Faith-Healing as Mental Illness

Yesterday, Jim and I had a conversation about the Neumann case, which he addresses in the post below.  Jim’s take on the case is that the parents’ conviction on the charge of reckless homicide is just and that the judge should not consider the parents’ religious faith as a grounds for leniency in sentencing.  I share Jim’s feelings about the absurdity of appeals to religious faith as a justification for gross negligence leading to the death of a child.  If the plea for leniency is founded upon that kind of argument (i.e. that the parents’ faith in Divine intervention was a good reason for them to ignore needless suffering that led to the death of their daughter) then the judge ought to disregard it and give the parents an appropriately stern sentence for a very serious crime.  I believe, however, that there is a good argument to be made for why the judge ought to be lenient in sentencing the Neumanns.

If a person prays as an alternative to seeking medical attention for an injury or illness, that person, in a very real sense, does not understand the consequences of his actions.  As such, it is appropriate to deem that person as mentally incompetent and therefore not responsible for his actions.  Quite obviously, the Neumanns (and those who share their religious faith) would be unwilling to go along with the argument that the practice of faith-healing amounts to insanity.  Perhaps that is why their lawyer did not make the case for an insanity plea in court.  But we do not normally take the self-assessment of those within the asylum as evidence that they are not insane.  If Dale Neumann is not a psychopath, if he is instead a loving father (and by most accounts he is) who honestly believed that he was choosing the best possible action to save his daughter (a claim he has yet to renounce), then the best explanation for his gross negligence is that he didn’t understand that prayers do not cure illnesses.  As a practical belief, this amounts to insanity.

I know lots of people who pray when someone gets sick.  I know lots of people who cross on their fingers and knock on wood, too.  I don’t think that religious faith or superstition amounts to insanity in most cases.  Now, it would be easy for me to say that most people who claim to have faith aren’t insane because, when it comes down to it, they aren’t really faithful.  After all, most religious people take their kids to the doctor when they get sick, and they rely on scientific evidence rather than faith healing to cure illness.   But this account is cynical, and I’m not sure that it’s descriptively true.  My religious friend Kim genuinely believes that prayers played the pivotal role in her father’s cancer remission, though of course he also received chemotherapy.  It is obvious to me that Kim’s belief that her prayers played a causal role in her father’s remission is unjustified, but Kim is not insane.

Everyone has false beliefs.  Everyone has unjustified beliefs.  And the vast majority of people navigate their way through life fairly successfully without worrying too much about why they believe what they believe at all.  This may be immoral, and it’s most probably intellectually lazy, but it isn’t insanity.  The relationship between faith and insanity isn’t defined by what people say that they believe, or what they believe that they believe; It’s defined by what they do.  An insane action isn’t that which is done for a bad reason, it’s something that is not, in principle, justified by any good reason.

Religious practice gives many people comfort.  Studies suggest that devoutly religious people enjoy a number of quality-of-life advantages over their non-religious counterparts including longer life span, and more happiness.  The devoutly religious person believes that God is an active force in his life, and he believes that this is the reason for his happiness.  On both counts, he is most probably incorrect.  But prayers may actually improve the quality of his life.  In principle then, a good reason for his religious observation does exist.  Even though it is not his conscious reason, and even though he may deny that it is true, the religious person is not insane for continuing his regimen of prayers, fellowship, etc., if it gives him comfort to do so.  The same could be said of the faith-healer were it not that the comfort he seeks is directly opposed to his course of action.  Unfortunately, it is.  Faith-healing is insane not because faith-healers believe lies but because they put those lies into practice and expect miraculous results.

Dale Neumann would be guilty of a moral crime if he had wanted his daughter to suffer and die early and had chosen the rational means of declining medical attention in order to bring about this criminal end.  He didn’t want his daughter to suffer and die, however.  For that reason, it is proper to describe his refusal of medical care and appeal to religious faith as insanity.  He should not be held to the same standard of moral accountability as a sane person, nor should he be trusted with the privileges and responsibilities of a competent adult.  He is a crazy person and should be treated as such.

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3 Responses to “Faith-Healing as Mental Illness”

  1. James Gray Says:

    I want to examine the relationship between these two ideas:

    1. A person can believe X, but not be insane.
    2. Most people aren’t insane because they aren’t really faithful.

    If they aren’t truly faithful, then do they really believe?

    If a person really believes X is good, that is reason for them to do X. If a person says they believe X is good, but are unwilling to do it, then we might wonder about how strong their belief is.

    Perhaps a person can really believe X and not be insane, but it appears that they can’t believe it too much or we will start to think they are insane.

    The faith healer fanatics also appear to be more insane not because they think faith can heal, but because they reject healing through conventional medicine. In other words their beliefs are such that it is causing them to harm themselves and/or others. Most religious people are able to avoid harming themselves and others to a much greater extent.

  2. Liza Says:

    My position is that insanity is properly described as a condition of action rather than a condition of belief. Beliefs often inform action but not always reliably and not always in the ways that we expect. Moreover, most of us hold contradictory beliefs. Were the label of insanity properly applied to everyone who acts on a false belief or even an unreasonable belief, most of us would be insane. Merely believing untrue propositions is not a sufficient condition for insanity. An insane person internalizes untrue and unjustifiable beliefs and makes them a foundation for his practical action. As such, he is likely to choose means which are in direct contradiction to his ends because he holds a mistaken view of the way that the world works.

    I think people who are religious but not insane generally hold some untrue and unjustifiable beliefs, but they don’t expect improbable consequences from their actions. They may believe that God is watching them, that prayers are helping, and that they will go to Heaven when they die, but they still buckle their seatbelts, take medicine for illness, and do whatever is necessary to stay alive. You could say that these people don’t really have faith because they ultimately expect empirical laws to work and don’t count on miracles, but I don’t think that this is the best explanation of their beliefs. Instead, I think it is more likely that they genuinely do have a faith which is incoherent and irreconcilable with those true beliefs that help them successfully navigate the world. They live successfully by letting their empiricist instincts guide their actions, and tacking on a Divine explanation for events when it is convenient for them to do so. This doesn’t mean they don’t have faith, it means that they don’t recognize or don’t care about internal contradictions.

    • James Gray Says:

      They often have to choose between two beliefs and they choose the one that even nonbelievers will agree to be rational. I never said they didn’t have “faith,” but rather that their belief is probably not very strong.

      I agree that these people have incoherent beliefs, and it relates to the comment I made to the last post. Death should not be a bad thing for a Christian holding certain beliefs, but they still see death as a bad thing. The Christian is considered rational when they ignore the correct belief when it is appropriate to do so.

      I think this is evidence that we tend to know which beliefs are more secure and justified. Christians tend to know that their intricate beliefs involving the afterlife are not as reliable as empirical knowledge, so they can decide death is a bad thing.


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