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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

This sort of thing makes me very tired.

A while back I wrote a little parable about atheism. Specifically, a parable explaining why I don't pray and, indeed, would consider praying to be a somewhat immoral action.* This parable featured an occasion when, rather than assist a choking man, an onlooker is urged to "pray" for him instead. As you might guess, this results in the eventual death of the choking man.

In response to this post a commenter remarked that no believer in their right mind would allow a man to choke to death when they could do something concrete to help. Specifically:

First, I don’t think any believer in their right mind would advocate passivity when activity is a possibility. You are right there – it is immoral to pray, and only pray, for a chocking man when you have the physical skills to save his life and the ability in the current moment to do so. The story is cute, as I said, but totally misrepresents what the vast majority of believer would do in the situation you’ve posited.

I, of course, certainly hope that most believers would do as my commenter describes- assisting the choking man rather than simply praying for divine intervention. My response to this comment addressed this point as follows:

The second part of your first point, that most Christians would not choose passivity over action, is I think debatable. In the post earlier this week on vaccination I remarked on a woman who has decided to forego vaccines in the belief that god will protect her children from disease. Similarly, we can probably all recall the Georgia legislators who recently prayed for rain. In either case there is a certain degree to which passivity is being chosen over activity and, in the case of the legislators, I am absolutely convinced that there are more useful ways they could have been spending their time. Again, I think that the overwhelming majority of Christians would not allow a choking man to die so that they could pray but in less clear-cut situations than this passivity is often chosen over activity.

I think this response is probaly fair and reasonable. So why am I bringing all this up right now? Well, um, two reasons:

The first reason is named Ava Worthington:

OREGON CITY, Ore. - A couple whose church preaches against medical care are facing criminal charges after their young daughter died of an infection that authorities said went untreated.

Carl and Raylene Worthington were indicted Friday on charges of manslaughter and criminal mistreatment in the death of their 15-month-old daughter Ava. They belong to the Followers of Christ Church, whose members have a history of treating gravely ill children only with prayer.

Ava died March 2 of bronchial pneumonia and a blood infection. The state medical examiner’s office has said she could have been treated with antibiotics.

The second reason is named Madeline Neumann:

WESTON, Wis. (AP) — Police are investigating an 11-year-old girl's death from an undiagnosed, treatable form of diabetes after her parents chose to pray for her rather than take her to a doctor.

An autopsy showed Madeline Neumann died Sunday of diabetic ketoacidosis, a condition that left too little insulin in her body, Everest Metro Police Chief Dan Vergin said.

She had probably been ill for about a month, suffering symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, excessive thirst, loss of appetite and weakness, the chief said Wednesday, noting that he expects to complete the investigation by Friday and forward the results to the district attorney.

The girl's mother, Leilani Neumann, said that she and her family believe in the Bible and that healing comes from God, but that they do not belong to an organized religion or faith, are not fanatics and have nothing against doctors.

Do these incidents reflect the vast majority of religious parents? No. Hell no, of course not, or else our medical community wouldn't be as developed as it is.** At the same time, however, these tragedies to provide a stern warning about not only the potential dangers of faith and prayer but also the wisdom of leaping to its defense too quickly.

Faith enhances and saves some lives but it also snuffs others out. If we're going to be honest about the one, we should at least be realistic about the other.

* For me. For someone who believes in god, it obviously is not immoral and in this case I'm prepared to be a little flexible about morality.

** Not to mention that if this were a prevalent attitude our mortality rate would be a lot higher than it is now.

As a side note: Madeline Neumann was sick and vomiting for a MONTH and they never took her to a doctor? And they're not fanatics? REALLY?! Unless they just couldn't afford a doctor's visit- and arguably a publicly-subsidized trip to the emergency room was warranted here- I am just dumbstruck.

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