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Faith healing

Relying on faith healing & prayer
instead of medical treatment

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Relying on faith healing:

We have been unable to find references to any double-blind controlled studies which compare the effectiveness of faith healing in place of regular medical procedures. We located a few statements and surveys:

bullet Jehovah's Witnesses: In 1997-FEB, the writer of a book review in the American Medical Association's journal estimated that the Jehovah's Witnesses' belief about blood transfusions has "led thousands to die needlessly." 1 The Watchtower periodical Awake once showed pictures of Jehovah's Witnesses children who followed the churches ban on blood transfusions and died. 2 It is, of course, unknown how many would still have died even if they had transfusion(s).

bullet

Christian Science: William F. Simpson, an assistant professor of mathematics and computer science at Emporia State University conducted an exploratory study into the effectiveness of Christian Science healing. He compared alumni records from a Christian Science school (Principia College in Elsah, IL) with those from the secular University of Kansas in Lawrence, KS. One would expect that if Christian Science healing is as effective as conventional medicine, then the graduates of Principia College would live longer than those from Kansas. This is because the Church forbids the use of alcohol and tobacco. But the results were in the opposite direction. The death rates among Principia graduates from 1934 to 1948 were significantly higher than those of the University of Kansas graduates. (26.2 vs. 20.9% for men; 11.3 vs. 9.9% for women).

A more realistic study was made later, comparing the mortality of Christian Scientists and Seventh-day Adventists. Both denominations abstain from alcohol and tobacco. Even greater differences were found in the second test, again with Christian Scientists having higher mortality rates. 3,4 This type of study is fairly crude; its results should not be treated as precise or conclusive. Graduates at different universities may have, on average, been raised under different conditions, or might enter professions of differing danger levels, they might have entered military service at different rates, etc. However, the studies appear to indicate that Christian Science healing is significantly less effective than standard medicine. That is, choosing Christian Science prayer in place of conventional medicine causes additional, preventable deaths.


bulletU.S. death toll among infants and children: In 1998-APR, Dr. Seth Asser, a critical-care pediatrician at Methodist Children's Hospital in San Antonio, and Rita Swan, head of the advocacy group Children's Healthcare is a Legal Duty (CHILD) authored a paper in the professional journal Pediatrics. Asser studied 172 reported deaths of infants and children between 1975 and 1995. Deaths were found in 34 states among members of 23 religious groups. They belonged to families of Christian Scientist, Faith Tabernacle, Faith Assembly and several other religious groups that practice faith healing. He compared the cause of death with the expected survival rates if the children had received routine medical care. They found:

bullet 140 children would have had a 90% chance of surviving if they had been treated medically.

bullet18 children would have had a 50 to 90% chance of surviving

bullet11 children would have received some benefits from medical care

bullet3 would not have been helped from medical care

The 172 deaths are presumably some unknown fraction of the total deaths among children whose parents used faith healing in place of medical treatment.

Also unknown are the numbers of children who died after having received medical treatment who would have been saved by faith healing. As structured, the study only analyzes one side of the story.

Many of the conditions and diseases that killed the 172 children were "ordinary ailments seen and treated routinely" e.g. appendicitis, labor complications, dehydration, antibiotic-sensitive bacterial infections and vaccine-preventable disorders. They cited cases in which:

bulletA 2 year old child choked on a piece of banana and died an hour later, while her parents frantically gathered other church members into a circle to pray.

bulletChildren with an infection who would have been saved with a single injection of penicillin.

bulletBabies who would have lived if they received oxygen.

bulletFive mothers died from relatively common and treatable complications during labor.

bulletSeveral children died after long periods of terribly painful suffering. 5,6

The article concludes:

"The children of members of faith-healing sects deserve the same protections under the law as other children have. We believe that the repeal of exemption laws is a necessary step toward assuring such protection...before hundreds more children suffer needlessly and die prematurely."

Robert Gilbert of the Christian Science Committee on Publication said the study was biased and misleading:

"The assumption here is that you can judge a religion only by its failures, when the fact is we have quite a good record in the 130-plus years of Christian Science healing. And it's a tragedy whenever a child dies."

Unfortunately, the denomination does not release its data to the public; the effectiveness of its healing methods remains unknown.

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The moral aspects of promoting prayer in place of medical treatment:

Consider faith healing with respect to one of the most serious diseases: breast cancer:

The annual death rate for breast cancer  in the U.S. has remained relatively stable over the past 50 years, at 26 per hundred thousand women. 7 One source 8 quotes the American Cancer Society predicting that 178,700 women would be diagnosed with breast cancer in 1988. 43,500 will eventually die of the disease. From these figures, standard medical treatments fail in about 24% of cases.

If a new treatment method were developed that had a lower failure rate, then many lives would be saved. For example, if a new medication produced only a slight improvement (say a reduction from a 24 to a 22% failure rate) then almost 4,000 women's lives would be saved each year. Similarly, if it was less effective (say it produced an increase from a 24 to a 26% failure rate) then almost 4,000 women would needlessly die. The stakes are obviously very high.

Some religious groups promote various types of prayer and/or anointing with oil as treatment for disease. Medical practitioners generally advocate some combination of surgery, chemotherapy, medication, and radiation. It is probable that one of these two approaches is significantly more effective than the other.

There is a great need to perform carefully controlled studies of the effectiveness of these two approaches, so that women will be armed with accurate data. If they wish to select a less effective treatment method, then they need to at least know the risk involved. To our knowledge, no such studies have ever been made.

The above paragraph was written in 1996. As of the latest update to this essay, 17 years have passed and still no study has been made, to our knowledge.

This same logic applies for many other diseases as well. For example, there were an estimated 41,800 deaths in 1997 among males due to prostate cancer. 9 Countless men and women may well be dying needlessly because non-medical treatments are not evaluated scientifically. 

Adults in North America have almost complete control over their bodies. They have the right to pursue any religious or medical treatment that they feel is best for them. They are even free to commit suicide if they wish. However, it is our opinion that they need to be fully informed in advance of the effectiveness of each alternative treatment.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Article in JAMA (The Journal of the American Medical Association), 1997-FEB-5 Vol. 277, No.5, Page 425.
  2. Awake!, 1994-MAY-22.
  3. W.F. Simpson, "Comparative Longevity in a College Cohort of Christian Scientists," Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) 262:16571658, 1989.
  4. "Comparative Mortality of Two College Groups," CDC Mortality and Morbidity Weekly Report 40:579582, 1991.
  5. Cheryl Clark, "Faith healing faulted in deaths. Study says children's ailments were curable," San Diego Union Tribune, 1998-APR-7.
  6. S.M. Asser & R. Swan, "Child fatalities from religion-motivated medical neglect,"  Pediatrics, 1998; 101(4), Pages 625-629.
  7. "Women's Death Rates for Lung cancer and Breast Cancer, 1930 - 1989," at: http://www.swiftwater.com/.
  8. "Susan G. Komen, at: http://ww5.komen.org/.
  9. "Prostate Cancer," at: http://www.dendreon.com/.

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Site navigation: Home page > "Hot" religious topics > Faith healing > here

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Copyright 1996 to 2013 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 1996-JAN-14
Latest update: 2013-MAR-25
Author: B.A. Robinson
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