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?


| May 2015



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?

Photo by Fotolia/mikemols

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.”

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“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.”