July 2, 2009

Why Religious People Should Stop Telling Omar Stories

I came across this story arising from near Portland, Oregon today and was moved to finally understand something I've read about and resisted in the past.
[Fifteen-month-old] Ava Worthington died March 2, 2008, after her parents and other members of the Followers of Christ tried to treat her with faith healing.

Ava's father, who goes by Brent, his middle name, described what happened:

Ava came down with what appeared to be a cold or the flu on a Tuesday. By Saturday, her breathing became labored and the family turned to its traditional faith-healing rituals, praying, fasting, anointing the body with oil, administering diluted wine and laying on of hands.

By Sunday, Brent Worthington said he thought there was "a possibility" his daughter was so sick she could die. Then, after a final session of laying on of hands at about 5 p.m., "she perked up," he said. She grabbed her bottle and "took some food."

"She was peaceful; she was rested," Worthington said.

Two hours later Ava was dead.
What's missing here? Doctors, that's what. You can imagine that one of the first questions police asked when investigating the death of this infant was, "Why didn't you take her to a doctor?" The father responded:
He said no one in his immediate family has ever been to a doctor or used prescription or over-the-counter medicine. "It's not something we believe in."
Her parents have been charged with manslaughter. It is an odd feeling indeed to feel very sorry for this couple, who lost a daughter they clearly loved, and at the same time feel so angry at them for letting this happen. But they clearly deserve the prosecution.

It took six days for this girl to die, and if you read the story in detail you'll see that they were aware of a growth in the girl's neck that obstructed her breathing -- it was a benign tumor, the autopsy demonstrated after her death, but still a problem because it made breathing difficult for an inexperienced and weak breather (as all infants are).

This shows that the parents were very aware that their daughter had serious medical problems. They paid attention to her and attempted a misguided form of assistance. But the assistance they offered was primitive, ritualistic magic. It got dressed up as religion but the form of the religion hardly matters. They could have been sticking pins in a doll, rolling dice made out of chicken bones, or mixing bat gall with boiling mercury for all I care. They should have taken her to a doctor. If they had, it is probable to the point of near-certainty that she would be alive today.

Pneumonia and blood infection are easily treatable with antibiotics and the success rate of such a treatment is phenomenally high. The success rate for prayer as a medical treatment is statistically identical to the success rate for no treatment at all. Which is no wonder -- because in reality, prayer alone is no treatment at all.

As I read this and wrote about it, I began to think about friends who reported prayer working to cure seemingly terrible diseases. I've heard these stories more than once, from people I like, people I trust, people I know would not lie, people of greater than average intelligence. The story always takes a particular form, and so it is possible for me to write an amalgam of them, describing a hypothetical patient I'll name "Omar" for storytelling purposes:
Omar was very, very sick. He had been diagnosed with Stage IV leukemia and was advancing to Stage V. That's the point where the doctors stop trying to cure you and just give you painkillers until you die. They said he only had a few weeks and he was making arrangements to put his estate in order before he passed. But in doing that, he asked for some us from the church community to gather around his hospital bed and pray with him. I'd only known Omar a little bit from church, but me and a lot of other congregants got together and came to the hospital with our pastor. We held hands and the pastor led us in a prayer. We asked God to heal Omar and to make him better, we asked to keep him with us for a while longer, and the pastor reminded us that we were praying in Jesus' name. I felt such an outpouring of love for Omar there in that room. Over the next couple of weeks, Omar began to get stronger. Eventually, he started walking again. The doctors were amazed, they had no explanation for what happened. About a month after we prayed over Omar, they couldn't find any trace of the leukemia in his blood at all, and they sent him home. Omar is alive today and it's because of the power of prayer and the miraculous intervention of Jesus.
It would defy my belief if you, good Reader, had not heard this story at least once before reading it here -- probably told to you by someone you know personally and maybe by someone whose judgment you otherwise would trust. I've been told this story at least twenty times in my life, by personal friends.

(Oh, it's also almost always cancer, by the way. It's never an amputation. Faith healing doesn't seem to work on amputees. That should be the test: what evidence would I need to see in order to start believing in God? If I saw a group of people gather and pray for an amputee, and that amputee grew back a missing limb, then yes, I'd seriously consider the possibility of divine intervention. Not an idea original to me, but it's a good enough one that I'll adopt it.)

In the past, I've discounted the stories but not made strong challenges to them. After all, the people in question derive strength, pleasure, community, and moral fortitude from their religions, so their religious activity can't be all bad. A misguided vestige from a more primitive time in history, but still serving an important social function nevertheless.

And my friends who have told me these stories aren't crazy people -- they aren't handling snakes, they aren't stockpiling weapons and building fortresses, they aren't sacrificing live animals, they aren't strapping bombs to their chests and blowing up train stations. They aren't suggesting that "Omar" was wrong or foolish to have sought conventional medical treatment. They're just saying that conventional medical treatment wasn't enough in his case; what Omar needed, in the story, was the intervention of God with the help of prayerful friends.

I want to remain friends with these people because they are good people, good friends. So the most I've done in the past is to point out that maybe we don't fully understand cancer yet, and maybe some other treatment reached a critical point and the disease went into remission right about the time of the prayer session. This invariably fails to convince the religious person -- the idea that maybe fifty treatments of drugs took several weeks to cumulate in a patient's system, and even after stopping the drug treatment the medicine that had accumulated continued to work, and that the medicine, through a mechanism not understood by modern medical science, caused such a sudden turnaround, is not nearly as sexy an idea as prayer.

These religious folks want to believe the prayer worked. Consequently, the cause-and-effect relationship seems immediate and therefore irrefutable. Selection and timing fallacies enter their thought. And the idea that the doctor doesn't know everything about cancer while still treating the patient is somehow terrifying. Another preference fallacy there -- I don't want the doctor to have limited power, therefore he doesn't, and therefore he represents everything science knows and will ever know.

Unlike God, Doctors are not omniscient, medical science is an impressive but still finite body of knowledge, and there are challenges that are yet beyond their ability to resolve. There always will be. Also unlike God, doctors and medical science are real, not just comforting fairy tales. Also unlike God, medical science can produce results, not dead fifteen-month-old babies.

What this story has moved me to understand is that my well-meaning friends -- those nice people who gather around and pray for people like "Omar" -- are enabling the crazies. Their stories of gentle, prayerful, and miraculous cures provide intellectual and moral support for the more crazy and extreme claims of magic-dressed-up-as-religion. If there weren't tens of thousands of "Omar stories" out there, there would be a lot fewer stories like the one from Portland where a deeply-religious parent eschews medical treatment entirely to resort to incantations to cure a readily-treatable disease.

By telling "Omar stories," these well-meaning, otherwise-reasonable people are implying that the decision made by these Portland parents was reasonable. After all, in this guy's personal experience, prayer and ritual had always worked in the past. He had no reason to think it wouldn't work on his daughter. But he should have been in an environment were there were people around him who would have told him that he was acting unreasonably. He should not have been in an environment were he was constantly told, again and again, that prayer alone can heal grave illnesses. This notion should never have seemed reasonable to him. And "Omar stories" make that sort of idea seem reasonable. That is the harm of telling "Omar stories," what Richard Dawkins called the "enabling" effect of moderate religion in The God Delusion.

Yes, it's possible for a religious person to use common sense and good judgment, and take their sick children to doctors. The vast majority of them do just that. They don't stop being religious when they do it, either. But here's my prediction: the rate of successful treatment for religious parents who use medical science in addition to praying for their sick children will be statistically identical to the success rate of non-religious parents who use medical treatment alone. I'll predict further: the rate of successful treatment for parents who use religion alone, and no medical science, to treat their sick children, will the statistically identical to the success rate of parents who do not treat their children at all.

Anyone want to put some money down on those predictions? Any takers?

Hat tip to Hemant Mehta.

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