Another child killed by parents’ faith

September 27, 2018 • 12:00 pm

This happened in July, so it’s a bit old, but I keep track of these things and had missed the incident described in the article below (from The Oregonian). It’s just one more instance in a long string of children killed because of their parents’ beliefs—beliefs that the children could not possibly have understood or rationally embraced. (Click on screenshot.)

The parents, Sarah and Travis Mitchell, are members of a notorious religious sect, the Followers of Christ, that embraces faith healing instead of Western medicine. Sarah gave birth to twins in 2017, but one of them was in bad shape, and rather than seek medical attention, the parents prayed. That baby died. Help was called for the other baby, who was also having difficulties, after the parents called law enforcement and were “persuaded” to seek medical attention. As the paper reports:

The couple’s newborn, Ginnifer, died March 5, 2017, from complications of premature birth. Her lungs appeared to be “airless” and she suffered from acute respiratory distress syndrome, the state medical examiner found.

The Mitchells’ baby died in the master bedroom at the Oregon City home of Sarah Mitchell’s parents. It was the same place where Sarah Mitchell’s older sister Shannon Hickman delivered a premature baby boy who died eight hours after birth in September 2009.

. . . The first of the twins, Evylen, was born in a breech position — bottom first, a significant potential complication — at 2:30 p.m., weighing only 3 pounds, 8 ounces, nearly two months premature. Twenty-three minutes later, Ginnifer was born at 2:53 p.m., weighing only 3 pounds, 6 ounces.

Breathing problems persisted for both newborns but no one called 911 or took the girls to a hospital.

At 4:36 p.m., a relative texted others, asking, “R u guys hearing that the second baby is dark and they r wanting prayers?”  according to investigators.

Over four hours, Ginnifer fought for her life, trying to take oxygen into her underdeveloped lungs. At 6:05 pm., Travis Mitchell “laid on hands” and the family took turns praying for healing as the baby continued labored breathing and changed colors.

Ginnifer died at 7 p.m. that day. “I knew she was dead when she didn’t cry out anymore,” her father said, according to court documents.

Sarah’s sister, as noted above, also delivered a stricken baby that wasn’t saved after prayer, but could have been with evidence-based medicine. Shannon Hickman and her husband were convicted of murder and sent to prison for manslaughter, each getting a six-year term. That should have been a lesson for Sarah.

In this case, Sarah and Travis Mitchell were charged with murder but accepted a plea bargain, pleading guilty to criminally negligent homicide and first-degree criminal mistreatment. They also signed a statement, to be posted in the church, saying that they should have sought medical treatment.

The jail sentences seem a bit light to me, not on the grounds of retribution—which I don’t believe in—but on the grounds of deterrence. Members of this church have repeatedly killed their children by praying instead of seeking medical attention, and it’s time that it stops. The only way to do that, I think, is to give stiff sentences and permanently remove the children from the home, or from the homes of relatives who embrace the same faith in prayer.

So we have yet another death that wouldn’t have occurred without religion, another child who won’t grow up. Those who like religion in general will say that this must be balanced against all the lives saved by religion, but a religion that lets its sick children die by prayer—children too young to decide for themselves—cannot be allowed to practice its faith. Yes, they can have their church services and the like, but it should be made very clear that the decision to get medical care is Caesar’s, not God’s.

And that lesson needs to be learned by the far more numerous Christian Scientists (many of whom still see doctors on the sly) and by Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose children regularly die because their religion rejects blood transfusions. Here’s a JW pamphlet from 1994 celebrating those dead children. Every child shown on the cover died after rejecting a transfusion. This is one of the most vivid examples of religious indoctrination (and harm) that I know of:

Josh Dehaas on “Indigenous ways of knowing” (aka “faith”)

May 28, 2018 • 12:00 pm

Quillette remains a good source of liberal but critical articles, refreshingly free of clickbait and ever critical of Control-Leftism. One recent article worth reading is by Josh Dehaas, “‘Indigenous Ways of Knowing’: Magical Thinking ahd Spirituality by Any One Name.” Dehaas, described as “a Toronto based freelance journalist”, is critical of a Canadian government initiative to put “indigenous ways of knowing” alongside “Western” ways of knowing as equally valid methods for understanding nature. It turns out that while some of these “indigenous ways of knowing” may have a valid core, in the main they’re based on revelation, guesses, and tradition—forms of faith. In no way are they, taken together, comparable to the empirical approach used by scientists and science-based researchers, engineers, or even car mechanics—a method I called “science construed broadly” in Faith Versus Fact.

First, the issue. There’s no doubt that Canada treated its indigenous people horribly. Many children were ripped from their parents, sent to schools where they were forbidden to speak their own language or practice traditional customs—an attempt to forcibly turn them into European Canadians. The country has rightfully tried to make reparations for this and similar forms of ill-treatment, and that’s to be applauded.

But in one way these reparations have gone too far. By attempting to teach indigenous “ways of knowing” as valid, the Canadian government and its universities are putting truly valid ways of understanding nature alongside ways that are not rigorously tested, and indeed, can be dangerous.

Now you’ve heard this equivalence of knowledge in at least two other areas: religion, which also claims “ways of knowing” based on revelation, dogma, authority, and simple faith, and postmodernism, which in some forms holds that there are many “ways of knowing”, with science just one among many, and not privileged in any way.

But we also have the indigenous ways of knowing held by what Canadians call “First Nation” people. Dehaas outlines how these ways are being validated:

From the University of Calgary to The University of Saskatchewan to Acadia University in New Brunswick, Canadian deans are pledging to infuse their curricula with a doctrine often described as “Indigenous Ways of Knowing” (IWK), which teaches that Indigenous peoples arrive at their understanding of the world in a unique way.

The idea has been around in some form for many years. In a research paper prepared for the Canadian government in 2002, for instance, Indigenous education scholar Marie Battiste argued that Indigenous peoples possess a “cognitive system” that is “alien” to Europeans. But in recent years, the concept has gained critical mass, as education officials seek to incorporate IWK into university coursework. Much of the impetus has come from the publication of the Final Report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2015.

The TRC was created as part of an attempt to formally recognize and heal the damage done by the Indian Residential School System, which for generations served to separate Indigenous children from their parents, thereby stripping them of their culture, often under abusive conditions. One of the TRC’s many recommendations was that Canada’s educational institutions treat “Aboriginal and Euro-Canadian knowledge systems with equal respect.” This prompted the universities’ main lobby group, Universities Canada, to exhort members to ensure “mutual respect for different ways of knowing,” and encourage “the cohabitation of Western science and Indigenous knowledge.”

Formally recognizing the harm done by the residential school system is a laudable goal. But I have yet to see any evidence that scholars create knowledge in fundamentally different ways, based on their ethnicities, as IWK proponents claim.

One example:

In an introductory IWK lecture, Paul Restoule, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), starts off by telling his class that “knowledges” are subjective. He also claims that the mere act of defining IWK is “problematic,” since any definitions would use “Western knowledge” as a frame of reference. This is not unusual. I’ve been writing about higher education for a decade, and have investigated the issue of IWK on different campuses. Invariably, my attempts to determine the exact parameters of IWK always meet with this somewhat gauzy, defensive response. Oddly, the most zealous proponents of IWK also are the ones who are the most reluctant to describe what it is.

Restoule claims that, for Indigenous people, “the senses can know more deeply and concretely than knowledge gained through reading and being told.” He asserts that “knowledge is sometimes revealed through dreams, visions and intuitions.” And he offers a Venn diagram with a circle for “Western science”—“limited to evidence and explanation within [the] physical world” and “skepticism,”—overlapping somewhat with a circle for “Indigenous knowledge,” which is described as “holistic,” involving a “metaphysical world linked to moral code” and “trust for inherited wisdom.”

That’s not knowledge, but faith that’s equivalent to religious faith!

Now I don’t know how pervasive this kind of nonsense is, but we know that First Nations people have been allowed to impose on their dying children “native medicine” rather than Western science-based medicine, with the predictable results: the kids die.(Sometimes the courts support this travesty.) I’ll count on Canadian readers to inform me if Restoule’s attitude is an outlier. I suspect it isn’t.  It is instead, as Dehaas observes, “a combination of magical thinking and spirituality.”

He adds:

Whenever proponents are asked to define IWK, “at some point in the conversation, postmodern relativism begins to enter into it,” she says. When asked to explain the unique “ways of knowing” exhibited by Indigenous peoples, advocates tend to describe either folk knowledge or spiritual beliefs, she adds. These may indeed be described as “alternative” ways of knowing. But their alternative character originates in the fact that they present themselves as exempt from the expectation of rigorous scrutiny that typically is applied to claims made by academics.

And it’s that absence of rigorous scrutiny and empirical testing that makes these “alternative ways of knowing” so dangerous.

Now some of you may be thinking, “But many modern medicines are derived from traditional plant-based remedies.” And indeed, that’s true: quinine as a remedy for malaria is the quintessential example. But the evidence that led to these plants being efficacious was still anecdotal: they seemed  to work. Now in the case of quinine they actually did work, but to find out rigorously if they work, you have to do proper empirical testing, using blind tests and statistics. That’s why all plant-based medicines, whether derived from local cultures or not, must be vetted by proper scientific testing.

After all, there are plenty of “traditional” remedies that don’t work at all: have a look at the Canadian Cancer Society’s page on “Aboriginal traditional healing“, which outlines many First Nations methods for cures that aren’t efficacious, including smudging, healing circles, and herbal medicines (some of which have been used on children with cancer). To its credit, the Society notes that there’s no evidence that any of these methods can be used to treat cancer, but the point is that people have used them—because they’re derived from “indigenous ways of knowing.”

Ditto for spiritual healing. That, like religion, is also an indigenous “way of knowing”, and may have some placebo effects, but if you had an infection, would you opt for smudging (inhaling the smoke from burning sacred herbs)— or antibiotics? By all means, if indigenous “remedies” aren’t harmful, make the patient feel more comfortable, and help him to take scientific medicine, use the other stuff as well. But don’t pretend that it’s a cure based on “other ways of knowing.”

Of course people who have been trod upon need their oppression remedied, and the Canadian government has taken admirable steps in that direction. But validating “indigenous ways of knowing”, at least insofar as they are claimed to produce truth about nature and the cosmos, isn’t one of them. There is only one valid way of knowing: a rigorous empirical method designed to overcome confirmation bias, and undergoes tests and replication. It’s called “science”.

h/t: Steve

Orac on homeopaths’ response to the FTC ruling against homeopathy; major retail chains still sell the expensive water

December 20, 2016 • 9:00 am

On November 19 I reported that the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) ruled that homeopathic “medicines”, to be advertised as efficacious, must have been scientifically tested, like all drugs, to show that they are indeed useful. (See the FTC statement and link to longer report here).

Well, of course the quacks couldn’t let that one rest, and Orac, in a deliciously splenetic post at Respectful Insolence (“Homeopaths respond to the FTC’s new position on homeopatrhy. The Universe laughs”, describes and then demolishes the pathetic attempt of The American Homeopathic Institute to defend their quackery and debunk the FTC’s ruling. It’s not surprising that their defense is ineffably lame, especially the claims that homeopathy really has been scientifically tested and that those who questioned it (even in formal reports) were biased and “pseudoscientific.” Of course it’s the homeopaths themselves who fit those terms, as well as the people who use these nostrums.

Do read Orac’s piece; it will bring you up to speed on the controversy. I’ll just show the last paragraph:

Ya gotta love homeopaths. They’re deluded quacks, and their overwrought language, coupled with the fact that this statement was written by homeopaths, perfectly encapsulates the nonsensical thinking behind homeopathy.

As I’ve pointed out before, Whole Foods, that bastion of overpriced but “healthy” foodstuffs, sells homeopathic nostrums. They even have a defense of homeopathic remedies on the Whole Foods blog. An excerpt, with my comments in bold:

Homeopathy has a long history of use all over the world [JAC: So has petitionary prayer for healing!]:

  • Homeopathy comes from the Greek words homeo meaning “similar” and pathos meaning “suffering.”  It was first used by Dr. Samuel Hahnemann in 1796.
  • Homeopathic medicines are therapeutically active [JAC:  no evidence for that!]micro-doses of mineral, botanical, and biological substances.  Similar to other over-the-counter medicines, homeopathic medicines can treat acute health conditions such as allergies, coughs, colds and flu symptoms.
  • Homeopathic medicines are regulated as drugs by the FDA and are made according to the specifications of the Homeopathic Pharmacopoeia of the United States (HPUS), which lists approximately 1,280 medicines.
  • eye drops and suppositories. [JAC: They’re “regulated”, but not for “safety and effectiveness”; see here. CVS’s statement is misleading.]

The homeopathic healing concept can be seen in every day examples and homeopathic medicines are available in a variety of forms:

  • If one chops several onions in a small kitchen, one will experience symptoms such as spasmodic sneezing, runny nose and itchy eyes.  All these symptoms will be improved by breathing fresh air.  A patient experiencing these same symptoms, including feeling better when breathing fresh air, whether caused by allergy or a cold, will be relieved by a homeopathic preparation of the onion also known as Allium cepa.  It is as if a very small amount of the onion helped the body to react better against symptoms of cold or allergy similar to those caused by the onion. [JAC: This is the bogus “theory” of homeopathy: a very small—indeed, nonexistent—dose of something that replicates your symptoms will actually cure you.]
  • Sometimes more than one medicine is needed for treatment.  These combinations are available in a variety of dosage forms such as tablets, gels, creams, syrups, eye drops and suppositories.

I’ve sent this tweet to them (with a shortened link to the FTC summary), and perhaps, if you use Twitter, you could do it as well. I wonder if they’d respond.

The CVS pharmacy chain in the US (which pioneered health consciousness by stopping their sale of cigarettes) also sells homeopathic remedies. Here’s a screenshot of some of them.


Despite a social media campaign against CVS led by Yvette d’Entremont, CVS didn’t back down and didn’t comment. Ergo another tweet:

If you dislike this kind of woo (and remember, taking homeopathic drugs instead of scientific medicine can actually be harmful), you might follow suit.

h/t: Barry

More osculation of religion in National Geographic

November 30, 2016 • 1:30 pm


I’ve noted that, over time, National Geographic has gotten more and more fond of religious topics, and is actually sympathetic to faith. I’ll put the cover of this December’s issue here and move on, as I haven’t read any articles (it’s not online, and I’m sure as hell not going to buy it). But it doesn’t look propitious. . .


Here’s their page of news about the issue:

h/t: Jerry M.

My interview at the Hong Kong Literary Festival, and a note on folk medicine

November 11, 2016 • 11:30 am

Last night I had an hour event (45 minutes of conversation about Faith Versus Fact and 15 minutes of Q&A) at the Hong Kong Literary Festival, co-sponsored by the Hong Kong Skeptics. You can watch it by clicking on the screenshot below.

The interviewer is Mike Bigelow, a businessman, former Jehovah’s Witness (now a nonbeliever), and officer of the Hong Kong Skeptics Society; he had some great questions. The taping was done by Andrew Davidson, who kindly recorded it on his phone and posted it on Periscope.

My thanks as well to Phillipa Milne, head of the Literary Festival, to David Young, one of my “handlers” who extended me warm hospitality, and the other Literary Festival and Hong Kong Skeptic folk who dealt with the logistical hurdles.


I was gratified that the event was sold out, that the audience seemed enthusiastic, and that many people bought books (WEIT was also on sale).

After the event I got to talk to some of the audience, and I was especially interested in what four young Hong Kong medics—practitioners of modern scientific medicine—had to say.

One thing I’ve learned is that although many people in Hong Kong and China are not conventionally religious, they are often deeply superstitious, not only relying on untested or disproven forms of medical treatment (acupuncture, homeopathy, herbal medicine), but having a belief in feng shui, lucky numbers (many buildings don’t have fourth floors), ghosts, and the like. Since the last chapter of Faith versus Fact was about the dangers of faith healing, I wanted to know whether these dangers applied to non-religious but untested Chinese folk medicine.

The medics instantly said “yes,” and noted that they’d come across many cases of people who had been severely damaged by relying on folk and traditional cures rather than scientific medicine. One, an oncologist, told me grisly stories about women with breast cancer who had tried to cure themselves by rubbing herbal creams on their tumor-ridden breasts, which of course only got worse and worse, often over years. By the time they sought Western treatment, it was too late, though many could have been cured had they consulted a real doctor early on. The oncologist said the same thing about lymphoma: it’s often a treatable and curable form of cancer, but becomes terminal if treated with folk nostrums.

So yes, there is lots of ineffective “faith healing” in which the “faith” devolves not on gods and their wills, but on untested remedies. Belief in untested forms of medicine is itself a form of faith, for there’s no systematic evidence that they work. But I suppose we knew that already. I just wanted confirmation from local doctors, and got it in spades.

Woman sues her Mormon parents to get medical care

October 6, 2016 • 12:00 pm

One of the most horrible and damaging aspects of religion is the tendency of some faiths to refuse medical care to children, relying instead on prayer and “faith healing.” The most famous such faith is Christian Science, but many sects do the same thing. As I recall (and I’m in the airport without my figures), something like 42 states confer civil or criminal immunity on parents who injure or kill their children by withholding medical care on religious grounds. If you withhold medical care on other grounds, of course, you’re liable to prosecution. Such is the unwarranted and harmful privilege of religion in America.

I wasn’t aware that Mormons were guilty of these crimes, but as The Guardian reported (and this is several months old), Mariah Walton, a young woman in Idaho, was permanently disabled because her fundamentalist Mormon parents refused to give her surgery for a hole in her heart when she was born, and so she’s left permanently disabled with pulmonary hypertension. This is what she looks like now:

Photograph: Jason Wilson for The Guardian

Mariah, sadly. lived in Idaho, where parents are immune from prosecution for this kind of neglect. (The last chapter of Faith Versus Fact discusses the execrable religious-exemption laws.)

Mariah, along with others injured in this way, are campaigning for an end to Idaho’s exemption laws. Amazingly, some state legislators (Republicans, of course), oppose the laws’ repeal because parents should have the right to treat their kids with faith-based medicine: it’s “freedom of religion.”

There should be no freedom of religion that allows parents to hurt their children in the name of their god. It’s bad enough that they indoctrinate their kids (which really should be illegal, too), but it’s out of bounds to withhold scientific medicine in the name of a fairy tale.

It appears that the bill to deep-six the exemption laws is still under consideration, so that children are still being injured (the Followers of Christ are notorious for this). There’s a petition to the Idaho governor to remove religious exemptions from prosecution, but, sadly, it has only 1,207 signers. It’s time to eliminate all religious exemptions for medical treatment: not just for deformities and diseases, but for vaccinations, too: 47 states allow religious exemptions for the requirement for school children to get vaccinated.

Canadian parents convicted for killing son by giving him maple syrup and other nostrums for meningitis

April 27, 2016 • 1:30 pm

On March 10 I told the story of David and Collet Stephan, a couple from Alberta who killed their son Ezekiel, afflicted with meningitis, by withholding medical treatment in favor of bogus “alternative” medicine. Here’s what the CBC said when reporting on their prosecution for criminal neglect. (Ezekiel died in 2012):

In a bid to boost his immune system, the couple gave the boy — who was lethargic and becoming stiff — various home remedies, such as water with maple syrup, juice with frozen berries and finally a mixture of apple cider vinegar, horse radish root, hot peppers, mashed onion, garlic and ginger root as his condition deteriorated.

Court heard the couple on tape explaining to the police officer that they prefer naturopathic remedies because of their family’s negative experiences with the medical system.

The Stephan family runs family runs Truehope Nutritional Support, a dubious food-supplement company.

Ezekiel had bacterial meningitis, which is highly responsive to antibiotics and can be easily cured if caught early. If left untreated, death is the almost invariable outcome, as it was in his case.

But good news for rationalists: the CBC just reported that David and Collet have been convicted by a jury, which deliberated only 9 hours, for “failing to provide the necessaries of life.” I hope the sentence, levied in June, will be a stiff one, for if ever there’s a case for punishment levied to deter others, this is it. Other children regularly die for faith-based healing, whether it’s religious or based on the Stephan’s “faith” in alternative medicine. To me, it’s the same as murder through neglect. In this case the maximum sentence is only five years, but it will likely be lighter. As the CBC reports:

Shannon Prithipaul, the past president of the Criminal Trial Lawyers Association, thinks it would be unlikely for the couple to receive “something close to the maximum.”

“It’s not like they were not feeding their child or they were purposely withholding medication that they knew would assist the child but didn’t,” she said.

That’s bogus. They were purposely withholding medication that any rational person would know is the right thing to give such a child. They didn’t even take him to a doctor until he stopped breathing, but he was already dead! If these parents get off lightly, it will be a signal to others in their position—First Nations parents who treat leukemia with herbs or other religious parents who substitute prayer for medicine—that they might suffer no legal consequences at all.

In fact, this case is exactly like religiously-based withholding of medicine, for in both situations the damage is based on faith. That the conclusion of experts who have watched this case, and a major contention of my book Faith Versus Fact. “Faith” is belief without sufficient evidence to convince most rational people, and whether that be based on religion, ideology, or belief in “alternative medicine,” it’s all the same, and all equally culpable in a case like this.

Here’s another CBC story on the Stephans; click on the screenshot to go to it:

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 12.43.22 PM

Why is this such a revelation? Do people not see the parallel between faith in God and faith in maple syrup? How surprising is this?:

“It’s like a religion to them,” says Tim Caulfield, research director of the University of Alberta’s Health Law and Science Policy Group. He has written the books The Cure for Everything! Untangling the Twisted Messages about Health, Fitness and Happiness and Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?

“Studies have shown that some people are more likely to believe these kinds of things. They’re more likely to believe in the supernatural. They’re more likely to be religious and they’re more likely to buy the entire package of complementary and alternative practices.”

But Caulfield is right, and makes a good point:

Caulfield says individuals can not only find information that backs their own personal beliefs online, but entire cyber communities that agree with them.

“When you start insulting and say there’s no evidence to support homeopathy, there’s no evidence to support these kind of whole remedies — you’re not just insulting the practice — you’re insulting the individual. It becomes part of their belief system.”

Caulfield says it isn’t easy to get people to change.

“When people are faith-based, which so many of these practitioners really are and so many people that use this, they can’t change their mind, because then they’re losing part of their identity package.

“They’re losing part of who they are.”

Caulfield wants a national dialogue about what he calls pseudo-science.

“It’s almost like there’s this strange, pseudo-science correctiveness … that stops us from talking honestly about what these guys provide.”

And that “pseudo-science correctness” is even harder to dislodge (and more easily excused by the public) when it’s based on religion. Even if we can’t change people’s minds, though, we can make sure the law gives a stiff corrective to faithheads like the Stephans. And we can also recognize that homeopathy, acupuncture, crystal healing, and other such nonsense are just as faith-based as religion.

Yes, the David and Collet Stephan were people of faith, but that’s a term that should always be taken not as the usual compliment, but as a profound criticism.

David and Collet Stephan, and the son they killed

h/t: Taskin, Diana MacPherson



Canadian parents killed their kid by withholding medical care in favor of maple syrup and berries

March 10, 2016 • 8:30 am

Even the rational Canadians have a sprinkling of loons among them, and by that I mean human loons, not the ones on the one-dollar coins.  The latest pair is David and Collet Stephan of Alberta, whose son, Ezekiel, became ill with meningitis four years ago. As the CBC reports, Ezekiel was ill for several weeks, but the Stephans, whose family runs Truehope Nutritional Support, a dubious food-supplement company in Raymond, Alberta, didn’t take their child to the doctor. Rather, they dosed him with a mishmash of ineffectual nostrums:

In a bid to boost his immune system, the couple gave the boy — who was lethargic and becoming stiff — various home remedies, such as water with maple syrup, juice with frozen berries and finally a mixture of apple cider vinegar, horse radish root, hot peppers, mashed onion, garlic and ginger root as his condition deteriorated.

Court heard the couple on tape explaining to the police officer that they prefer naturopathic remedies because of their family’s negative experiences with the medical system.

That didn’t work, of course. In the end, Ezekiel worsened, stopped breathing, and was airlifted to Calgary. But it was too late. He died—in March, 2012. Now David and Collet are on trial for “failing to provide the necessities of life” for their son. They’ve pleaded not guilty and have responded by claiming that “they are being unfairly persecuted and that their approach to health should be respected.”

The late Ezekiel

Someone’s also set up a “Prayers for Ezekiel” Facebook page, with the following last-minute note, and on that page David Stephan defends the family’s actions.

Dear little Ezekiel was brought into the hospital after he stopped breathing on Tuesday night. He was rushed to Calgary and was on life support at the Children’s Hospital. He had no indication of Brain function but his organs were in great condition. The doctors gave us until the middle of Sunday to find improvement. Please send love, healing energy and strength in prayers to Ezekiel’s family. ♥

A heart, for crying out loud: an organ the family apparently doesn’t possess. There was also a “crowdfunder” page for legal defense, but it seems to have disappeared.

Screen Shot 2016-03-10 at 6.37.58 AM
The Stephans family. There are three kids left (note the picture of Ezekiel). What chance do they have?

While religion doesn’t appear to be involved here, faith is—crazy and unsubstantiated faith in the efficacy of these “natural” remedies for meningitis. David and Collet Stephan are due no “respect” for their “approach to health.” That’s equivalent to giving respect to those who think that epilepsy is caused by demonic possession.

We have science now, and we know how to treat meningitis. When caught early, it’s highly curable. Parents have no “right” to neglect cures known to work in favor of those that don’t, and neglectful parents deserve not respect, but scorn, opprobrium, and, yes, jail. If they’re not punished, it sends a message to parents that they can treat their children how they want.

At least the Canadian government is prosecuting them. In the U.S., in most states the Stephans wouldn’t be prosecuted if they pleaded that their treatment was based on religious faith— or, if they were prosecuted, would be given a slap on the wrist. But there should be no exemptions for such child neglect, religious or otherwise. Children are at the mercy of their parents’ faith, and can’t decide for themselves. When parents neglect medical care—which of course is free in Canada—in favor of superstition, and thereby harm their children, they should be punished, severely. Such punishment is known to deter others from curing via “faith”—as it has done with some religious sects in the U.S.

One line of the CBC’s report struck me:

The Crown told court the couple loved their son and are not accused of ignoring or killing him. But they should have sought medical help sooner, the Crown argues.

Yes, they may well have loved their child, but they loved their superstitions more. Were they truly ignorant, or willfully so? If they wanted to use supplements, they could have supplemented the maple syrup with national healthcare.

And what about the Stephan’s other three children? Will they grow up believing in nutritional supplements in place of scientific medicine? If so, they’re the equivalent of Christian Science children who get indoctrinated into that pernicious faith and thus perpetuate the killing of innocent children from generation to generation.

There should be no  exemptions, religious or otherwise, for parents seeking to avoid medical care by treating their children with faith, whether that faith involve God or maple syrup. The Stephans, who show no remorse, should be jailed, and their children given to other families willing to treat them properly when they become ill.

h/t: Russel

p.s. One note: in 47 of the U.S.’s 50 states, parents don’t have to get their kids vaccinated to attend public school if those parents have religious objections. In 20 states, you can get exemptions based on philosophical objections. The disparity between religion and philosophy is telling.

Newsweek uncritically praises skill of Brazilian psychic surgeon—and touts other woo

March 7, 2016 • 10:00 am

I can only stand by helplessly as major magazines like National Geographic, and now Newsweek, tout spiritual woo, misleading people and, in the case of the latest Newsweek issue, even causing harm. Here’s their Special Issue on Spiritual Living, which Newsweek describes this way:

To live a spiritual life is to be better connected with the universe around you. This 100-page, special edition of Newsweek is your guide for all things metaphysical, from focusing the mind for meditation through yoga and more, to healing the body with crystals and essential oils. Featuring insight from notable names in the spiritual sphere including Gail Thackray, William Lee Rand and Brad Johnson, this is the issue for anyone looking to awaken their soul.


Miracle crystals? Essential oils? Holistic foods? Angel numbers? Oy! But perhaps the worst is the article  “John of God, the Miracle Healer,” about a fake and quack of the first water.

John of God, or “João de Deus” is a psychic healer of great renown: Wikipedia reports that every week thousands of people stand in line to receive his numinous ministrations. That, of course, means he’s a very effective charlatan. Here are his methods, which have been debunked by numerous people including James Randi:

When called for a spiritual surgery by De Faria, patients are offered the choice of ‘visible’ or ‘invisible’ operations. If they select an ‘invisible’ operation (or are younger than 18 or older than 52) they are directed to sit in a room and meditate. De Faria also claims that spiritual physicians can perform surgery on the actual patient via a surrogate when the actual patient is unable to make the trip.

A very small percentage of people choose a ‘visible’ operation where De Faria operates without traditional anesthetic. Instead he says he uses “energized” mineral water and the spiritual energies present, the latter which are provided by groups of volunteers who meditate in a separate room called the ‘current room’. These practices such as inserting scissors or forceps deep into a nose and scraping an eye without an anesthetic or antiseptics have been scrutinized by medical authorities and skeptical investigators James Randi, who has called for De Faria to come clean and stop lying to the public about the existence of spirit and Joe Nickell have described these procedures at length as old carnival tricks.

See especially Randi’s takedown, which describes John’s “surgeries” as “carny stunts.”  Naturally, John of God has been touted by Oprah (see Orac’s excoriating remarks on her endorsement). Randi especially decries the forceps in the nosestunt, used to “cure” a variety of ailments. See for yourself:

Here’s a bogus eye-scraping operation, with Newsweek’s caption:

Using a knife, John of God performs a visible spiritual surgery on a woman’s eyes. Some healings require only his hands, while others call for the use of tools. ERALDO PERES/AP IMAGES

Anyway, Newsweek‘s piece simply echoes the puffery of Gail Thackray, who describes herself on her website as as “spiritual educator, medium”. She also made a film about John of God, and experienced a life changing “conversation with God” while sitting in John’s prayer room. How objective is she in the piece? Well, judge for yourself from her words and this accompanying picture:

Newsweek caption: “John of God poses for a photo with author Gail Thackray COURTESY GAIL THACKRAY”

And the Newsweek piece describes, completely uncritically, John’s miraculous “healings”. There’s not a word of dissent, not a peep from his many critics. There’s just stuff like this (these are apparently excerpts from a longer piece in the magazine, selected by Newsweek editor Trevor Courneen):

For all the unanswered mysteries the universe presents, few are incredible enough to earn the label of miracle. Hyperbole is often tied to bewildering occurrences and practices, but a closer look can often lessen their profundity. Though tirelessly explored and frequently experienced, the divine-spirit-induced healing work of John of God remains an exception.

“It is hard to believe, but when you experience this, it is profound,” says Gail Thackray, co-creator of the film John of God: Just a Man and author of the accompanying memoir. An insisting astrologer would initially push Thackray to Brazil where she would first pursue and meet the enigmatic man who heals others by becoming inhabited by spirits. Eventually, Thackray discovered her own purpose was sharing the healings of John of God with the rest of world.

and this:

Whether the guidance of God, divine spirits or varying otherworldly beings are truly enacting the healings, the results of John of God’s work have a way of speaking for him. The energies may not be seen, but in many cases, the healings are. “Many times he takes someone out of a wheelchair, and the ailments literally disappear in front of your eyes,” says Thackray.

and this ending:

With his staggeringly vast reach, the degree of John of God’s exceptional nature becomes a resurfacing question. Even those who acknowledge that energy flows within all of us acknowledge that there hasn’t been anyone on Earth quite like John of God in quite some time. “We all have the ability to heal on some level and can develop this,” says Thackray. “But some are born with or receive a very special healing gift. John of God is rare indeed.”

This is absolutely reprehensible: a complete abnegation of journalistic duty. Yes, journalists can write about this faker if they want, but they’re ethically obligated to point out the many debunkings. What we have, instead, is a completely uncritical puff piece, and one that’s dangerous. By encouraging the afflicted to seek out John of God, Newsweek is hurting people. This isn’t Bigfoot, Nessie, or alien abductions: this is the touting of ineffective spiritual healing, something that kills and injures people.

To add insult to injury, the article appear’s in Newsweek’s online “Tech & Science” section. That was pointed out by the reader who sent me the article, a reader who’s created an entire website devoted to taking down the Brazilian Faker: John of God: the CONand who has written a short piece on the Newsweek travesty.

Want more woo? Read the article from the same issue about “The healing power of Reiki.

Jail for faith-healing parents who killed infected infant through prayer treatment

October 14, 2015 • 1:45 pm

In March I wrote a piece for The New Republic, “Faith healing parents who let their child die should go to jail,” highlighting the egregious American laws that allow parents who kill or injure their child by neglecting medical care on religious grounds to be largely exempt from criminal or civil prosecution. Those exemptions, which hold in 43 states (with 39 giving criminal exemptions) are NOT allowed for parents who withhold medical care on nonreligious grounds; for that you can go to jail for child neglect, abuse, or even manslaughter. Such is the unwarranted privilege that religion gets in America: it allows you to kill your kid in the name of God, and then get off the hook.

A good bit of the last chapter of Faith versus Fact is devoted to this issue, which is associated with more harm than most people realize. Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and many pentecostal Christian sects abjure, in whole or in part, medical care, and that has led to the deaths of hundreds of kids. It’s completely unnecessary, it can be largely avoided with legislation and punishment, and it’s based entirely on religion. What person would not give antibiotics to an infected child unless it had something to do with religious belief? Further, it’s largely our own fault, for it’s our legislatures that make laws allowing these faith-addled parents go free, and it’s our courts and juries who slap them on the wrist even when they’re convicted. It’s time to eliminate all religious exemptions from prosecution for faith-healing parents who hurt their children.

In the last bit of my book I recount the story of a member of the Followers of Christ (FoC), a particularly nasty faith-healing sect in the Pacific Northwest that has been responsible for the death of many children. Most members are in Idaho or Oregon. In Idaho they’re not prosecuted because of exemption laws, but in Oregon, enlightened state that it is, they are. (Oregon eliminated its religious-exemption law in 2011.)

And, according to both The Daily Beast (which cites my TNR piece) and an earlier piece in, two parents who were members of the FoC, Dale and Shannon Hickman, have just been sentenced to at least two years and three months in the state penitentiary for letting their premature infant son die of staphylococcus pneumonia—something that would almost certainly have been cured had they sought medical care. (The Oregon State Medical Examiner’s Office estimates a 99% chance of cure.) The Hickmans were originally prosecuted and convicted for second-degree manslaughter. The conviction was appealed, and was just upheld by State Supreme Court judge Virginia Linder. Her decision can be found here.

The defendants apparently argued that their conduct, because it was motivated by religion, exempted them from the state statutes that parents are culpable if they were aware that their conduct would harm the child.  The Hickmans’ lawyers claimed that because the parents relied on faith healing, they were not knowingly harming the child, and so should not have been convicted. Linder found that argument insupportable, as they should have known what would happen. Her decision explicitly cites the state laws for second-degree manslaughter:

“(1) Criminal homicide constitutes manslaughter in the second degree when:

*****(c) A person, with criminal negligence, causes the death of a child under 14 years of age or a dependent person, as defined in ORS 163.205, and: “

***** “(B) The person causes the death by neglect or maltreatment, as defined in ORS 163.115.”

She did not find religion a factor that reduced criminal negligence.  Curiously, though, Justice Linder noted that had the Hickmans mounted a truly religious defense, they might have either gone free or gotten a lighter sentence. From her decision:

As we stated in Brumwell and reiterate in this case, parties who present an as-applied challenge to a generally applicable and neutral law must make “an individual claim to exemption [from that law] on religious grounds.” Brumwell, 350 Or at 108 (citing Cooper, 301 Or at 368-69). Defendants have not requested a religious exemption from the second degree manslaughter statute. Instead, they have—from pretrial and consistently since—argued that, under Meltebeke, the state bears the burden of proving a culpable mental state higher than that required by ORS 163.125. This case does not present—and accordingly we decline to consider—the broader question of when a generally applicable and neutral law must yield to an individual’s claim for exemption on religious grounds.

That’s a cop-out, I think: deciding the case on the narrowest possible grounds so that future religious defenses (which, again curiously, aren’t allowed under Oregon law) might be feasible. At any rate, I think this decision should serve as a deterrent to sects like the Followers of Christ to stop withholding medical care from children either too young or too indoctrinated to make their own healthcare decisions. We simply must stop allowing religious people to kill their kids by relying on faith instead of scientific medicine.

Here’s a picture of the defendants from 2011; apparently the sentence was reduced by four years after the appeal:

OREGON CITY, OREGON- Oct. 31, 2011– Dale Hickman looks to deputies waiting to take him and his wife, Shannon, into custody after they were sentenced in Clackamas County Court Monday to six years in prison for the death of their son, David. The couple are both members of the Followers of Christ church. POOL PHOTO/THE OREGONIAN: RANDY RASMUSSEN

h/t: daveau