Wednesday, January 14, 2015

What people really believe really does matter

A bullet hole at the offices of French satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, January 7, 2015
In the wake of the massacre at Charlie Hebdo in Paris last week, the notion that bad people will do bad things and use religion merely as an excuse to justify them has been echoing around. The idea is that the evil is within the evil-doers and the cause of that evil does not - no, cannot - include religious beliefs. I cannot disagree more strongly. To be sure, there are other causes for evil behaviour, but religious beliefs are among the causative mix along with rage and other emotions, psychopathy, political beliefs, beliefs about honour, revenge, etc. To illustrate the specific power of religious beliefs to motivate people to do the otherwise unthinkable, allow me to tell you a story.

Herbert and Catherine Schaible were a couple living a quiet life in northeast Pennsylvania. They quit school after 9th grade and, eventually became teachers at the First Century Gospel Church where they were third generation observant members. They had 9 children. I know of nobody with more faith than them.

In 2009, their 2 year old son, Kent, developed trouble breathing, fever, and a cough. Trial evidence including testimony from the Schaibles indicated that he'd been suffering for about two weeks before he ultimately died from bacterial pneumonia. When his condition worsened, they called their pastor. The next call they made was to a funeral home.

The Schaibles did not seek medical attention for Kent's condition at any time though they did pray for him and seek the prayer and support of their pastor and their community. They were ultimately found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and endangering the welfare of a child. Their sentencing included 10 years probation and a promise from them: that they would seek medical care if one of their remaining 8 children became ill.

"We tried to fight the devil, but in the end, the devil won" said Herbert at that time.

Fast forward to last year, when their 7-month old son, Brandon, developed similar symptoms. The Schaibles broke their promise to the state, but held true to their faith, and Brandon succumbed to dehydration and bacterial pneumonia, just like the brother that he never knew.

In both instances, medical experts testified that the children would probably have lived had routine treatments like fluids and antibiotics been administered. By all accounts, the Schaibles were loving parents who were both deeply concerned about their childrens' well-being and saddened by their deaths. So how do we explain their behaviour?

Perhaps we should ask the Schaibles how they explain what they did, twice? Here's what Detective Brian Peters of the Philadelphia Homocide Unit reported that Herbert Schaible explained when he asked him just that: "Healing occurs through God's will. Only God's will could have saved his son. He said this several times, and would repeat it in his statement when he was asked if he regretted not taking Brandon to a doctor. “No, I don’t regret it,” Herbie said, “because we believe that the only way is the right way and that is through God. I would change places with either of my sons. But it’s God’s will. He is the healer of our bodies.”"

Cathy Schaible echoed her husband's comments: “We pray and ask God to heal … the way Jesus did when He was on Earth.”

As devout members of their church, the Schaibles believe that faith in Jesus and prayer to God are the right and only path; they don't wear glasses or seatbelts, avoid vaccinations, and, of course, medical care. Schooling ends at grade 10. They also avoid owning and accumulating wealth, making sure to tithe and give to charity while renting their living accommodations.

Their pastor, Nelson Clark, has said the Schaibles lost their sons because of a "spiritual lack" in their lives and insisted they would not seek medical care even if another child appeared near death.

Earlier this year, they were sentenced to up-to 7 years in prison plus additional probation.

Is there any lens through which to view this tragedy other than the one of their faith? Is there any way to explain their behaviour that doesn't appeal to their beliefs about the healing powers of Jesus?

Well, other parents without those particular beliefs avoid life-saving medical care that threatens or kills their beloved. It's even thought that Steve Jobs rejected best medical advice and put off more aggressive treatments in favour of holistic ones, ultimately contributing to his own premature and perhaps unnecessary death. So while this particular brand of Christianity isn't necessary for these types of poor health decisions, it sure seems sufficient. In fact, the sufficient common denominator seems to be an epistemic failure to reason and weigh evidence properly. As soon as faith enters into the mix as a reasonable justification for belief, anything goes, even behaviour that causes parents to kill their children. If deeply held religious beliefs can motivate people to do that, then they can motivate people to do anything. And they do.

A few months ago, President Obama said that ISIS is "not Islamic" because "no religion condones the killing of innocents". I wonder if he'd also say that the faithful followers of the First Century Gospel Church are similarly "not Christian" because "no religion condones the suffering and death of innocent children." He'd be obviously wrong on both accounts.

Would anybody say that the Schaibles are child killers who use their particular religious beliefs as an excuse to watch their children suffer?

If you think that religion can motivate people to do good things, then you better not employ a double standard and proclaim that it can't motivate people to do bad things. What people believe really does matter. Religious beliefs really do matter. Anything believed on faith really shouldn't.

Let's stop exalting faith and protecting it from the criticism it deserves.

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