famously lampooned this reasoning by taking it one step further back, with the song “Every Sperm Is Sacred.” Religious lobbyists have been responsible for the passage of antiabortion laws. Those laws no more eliminate abortions than Prohibition eliminated alcohol. They only make women resort to illegal back-alley abortions that are often botched and that kill women. The Catholic Church not only prohibits abortion, it prohibits the use of condoms, birth-control pills, or any form of birth control except the rhythm method. There’s a name for people who use the rhythm method: parents. It’s ironic that 82 percent of American Catholics think birth control is okay and have decided not to follow the dictates of their church. And it’s ironic that Christians have disregarded the Golden Rule and the Ten Commandments to the extent of bombing abortion clinics and killing abortion doctors in the name of their religion. What ever happened to “turning the other cheek”?
Catholics prohibit abortions for any reason, including rape and threat to the mother’s life. The Catholic policy was the law in Ireland until 2013, when Ireland finally passed a Protection of Life during Pregnancy Law that legalized termination of pregnancy when it threatens the life of the mother. The new law was a response to the 2012 death of Savita Halappanavar, an Indian woman whose death in a Galway hospital was widely publicized. There was an international public outcry, complete with rallies and protests; the United Nations even got involved. Savita was a thirty-one-year-old dentist who was admitted to the hospital because she was miscarrying in the seventeenth week of pregnancy. She requested an abortion. She developed septicemia (blood poisoning); but doctors were required by law to put the temporary welfare of the fetus first, even though they knew its imminent death was inevitable. They were legally required to refuse an abortion. She died in the hospital after a week of suffering. At least something good came out of her tragedy: the new law will prevent others from dying like she did.30
In the United States, hospitals that have merged with Catholic hospitals are required to follow Catholic policies. Patients may not be aware of this, and they may not have a choice of hospitals. The ACLU is suing the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on behalf of Tamesha Means. In 2010, when her waters broke after eighteen weeks of pregnancy, she went to the only hospital in her county, a Catholic hospital. She was told by the hospital staff that there was nothing they could do, and twice they sent her home in severe pain. By her third visit she had developed an infection, yet they tried to send her home again. While discharge paperwork was being filled out, she began to deliver; and then she finally got proper care. The standard of care in a non-Catholic hospital would have required providers to tell her there was virtually no chance the fetus could survive, and that a therapeutic abortion would relieve her pain and protect her health. Catholic hospitals are required to adhere to directives that prohibit termination of pregnancy even when there is no chance the fetus will survive and when the mother’s life or health are at risk; in fact, health providers are explicitly prohibited from informing patients about alternative options.31
Many Christians consider masturbation a “grave moral disorder.” Those who succumb to the temptation are made to feel guilty and fear punishment by God—for indulging in a behavior that is merely a harmless way of relieving sexual tension. Masturbation is not only harmless but is perfectly natural: a large range of animal species have been observed to masturbate and even to use objects as tools to help them do so. Some base their objections on the Bible verse about Onan spilling his seed on the ground. Others object because they believe any kind of sexual activity other than conventional missionary-position intercourse between a man and a woman who are married to each other is wrong. Some even hold that any kind of sexual activity in married couples that is not intended for procreation is wrong.
Mother Teresa opened 517 missions for the poor and sick in more than a hundred countries. Her selfless devotion to the poor was applauded as a model of Christian charity and she is a candidate for sainthood, but recently her accomplishments and motives have come into question. Doctors who visited her missions in Calcutta found that two-thirds of the patients had come hoping to find a doctor to treat them, and patients were dying with only custodial care. There was a lack of hygiene, inadequate food, no medical care, and no painkillers. Mother Teresa was more interested in saving souls by converting patients to Catholicism than in relieving suffering. She saw beauty in resignation and suffering, and she imposed her views on the dying poor. But when she herself required palliative care, she got it in a modern American hospital. She could have done far more for the poor of overpopulated India if she had provided birth control instead of warehouses for the dying.
The Pope has slightly softened his stance on condoms (now he says they are acceptable, but for male prostitutes only, as a first step to becoming more morally responsible). But it’s too little, too late: the Catholic Church’s anticondom policy has clearly contributed to the spread of AIDS in Africa and elsewhere. It has also contributed to overpopulation, with all the ills that brings.
Christian activists have interfered with human embryonic stem cell research on the grounds that it destroys a human embryo, made in the image of God and endowed with a soul, and that it encourages abortions. The Jewish approach is less restrictive. Rabbi Levi Yitschak Halperin explained, “As long as it has not been implanted in the womb . . . it does not have the status of an embryo at all and there is no prohibition to destroy it.”32 <Please provide a citation for this quotation.> Anyway, embryonic stem cell research only uses extra embryos that are leftover from the in vitro fertilization (IVF) process and were eventually going to be discarded. Wouldn’t it be better to use them for research than to throw them in the trash?
Stem cell research has the potential to revolutionize the treatment of disease. Treatments based on stem cells are already prolonging lives and curing some diseases. Bone marrow transplants are curing leukemia, severe aplastic anemia, lymphomas, multiple myeloma, immune deficiency disorders, and some solid-tumor cancers. We may eventually be able to use stem cells to create made-to-order replacements for damaged organs and to test new drugs. Belief-based arguments pale beside the untold good that might come from stem cell research.
Christian Con Artists
Con men have bilked people of millions in the name of religious healing. There is a long tradition of public faith healings in America, depicted in the novel Elmer Gantry and epitomized by the modern examples of Peter Popoff, Benny Hinn, and others. These “healers” don’t go into hospitals where the sick are found; they typically perform before large paying audiences. They call audience members to the stage, touch them, and claim to heal them by their special ability to invoke the healing power of God. They claim healing miracles and can produce any number of testimonials from grateful patients, and Benny Hinn even claims to have raised a man from the dead during one of his services. But it’s more likely that these “faith healers” have never actually healed so much as a scratch.
In the 1970s, Dr. William Nolen searched the world for faith-healing miracles and couldn’t find a single one. He discovered that faith healers could harm instead of heal. He attended a service conducted by Kathryn Kuhlman where he saw a woman with cancer of the spine discard her brace and follow Kuhlman’s enthusiastic command to run across the stage; the woman’s backbone collapsed the following day, and she died after four months of unnecessary pain and disability. Nolen described his fruitless search in the book Healing: A Doctor in Search of a Miracle.33 A more recent comprehensive book on the subject is James Randi’s The Faith Healers,34 in which he reveals the use of deception and fraud by evangelical healers.
Benny Hinn is a prototypical faith healer. The workings of his deception have been revealed in detail,35 shedding light on how faith-healing con artists fool their audiences. Hinn carries out faith-healing crusades mainly to obtain new names for a mailing list; most of his income is from mail-order business in books, tapes, and so on. He solicits monthly donations, bequests, and other contributions. He pretends to have a direct line to God, saying “God told me” and pausing as if to listen to a divine voice and then saying “Yes, okay, thank you, Sir.” He speaks in tongues, but it’s just an act: the gibberish is unrelated to any known language and linguistic analysis shows that speaking in tongues doesn’t have the characteristics expected of an unknown language either.36
Faith healers pretend to make people fall down by touching or blowing on them. It is actually a trained response in people who know what is “supposed” to happen; and if they don’t cooperate and fall, assistants give them a little push behind the knees or pull them backward to help them fall. They offer celebrity testimonials: Benny Hinn claims to have healed heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield’s heart problems, but Holyfield didn’t have a heart problem. They hire enablers, actors trained to present themselves as someone who was cured. They provide wheelchairs and invite people to sit in them; and when those people get up out of the wheelchairs and walk, the audience is fooled into assuming they couldn’t walk before.
They gather information on audience members in various ways and pretend to have obtained the information from God (W. V. Grant was exposed when his crib sheets were found in the trash). They signal assistants with a code word when a new “revelation” is required. Peter Popoff’s wife, backstage, sent him information via a miniature receiver in his ear; the trick was exposed on national television by James Randi, who revealed the scam on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,37 playing recordings of her transmissions over a video of Popoff’s performance. Popoff confessed to trickery and declared bankruptcy in 1987 but quickly was back in business, raking in $23 million dollars a year by 2005.
They can always fall back on cold-reading techniques. Using the “shotgun” technique, they may simply announce that people in the audience are being healed from a certain disease without specifying who. They use carnival tricks like pretending to have made a leg longer through a positioning illusion. They pretend to heal the “blind” in people who actually have limited sight. And when all else fails, they put the blame on the victim, saying he or she didn’t have enough faith.
The harm that these criminals do is immeasurable. They interfere with proper treatment, even encouraging people to discard essential medicines by throwing them onto the stage. They deprive poor people of money they need for other things. They offer false hope to the sick and devastating disappointment and guilt for “not being worthy” and “not believing enough” when victims realize they have not really been cured.
A healer in Brazil, John of God, combines Christianity with psychic surgery. He inserts forceps deeply into a patient’s nose, amazing the ignorant but reminding those in the know of the “human blockhead” side-show demonstration. It’s not even a trick: there is a normal passage straight back through the nose to the nasopharynx. He offers a choice of “visible” or “invisible” surgery, says he is merely an instrument in God’s hands, and claims to have absolutely no recollection of anything during the procedures. One unfortunate woman interviewed on a TV documentary had a growing, untreated breast tumor that she knew was killing her, but she said John of God’s treatment had “healed” her in the sense that it had helped her come to terms with her fate. That perverts the medical meaning of healing. Had she not travelled to Brazil and had faith in John of God, surgery could have really healed her and kept her alive.
Religious Child Training
Corporal punishment of children is rapidly losing acceptance in modern society. It is illegal in Delaware and in thirty-four foreign countries. Not only is it cruel, but scientific studies have shown that it is ineffective. It results in increased child aggression and antisocial behavior, and the only thing it accomplishes is to force immediate compliance. The issue got public attention recently when a seven-minute video of a Texas judge giving his sixteen-year-old daughter a prolonged beating went viral on the Internet.38 When interviewed, the judge responded that he had done nothing wrong, and that he had apologized for losing his temper. That incident was not motivated by religion, but it sparked national outrage and prompted a reconsideration of corporal punishment.
Conservative Christians say corporal punishment is called for in the Bible: God wants us to beat our children. A 1994 book, To Train Up a Child by Michael and Debi Pearl, has sold over 670,000 copies and is popular among Christian home schoolers and widely praised in Christian publications.39 The book is given out in churches and sent free to military families. The Pearls’ book and related products bring them $1.7 million a year.
They advocate pulling a nursing infant’s hair when he bites the breast, using a switch from as early as six months, and using a quarter-inch flexible plastic plumbing tube to spank children because it can be rolled up and carried in a pocket and is too light to damage muscle or bone. They say “a little fasting is good training,” and they recommend hosing off children outdoors in cold weather after potty-training accidents, telling the child he’s too dirty to be cleaned indoors. They recommend spanking a child as young as three until he is “totally broken”:
If you have to sit on him to spank him, then do not hesitate. And hold him there until he has surrendered. Prove that you are bigger, tougher, more patiently enduring, and are unmoved by his wailing. Hold the resisting child in a helpless position for several minutes, or until he is totally surrendered. Accept no conditions for surrender—no compromise. You are to rule over him as a benevolent sovereign. Your word is final.
At the same time, they say the parents must not act out of anger. I question whether many parents could administer that kind of punishment without being angry.
They advocate training children as if they were dogs. The book is filled with derogatory language toward children, epithets like “spoiled brats” and references to a child’s “unbridled lust” and “terrorist tactics.” They make it clear that the husband is in command over wife and children. They express paranoia about the New World Order, which wants to make your child “wait his turn in line for condoms, a government funded abortion, sexually transmitted disease treatment, psychological evaluation and a mark on the forehead.” They say homeschooling is the only option. Their bias on gender roles is clear:
Gender role distinction is demeaned in modern education. Don’t let a coven of Sodomites and socialists, hiding behind the badge of professional psychologists, reprogram your natural feelings on male and female distinctiveness. A boy needs a man’s example if he is expected to grow up to be a man.
This is not child training: it’s child abuse and systematic torture. One reviewer said the book should have been titled “How to kill your child or make them wish they were dead.”40 A Psychology Today article suggested using the Pearls’ methods on the parents until they stop attempting to pass off their destructive torture as good parenting.41 Some conservative Christian parents reject the Pearls’ teachings and have started a petition asking booksellers not to stock the book. A Christian bookselling chain in the United Kingdom pulled the book from its shelves and apologized to a reader for selling it. But the book is now available for free download on the Internet, and it continues to be wildly popular in many Christian and homeschooling circles.
The Pearls’ book has been blamed for the deaths of at least three children whose parents carried out its advice with too much enthusiasm.
(1) Larry and Carri Williams, in Sedro-Wooley, Washington, were homeschooling their nine children, two of them adopted from Ethiopia. In 2011 the mother found the adopted girl, Hana, age thirteen, unconscious in the backyard, naked, face down, and with mud in her mouth. She called 911 to say Hana was being “rebellious” and would not cooperate and come back into the house. Hana was pronounced dead at the hospital an hour later from hypothermia complicated by malnutrition and gastritis. She weighed only seventy-six pounds.
The parents had become increasingly fundamentalist: the father would give sermons in the backyard and the mother would only wear dresses and didn’t believe women should wear swimsuits or vote. They subscribed wholeheartedly to Pearl’s system of childrearing. They had kept Hana in a closet, deprived her of meals for days at a time, whipped her, shaved her head, and made her shower outside with a hose. The night she died, they had punished her by locking her out of the house in rainy, forty-degree weather; they had watched out the window and laughed at her as she staggered and fell. The other children, interviewed after her death, said she was possessed by demons and people like her went to the fires of hell. The parents were convicted of homicide and sentenced, Larry to twenty-eight years and Carri to thirty-seven.42
(2) Lydia Schatz, a Liberian adoptee, died at age seven in California. Her parents followed Pearl’s book but ignored its admonition against extended lashing. They whipped her for hours at a time. They literally beat her to death: she died of severe tissue damage, and her older sister had to be hospitalized. The father was found guilty of second-degree murder and torture; the mother was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and unlawful corporal punishment.43 <Please provide a citation for the above case.>
(3) Lynn Paddock was convicted in North Carolina in 2006 for the first-degree murder of her son Sean. He suffocated after being wrapped tightly in a blanket. His siblings testified that they were beaten daily with a plumbing tube.44
I have focused on the health effects of Christianity because this is a book about Christianity, but practically every religion has adverse effects on health. Just one recent example from Judaism: eleven infants in New York City contracted herpes from infected mohels who applied oral suction to the penis during an ultra-Orthodox religious circumcision ritual called metzitzah b’peh.45 Two infants died; others suffered brain damage. Christianity may not be more hazardous to your health than other religions, but it certainly isn’t less hazardous.
I don’t want to leave the impression that all the health effects of Christianity (or religion in general) are harmful. Religion provides comfort, community, and tradition to many people. It can promote healthy lifestyles (Seventh-Day Adventists are vegetarians who avoid alcohol and tobacco; Mormons avoid coffee, tea, alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs). Christian missions and charities do a lot to relieve suffering around the world. The abuses I have described are atypical, and perhaps the saddest part of all of this is that the things that are hazardous to health are not an integral requirement of Christianity. There isn’t any reason Christianity couldn’t coexist with rational healthcare and good science; and in some Protestant denominations it does. But the evidence is clear: Christianity has done (and is still doing) more harm than good to individual and public health because of religious beliefs that are based on faith, not reality.
- Richard Sloan, “Religion, Spirituality, and Medicine” Lancet 353, no. 9153 (1999):664-7.
- Walter Larrimore, “Providing Basic Spiritual Care for Patients: Should It Be the Exclusive Domain of Pastoral Professionals?” American Family Physician 63, no.1 (2001) 36-41.
- Richard Walden et al., “Effect of Environment on the Serum Cholesterol Triglyceride Distribution among Seventh-Day Adventists,” American Journal of Medicine 36 (1964): 269-76.
- David Rosmarin et al., “A Test of Faith in God and Treatment: The Relationship of Belief in God to Psychiatric Treatment Outcomes,” Journal of Affective Disorders 146, No. 3 (2013): 441-46.
- Randolph Byrd, “Positive Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer in a Coronary Care Unit Population,” Southern Medical Journal 81, No. 7 (1988): 826-29.
- Kwang Cha, Daniel Wirth, and Rogerio Lobo, “Does Prayer Influence the Success of In Vitro Fertilization – Embryo Transfer?” Journal of Reproductive Medicine 46, No. 9 (2001): 781-87.
- Bruce Flamm, “The Bizarre Columbia University ‘Miracle’ Saga Continues,” Skeptical Inquirer 29, No. 2 (2005) online at http://csicop.org/si/show/bizarre_columbia_university_miracle_saga_continues/ (accessed July 9, 2014).
- Leonard Leibovici,
Effects of Remote, Retroactive Intercessory Prayer on Outcomes in Patients with Bloodstream Infection: Randomized Controlled Trial,” British Medical Journal 323, No. 7327 (2001): 1450-51.
- “Studies on IntercessoryPrayer,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Studies_on_Intercessory_prayer#Retroactive_intercessory _prayer (accessed July 9, 2014).
- Statistics from “Lourdes,” The Skeptic’s Dictionary, http://skepdic.com/lourdes.html ( accessed July 9, 2014); Anatole France, quoted in Joe Nickell, “Examinging Miracle Claims,” The Secular Web, http://infidels.org/library/modern/joe_nickell/miracles.html (accessed July 9, 2014).
- “Mother Theresa, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mother_Theresa (accessed July 9, 2014.
- Sloan, “Religion, Spirituality, and Medicine.”
- Richard Sloan, Blind Faith: The Unholy Alliance of Religion and Medicine (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2006).
- Cameron Stauth, In the Name of God: The True Story of the Fight to Save Children fro Faith-Healing Homicide (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013), p. 56.
- Mary Baker Eddy, quoted in “The Scientific Statement of Being and Correlative Scripture,” Christian Science Quarterly Bible Lessons, http://christianscience.com/bible-lessons/related-information/for-church-services/the scientific-statement-of-being-and correlative-scripture (accessed July 9, 2014).
- Seth Asser and Rita Swan, “Child Fatalities from Religion-Motivated Medical Neglect,” Pediatrics 101, no. 4 (April 1998): 625-29.
- Stauth, In the Name of God.
- Private e-mail communication, November/December 2013.
- Charles Jennings, “Measles among Religiously Exempt Persons” in Mark Dworkin, ed, Cases in Field Epidemiology (Burlington, MA: Jones and Bartlett Learning 2011), pp. 83-89, available online at Google Books, http://books.google.com/books?id=NmxO66FyRC0C&lpg=PA84&lpg=PA84&dq=what+rash?+principia+ college+measles+outbreak&source=bl&ots=BczEdoiDbX&sig=Fay2pNXEkJfwdlSXNwLhPQIcA3Q&hl=en&sa=X&ei=tCO8U_iYB8WBiwKMtYG4CQ&ved=0CBwQ6AEwADgK#v=onepage&q=what%20rash%3F%20principia%college%20measles%20outbreak&f=false (accessed July 9, 2014).
- “Measles – United States, 1994,” United States Centers for Disease Control, July 7,1995, http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/00038118.htm (accessed July 9, 2014).
- Statistics for Ashland in Ryan Pfeil, “Ashland’s Low Vaccination Rate May Be Focus of Study,” Medford Mail Tribue, December28, 2011, http://www.mailtribune.com/apps/pbcs/dll/article?AID=20111228/NEWS/112280317 (accessed July 9, 2014); statistics for Waldorf school in Hannah Dreier, “More Private Schools Fall below Threshold for Immunizations,” San Jose Mercury News, September 10, 2012, http://www.mercurynews.com/ci_21507188/more-private-schools-fall-below-threshold-immunizations (accessed July 9, 2014).
- Rita Swan, “Belief Exemptions lead to Outbreaks of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases,” Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty 3 (2008): 1-6.
- Lauren Silverman, “Texas Megachurch at Center of Measles Outbreak,” September 1, 2013, National Public Radio, http//www.npr.org/2013/09/01/217746942/texas-megachurch-at-center-of-measles-outbreak (accessed July 2014).
- Susan Donaldson James, “12-Pound Tumor Swallows Man’s Face,” ABC News, http://abcnews.go.com/Health/man-lost-face-tumor/lifesaving-surgery-chicago-doctor/story?id=12943815 (accessed July 9, 2014).
- “Suicide and Violence: A to Z,” They Should Not Have Died, November 23, 2010, http:/theyshouldnothavedied.wordpress.com/ (accessed July 9, 2014); Lawrence Wright, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013).
- Database of Publicly Accused Priests in the United States,” BishopAccountability.org, http://bishop-accountability.org/priestdb/PriestDBbydiocese.html (accessed December 6, 2013).
- “Death of Savita Halappanavar,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_of_Savita_Halappanavar (accessed July 9, 2014).
- Bob Brenzing, “Muskegon Woman Sues Catholic Bishops after Hospital Fails to Treat Her Miscarriage,” WZZM/Detroit Free Press, December 2, 2013, http://www.wzzm13.com/news/article/274683/2/Muskegon-woman-sues-Catholic-bishops-after-miscarriage (accessed December 5, 2013).
- See “StemCell Controversy,” Stem Cell Freaks, http://www.stemcellsfreak.com/p/stem-cell-controversy.html (accessed July 9, 2014).
- William Nolan, Healing: A Doctor in Search of a Miracle (New York: Random House, 1975).
- James Randi, The Faith Healers (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1987).
- “Benny Hinn: False Prophet!” Jesus-is-Savior.com, http://www.jesus-is-savior.com/False%20Doctrines/benny_hinn.htm (accessed December 5, 2013).
- Vern Poythress, “Linguistic and Sociological Analyses of Modern Tongues-Speaking,” Westminster Theological Journal 42, no. 2 (1980): 367-88.
- James Randi, “Popoff’s Still at It,” James Randi Educational Foundation, http://www.randi.org/site/index.php/swift-blog/1660-popoffs-still-at-it.html (accessed December 5, 2013).
- “Judge William Adams Beats Daughter for Using the Internet (update),” YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W19y3SIPt7o (accessed December 5, 2013.
- Michael Pearl and Debi Pearl, To Train Up a Child: Turning the Hearts of the Fathers to the Children (Pleasantville, TN: No Greater Joy Ministries, 1994).
- Customer review of To Train Up a Child: Turning the hearts of the Fathers to the Children, Amazon.com, http://www.amazon.com/To-Train-Up-Child-chldren-ebook/product-reviews0038KA6GC?pageNumber=57 (accessed July 9, 2014).
- Susan Newman, “Spanking Gone Too Far,” Psychology Today, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/singletons/201111/spanking-gone-too-far (accessed December 5, 2013).
- Kathryn Joyce, “Hana’s Story,” Slate, November 9, 2013, http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2013/11/hana_williams_the_tragic_death_of_an_ethiopian_adoptee_and_how_it_could.html (accessed July 9, 2014).
- “Death of Lydia Schatz,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_of_Lydia_Schatz (accessed July 9, 2014).
- Rachel, “Sean Paddock and 6 Siblings,” Homeschooling’s Invisible Children, May 5, 2013, http://hsinvisiblechildren.org/2013/05/05/sean_paddock_and_6_siblings/ (accessed July 9, 2014).
- Alexandra Sifferlin, “How Eleven New York City Babies Contracted Herpes through Circumcision,” Time, June 7, 2012, http//healthland.time.com/2012/96/07/how-11-new-york-city-babies-contracted-herpes-through-circumcision/ (accessed July 9, 2014).
This was originally published as Chapter 13, “Christianity Can Be Hazardous to Your Health,” pages 264-285, in the book Christianity Is Not Great: How Faith Fails, ed. John W. Loftus, Prometheus Books, 2014.