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05 April 2008


Peter Harvey


How many of those hundreds of thousands of Christian worshippers, or hundreds of millions worldwide, would agree with that girl’s parents and how many would agree with you? The answer is obvious. Christianity has a good history of helping sick people with rather more than the power of prayer; that is why nurses in British hospitals have the title sister. Many medical practitioners and researchers have been practising Christians or members of other faiths; throughout all the history of medicine until about a hundred years ago it was impossible for it to be otherwise. There is no evidence to suggest that priests or other religious leaders are slow to use the service of doctors, preferring instead their hot line to the Almighty.


Tony Hatfield


These appear to be extreme examples of child abuse committed in the name of some religion or other. You are wrong to suggest that "other religious leaders are slow to use the service of doctors". Christian Scientists definitely are on the phone to the almighty before the doctor. After your comment I Googled "religious motivated neglect" and came up with this published research.

Asser SM, Swan R.

Department of Pediatrics, University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine, San Diego, California, USA.

OBJECTIVE: To evaluate deaths of children from families in which faith healing was practiced in lieu of medical care and to determine if such deaths were preventable. DESIGN: Cases of child fatality in faith-healing sects were reviewed. Probability of survival for each was then estimated based on expected survival rates for children with similar disorders who receive medical care. PARTICIPANTS: One hundred seventy-two children who died between 1975 and 1995 and were identified by referral or record search. Criteria for inclusion were evidence that parents withheld medical care because of reliance on religious rituals and documentation sufficient to determine the cause of death. RESULTS: One hundred forty fatalities were from conditions for which survival rates with medical care would have exceeded 90%. Eighteen more had expected survival rates of >50%. All but 3 of the remainder would likely have had some benefit from clinical help. CONCLUSIONS: When faith healing is used to the exclusion of medical treatment, the number of preventable child fatalities and the associated suffering are substantial and warrant public concern. Existing laws may be inadequate to protect children from this form of medical neglect.

PMID: 9521945 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]

The words "substantial" and "inadequate" stand out.

By far the worse child abuse carried out by religious folk is carried in their schools-brainwashing the poor mites. And I suspect few of those worshippers to whom you are doffing your cap would grumble!

Peter Harvey

I have seen literal brainwashing of children in a school in Saudi Arabia with a language lab used by the school imam to teach the boys the Koran by heart, and I have taught in a Jesuit school here. There is a difference! In Christianity though, the loonies are a small minority; in Islam, I am not so sure.

I have never been able to observe any overall correlation in intelligence, honesty or morality between religious and non-religious people.

A belief in God, which I do not share, is not incompatible with a belief that the universe is built according to discoverable scientific principles, and with a moral obligation to take every possible and reasonable step to ensure the health of oneself and others, especially children.

Brian Barder

I agree that there's no detectable difference in intelligence, honesty or morality between the religious and the non-religious: but there is surely a difference between them in their commitment to rational behaviour, namely acting only on hypotheses of which, on the basis of available evidence, there is a probability of validity, a test which a belief in a supernatural deity clearly fails.

Brian B.

Dr Aust

These "religious exemption" statutes were apparently the rule in most US states, and remain on the books in many.

For instance Oregon, the state prosecuting the Worthingtons (parents of the 15 month old who died of pneumonia), only repealed its own religious exemption in 1999, as the HuffPo story Tony linked to points out.

Whether most religious people would do this is beside the point; privileging religion over any other (possibly deeply-held) belief, to the point of allowing it as an excuse for causing death by negligence, is the issue.

An interesting discussion of this can be found on the American blog run by cancer surgeon "Orac" here.

..and for anyone interested, an earlier scholarly discussion of the arising legal issues in the US context is here

Peter Harvey


‘… acting only on hypotheses of which, on the basis of available evidence, there is a probability of validity, a test which a belief in a supernatural deity clearly fails.’

There are many hypotheses the probable validity of which is disputed; the usefulness of returning to Old Labour and inviting it to govern the UK springs to my mind as one of them, though you may well differ. That does not mean, however, that people who believe in curious things are incapable of arguing logically. A logical argument is built on a hypothesis; the validity of the hypothesis, which is often a subjective judgement, is unconnected with the soundness of the logical framework that is built up on it. Of course, an argument, however internally sound, will ultimately be invalid for me if I don’t accept the hypothesis. But that doesn’t mean that the person who makes it is incapable of building a sound logical argument on the basis of a different hypothesis. Which is all a long-winded way of saying that sometimes I agree with you, and sometimes I disagree with you, but I always respect your opinion.

As for the power of prayer, the USA has a funny way of separating Church and State. Here in Spain, where the Church has more privileges than it should have, especially in taxation, it has been trying to claim a right of conscientious objection for Catholic officials of the State. Sensible Catholic mayors and judges who disagree with gay marriage just get a deputy to do the ceremony and that’s that, but one judge refused on grounds of conscience. She was told very firmly and unambiguously that as a judge employed by the State she was allowed no personal leeway whatsoever to pick and choose which bits of the law she would accept. And that was that.



In the last two or three years I recall at least three holy joe's given fairly lengthy sentences for for failing to allow medical help reaching their off springs. It is a crime at common law. In all cases of common law crimes in Scotland it can carry a life sentence. For once they were dealt with by a Judge who lived in the real world. On the last one the defendents pleaded that they only recognised the law of god. The judge was brilliant. He said something like this. Before I sentence you both to 7 years let me leave you with this thought. You may not recognise the criminal law of Scotland, but I assure you in my capacity as a Judge and charged with upholding it, it recognises you. Take them away... For once two feet on the ground... By the way how do you start one of those blogs...


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