About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Superstition can kill your children

Just a few days ago I wrote about how people are killing around the world because of superstitious beliefs, for instance accusations of witchcraft. Well, this time around the tragedy happened in the United States, and the victim is Kara Neumann, an 11-year old who died of diabetes because her parents withheld medical treatment. Their reason? The “online ministry” to which they belong preaches that “Jesus never sent anyone to a doctor or a hospital. Jesus offered healing by one means only! Healing was by faith.”

Jesus may have offered healing by faith only, but did it work? If the case of little Kara is any indication, it didn’t, and an innocent child was killed as a result. (Incidentally, Jesus never preached via the internet. Jesus preached by talking to people in person only! So I strongly encourage Unleavened Bread Ministries to shut down their web site immediately, or they risk going to Hell "en mass"…)

As readers of this blog know, I have my disagreements with Richard Dawkins, one being that I do not think that religious upbringing automatically constitutes child abuse, as Dawkins maintains. But in this case that term surely applies. Kara’s parents, Leilani and Dale Neumann, claimed that the Marathon County, Wisconsin, State Attorney violated their constitutional right to religious freedom in charging them with a crime. But Judge Vincent Howard of Marathon County Circuit Court ordered them to stand trial anyway, responding that “The free exercise clause of the First Amendment protects religious belief, but not necessarily conduct.”

Indeed, it is the demarcation line between belief (or thought) and conduct (or action) that defines issues of morality, a point often completely lost on religious zealots. I have a close friend who was raised in the Church of Christ and who went through a terrible period in his late teens and early twenties. The reason was that he was absolutely convinced that he was going to Hell. Why? Because he had lusting thoughts about attractive women (imagine that!), and although he never acted on such thoughts, his preacher told him that thinking them was just as bad. I always wondered why he didn’t pursue the women in question anyway, then. I mean, if you are going to Hell regardless of your actions, you might as well enjoy the ride before you get there.

Back to the case of Kara Neumann, it may turn out to be important if it ends up setting a legal precedent. Apparently the law in the United States is very vague (and, as usual, an incredible patchwork at the state level), so that, for instance, 30 States (including Wisconsin) provide limited protection from prosecution in cases of child neglect involving religious beliefs, but it isn’t clear how limited such protection actually is, because the statutes are rarely challenged in court. The result of this protection, meanwhile, has been the death of a 15-month old girl in Oregon last year (pneumonia), and, in the same state, the death of a 16-year old boy of a very painful -- and eminently treatable -- urinary tract infection. Praised be the Lord!

The bottom line is that adults have the right to hold whatever insane and stupid beliefs they like, and even to conduct their life accordingly -- unless such beliefs directly lead to the death or injury of others, children or adult alike (think 9/11). As one of the Neumann’s neighbors put it, “That little girl wasn’t old enough to make the decision about going to a doctor, and now, because some religious extremists went too far, she’s gone.” Precisely.


  1. I am quite curious how evangelicals will stand on such a court case. On one hand they would generally want to support the protection of religious beliefs. On the other hand they call for the right to life of PVS cases and cases of abortion. They probably will side against these parents but I would like to see if any religious leaders try to make it a case against religion. Besides, I don't think evangelicals recognize Christian Scientists as "true Christians" so they would see no reason to defend such an immoral action.

  2. I suppose these people are fine with using their refridgerator, their microwave oven, their computer, their car, eating prepared food, using central heating and all the other products of modern science and technology. Yet when it comes to medicine, all of the sudden they say no thanks we'll just rely on superstitious, supernatural religious nonsense to save our kid? What a couple of batshit insane fraking moronic fools! Gawd I hate these people. That poor little girl, so sad...

  3. Massimo, if this is really how I feel, then I'm not sure whether you actually disagree with Dawkins about religion as child abuse. Given the examples Dawkins gives in fact, and the claims he makes, you're almost quoting the same script.

    May I finally add in passing a link to whatstheharm.net in case you haven't visited yet.

  4. Kallan,
    I think it is fair to say that some religion, depending on how it is practiced, can be child abuse, and some is not. It all depends on context. Some religious people don't adopt quite the same beliefs that lead them to deny their children medical care.

    In addition, I have got to rant, because I have had a few glasses of wine (thanks Jesus! :), and my emotions are a little loosened up, and I personally relate a little to an issue in this story. So here goes.

    Children are not their parent's property! Religious people often treat their children like property, as this story illustrates, thinking that just because they believe something to be so, they can put their children at risk.

    I was raised by parents who were Jehovah's Witness. And if something had happened to me as a child which would have required me to have a blood transfusion, my parents would have let me die! Idiots! Fortunately I made it to adulthood, and if I need blood, I will take it thank you very much!

  5. Kara’s parents, Leilani and Dale Neumann, claimed that the Marathon County, Wisconsin, State Attorney violated their constitutional right to religious freedom in charging them with a crime.

    And these are the same kind of people who want to make abortion a crime.

  6. Man, this makes me so mad... Innocent kids dying because their parents are stupid, prehistoric morons. I hope these people get thrown in jail, and for a long time, to have plenty of opportunity to think about what they have done. Unfortunately, they will go on deluding themselves, thinking they did the right thing anyway. That's how sick this type of people is, I suspect. I don't think there is hope of rehabilitation for them, so there is no point in sending them to jail to begin with (rehab is what jail should be about in a civilized society, right? Right? What do you mean "No"!?). This type of situation makes me sympathize with the death penalty, really... if even for a second.

    Religious liberty my arse. If my religion called for the painful sacrifice of people who withhold medical treatment from children (like these so-called parents), would I get a "free out of jail" card, then? I didn't think so either.

    Rant over.

  7. I've read a story similar to this one somewhere. There is a religious suspicion of needles among a certain group of people and so they refused to give their daugther vital insulin resulting in multiple amputations, blindness, and eventual death. It's shocking how when modern medicine and old supersitions collide, the old superstitions tend to get the credit. Imagine hearing someone say "thank Fleming!" instead of "thank God!" after using penicillin to cure a baterial infection. Perhaps it's just a commonly used expression but I think modern medicine would lose out most of the time anyways.
    If Kara had (impossibly) survived without medical intervention it would have reinforced her parent's belief in a divine healing power. If Kara had survived because of a last minute intervention by doctors then they would still probably credit her survival to a divine power. Either way, her survival would have been credited to a divine power. In fact, it's even possible the parents think Kara's death was due to a lack of faith on their part.
    Kara is a bad example though because she had diabetes.

  8. Wait, why don't they rely on God.

    If they get convicted why wouldn't they accept it. Did Jesus hire a lawyer? No - he accepted the judgment and took the punishment, assuming it was God's will.

  9. Max, Dawkins does NOT maintain that raising children in a religious household constitutes child abuse; he maintains that labelling the children with the religion of their parents is abuse. Just as we wouldn't call the child of a Democrat voter a Democrat, or the child of an economist a Keynsian, so we shouldn't call the child of evangelical parents an evangelical. His great example was when he had a photo from a British newspaper that was labelled with three children playing together as a "Xian, Siekh, and Muslim, all aged 4", and he relabelled it "An atheist, agnostic, and secular humanist, all aged 4". The reaction from the crowd was predictable and shows his point.
    Oh, and while I'm on a roll... was the misspelling of "en masse" deliberate, in the sense that evangelicals go to mass? It wsa quite funny if it was.

  10. I think anyone that contracts prostrate cancer should sue, if they’ve been a lifelong member of a church that teaches that masturbation is bad, there religious establishment.

    Heck, that’s why I created
    The Quest For The Holey Tail YGroup.

    I mean, Jerry Orback died for the Pope’s hairless hand.

  11. Kimpatsu,

    I disagree. Dawkins explicitly thinks that religious upbringing of children, not just labeling, is child abuse. In some cases it is, in some it isn't, and he clearly commits the slippery slope fallacy... I do agree with him that the labeling is plain ridiculous, though

    As for the misspelling, it wasn't deliberate, but it is funny, so I'll let it stand! :)

  12. M.

    Dawkins on religious upbringing:

    (1:45; he answers this issue directly)

  13. Nothing 'precise' about it at all, Massimo. You apparently have no concept of how many mistakes hospitals and even physicians do make.


    Parents ought to have the right to manager the care of their own children even if they make mistakes or have misunderstandings of the way that the world works. No one, after all, cares as deeply for a child like its own parent.

    Unless, of course,has someone OPTED TO NOT EVEN ALLOW A CHILD TO BE BORN or supports that kind of
    "final solution" . If you think you can be adamantly and simultaneously pro-abortion and speak at all on what is medical priority ought to be like in reference to "saving children" you better think again. The first part of your statements just simply do not agree or provide reasonable support for the latter part of your assessment. If you're going to CLAIM TO CARE about some of the children in religious families - you don't really "CARE" unless you care about ALL THE CHILDREN even those harmed and killed in hospitals (intentionally or unintentionally).

    If it's NOT JUST a political thing, another way to find reasons to undermine parents sovereignty in the lives of their children, why not start with people who want to end the lives of their kids before they're born. That would be at least consistent.

  14. >>> Dawkins explicitly thinks that religious upbringing of children, not just labeling, is child abuse.

    No, he doesn't. He says it CAN amount to child abuse, depending on circumstances. His position is more considered than you appear to think.

    I suspect he would agree with you that this constituted one of those cases.

    (Aside: you have referred several times to your disagreements with Dawkins, but I've read most of his stuff on religion; watched his television programmes; seen the youtube clips; followed his comments on richarddawkins.net forums; seen him talk and answer Qs live -- and nothing I've read on your blog seems particularly incompatible to his views as I understand them. At least, I generally agree with both of you, except when you comment on what you think Dawkins would say.)

  15. I asked Richard about this at the CFI London inauguration, especially since the child abuse quote is used fallaciously by religionists to dismiss the rest of his book. Certainly there he did not say that religious upbringing is child abuse. He is all for religious education - all religions warts and all - in line with Dennet's view.

    What he did say, or at least clarified in his answer to me was something along the lines of - consider this a paraphrase not a quote - "that any parent who teaches their child that if you do not follow god's commands you are going to burn in hell and suffer the most excruciating pain for ever and ever without reprieve is evil, that teaching that anyone of other religions or non-believers will suffer this fate is evil and that if you leave this religion (the parent's religion) you will suffer this is evil and teaching this evil as fact is child abuse."

    Maybe I could get the video from the CFI as I think his whole answer there is a very good quote and clarification of his position.

  16. Teaching kids that either they or other people WILL NOT suffer for their bad behavior, THAT IS EVIL.

    A darling 2 yr old little girl who was at the day school where I work (she was adopted and taken away from us a couple of months ago) ended in the Trama unit the other day and WILL NOT ever go back to her adoptive parents.

    Dawkins knows nothing of what constitutes child abuse CLEARLY. His humongous stack of opinions are going to be collecting an enormous amount of dust in 10-20 years anyway..so who cares what he thinks? I sure as heck don't. He can ramble on about kids and abuse all he wants.

    How out of touch with reality can one person possibly be?

  17. Caliana

    Dawkins and I were not talking about teaching that people will not suffer for their bad behaviour. That is a red herring. This first paragraph is quite irrelevant unless you are endorsing teaching the very three points that Dawkins was complaining about.

    You did not say whether the teaching three points that Dawkins raised as facts were evil or not, and if not why not.

    What is the relevance, if any, of your sad example of the two year old? Where does it fit in an argument?

    AFAICS Dawkins has never made an argument that this is the only form of child abuse so any other example of child abuse says nothing for or against his claims here. You cannot just assert that he knows nothing you need to make an argument one way or another.

    Do you have an argument that you can make CLEARLY or not?

    "How out of touch with reality can one person possibly be?"
    Look in the mirror? ;-)

  18. The relevance is that this two year olds case represents actual abuse, not figurative, metaphorical or imaginative. Which we all know, if "evidence" like this were found in the Bible, this supposedly renders it meaningless and unreliable. It is instead Dawkins opinions which are meaningless and unreliable. His "facts" clearly flow directly from his feelings about how religious people 'do not think the right way'. No doubt about it. For the life of me, have no idea why anyone would follow him and then call it "science". He's not immersed in science, he's consumed with himself and his view of the world.

    I suppose he's the Atheists version of a Televangelist.

  19. Caliana

    You have not replied to my questions. The relevance of an example of physical child abuse is red herring since clearly this is not what Dawkins was arguing about, he was arguing for a form of emotional abuse, the question is do his three items qualify or not?

    I ask again are you capable of addressing (my reporting of) Dawkin's argument with an argument yourself or are you just expressing opinions which to quote yourself are "meaningless and unreliable" and so should be ignored?

  20. From what you've said of Dawkins, plain old religious upbringing would be okay if it did not include the subject of Hell. An understanding of his standpoint on supposed emotional abuse, I imagine then anything that makes us uncomfortable or shines some light on our errors could be considered emotional abuse. Why should the concept of Hell (which just speaks to the finality of some of our decisions) included or dis-cluded be any different?

    Under that exact same standard (since we're just a bunch of old softies now) isn't it unnecessarily harsh and emotionally abusive for critics of creationism to tell perfectly well meaning people that there might be some flaws in their reasoning? And especially if it is done to young people 10, 12, 14 years old? If Dawkins wants to be responsible for expanding the definition of emotional abuse to anything that gives us uneasiness or discomfort over how we each make decisions, that could include so many things.

    In conclusion, anything that is not pleasant to us is emotionally abusive? I think it is the BIG people that think that not really the LITTLE people at all.

  21. Caliana

    "From what you've said of Dawkins, plain old religious upbringing would be okay if it did not include the subject of Hell"
    Not so, he is for religious education in line with Dennett, that is to teach kids about all religions, their history, warts and all. And specifically not religious instruction - that is the job, if anywhere, of churches, synagogues and mosques not schools.

    "An understanding of his standpoint on supposed emotional abuse, I imagine then anything that makes us uncomfortable or shines some light on our errors could be considered emotional abuse."
    This is not what Dawkins said, how about you rely on what was stated rather than your imagination? He was quite specific about those three points - on teaching the doctrine of hell to kids to scare them into conformity. You have not responded yet to these claims.

    "Why should the concept of Hell (which just speaks to the finality of some of our decisions) included or dis-cluded be any different?"
    Apart from IMV being one of the most immoral concepts ever invented, it is teaching this falsehood as fact and the specific emotional impact of this - above and beyond childhood myths e.g. Santa Clause - which Dawkins was objecting to.

    "Under that exact same standard...If Dawkins wants to be responsible for expanding the definition of emotional abuseto anything that gives us uneasiness or discomfort over how we each make decisions, that could include so many things."
    You seem to be inventing a standard that is nothing to to with the point here. Dawkins clearly does not argue this otherwise he would never have written any of his books! This is a non sequitur.

    "In conclusion, anything that is not pleasant to us is emotionally abusive? I think it is the BIG people that think that not really the LITTLE people at all."
    Your conclusion displays that you have been following your imagination rather than the actual claims. When are you going to address them? If you do not want to or are unable that is fine, just say so rather than create another post that does not respond to the issue at hand.

  22. Exactly what made the parents believe God had to heal their kid ? Tell them hey God works in mysterious ways. In this case that way is called penicillin or hospital.

    I don't know at what point spirituality became religion but surely monotheistic religion was intended in the time before we had prisons and psychology to control the stupid, the immoral, or the functionally impaired psychopaths in society who had to be told some father figure in the sky was watching them all the time with a burning lake at the ready.

    I can't understand why it is wrong to rape some one they would say and society would reply doesn't matter God says so. Then they would say oh ok I'll drag them into the bushes then where God can't see, and religious society would say no no God is everywhere yes even in the bushes. In fact he is in your head and doesn't even want you thinking about that.

    Since then God has long become the tool of the con man, the dictator , or a magic genie to grant wishes and justify any irrational thought one has to impose on others. It seems it's like a monster that it's creators have long ago lost the reins too.

    I think there is value in spirituality but most organized religion has really always been something wholly different; blind superstition and social controls for the masses masquerading as spirituality. Why can't we get together as a community be charitable and compassionate with out the notion of some God we think is telling us what to do. Oh wait we can!


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