Faith Healing and Modern Medicine

Thousands of Americans choose faith healings over medical intervention every day, for themselves and for their children. When does a country that prides itself on freedom of religion declare that public health trumps personal belief?

Sick boy

Before the measles vaccine was licensed in 1963, more than 500 people would die every year from the disease. Due to a highly effective vaccine, the United States eliminated measles in 2000—so why, in 2015, was there a measles outbreak that sickened more than 100 people?

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Bad Faith (Basic Books, 2015), by Dr. Paul A. Offit, chronicles the stories of those who choose to medically martyr themselves, or their children, in the name of religion. With vivid storytelling and compelling characters, Offit makes a strenuous case that denying medicine to children in the name of religion isn’t just unwise and immoral, but a rejection of the very best aspects of what belief itself has to offer. The following excerpt is from chapter 1, “The Very Worst Thing.”

To find more books that pique our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.

“You always think you know the worst thing. But it’s never the very worst thing.”—Richard Ford, Canada

Rita Swan was born in 1943 in Ogden, Utah, the first of six children. When she was four, her father converted to Christian Science. Soon, both her mother and father experienced Christian Science healings. The father, whose doctor had given him “pink medicine and brown medicine” for a throat condition, threw the medicine down the toilet and quickly recovered. The mother, who had been burned by lye while scrubbing floors, converted when the burn marks on her hands miraculously disappeared. All six children were raised without medical care. All survived.

Rita enthusiastically embraced the religion of her parents. “I prayed for the animals when they were sick. For the ones that recovered, we gave credit to Christian Science. One time our cat was bitten by a snake and his face swelled up. So we gave him a treatment, which is an argumentative form of prayer. It argues that the disease is unreal because God didn’t make it and God is good and God is the only power. You just have to keep arguing to convince yourself that the disease is an illusion. It’s an error. It’s not part of God’s creation. In reality you are a perfect image of God so you can’t be sick and you keep formulating these arguments to yourself over and over again until the disease disappears.” When the cat recovered, the family gave him a Christian Science name. They called him “The Demonstrator.”

The Swan family had embraced a relatively modern religion, established only seventy years before Rita was born. It was founded by a woman who was at one time homeless, but who died a millionaire.

The Origins of Christian Science

Mary Baker Eddy was born on July 16, 1821, in Bow, New Hampshire, the youngest of six children. Her father, Mark Baker, was a justice of the peace and a Congregational Church deacon. Her mother, Abigail, believed Mary was a Divine Spirit sent by God.

As a child, Mary suffered a variety of illnesses. “Mary Baker’s ‘fits’ frequently came on without the slightest warning,” recalled a contemporary. “At times the attack resembled a convulsion. Mary pitched headlong on the floor, and rolled and kicked, writhing and screaming in apparent agony.” Her father would hitch up the wagon, and maniacally flog the horses on the way to the doctor’s office, all the time shouting, “Mary is dying!”

Eddy’s illnesses persisted. Throughout adolescence she was gravely ill one minute and fine the next. One biographer described her as “an anthology of nineteenth century nervous ailments.” Because Mary believed her symptoms were brought on by noise, she covered a nearby wooden bridge with sawdust. When that didn’t work, she killed the frogs outside her home.

By the time she was an adult—and had gone through two marriages and given birth to a child whom she later abandoned—Eddy had experimented with a variety of treatments to cure her ailments. She had tried mesmerism (hypnosis) and special diets. She had tried homeopathy, where medicines are diluted to the point that they aren’t there anymore. And she had tried hydropathy, drinking large quantities of water. But her moment of clarity came in June 1862, when she visited the Vail Hydropathic Institute in Hill, New Hampshire. It was there that Eddy heard about a man who would change her life and provide the philosophical basis for her soon-to-be-founded religious movement. His name was Phineas Parkhurst Quimby.

The Power of Suggestion

Quimby was the son of a blacksmith. As a young man, he was fascinated with electricity and magnets, believing they had curative powers. Although poorly educated and largely illiterate, he founded a healing cult that centered on hypnotism, massage therapy, and the power of suggestion. Quimby argued that if emotions can cause physical illnesses—as Freud later proved—then all illnesses could be reversed by the right kind of thinking. “Disease is a belief,” he declared.

In October 1862, when she was forty-one years old, Mary Baker Eddy visited Phineas Quimby at the International Hotel in Portland, Maine. She wanted him to treat her back pain. After she was cured—and inspired by Quimby’s power-of-suggestion therapy— Eddy set upon a path to cure others. Unlike Quimby, however, Eddy’s healings had a theological underpinning. In February 1866, after she slipped on the icy streets of Lynn, Massachusetts, Eddy turned to the Bible for relief, reading the passage about Jesus’s healing of a paralyzed man. Later, she testified, “Ever after I was in better health than I had before enjoyed.” Eddy had experienced her epiphany. She would create a religion that combined Quimby’s power of suggestion with the healing ministry of Jesus. Christian Science was born.

At first, Eddy’s healings resembled those of the psychics, spiritualists, and mediums of her day. She held séances, claiming to see spirits of the departed. And she fell into trances, supposedly locating lost items, missing persons, and—in one inspired moment—Captain Kidd’s buried treasure.

In 1875, Eddy wrote Science and Health with a Key to the Scriptures, the book that would become the bible of her religion. (And a book she would revise about three hundred times.) Seventeen years later, she founded the mother church of Christian Science in Boston. Eddy believed that the material world, which includes sin, illness, falsehood, poverty, war, and death, is just an illusion—as is the physical body. The only realities are God and his spiritual mirror image: man. She reasoned that because all diseases are caused by ignorance of God, the only way to treat them was to draw closer to God through prayer.

Eddy had gone one step beyond Quimby. Although Quimby believed that all diseases were the consequence of mental states, he still believed that diseases existed. Eddy, on the other hand, believed that diseases were imaginary. Whereas Quimby believed in mind over matter, Eddy didn’t believe in matter. “You say a boil is painful,” wrote Eddy, “but that is impossible, for matter without mind is not painful.” Because boils don’t exist, they don’t need to be lanced.

Eddy used the term Science because healings could be demonstrated, and Christian because healings follow the ministry of Jesus. Christian Science, however, differs from Christianity in nearly every central doctrine; most importantly, whereas Christians believe that Jesus died for their sins, Christian Scientists believe that Jesus died to prove that diseases aren’t real. As for the word Science, Christian Science doesn’t incorporate any known scientific discipline. Arguably, Christian Science is neither Christian nor Science.

Mary Baker Eddy’s philosophies captivated a nation.

Christian Science Gains Popularity

By 1925, more than two hundred thousand people were Christian Scientists: a growth rate that exceeded every other religion. Christian Science churches could be found in every state, and Christian Science reading rooms in most cities and towns; all luxuriously appointed, all further evidence of the religion’s newfound financial prowess.

The success of Christian Science in the late 1800s and early 1900s can be explained in part by the woeful state of medicine at the time. When Eddy was formulating her theories, medicine had little to offer apart from quinine to treat malaria, a vaccine to prevent smallpox, and ether and chloroform for general anesthesia. Treatments consisted of emetics, bloodletting, scarifications, and corrosives. Worse, therapeutic standards, physician licensing boards, and hospital accreditation committees didn’t exist. Anyone could call himself a doctor, and did. Hucksterism was rampant. Ben Franklin suggested that prayer worked because it allowed people to avoid doctors, who usually did more harm than good. One anatomist said, “The only difference between a young and an old physician is that the former will kill you and the latter will let you die.” But Christian Science was different; liberating. Eddy’s religion put the power to heal in the hands of the people, offering control where there had been none and hope where there had been little. And, more than any other church, Eddy empowered women—providing them with jobs as spiritual healers.

Medical science, however, didn’t stand still. Before Eddy died, both a vaccine to prevent rabies and a serum to treat diphtheria became available. Soon, proof that specific germs caused specific diseases led to lifesaving sanitation programs. But Mary Baker Eddy continued to ignore the scientific advances around her. “If I harbored the idea that bacteria caused disease,” she said, “I should think myself in danger of catching it.” By 1910, the year of Eddy’s death, salvarsan, the first antibiotic, had been invented; syphilis was now a treatable disease. Two years later, phenobarbital, the first medicine to treat epilepsy, became available. Within a decade of Eddy’s death, insulin was isolated; within two decades, penicillin was discovered. Medical schools now had to be licensed, and physicians had to pass qualifying exams. In the midst of all of these discoveries, however, Christian Scientists remained firmly planted in the past, refusing to embrace a wealth of medical advances; choosing instead to believe that illnesses were imaginary and that the only road to cure was prayer.

A Christian Scientist Family

In 1944, Rita Swan’s father was drafted into the army, causing the family to move to posts in San Antonio, Texas; St. Cloud, Minnesota; Lawrence, Kansas; Pocatello, Idaho; and Ogden, Utah, eventually settling in Pittsburg, Kansas, where they operated a small farm. “We were poor,” recalled Rita. “My father sold livestock and feed supplements on commission. I grew up in a two-bedroom home with six kids in the Flint Hills of Kansas with no running water, no central heat, certainly no air conditioning, and no indoor plumbing. My three brothers slept in one bed. My sister and I slept in bunk beds in the same room. The baby slept in my parents’ room.”

The Swans were largely isolated in their beliefs; Rita was the only Christian Scientist at her rural high school. “I didn’t really have friends at all,” she recalled. “I just didn’t fit in. They weren’t interested in me. I couldn’t sing. I couldn’t dance. I didn’t know any popular music. I didn’t have contemporary clothes. I felt alienated. No one would extend themselves to me. My only satisfaction was getting A’s. But it wasn’t a class that respected intelligence. Fewer than 5 percent of our class went to college back in those days.”

When she was sixteen years old, Rita Swan graduated as the valedictorian of her high school class. In the fall, she attended Kansas State Teachers College in Emporia, Kansas (now Emporia State University), and quickly joined a Christian Science organization on campus: “That’s where I met my husband. I went to a Christian Science meeting and he was there on the doorstep. We began dating and were engaged three or four months later. I was seventeen years old. Doug was the first guy I had ever dated.”

After Rita’s freshman year at Kansas State Teachers College, Doug went to Michigan State University to get a master’s degree in mathematics. Two years later, in 1963, Rita graduated from college, married Doug, and moved to Elsah, Illinois, the home of Principia College—the only Christian Science college in the world—where Doug taught math. Rita taught English at Monticello College, an all-girls school ten miles down the road. “It was quite a plum, a mark of prestige,” recalled Rita. “Suddenly we were living in a community that was entirely Christian Science. And they all seemed to be making it work. They never got sick that we knew of. They gave testimonies at church about their healings. And they were very happy people. They never complained. As far as we could tell, they lived up to all the ideals of Christian Science.”

Doug eventually earned a PhD in mathematics from the University of Vermont, and Rita a PhD in English from Vanderbilt University. Her dissertation was on Percy Shelley and British Romantic poetry.

Then Rita Swan faced the first major test of her faith.

A Failure of Faith Healing

On October 20, 1969, Rita celebrated the birth of her first child, Catherine. Soon after, Rita suffered abdominal pain and irregular vaginal bleeding. “I was petrified,” she recalled. “I had lots of Christian Science treatments, and sometimes the pain would go away dramatically.” Sometimes, it wouldn’t go away.

In 1976, after Rita became pregnant with her second child, Matthew, the pain returned. “During my fourth month of pregnancy I suffered extreme, severe abdominal pain on my left side, really excruciating pain.” Because Christian Science allows for prenatal care, Rita went to a doctor. (Mary Baker Eddy had allowed doctors to attend Christian Science births following a lawsuit involving the death of both a mother and her newborn.) “He felt this thing growing on my left side and asked me to get an ultrasound.” The doctor was convinced that Rita had either an ovarian tumor or an ovarian cyst.

Rita immediately sought out a Christian Science practitioner who assured her that the mass was just an illusion: “The doctor doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” the practitioner reassured. “It’s all just speculation.” After several intense sessions of Christian Science prayer, Rita had her ultrasound. The tumor was gone. “I thought Christian Science had accomplished a miracle,” said Rita. “I thought it had dissolved this growth that the doctor was feeling. I told the Christian Science practitioner and she was walking on air. We thanked God. We praised God.” The doctor, now convinced that Rita was suffering from an ovarian cyst, explained that cysts can either twist and cause pain or rupture and cause massive bleeding. Either way, he predicted that Rita’s ordeal wasn’t over.

Six weeks after Rita delivered Matthew, the doctor felt the growth again. “I was just devastated,” recalled Rita. “Because you have this Christian Science faith that this is an absolute healing straight from God. I went home and told the Christian Science practitioner and she was devastated, too. But she said that we would work it out in Christian Science.” And so Rita Swan, with the help of her practitioner, prayed.

When Matthew was seven months old, the pain returned—this time, worse than ever. “I woke up in the middle of the night with vomiting and excruciating pain on my left side,” she recalled. “When the baby woke up, Doug brought him in for me to nurse. But I was just physically incapable of doing it. I was in too much pain. So I called the doctor and got him out of bed on a Sunday morning and he said that I needed to come down and be examined. That the cyst had probably twisted. The decision was a struggle. I thought maybe I would just get a shot of pain medicine. That way I could nurse my baby.” (Mary Baker Eddy also permitted pain medicines because she had used them for her kidney stones—prayer, apparently, not having worked as well.) The doctor refused. “‘I just cannot give you a shot and send you on your way,’” he said. “So I had the emergency surgery, and the doctor said that the cyst had ruptured and that blood was coming down into the Fallopian tube, which was a genuine medical emergency.”

Rita paid a price for abandoning her faith. Placed on probation, she was no longer allowed to hold meetings at the church or teach Sunday school. Rita accepted her punishment. “I thought it made sense because I felt that I couldn’t be a good representative of the faith to children after I’d had the surgery. I couldn’t tell them these Christian Science truths when I had violated them.” “Rita couldn’t teach Sunday school because she was impure,” recalled Doug.

Censured by the church she loved, Rita Swan missed the harmony and glory of her faith, missed the chance to live in a more perfect world. Asked why she later chose to return to Christian Science, Swan explained, “People said that we were afraid of losing faith in front of our church members or that we wanted to fit in. But it’s really just a fear of medical science, a fear of the mortal world. The only way that a Christian Scientist is going to demonstrate his salvation is to believe the spiritual truths, believe that man is just a spiritual image of God and that that’s the only way to have a harmonious life. If you believe that you are a perfect mirror image of God, you don’t have poverty, you don’t have wars, you don’t have fatigue, you don’t have an inharmonious marriage, you don’t have unemployment, you don’t have disease, and you don’t encounter mean people. The only way to have a life that’s fulfilled and purposeful and harmonious is to tell yourself every day that you live in the Kingdom of God. God has made this perfect, beautiful world for you to live in, and you can control your experience by the way that you think about it. So you’re very busy. Christian Science is a hard-working religion. It’s many hours a day in which you have to argue with yourself. You tell yourself you’re not in a traffic jam because God’s ideas always move harmoniously with each other and don’t come in conflict. And pretty soon the traffic jam clears up and you’ve had a Christian Science demonstration. And if the traffic jam doesn’t clear up right away then it’s an opportunity for more spiritual growth. So you just keep working on it until you learn deeper truths. And you’re grateful to have learned those truths.”

Rita Swan’s return to Christian Science meant that she would now once again be living in a world free of disease. “If you go to a doctor you’re just going to become subservient to the doctor’s thinking,” she recalled. “And doctors believe that man lives in a mortal material body. So if you went to a doctor the doctor’s false thinking would contaminate your thinking. I mean, golly, there’d be hundreds of diseases that you’d never even heard of that you’d become vulnerable to.” “Doctors are flooding the world with diseases,” wrote Mary Baker Eddy in Science and Health.

When Matthew Swan was fifteen months old, Rita and Doug would be tested once more. This time, they would pass the test—and their son would lose his life.


Reprinted with permission from Bad Faith: When Religious Belief Undermines Modern Medicine by Paul A. Offit, M.D. and published by Basic Books, 2015.