Medical Martyrs

Faith-Based Medicine Is Snake Oil

In an excerpt from his new book, Bad Faith, physician Paul Offit argues that religion need not be the enemy of science or medicine, but that too often misguided believers pervert the cause of healing.

03.16.15 10:45 AM ET

“I went down to the crossroads, fell down on my knees.
Asked the Lord above for mercy, ‘Save me, if you please.’”

—Robert Johnson

On April 13, 2013, Brandon Schaible, the seven-month-old son of Herbert and Catherine Schaible, died. For several days, Brandon had suffered from pneumonia. The Schaibles prayed, but to no avail. At 8 p.m., they called caretakers at the John F. Fluery & Sons Funeral Home, who called the county medical examiner, who called the police. Paramedics rushed to the house and pronounced the child dead.

It wasn’t the first time the Schaibles had lost a child to a treatable illness. A few years earlier, in 2009, the Schaibles had also chosen prayer instead of antibiotics for their two-year-old son, Kent, when he contracted bacterial pneumonia.

Herbert and Catherine Schaible are members of the First-Century Gospel Church, a faith healing group in northeast Philadelphia that relies on the advice given in James 5:14–15: Is anyone among you sick? Let him call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well. After Kent died, Herbert said, “We tried to fight the Devil, but the Devil won.”

Every year, tens of thousands of Americans refuse medical care for their children in the name of God.

In 2009, a 17-year-old girl was admitted to a hospital in northeastern Pennsylvania with severe anemia. The doctor told her parents that she needed a blood transfusion to survive. Because the girl and her parents were Jehovah’s Witnesses, they refused, quoting Leviticus 7:26: And wherever you live, you must not eat the blood of any bird or animal. The doctor got a court order to allow the transfusion that saved her life.

Four years later, the patient, now married and 21 years old, returned to the hospital. She wanted to tell a group of medical students not to make the same mistake on other Jehovah’s Witnesses that her doctor had made on her. Intelligent, well-spoken, and attractive, with long brown hair and a disarmingly calm demeanor, she stood in front of a group of stunned students and explained how eternal paradise could no longer be hers. “I would rather have died pure,” she said, “than to live impure.” So moving was her speech that several medical students said that, if confronted with a similar situation, they wouldn’t give a blood transfusion.

On August 22, 2003, Ray Hemphill, an evangelist at the Faith Temple Church of Apostolic Faith in Milwaukee, performed an exorcism on Terrance Cottrell Jr., an eight-year-old boy with autism. Hemphill quoted Mark 1:25–26: ‘Be quiet!’ said Jesus sternly. ‘Come out of him!’ The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.

Hemphill placed Terrance on the floor, put his knee on the boy’s chest, and screamed, “In the name of Jesus, Devil get out!” Two hours later, Terrance Cottrell Jr. was dead. The coroner reported that Terrance had died from “mechanical asphyxiation due to external chest compression.”

In 2005, in response to growing demand, a pontifical academy in Rome sponsored an exorcism training course in Baltimore; more than 100 priests and bishops showed up.

In November 2004, New York City’s Department of Health received a report about two newborn boys from Brooklyn who had suffered herpes virus infections. Both had been circumcised by the same ultra-Orthodox Jewish mohel (person who performs a ritual circumcision), who pointed to a sixteenth-century religious text stating that after performing a circumcision, We spit blood into the earth.

Eight years later, on June 8, 2012, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) researchers traveled to New York City to investigate another herpes outbreak. This time it wasn’t two babies who’d been infected with herpes; it was 11. Two of the 11 had died, and two others had suffered permanent brain damage. All had been circumcised by mohels who had used their mouths to suck off the blood. New York City health officials estimate that the procedure, called metzitzah b’peh (sucking with the mouth), is performed on about 3,600 babies in their city every year—and on tens of thousands throughout the world.

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On August 14, 2013, 16 people in Tarrant County, Texas— including a four-month-old infant—came down with measles. A few days later, another five children from nearby Denton County also developed measles. All of the cases were traced to the Eagle Mountain International Church, a ministry associated with a popular televangelist named Kenneth Copeland. Measles had spread through the congregation, the staff, and a daycare center on church property. Virtually everyone who became infected was unvaccinated.

During the outbreak, churchgoers were unafraid “’cause I know Jesus is a healer,” said one. “So I know that He’s covered us with His blood.” More than a thousand people in the surrounding community were exposed in what became the largest measles outbreak in the United States in more than 20 years. Frightened, church officials immediately encouraged parishioners to get their measles vaccine.

On any given day in America, tens of thousands of children whose parents have chosen not to vaccinate them for religious reasons can be found in day-care centers, schools, playgrounds, and churches across the country.

On November 3, 2009, a 27-year-old mother of four entered St. Joseph’s Medical Center, a Roman Catholic hospital in Phoenix, Arizona. The woman was 11 weeks pregnant and gravely ill, suffering from a disorder called pulmonary hypertension. Because the arterial pressure in her lungs was extremely high, the right side of her heart, which pumps blood to the lungs, had begun to fail. Badly. The problem had been caused by her pregnancy. For the next several weeks, doctors tried to treat her disease and save her unborn child. But her condition worsened. It soon became clear that unless she had an abortion, her chance of dying was “close to 100 percent.”

Three weeks later, on November 27, when the woman was on the verge of death, hospital physicians consulted St. Joseph’s medical ethics board and its director, Sister Margaret Mary McBride. Recognizing that four children were about to lose their mother, McBride approved the abortion and the woman’s life was saved.

The abortion at St. Joseph’s soon came to the attention of Thomas J. Olmsted, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Phoenix, who immediately excommunicated McBride and severed ties with the hospital. The 700-bed hospital was asked to remove the Blessed Sacrament from its chapel and told it could no longer celebrate Mass. “The direct killing of an unborn child is always immoral, no matter the circumstances,” said Olmsted, “and it cannot be permitted in any institution that claims to be authentically Catholic.”

St. Joseph’s Hospital is one of 600 Catholic hospitals in the United States; 45 are sole providers for their communities.

During the past few years, books written by non-believers have become quite popular; most notably, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins; The End of Faith by Sam Harris; and God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens. All of these books claim that religion is illogical and potentially harmful. I assumed that, as I uncovered story after story of medical neglect in the name of God, I would come to the same conclusion. But I didn’t. Somewhere during the process of reading large sections of the Old and New Testament, I changed my mind, finding myself largely embracing religious teachings. Sort of like the man who went to church to find God, but found religion instead.

The Old Testament contains hundreds of mitzvahs, or good deeds (literally, commandments). To be a good Jew means to perform those deeds—to honor your parents, family, friends, neighbors, and strangers with acts of selflessness. The New Testament isn’t much different; at its heart is the fundamental message of Jesus Christ: But now faith, hope, and love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13:13). Sometimes this passage is interpreted as faith, hope, and charity. In either case, to be a good Christian means to be a loving person; to be charitable; to care about those around you, especially those who are suffering or in need. As a pediatrician, I was most affected by Matthew 25:40: Verily, I say unto you, Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of my brethren, you have done it unto me: a passage that could be emblazoned onto the entranceway of every children’s hospital in the world.

What I have learned is that to be truly religious is to be humane; to find that greater part of ourselves; something that causes us to do extraordinary acts of love and kindness; that allows us to see ourselves as part of a larger community. In the name of religion, people have counseled the addicted, ministered to the downtrodden, fed the poor, housed the homeless, helped tsunami victims, and served as beacons in the fight against slavery and for civil rights. But religion has also been used to justify some of humankind’s most unconscionable acts. This book is about trying to understand why we allow that to happen; why we allow people to claim that they are acting in the name of God when they are doing no such thing.

One story summarizes the point of this book. In 2014, our infectious diseases team at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia was asked to evaluate a little girl who suffered from bacterial meningitis. She came into the hospital with fever and seizures. Despite antibiotics, the fever continued. So did the seizures. Eventually her brain pushed down onto her brainstem, causing her to stop breathing. Now she’s in a vegetative state, unlikely to see, hear, speak, or walk ever again. Her parents had chosen not to vaccinate her for religious reasons. Given that the strain of bacteria that caused her disease was preventable by a vaccine, it was an unfortunate choice. During rounds, I felt like doing something that I obviously could never do: walk into the room; put my arms around the parents; point to their comatose, helpless child; and ask, “Does this look like a religious act to you? Do you really think that God wants your child to suffer like this? Is this what religion is all about?”

Excerpted from Bad Faith: When Religious Belief Undermines Modern Medicine by Paul A. Offit. Available from Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Book Group. Copyright 2015.