Remarkable Resistance to Rational Inquiry

Knowing God for sure can be a health risk

Quite a few of the most vocal Christians in the land—of the TV evangelist variety—assured their fans that God told them Trump would be reelected; how did they get it so wrong? Many other Christian leaders have gone right ahead with large church gatherings during the pandemic, confident that faith is sufficient protection against the virus; they were enough in tune with God to know this. But their meetings turned into super spreader events; did God’s word get garbled? How does it happen that super devout folks are so sure that God talks to them?



That would be quite a privilege, after all, when we consider humanity’s place in the Cosmos. But telling others, “I’ve heard from God”—always with a specific god in mind—has been a cheap claim. Millions of priests and preachers have known God’s mind for sure, based on a variety of techniques. The apostle Paul had hallucinations; the ancient prophets had their own visions and trances that drove them to proclaim, “Thus says the Lord”; casting lots and reading animal entrails have also been in vogue. But then quite ordinary folks have been stubbornly sure they know what God wants, and this has put them in danger as we struggle with the pandemic especially.  


I recently reread Dr. Harriet Hall’s essay, “Christianity Can be Hazardous to Your Health,” in John W. Loftus’ 2014 anthology, Christianity Is Not Great: How Faith Fails. This essay is a timely reminder that science does not verify that religion is a great asset in the way so many of the pious assume:


“Prayer, laying on of hands, pilgrimages to Lourdes, faith healing, and exorcism rituals may have a role in providing subjective comfort to some people, but do they have any objective, measurable influence on illness outcomes? Those are questions that science can ask and answer.” (p. 264)


Many of the faithful balk at science being brought in as an arbiter, but even they sense that religion has claimed too much. They know that the famous promise of the risen Jesus in Mark 16 just isn’t true, i.e., that baptized Christians—using Jesus’ name—will be able to “…cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” (vv. 17-18)


These verses quality as Bible silliness (not really excused because they’re in the fake ending of Mark) and are disconfirmed by Christians in their daily lives. But there are still great expectations of God the Great Healer, with little more than faith to go on. But how embarrassing that the Catholic Church itself has disconfirmed the value of Lourdes. Dr. Hall points out that the church


“…has long accepted medically unexplained healings as miracles on evidence that is far from being compelling to the scientific mind. It has validated sixty-seven miracles at Lourdes. But two hundred million pilgrims have visited Lourdes since its establishment in1860, so sixty-seven amounts to a success rate of only .0000335 or one in three million.” (pp. 266-267) There’s the room filled with crutches, supposedly “proof” of so many healings. To get at the truth, we would need full documentation about each patient’s condition, before and after throwing away the crutches—and why just crutches? Dr. Hall: “When Anatole France visited Lourdes and saw the discarded crutches, he said, ‘What, what, no wooden legs?’ No, there were no reports of amputated legs being inexplicably restored. Now that would be a miracle.” (p. 267)


So why not confess the scam and urge the faithful to pray for healing at home? But that’s not the way religious commerce works; there are now more than 250 hotels in Lourdes, the second highest concentration in France outside Paris. 


Dr. Hall speaks of evidence that is compelling to the scientific mind, but faith gets along quite well without evidence. Carl Sagan was right: “Near the core of religious experience is something remarkably resistant to rational inquiry.” Perhaps this can be traced back to the apostle Paul, “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.” (1 Corinthians 3:19) But resistance to evidence has grown in the wake of Darwin; and our growing awareness of the cosmos seems not to have had much impact on Christian perceptions—at least among masses of the laity. Edwin Hubble’s discovery in the 1920s that the Andromeda Galaxy is indeed a galaxy outside our own changed our perspective forever; the orbiting telescope named in his honor has peered into deep space. We now know that the patch of sky enclosed by the bowl of the Big Dipper contains more than a million galaxies. 


The faithful should embrace these discoveries, evidence that is compelling to the scientific mind. Why resist with such vigor? This doesn’t have to be. I look back on my own upbringing in a conservative Christian home; my mother was devout—church every Sunday, grace at meals, reading the Bible together—and my father was a physician. In our household the denial of medical science would have been unthinkable; even the denial of evolution was considered eccentric. 


Yet so many Christians talk to a god—their God distilled from the Bible—who advises them against science, especially medical science. Dr. Hall’s essay reminds us of several varieties of this religious dementia. 


·      “There are Christian Science nursing homes staffed with ‘nurses’ who are trained in metaphysics, not in medicine. They provide only comfort care and are not even allowed to use a thermometer.” (p. 268)


·      “[Cameron Stauth] tells of children killed by suffocation or trauma during exorcisms or religion-motivated punishments. He tells about parents who starved a sixteen-month-old to death for refusing to say ‘Amen’ and then carried his body around in a suitcase awaiting his resurrection.” (p. 268; more about Cameron Stauth later)


·      “Baby Justin Barnhart’s parents belonged to Faith Tabernacle. They prayed over his abdominal tumor as it gradually grew to the size of a volleyball and killed him at the age of two. It was the type of tumor that was curable with medical treatment in 90 percent of cases. Think of the size of a two-year-old and the size of a volleyball: it’s hard to understand how any parent could sit by and watch that happen without doing anything but praying.” (p. 269)


·      “Neal Beagley, whose parents were Followers of Christ in Oregon, was born with a congenital defect that caused repeated urinary tract infections. It could very easily have been repaired with surgery, but he was never treated and he suffered from ill health all his life until he died of kidney failure at age sixteen.” (p. 270)


Of course, these examples of Christian parenting are rare exceptions, but it doesn’t speak well for the faith that these extremes are found among the most fervent believers. But are the thousands (millions?) of believers who attend spreader events, without masks, all that much better?


Then there are Christian celebrities who also are worthy of contempt. 


Mother Teresa has been sufficiently exposed as a pious fraud—no matter: the Catholic Church has a product to sell—and Dr. Hall summarizes the case against her:


“Mother Teresa was more interested in saving souls by converting patients to Catholicism than in relieving suffering. She saw beauty in resignation and suffering, and she imposed her views on the dying poor. But when she herself required palliative care, she got it in a modern American hospital. She could have done far more for the poor of overpopulated India if she had provided birth control instead of warehouses for the dying.” (p. 279)


“Benny Hinn is a prototypical faith healer…[he] carries out faith-healing crusades mainly to obtain new names for a mailing list; most of his income is from mail-order business in books, tapes, and so on…He pretends to have a direct line to God, saying, ‘God told me’ and pauses as if to listen to a divine voice and then saying, ‘Yes, okay, thank you, Sir.’”  (p. 281) Just as the apostle Paul got away with “I’ve heard from the Lord” when he addressed the ancient Jesus cult, it’s no surprise that Benny Hinn’s much wider audience accepts his claim that “God told me.”  


Then there’s Peter Popoff, still going strong even after his fraud was exposed. While he worked the crowd, Dr. Hall points out, his wife,


“…backstage, sent him information via a mini-receiver in his ear; the trick was exposed on national television by James Randi, who revealed the scam on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, playing recordings of her transmissions over a video of Popoff’s performance. Popoff confessed to trickery and declared bankruptcy in 1987 but quickly was back in business, raking in $23 million dollars a year by 2005.” (p. 281)


This offer is available today on Popoff’s website


I want to send you THE NEW PASSION TRANSLATION of the Bible that has been such a blessing to me personally.  As you read it, new light and revelation will come to you.  For your $100.00 seed-gift to the ministry, I will send it to you personally autographed by me.”


Dr. Hall notes that child abuse is also sometimes in favor:


“Conservative Christians say corporal punishment is called for in the Bible: God wants us to beat our children. A 1994 book, To Train Up a Child by Michael and Debi Pearl, has sold over 670,000 copies and is popular among Christian home schoolers and widely praised in Christian publications. The book is given out in churches and sent free to military families. The Pearls’ book and related products bring them $1.7 million a year.”  (p. 283)


“…they recommend hosing off children outdoors in cold weather after potty-training accidents, telling the child he’s too dirty to be cleaned indoors.” (p. 283)


Sometimes reality intrudes. A few days ago I came across a post by Issac Bailey, a Christian and professor of Public Policy a Davidson College. He wonders how much damage has been done to the faith in recent years:


“I'm struggling to hold fast to my Christianity—because of Donald Trump. Not exactly Trump himself, though, but the undying support of the self-professed Christian pro-life movement that he enjoyed. My faith is in tatters because of that alliance. And I am constantly wondering if I am indirectly complicit because I dedicated my life to the same Jesus the insurrectionists prayed to in the Capitol building after ransacking it and promising to kill those who didn't do their bidding. If Christianity can convince so many to follow a man like Trump almost worshipfully—or couldn't at least help millions discern the unique threat Trump represented—what good is it really?


“I say this as someone who has been Christian all my life, who spent two decades praying in a white evangelical church. How could our faith have allowed this, encouraged it, enabled so much violence, so much death?”  


Emphasis added, because it’s a question that has been asked—or should have been—countless times over the centuries. Is Christianity really worth it? Issac Bailey displays a glimmer of rational inquiry, but it needs to go much deeper, to the core of Christian doctrine itself.


As is usually the case in the Loftus anthologies, Dr. Hall’s essay is a portal for further study and research; check out all her footnotes, especially her references to 


·      Cameron Stauth, In the Name of God: The True Story of the Fight to Save Children from Faith-Healing Homicide  

·      Richard Sloan, Blind Faith: The Unholy Alliance of Religion and Medicine

·      Seth Asher and Rita Swan, “Child Fatalities from Religious-Motivated Medical Neglect,” Pediatrics 101, No. 4 (April 1998), 625-29


Dr. Hall concludes:


“There isn’t any reason that Christianity couldn’t coexist with rational healthcare and good science, and in some Protestant denominations it does. But the evidence is clear: Christianity has done (and is still doing) more harm than good to individual and public health because of religious beliefs that are based on faith, not reality.” (p. 285)



David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published by Tellectual Press in 2016. It was reissued in 2018 with a new Foreword by John Loftus.


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Staff Book Reviews said...

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