08.03The Christian Science Holocaust
by Gerald Bergman, PhD
Many modern religions make specific claims which are incongruent with reality and the results of scientific research. One of the best examples is religion-motivated medical neglect which in one church congregation alone resulted in the death of at least 64 children from 1975 to 1995 (Asser and Swan, 1998). Many churches teach that to use medical care is a violation of God’s law, although the record of religion caused medical deaths is probably held by the Christian Science Church founded by Mary Baker Eddy over a century ago. No one knows how many persons have died prematurely as a result of rejecting medicine on religious grounds, but the number is likely in the tens-of-thousands.
Ms. Eddy claimed her church’s bible called Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures was co-authored by her and God. Historians, though, attribute many of her ideas to a man that she once worked with and studied under, Phineas P. Quimby (Milmine, 1971). Quimby was an uneducated clock maker who eventually became a mesmerist and a faith healer of sorts. He once traveled around the country in a covered wagon selling a cure-all today derisively called snake oil (Sikorsky, 1979). He later concluded that neither his nor anyone else’s medicine heals because only the mind heals, and soon started lecturing on “the power of the mind” to heal.
The Christian Science Church is today a century old mainstream denomination with an estimated 2,400 churches in 70 countries. It began in 1879 with 26 members, fewer than a dozen of which were active, and has grown into a major American denomination (Stark, 1998, p. 189). Christian Science reading rooms are now found in every large city and in many small American towns. Not a sect of the poor, but rather mostly middle and upper class citizens who built churches that are typically large, expensive and well-maintained edifices. The church operates what was once one of the country’s larger and more respected newspapers, The Christian Science Monitor (Gey, 1998: 17). Its circulation has now plummeted to 70,000, evidently partly because of the increased public awareness of their church policies related to medicine and children (Swan, 1998). The membership has also dropped dramatically in recent decades, and this fall has been accelerating: in USA the adjusted membership fell from 218,000 in 1983 to only 106,000 in 1990-close to what the membership was in 1906 (Stark 1998, p. 192). Part of their membership problem is only about one-third of Christian Science children remain members as adults (Stark 1998 p. 209). Many young persons realize their teaching are erroneous and as adults take French leave from the church of their parents.
Christian Science Beliefs
The logic behind Ms. Eddy’s core teachings is a tragic example of where flawed logic based on false premises can lead. She began by assuming that God is omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent – all knowing, all powerful and existing everywhere. This belief, widely held by Christians, Jews and Muslins alike, would not cause controversy in most religious circles today. What is controversial is her interpretation of this belief. Eddy reasoned that since God is good and God is everywhere, good must be everywhere, therefore evil could not be anywhere. If evil does not exist, sickness or disease could not exist either. Therefore, they must be illusions. Since evil exists only in the minds of humans it must be removed by right teaching and right thought, which the church teaches comes only from Christian Science. The purpose of Christian Science is not to cure disease, but rather to help deluded persons overcome the delusion that they are sick or dead. (In spite of Ms. Eddy’s denial of human mortality, she died on December 3, 1910).
When a person becomes ill, a Christian Science practitioner helps the person to accept the reality that the disease is nonexistent. If a person develops scarlet fever, the problem to overcome is not the disease but the illusion that one has scarlet fever. The practitioner merely helps them focus their energy on driving these “erroneous” illness thoughts (such as pain, vertigo, etc.) from their mind.
When patients achieve the true understanding that illness does not exist, the physical illness disappears. Patients are thus not cured in the traditional sense, but only helped to overcome their delusion (which is the only problem). Christian Science literature, which is available in their reading rooms and is often given out in airports and other places where the public gathers, contains thousands of anecdotal accounts of how people were able to overcome the illusion of illness and become healed.
In short, Ms. Eddy concluded that illness and death are both illusions that can be overcome by the application of faith in God’s complete perfection. Christian Science focuses on helping their followers look beyond the “false appearances of the material world to see the real world, which is God’s total perfection.” The Christian Science healing doctrine is poignantly nonsensical in view of their belief that “man is not matter .. made up of brains, blood, bones, and other material elements … Man is spiritual and perfect [and because of this] … man is incapable of sin, sickness, and death” ( Science and Health 1934 edition p. 475).
Persons educated in modern Western society view this belief as a serious distortion of reality that would cause a therapist to question the sanity of the person who espouses it. The obvious erroneousness of this belief, and reports of the many children that have died because of it, may be one reason why the Christian Science church membership has declined drastically in the past decades.
How Christian Science ideas developed
Christian Science was founded at a time when medicine was in its infancy, and although doctors could probably diagnose most diseases fairly accurately, they often could do little to cure them until the 1930s and 1940s when antibiotics were developed. Until the 1930s, for most diseases doctors could only comfort their patients and help them by diet, rest, and ingestion of needed body fluids. In short, often the most a doctor could do was to help a patient’s own body do its healing work, and this often took much time. Many of the drugs that doctors used in the 1800’s were ineffective, and the three primary medical treatments used then (blood letting, purging, and enemas) often did more harm than good. As a result, until the turn of the century about half of all children born did not live to see their 21st birthday (Magner, 1992).
It was no wonder that many people turned to Christian Science in the late 1800’s. Furthermore, even absurd beliefs can be dressed in clothing so attractive that they appeal to millions-and the teaching of Christian Science are masterpieces of duplicity (for example see Westberg 1998). They often attracted the uninformed, or those who had negative experiences with doctors or conventional medicine-no small number.
Christian Science treatment involves having a Christian Science Practitioner visit the sick to help convince them that their illness is an illusion that needs to be overcome. Many people convinced of Christian Science’s validity were raised in the church and taught this doctrine from birth. A practitioner would for this reason seem to be unnecessary to convince these persons that something does not exist which they were taught from a young age is illusionary. Once convinced that evil and pain do not exist, they should never again experience any health problems. This, though, is not the case. Christian Scientists claim many “hearings,” evidently because members forgot the insight they worked so hard to gain, and as a result have to routinely relearn it again throughout their lives. Furthermore, many church members, even the church healers, live in rest homes, which is not only a blatant contradiction of their beliefs, but actually proof of their teachings’ failure (Stark 1998).
When reading Christian Science healing accounts, one is struck by the fact that many common diseases they “heal” in three days are normally effectively healed by the body after a few days without Christian Science or even medicine. A person has what appears to be the flu, and after three days of prayer and coaching in “right thought” philosophy by a Christian Science practitioner, the patient finally becomes convinced that he does not have the flu and feels normal. Of course, the person with the flu who does nothing will likewise usually feel normal after three days.
To be perfectly consistent, if God is both good and everywhere, evil could not exist even in the hearts or minds of humans because neither disease nor the delusion that disease exists could exist anywhere, including in the human mind. Therefore, according to a consistent application of Christian Science, no illusions exists for Christian Science treatment to counteract, and consequently no need exists for Christian Science. Furthermore, it would be irrelevant to visit a doctor because if evil is unreal as Christian Science teaches, doctors and medicine cannot be evil, and it would hardly be wrong to visit good people and take good substances called medicine (Smullyan, 1980 p. 67).
A Visit to Headquarters
The church owns much property including the Mother Church in Boston, an enormous edifice that cost $2,000,000 when completed in 1906. One of the largest church buildings in the United States, it seats 5,012 persons and required 6 services just to accommodate the dedicatory service (The Toledo Blade, June II, 1906).
The author, during a tour of the Christian Science world headquarters in Boston, asked the tour director if her wearing glasses was a contradiction of her church’s teachings. The guide answered that she was still working on overcoming the illusion that she needed glasses.
A dentist acquaintance of the writer, who was also a church member to please his wife, in answer to the same question responded with tongue in cheek “I treat the unbelievers.” Evidently, in what would seem to be a blatant contradiction, the church does not oppose dental work including drilling, filling or teeth extraction (Swan, 1998). Since the horrible pain of bad teeth does exist, God must not be both good and everywhere or must be good but not everywhere. These lethal contradictions, though, are rationalized away by the faithful.
Although faithful Christian Scientists are taught to refuse all non dental forms of medicine including chiropractic and optometry, their largely middle and upper-middle class membership reflects their culture and stresses abstinence from tobacco, alcohol and illegal drugs and the importance of cleanliness, rest, exercise, a proper diet, and avoiding harmful habits (Swan 1998). These practices enable them to avoid many diseases and may help to account for the fact that some Christian Scientists do survive into old age. Furthermore, stressing healthful living would seem to be contradictory; if evil does not exist since God is good and everywhere, then smoking, drinking and using drugs could not be harmful and must be good.
When Christian Scientists are compared with other churches that prohibit smoking and stress a healthful diet, though, the death rate was found to be over twice as high for the Christian Scientists (Simpson, 1989). In a 39 year period, Simpson (1991) compared SDA and Christian Scientist graduates and found a stunning difference: for the male cohort that graduated in 1945 to 1946, the death rate among the Christian Scientist graduates was over 4 times greater and for females it was almost 5 times greater! Much of the difference is no-doubt due to cancer which is almost always treatable if diagnosed early, and rarely treatable if diagnosed later. Furthermore, how faithfully members follow church doctrine is not easy to determine; no doubt many do visit doctors on occasion.
In one study of the Christian Science method of healing, Wardwell (1965) concluded that denial of reality is central to the system, and that this denial occurs at different psychological levels. Christian Scientists seem to be rejecting both their own weaknesses and inadequacies as well as their frustrations; the latter tend to be projected onto others who are perceived as dangerous. An example is the “malicious animal magnetism” belief developed by Mrs. Eddy which amounts to delusions of persecution inflicted by her imaginary enemies. Wardwell (1965) concluded that because Christian Scientists repress or deny their fundamental human drives and desires, they suffer from unconscious feelings of depression and guilt that are only partly relieved by their religious explanations.
Mark Twain’s Critique of Christian Science
The most well known critique of Christian Science was by Mark Twain and is required reading for anyone interested in contemporary religion. Twain’s enormously humorous but insightful critique effectively conveys the ludicrousness of Ms. Eddy’s beliefs. On a vacation Twain fell off a cliff in Austria and “broke some arms and legs and one thing or another.” After being rescued by local peasants, he searched in vain for a doctor. Finally, a Christian Science practitioner was located who was vacationing in the village. Unable to come immediately she sent Twain the message to relax because there was nothing wrong with him, and his feelings of pain were “imagined,” therefore he needed no treatment.
The practitioner, a large middle aged woman with an austere face, later came to help Twain deal with his imagined broken bones. When trying to convince Mr. Twain that the pain he was then experiencing didn’t exist, she accidentally raked her hand on a pin in her dress, said “ouch” in pain, then tranquilly went on trying to convince Mr. Twain that pain doesn’t exist. Needless to say she failed to convince Mr. Twain that his bones did not hurt and there was no such thing as pain.
Fortunately Mr. Twain survived, no doubt because he found someone who was concerned with setting bones instead of selling a dangerous pseudoscientific religious philosophy. Mr. Twain’s book is written to bring many chuckles, but the religion it discusses is about the serious business of death. Many tragic deaths have occurred due to Eddy’s teachings. This fact has been documented at least since before the turn of the century (Peabody, 1910).
One of the more famous modern cases of death is that of two-year-old Robyn Twitchell who became violently ill in 1986 after a light supper. The Twitchell’s were practicing Christian Scientists and so did what good Christian Scientists do: they consulted a Christian Science practitioner, read various publications about how to deal with this illusion, prayed for Robyn and sang hymns to him. It is not easy to convince a two year old that pain and suffering do not exist, and Robyn continued crying and screaming in spite of the best “treatment” the church had to offer. On April 8 the boy died from peritonitis caused by a bowel obstruction from Meckel’s diverticulum.
This condition can usually be treated by surgery without complications, but Robyn’s parents relied solely on prayer. As a result, although “Christian Science theology may teach that death is an illusion … when their children die from lack of medical attention, the parents face real criminal charges” (Gey, 1998, p. 17). The Twitchell’s were successfully prosecuted for involuntary manslaughter but, as often happens in the American court system, their convictions were overturned on appeal because of a technical flaw in their trial (Gey, 1998, p. 17).
This is one of many examples of multi-thousands of conflicts between the government and Christian Scientists. Legislators in many states have even passed laws prohibiting the prosecution of Christian Scientists who allow their children to die from lack of medical treatment! These laws are a clear violation of the U.S. Constitution which prohibits the state from passing laws “respecting religion.” The lawsuits will no doubt continue, as will the sickness and suffering caused by Christian Science. An example of the results of thousands of deaths that occur each year due to Christian Science and similar beliefs is that of the following 1986 case involving the widow of a Christian Scientist in Plano, Illinois, whom brought a case against the church.
Her husband, suffering from uremic poisoning resulting from prostatitis, was “treated” by a Christian Science practitioner. When the patient got worse and appeared near death, the woman sought to dismiss the practitioner and obtain orthodox medical assistance for her husband. The practitioner forbade it, warning her that if she even spoke to a doctor, the man would die.
Despite the practitioner’s earnest prayers, the man did die, miserably and in pain. The widow filed suit to recover damages for the wrongful death of her husband, whose condition usually responds well to surgery and/or medication. In effect, this woman was contending the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution does not protect religious faith healers and their churches from liability in such matters. The Supreme Court refused her suit, arguing that “the issues raised would require an inquiry into whether the tenets of the Christian Science Church are valid, and such an inquiry would violate the First Amendment.” (Randi, 1987, p. 293-294).
The Health Problems of the Founder
Ms. Eddy, an often sick and frail woman consumed with health concerns and seeking one cure after another, had health problems most of her life even after she “discovered” Christian Science. She finally became a devotee of various faith healing practices even though her second husband, Dr. Patterson, was an itinerant dentist (this may be why she approved of dentists). Her third husband was more to her liking-he was a spiritualist of sorts and became one of her first students. Convinced that she was healed from a fall and certain preexisting medical conditions, Ms. Eddy developed a systematic theory of the supremacy of mind over body, and soon had a large number of followers. She based her new religion, which was an amalgamation of Christianity and the Occult, on the religious ideas around her with which she was acquainted.
Her church was not without its problems, though, including a number of major schisms. As it grew, the controversies also grew. In 1906 Twain published his derisive book which was discussed above, and soon other well known writers such as H.L. Mencken attacked Christian Science without mercy. Ms. Eddy became so paranoid that she claimed her enemies where trying to kill her through “malicious animal magnetism” an allusion to Mesmer’s philosophy which was largely discredited even in her day. Many of Mrs. Eddy’s illnesses were likely psychosomatic, and many claim that one of the reasons for her constant sickness was the attention it brought her.
In a review of the case law on Christian Scientists, Gey (1997 p. 18), a professor of law at Florida State University, finds that “there are no major cases that permit government interference when a competent Christian Scientist adult decides to treat his or her own illness through prayer alone.” Courts have rather consistently upheld the right of an adult to refuse medical treatment, often on the basis of court decisions in favor of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ refusal to consent to blood transfusions even if this refusal results in their death, which it often does.
When children are involved, in both the case of Christian Scientists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, the state is more apt to interfere, often by removing the sick child from the custody of his or her parents, then returning the child to the parents after treatment is successful (which it usually is). The supreme court ruled over a half a century ago that the government could override the parent’s religious freedom in order to enforce child-protection laws. In short, the court ruled parents can become martyrs themselves but this does not allow them to make martyrs of their children before they reach the age of full legal discretion (Prince vs. MA 321 US 158, 170 1944, a case of a Jehovah’s Witness child). In the case of Christian Scientists, though, since they don’t consult doctors, the state is usually not aware of the emergency until the child dies (Asser and Swan, 1998).
Are Christian Science Parents Forced to Ignore their Children’s Health Care?
An enormous amount of pressure is exerted by church members to ensure that the Christian Science parents conform to church teaching on medicine. Without this pressure many parents would renege and seek medical care for their obviously extremely sick and possibly dying child. In the case of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the parents are threatened with disfellowshipping if they permit their child to receive a blood transfusion, meaning that no fellowship with them will be allowed. Disfellowshipping from a church can be serious because church members often include family, friends, relatives, children, and siblings-and to be cut off from these persons is often profoundly traumatic. Consequently, many persons in religious groups that forbid or discourage use of modern medicine face the choice of losing either their child or their family and their major support system.
The Christian Scientist church does not practice formal disfellowshipping as do Jehovah’s Witness and certain other religions, but they often use strong social pressure. For example, they force members who have accepted medical help to resign from all church offices, and also require new members to sign a pledge in order to join the church, affirming that they will not use medicine. A tragedy this writer has repeatedly seen is a Christian Scientist or a Jehovah’s Witness who loses a child due to religious beliefs; then they later come to realize that their beliefs are erroneous, and become angry at a church that taught them ideas which they now realize caused them to lose their child. Worse still is the tendency to experience extreme guilt and shame concerning their own role in their child’s death.
Christian Science and Watchtower attorneys have fought many cases to ensure parents have the right to let their children die rather than receive medical care. These attorneys phrase the controversy in terms of the right to choose medical care they feel is most appropriate for their child (which is to utilize denial alone, meaning they reject all life saving medical care). Christian Science argues many people have faith that modern medicine can cure, and they have the right to choose their own health treatment just as Christian Science members have the right to rely on their own care methods-meaning to do nothing medically or scientifically. In fact, they do not use faith to cure, but only attempt to convince the sick that they are not really ill because God is good and everywhere, therefore they could not be sick, nor is their physical body even real because humans are spiritual only and perfect. They are in the true sense of the word trying to deny reality.
When I encounter Christian Scientists, I often sincerely inquire about their beliefs and the rationale thereof. Intrigued as to how they could accept the belief structure they appear to have embraced, and realizing that I’m probably not going to convince them of the erroneousness of their beliefs, I have settled on simply trying to enlighten myself about them. If my questions are intelligent, well placed and sincere, not mocking nor overbearing, I have found this approach tends to cause them to think about their beliefs.
Christian Scientists are not the only people with irrational beliefs; most individuals, especially some less educated folks, hold irrational beliefs. Any person who has battled proponents of astrology, parapsychology, UFO’s and the endless other irrational ideas will not find this difficult to understand. Many beliefs are impervious to logic and argument, and beliefs tend to perpetuate themselves. Those in the health care field such as the author are especially intrigued about common irrational beliefs which adversely affect health care.
I have been unable to convince an overweight, couch potato diabetic colleague that his smoking and high fatty diet will make his diabetes worse. Photocopying numerous studies on diabetes and smoking has failed to convince him of my concerns. I do console myself that at least he is taking his insulin and other medication; if he was a Christian Scientist he would probably not even be doing this. Rather he would be working on convincing himself that his diabetes symptoms were not real because he didn’t have a body, the physical world was not real, and humankind are all perfect spiritual beings as is God.
Summary: The End of Christian Science
Christian Science may be the only major religion of this century to go out of business-only 33% of their children remain in the church as adults compared to 81 % for Catholics, 80% for Mormons, and 80% for Baptists. Few religions have a lower retention level (Stark, 1989, p. 209). In 1936 their membership peaked at 268,915 and today it is estimated to be less then 106,000 (1990) and falling (Stark, 1998, p. 1991).
Mark Twain told the story very elegantly back in 1906. Stark concludes the movement began as a huge success and ended as a dismal failure. When Christian Science passes off the scene of American religion, which they appear to be doing now, no doubt some other irrationality will take its place. The new irrationality may or may not be religious, for religions have no monopoly on irrational beliefs, although they seem to have more than their fair share.
Nonetheless, the results of following Christian Science teaching amounts to murder by negligence, supported by the eccentric notions of a Christian sect (admittedly very wealthy and influential), can be carried out by a “practitioner” with no medical training whatsoever. This, and a direct breach of another law – that which prohibits the practice of medicine without proper licenses – can and will be tolerated by the courts. I ask, which is more anti-social, a man… smoking a substance that may be less harmful than tobacco – which certainly has been proved to cause illness and death – or a man causing another man to die in agony for lack of proved, established medical procedures? (Randi 1987 p. 294).
And religion has much to do with mortality and morbidity rates. One study found the rate among Mormons and Seventh-Day Adventists is comparatively low, and the rate among Christian Scientists is very high (Simpson 1991 p. 580). Studies of immunization for disease including measles, pertussis and other disease found that the risk of disease was significantly higher in exemptors. Two studies found morbidity rates from 22 to 60 times higher in exemptors compared to persons that were immunized (Feikin et al 2000; Salmon et al, 1999). Likely the same is true of other diseases that are protected by immunization such as tetanus and rabies – which are often lethal – and scarlet fever. Furthermore, the behavior of those who object to certain medical practices such as vaccines was also found to effect the morbidity and mortality of others. For example, one study found that the rate of disease of children who were immunized but exposed to children who exempted was higher (Edwards, 2000).
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