Madeline Neumann and Why Society Should Stop Insulating Religion From Rational Scrutiny

On Wednesday Marathon Country District Attorney Jill Falstad annouced that Dale and Leilani Neumann would each be charged with second-degree reckless homicide (maximum punishment: 25 years in prison) for their failure to seek medical attention for their ailing daughter – relying instead on prayer – who withered away and died of a treatable form of diabetes. This death and the suffering visited upon 11-year old Madeline was unnecessary and unjustified. Yet, at the same time, I do feel for her parents, as I’m quite confident that they meant well and felt that their years of relying on prayer to the exclusion of medical treatment as an exercise and demonstration of their faith was in their, their children’s and their believed-in God’s best interests. In terms of their reason and behaviour, I would not say that they were good parents (i.e., parents who could protect their children as could reasonably be expected of them). But in terms of their intentions, I have no reason to think that they didn’t mean very well. In this sense, it is quite saddening that apparently well-meaning people who have lived in a culture which generally shows a high level of respect for religious faith and regularly disparages those who do not are being sentenced to a lengthy prison sentence and being separated from their other children, family and friends.

This case is an illustration of the sorts of things that can happen as a result of a culture giving undue deference to religious beliefs and making some areas of honest and fair debate socially inappropriate. The culturally-enshrined practice of isolating religious beliefs from the type of scrutiny we can comfortably apply to any other issue of discourse absolutely has negative consequences. As in the case of the Neumanns, a culture in which unsubstantiated beliefs are treated as respectable – primarily because almost everyone has them – can readily lead to well-meaning people doing destructive things while feeling like they’re doing good. Moreover, it can provide justification to people who do not mean well to engage in destructive behaviours themselves. The facts that racism, sexism, slavery, murder, social ostrocism, wars, and various other forms of abuse and exploitation have and, for some of them, continue to be been justified by religious belief ideally would bring a lot more pause to more people than it is.

Saying what I just said, I can readily expect the first comments in the comment section to include posts from theists who I’ve angered citing Stalin, Mao, and other atheists who’ve done many horrible things themselves. It is absolutely true that there have been many atheists who have engaged in many inhumane behaviours. But it wasn’t atheism that led to or justified this behaviour. All atheism is is a lack of belief in a God. That’s it. Atheism itself is not a moral philosophy in any sense. It has no implications for morality other than that atheists will not subscribe to the teachings and fears encouraged by certain books. There is no recognized atheist moral handbook that says anything like “because there is no God, do whatever you want regardless of the consequences for others”. If there was such a book and it was actually subscribed to, we would have a very dangerous philosophical school of thought on our hands, and no one would feel any social or moral necessity to respect the beliefs of the adherents.

I’m going to make an argument often made by Sam Harris: this is not about encouraging atheism, it’s about encouraging reason, intellectual honesty and intellectual freedom. If a person’s thinking is unreasonable – whether in a religious, social or earthly sphere of contemplation – why should others be deemed to be misbehaving for pointing that out to the person? Are we doing the person, ourselves or society any favours by knowingly withholding an opportunity for personal growth for them and oneself by neglecting to start a discussion?

It seems that there are two core reasons for our entrenched inclination to tread sensitively around issues of religious faith: power relations and, to a lesser degree, compassion. Power relations come from lobbies for particular beliefs binding and saying that we will not tolerate criticism or a lack of intellectual respect toward our beliefs and us for holding them. They may exert this power in a top-down sort of sense in which they refuse to vote for political candidates who do not bow to their intellectual bullying, to shop or work for companies who do not condemn fair intellectual treatment of their beliefs (or who do not give their beliefs the same undue deference as other brands of religious thought), and so on. Today, believers will also pursue or threaten to pursue legal charges of religious persecution for having their beliefs seriously questioned or disrespected at work or within government settings – and of course the differential treatment of unsubstantiated religious beliefs as a whole versus unsubstantiated beliefs not affiliated with recognized powerful religions is the result of much the same type of political posturing as is being discussed here done many years ago by members of dominant religions.

As a result of holding strong defensive stances in the governmental and financial/work/business sectors, their bullying will sometimes result in compliance from top power-wielders in society (e.g., government agencies, CEOs), who will enforce similar compliance or strongly condemn a lack thereof from all those that are lower than them in the recognized social strata.

A secondary reason for our deference to certain types of unsubstantiated beliefs (i.e., the ones we call “religion”), though one that some people often hallucinate as being the primary reason (although for some it may well genuinely be primary), is compassion. People do not want to risk offending or hurting the feelings of others who take their protected beliefs so seriously. Why do I say that this is not the primary reason? It’s pretty clear that for most people it isn’t. We do not defer to all unsubstantiated beliefs equally. Even within the realm of religion many people accord differential degrees of respect. Are Mormons respected as much as Christians by everyone? Surely not. What the Mormons need to do if they want more respect is have a whole lot of kids, get more Mormons in powerful positions in society, and flexing their political muscles more often in order to gain the compliance of more political candidates, government agencies, corporations and so on. What about New Age philosophies? Do we respect these as much as Christianity? Generally, no. What about a new cult (which, by the way, are alternatively termed “new religious movements”) in a suburb of Chicago that we hear about for the first time next week; will it get the same deference as Judaism? Of course not! Even if a person of one of these “lesser” forms of belief were to start crying because people would not stop questioning their beliefs and pointing out the insufficiencies of their defences, many (though not all)people would still not be won over by compassion – they may well start laughing (more so).

I think a real problem is that compassion is justified in the first place. I’m not at all against feeling compassion for someone who is feeling hurt. But I’m concerned that people would feel so hurt about their beliefs being challenged and possibly being wrong. I’ve said it before, attachment to beliefs (as well as other externals) can be very personally and socially dangerous. This has been recognized by many religious and philosophical schools of thought. People have derived this meaning from the Christian notion of avoiding the worshipping of false idols. Buddhism speaks specifically of the dangers of attachment. Deep personal and social attachments to beliefs, possessions, even other people (if the grown person is not ultimately capable of independence), can be a great source of insecurity which can lead to great personal and social turmoil. When it comes to beliefs, I am of the belief (which is subject to modification given strong argumentation) that commitment to the products of reasoning (i.e., the beliefs) over the process of reasoning (ideally the maintenance of a neutral open-minded honest inquiring mind) is something that should be avoided in the interest of personal and social well-ness. Maybe if we lived in a world where more people practiced this sort of philosophy, we would not be afraid to question (or have questioned) certain types of beliefs, maybe we the world wouldn’t be quite so socially factionized, and maybe there would be fewer cases like that of the Neumanns for people like me to write blog posts about.

Hat Tip for Neumann story: Friendly Atheist

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Comments
21 Responses to “Madeline Neumann and Why Society Should Stop Insulating Religion From Rational Scrutiny”
  1. I think the most helpful ally in combatting this sort of tragedy is religion itself. While I am a very vocal advocate of people being well informed about science and medicine, in this case it would have helped if these parents actually knew more about Christianity and the Bible. People do terrible things in the name of believing the Bible because they do not have a clear sense of its diversity, its historical context, or its meaning except through the medium of English translations, some of which make the difficult seem easy.

    I’ve commented more about this from a Christian perspective on my blog.

  2. matt says:

    To James:

    As Lewis Black says, “if you want to know what the Old Testament says, there are Jews among you, who will take time out of their very jewy jewy day to explain it to you – if the price is right.”

    Also, “if there’s one thing jews are good at, it’s Bullshit. And that’s what the old testament is, for the most part.”

  3. Colin says:

    Just a couple comments…

    It would be more accurate to say “untrue” beliefs rather than “unsubstantiated” beliefs. Some people may have beliefs that for them are unsubstantiated, but they are still true. I would even go so far as to say that we ALL have unsubstantiated beliefs…the real question is whether they are true or not.

    LRB says…

    “I am of the belief (which is subject to modification given strong argumentation) that commitment to the products of reasoning (i.e., the beliefs) over the process of reasoning (ideally the maintenance of a neutral open-minded honest inquiring mind) is something that should be avoided in the interest of personal and social well-ness.”

    This seems to be a horrifically postmodern thing to say, especially since the statement that I just quoted is a *product* of reasoning, thereby refuting the very thing that LRB is trying to assert.

    The strongest argument against your belief is your belief itself.

  4. L. Ron Brown says:

    Colin:
    I have a few issues here:
    1. We very often cannot know if what we believe is true or not (except for our own existence), so saying true/untrue is generally not useful when talking about beliefs.
    2. Perhaps we do all have unsubstantiated beliefs. All the better reason for open , honest and rational discussion.
    3. My statement is not postmodern – at least not as I understand postmodern. There’s been a miscommunication here. I was not saying that people should not trust what their reasoning tells them. What I was saying is that people should not become emotionally attached to particular beliefs to the point where they become hardened and fortified against further open discussion on the topic.

  5. thisbusymonster says:

    Colin is looking to rehash the whole objective truth / objective reality / god created it all so we know what is right an wrong nonsense that he is so fond of.

    Ron is correct, we can’t get at “truth” in any concrete way, all we can do is continue to apply our best attempts at reason to the best observations we have about the world and proceed accordingly. Problems arise when people get emotionally attached to some dusty old book of myths, whatever their origin.

  6. Colin says:

    TBM,

    You deny objective truth really exists…and then in your very next sentence you state an objective truth (“Ron is correct…”).

    You might be right that objective truth does not exist, but that would mean that you are wrong because the statement ‘objective truth does not exist’ would be objectively true and would refute itself. Or you might be wrong. Either way, objective truth certainly exists.

    Problems arise when people believe the wrong things about objective reality.

  7. Stoobs says:

    He didn’t deny that objective truth exists. He denied that we have a reliable means of discerning objective truth. And he was correct in doing so.

    Most languages, however, presuppose the existence of objective truth, and are structured as if it were readily accessible. As a result, it is very difficult to avoid sounding as if you believe in objective truth, unless you indulge in extreme circumlocution on a consistent basis. Try to get through a day without using the word ‘is’, some time.

    Maybe you can accomplish such a thing, but for most of us, the best we can do is live as through objective truth were accessible, and just try to continually bear in mind that we are fallible, and that any of our beliefs might be proven incorrect at any time.

    In any rational epistemology, however, such proof should come in the form of concrete observations about the world, not stuff you read in a book written 2000 years ago.

  8. Colin says:

    To quote TBM… “the whole objective truth…nonsense…”

    Seems to me he is denying objective truth.

    If we did not have a means of reliably discerning objective truth, we would be dead very quickly. Try living for one day without the objective knowledge that drinking cyanide is not a good way to lose weight, or that smokers should not get into gasoline fights, or that treating diabetes with refined sugar is best. Of course we have immediate access to objective truth. It is silly (ans self-refuting) to think otherwise

    Stoobs says…

    “the best we can do is live as through objective truth were accessible, and just try to continually bear in mind that we are fallible, and that any of our beliefs might be proven incorrect at any time.”

    I agree. I do live as though objective truth is accessible. People who live with wrong ideas about objective reality are often committed to psychiatric care.

    Stoobs says….

    “such proof should come in the form of concrete observations about the world”

    What concrete observation about the world led you to that conclusion?

  9. WhisperElmwood says:

    May I ask why the comments have gotten so completely off-topic? Stop debating the wording of certain sentences and think about the message as a whole.

    If this family’s particular denomination of Christianity had been under a bit more scrutiny (as far as I remember, they are a very small offshoot and met in family homes) this may not ever have happened.

    In fact, if religion as a whole was under more scrutiny, things like this would rarely happen at all. It is clear in the scientifc world that ‘prayer’ does not work, has never worked and will never work. And allowing religious people to continue to claim that is does is having a detrimental effect on many lives. Madeline is simply the tip of the iceberg.

    It is my own personal belief that withholding ‘orthodox’ medical care from children or vulnerable adults, should be considered a crime, tantamount to child abuse in the former and abuse in the latter.

    It is also my personal belief that religion should have no say whatsoever on how/what medical treatments should be given. Recently here in the UK, an entire family was devestated when a BAC refused blood transfusions after a dificult birth, her twin children, her husband and her family are now facing life without her, simply because of a misinterpreted reading of a specific line in the Bible.

    It is ridiculous and should be stopped.

  10. thisbusymonster says:

    It’s simple Colin, which makes me believe that you are pretending not to understand or that you are simple too.

    The nature of perception and language make it so we do not have access to objective truth. Whether it actually exists or not is a boring philosophical question, because we won’t find it either way.

    What you call objective truth is no more than common wisdom derived from observation and reason (Cyanide has killed the last 50 people who took it to lose weight, perhaps it’s poison). Of course, that doesn’t stop all kinds of idiots from trying to cure cancer with Laetrile, which breaks down and becomes cyanide in their bodies. Some people don’t learn from others mistakes.

    The best we can do is to pay attention to the world around us, use the best reasoning we have to make sound decisions and let go of dogma, which simply distracts us from making good decisions.

    My claim “Ron is correct.” is a statement based on my observations of the world, my understanding of perception and language, etc. I am more than willing to reverse that claim in the face of convincing evidence. Show me the proof and I will declare Ron to be a huge douchebag.

    Objective reality, if it;s out there at all, is not interesting. We all live in a subjective reality, conditioned by language, which is a human invention. This means our perception of the world is coloured by the time, place and history in which we are located. All your talk of “objective reality” is rooted in the fairy tales you cling to to help you sleep at night. Time to grow up.

  11. Randy says:

    This was a good summary of a pretty reasonable point of view on religion and speech.

    I wonder if it’s possible or productive to be emotionally unattached to all unsubstantiated beliefs, though? Are not our entire lives structured by unsubstantiated beliefs? Thus, wouldn’t banning emotional attachments to them effectively ban all emotion from our lives?

  12. L. Ron Brown says:

    Randy:
    That’s a really good question.

    What sorts of unsubstantiated beliefs would we be talking about? Some of the obvious would be:
    * Does my spouse really love me?
    * Is my spouse/partner really not cheating on me?
    * Do my kids/parents really love me?
    * Do my friends give a crap about me?
    * Am I generally well-liked, respected by most people?
    * Am I going to be happy later on with the life choices I’m making now (e.g., career, etc.)?

    Many of these questions would be hard to be unattached with regard to. I’m not sure if a person would become unemotional if they were unattached, but their emotional life would definitely be changed greatly. And in fact, it might necessarily mean that they care less about the things they’re detached about. More on this next.

    A big thing that is related to not becoming emotionally attached to things like beliefs, social status, possessions, other people, and so forth is a strong sense of independence. To the degree that one can see oneself as strong, worthwhile, generally good, capable and so on, and to the degree that the view life as being potentially enjoyable and worthliving even without their current beliefs being valid, their social status being intact, their possessions remaining theirs, and all of their loved and liked ones continuing to love and like them, is also the degree to which they can enjoy all of these things but at the same time not be dependent on them for happiness, security, purpose and self-esteem. But isn’t part of what makes other people, our culture and our plans (as well as beliefs and things) important to us is that they become important parts of our lives and our self-concepts?

    Perhaps the ideals with these different categories of attachables are different. Perhaps it is very healthy to have attachment to certain people and life plans, for this attachment is a reflection and a source of the passion and positivity that these things bring to us. However, at the same time, we have to have a strong healthy core of independence, such that we can lose or disconnect from our husbands or wives or kids or best friends (perhaps even by choice), or abandon our plans, and we can and will mourn, but our lives will not fall into shambles. We will not have lost our sense of strength, confidence, self-worth, or meaning. And while these things were still a part of our lives, we will not have been so dependent on them that we continued to allow them to be a part of our lives when they had become a very destructive force. Basically, we can be attached but not to the point of addiction.

    I’m not sure if it would be quite so ideal to recommend such close an attachment to beliefs, things and status, though.

    Thoughts?

  13. Stoobs says:

    I don’t know if I’d agree that you shouldn’t get emotionally attached to unsubstantiated beliefs. I mean, I believe that it’s wrong to kill for pleasure, and that belief is grounded primarily in emotion, rather than reason. True, there are utilitarian reasons to support an anti-murder position, and there’s the whole social contract idea, but ultimately it’s as simple as me having a strong feeling about the wrongness of killing people.

    I think that without the fire that comes from emotional attachment to unsubstantiated beliefs, morality would be a hollow, pitiful thing. Without the ability to feel shame, outrage, and pride based on beliefs that are largely unfounded, humans would tend, I think, to be vastly more unpleasant than they all to often are.

    Come to that, without the ability to believe passionately in things that are not yet proven, would anything ever change? Whenever there is something new, it is because it overcomes the inertia imparted by mystery. Could human beings be capable of the level of greatness that they are if they were unable to dream something new, and then invest in it sufficient passion to bring it into being?

    The problem with religion is that it is not simply an idea, but rather a comprehensive epistemic, metaphysical, and moral framework, which admits of no possibility of contradiction. I believe that killing for pleasure is wrong, but that has little impact on my ability to interact with the world in any way not directly related to the act of killing for pleasure.

    By contrast, someone who accepts a religious faith is buying into a comprehensive system of thought which colors every experience they have, defines every word they hear, shapes their very thoughts. Someone emotionally invested in such a comprehensive system has destroyed their ability to reason objectively about anything, ever. Always, regardless of the matter under consideration, their emotions will take precedence over any mere matters of fact or rules of logic.

  14. thisbusymonster says:

    Our emotions are a valuable part of our perception and they inform us about important features of the world and the people we meet and know. Emotions are equally as valuable as reason when it comes to knowing ourselves and the world we live in.

    Attachment is the problem. Whether we are attached to ideas for emotional reasons, political or religious dogma, or any other reason, the results are bad. As long as you maintain self awareness and understand why you are feeling the emotions you feel, you are in good shape.

  15. Kay says:

    Put your “book” called the bible away. God does NOT heal, divinely or otherwise. Never has and never will. You religious fanatics need to stop and use your head. You have been living in a cult. The parents of this little girl need to go to prison and pay for her murder. Sorry, I just cant tolerate ignorance.

  16. neggin says:

    Kay,
    If you can’t or won’t tolerate ignorance please do not be sorry for it. Ignorance is one destructive force in the human experience.

  17. neggin says:

    Responding to an earlier comment:
    “Madeline is simply the tip of the iceberg.” Oh yes, this is very, very true. There are lots of cases similar to this one, some of them are just so truly bizarre that they make this case look rather less so. So yes, we’ve got a bigger problem with delusion-related crime.
    “It is my own personal belief that withholding ‘orthodox’ medical care from children or vulnerable adults, should be considered a crime, tantamount to child abuse in the former and abuse in the latter.” This IS a crime already in our legal system. State by state there are variations, and sometimes unusual legal situations occur, but withholding life-sustaining medical care from a dependent is not protected as a right. That is why we are having this case today and that is why when the case first broke there was some talk of possibly charging these parents with murder.
    “In fact, if religion as a whole was under more scrutiny, things like this would rarely happen at all.”
    Religion IS always under scrutiny to some degree here. Believe me. I believe that as a nation overall we have done a commendable job at times of standing up to religion and keeping it in its place. There is the legal separation between church and state for instance. But to some people that won’t ever matter and probably can’t be made to matter. Religion is a more powerful force than reason and reality in some peoples’ lives, and these types of wierd crimes incidents continue to happen because of it. When these incidents happen they get PROSECUTED where possible. But people can’t justly be stopped from choosing to have religion in their lives. Or be made to believe the rational evidence against it.
    “allowing religious people to continue to claim that [prayer works] is having a detrimental effect on many lives.” Oh yes it most definitely is, but that gets addressed by the legal and Social Services systems when it results in something like the situation of the death of the Neumanns’ child. With our rights to freedom of speech we CAN, theoretically, tell everyone what to think and how to believe, but we CANNOT make them think the way we want them to or believe what we think they should. When their beliefs and thoughts have caused them to commit crime or negligence there are laws that deal with that.

  18. kdliz says:

    So, now that faith has been declared illegal, then what? Oh, I know, there will still be people to explain the Bible in a socially acceptable way, but what makes them right? And what makes those that don’t believe, correct? There is no way to logically legislated this. That’s the reason the Bill of Rights covers the topic of no legislation about someone’s religion. By the way, according to statistics, 98,000 people die annually from medical errors. Where are all the reckless homicide charges? Those deaths are usually only a malpractice law suit in civil court, not criminal.

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