Abuse and Neglect Veiled as “Faith-Healing”

There is no shortage of news stories of “faith-healing” gone bad. Just last week, on October 16, six congregation members brutally beat two brothers for hours, leaving one dead and the other in critical condition, in a “spiritual counselling session to urge [the boys] to confess sins and seek forgiveness” because they wanted to disassociate from the church. The assailants in this case were charged for their crimes, but this behavior of physical abuse in the name of a god is not uncommon.

You may recall the case of the failed exorcism from last year when two Maryland toddlers, ages one and two, were stabbed to death by their mother who was attempting to perform an exorcism on them. Her two other children, ages five and eight, suffered injuries during the same ritual. As in many of these cases where religious beliefs are used to condone acts of bodily harm or mental deprivation, the act was blamed on mental illness rather than religious influence. While mental illness in this case is apparent, the mother’s congregation was fanatical and regularly promoted the act of exorcism.

Regardless of the progress being made every day in medicine, there are still people who believe in the healing powers of their god. It is common in certain religions to deny modern medical practices or necessary psychological therapy. Not unlike anti-vaxxers, devout believers in certain sects condemn lifesaving medical treatments for their children. In 2013, an Amish family refused medical treatment for their eleven-year-old daughter’s curable leukemia because it was against their beliefs. When the court intervened, the family went as far as to flee the US in order to avoid the chemotherapy treatments. More recently, an Oregon couple convicted of manslaughter for using home faith-healing techniques (praying and rubbing olive oil) on their premature son who died nine hours after a home birth had their sentence upheld by the state Supreme Court.

Religion often gets a pass where many wouldn’t. Churches are tax exempt, some religious practices involve drug use or physical harm, and let’s not mention the fact that clear hate crimes or bigotry are rarely blamed on religion, even when there’s an undeniable connection. When does religious tradition cross the line of abuse? Is it when the victim is dead? When the victim has been irreversibly harmed?

While it may be easiest to draw a line when it comes to physical abuse, when do we consider a behavior to be considered neglect? When it is commonly known that these “healing” practices constitute abuse and neglect, why do they continue? Are these cases of abuse and neglect a result of mental illness or religious influence—or perhaps one and the same?

It is the witnesses and followers who are allowing the behavior to continue. It should be no surprise that within the hierarchy of religion, there will be abuse. Institutions prey on any vulnerability or insecurity as a means of spreading their message and maintaining power. Whether it be brainwashed followers or corrupt religious leaders, religious abuse happens on a daily basis.

Sadly, there is no quicker or easier solution for distilling bad beliefs from good beliefs than education. We can only hope that as these stories come to light, fervent believers will turn from faith-healing to verifiable trust in modern medicine.