A Dangerous Religion For Children
John J. Dunphy
(Originally published in the Spring 2011 issue of Secular Humanist Bulletin)
I make a point of welcoming college students who visit my Alton, Illinois bookshop by expressing the hope that they do well in their classes and find employment in their chosen fields. “Good luck!” I tell them as they go out the door. While I always truly mean it, never is that sentiment more genuinely heartfelt than when the students are from Principia College in Elsah, Illinois, which is located just a few miles from Alton. Given their particular situation, I figure they need all the good luck that anyone can possibly wish them.
Principia College is the only college in the world with a student body, faculty and staff that are comprised entirely of Christian Scientists. To state that members of this denomination hold beliefs that generally place them outside the mainstream doesn’t even begin to describe the Alice-through-the-looking-glass world of this denomination.
Christian Science is actually closer to the Hindu religion than to Christianity in its insistence that matter doesn’t exist and the phenomenal world is an illusion. Only spirit is real. Humans are made in the image and likeness of God, who is perfect, so it logically follows that humans are also perfect. God, who is all-good, didn’t create injury, illness and death, so they are merely illusions and must be regarded as such. Ailments — from colds to cancer — occur only because one has an imperfect understanding of the truths of Christian Science and should be treated by prayer, not doctors. However, I know that any number of Christian Scientists surreptitiously seek medical care, albeit with the kind of trepidation experienced by closeted gays who fear being outed. They know that, if discovered, they will be disgraced in the eyes of their more fanatical coreligionists who would rather die than opt for medical care under virtually any circumstances.
Devout Christian Scientists consider vaccinations unnecessary, a fact brought home to me in 1985 when a measles epidemic swept through Principia College. The campus population incurred 128 confirmed or suspected cases. Three people died, although Christian Scientists typically employ euphemisms for death such as “passed on” or “passed away.” For a religion that denies the reality of death, a corpse is the ultimate elephant in the room.
Adult conversions to Christian Science are thankfully rare, so its members tend to come from families that have belonged to the religion for several generation. The students at Principia, indoctrinated in Christian Science from early childhood, usually suffer from the same straight-jacketed minds that characterize people whose lives have been spent in a cult. Current students with whom I’ve spoken are either blissfully unaware of that long-ago measles epidemic or regard it as an example of some Christian Scientists whose insufficient understanding of their religion allowed the illusion of illness to enter their minds. Keeping one’s mouth from dropping open in astonishment while conversing with such people can be quite a challenge.
Ever the optimist, I harbor the hope that at least some Principia students will eventually reject such nonsense and join the ranks of former Christian Scientists, from whom I’ve heard numerous accounts of unnecessary suffering and death that could have been prevented by proper medical care. What particularly horrifies and disgusts me is that Christian Science is responsible for the deaths of children.
In her article “Suffering Children and the Christian Science Church (The Atlantic Monthly; April 1995), Caroline Fraser noted that finding cases of Christian Scientists who allowed their children to die for lack of medical care isn’t always easy. “Unless a coroner rules them homicides or criminal charges are filed,” she observed, “the deaths may not be brought to the attention of the media and the public.” The details of the cases we know about are consistently heartrending. Here are just four examples.
Twelve-year-old Ashley King, the child of Christian Scientists, died in 1988 of bone cancer. When Child Protective Services manages to acquire temporary custody of Ashley for the purpose of getting her a medical examination, doctors found a tumor that was forty-one inches in circumference on her right leg. The doctors recommended that Ashley’s leg be amputated to reduce the pain she was suffering during the brief time she had left, but her parents refused. Instead, this devout couple took Ashley to a Christian Science nursing home, where Christian Science “nurses” provided only non-medical care. The girl died at this facility, which was not state-licensed.
Andrew Wantland was also twelve years old when he fell victim in 1992 to the Christian Science convictions of his father, with whom he lived. Andrew’s parents were divorced, and his mother had moved away, rejecting Christian Science when she remarried. Before he developed diabetes, Andrew weighed 140 pounds. When he died of that untreated disease, he weighted about 105 pounds.
Nancy Brewster suffered through two years of hell from malignant lymphoma before dying in 1963 at age seven. Her mother engaged the services of a Christian Science practitioner to pray for the child. Nancy was never held or comforted in any way since that would have been “giving reality” to the illusion of disease. When Nancy died, her mother told the child’s siblings to imagine that she had taken a journey to Africa. There was no funeral or newspaper obituary, and Nancy’s name was never again spoken in the house.
Nancy’s mother later became a Christian Science practitioner and wrote an article for The Christian Science Journal in which she claimed that rearing four children “with total reliance on Christian Science was a joy” and that she couldn’t “remember an activity missed because of illness.” As Caroline Fraser points out in her book God’s Perfect Child: Living and Dying in the Christian Science Church (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Co., 1999), Mrs. Brewster had five children, not four. “The unmentioned fifth child who had been revised out of this testimony — indeed, out of life itself — was Nancy Brewster.”
Rita Swan was a devout Christian Scientist who in 1977 relied on Christian Science practitioners to “treat” her sixteen-month-old son, Matthew, with prayer. Matthew’s screams and convulsions finally touched her heart enough to overcome years of conditioning against seeking medical care, and she took her baby to a hospital. Matthew died from spinal meningitis, which she learned could have been successfully treated with antibiotics. Swan and her husband left Christian Science and in 1983 founded CHILD (Children’s Healthcare Is A Legal Duty). The nonprofit organization is dedicated to protecting children from abusive religious and cultural practices — especially when such abuse takes the form of medical neglect.
I e-mailed Swan to ask which states currently have laws that require parents to obtain medical care for their children, regardless of their religious beliefs. She replied, “it’s not an easy question to answer because many of the state laws are somewhat ambiguous, and we can’t say for sure what they mean until they are interpreted by courts. (Over the body of a dead child, of course).” However, she noted that “There are only five states that have no religious exemptions related to medical care of sick children in either their civil or criminal codes: Hawaii, Nebraska, Massachusetts, Maryland and North Carolina.”
Swan added that seventeen states have no religious exemption in their criminal code, so parents in those states probably have a legal duty to get medical care regardless of their religious objections. “The Florida Supreme Court did, however, overturn the Hermansons’ conviction, even though Florida’s religious exemption is only in the civil code,” she noted. Swan was referring to the 1986 death of seven-year-old Amy Hermanson, whose Christian Scientist parents treated her diabetes with prayer rather than medical care. Her parents were convicted of felony child abuse and third-degree murder, but their convictions were overturned in 1992 by the Florida Supreme Court.
Americans of conscience must work together to ensure that all fifty states have no religious exemptions in either their criminal or civil codes, thus requiring parents to obtain proper medical are for their children. Humanists and theists have some profound differences, but surely they can agree that freedom of religion should not include the right of parents to allow their children to suffer agonizing and unnecessary deaths.
John J. Dunphy is the author of “Abolitionism and the Civil War in Southwestern Illinois” and “From Christmas to Twelfth Night in Southern Illinois.”