Every so often, just about anywhere in the Western world, you get a story about some family who’s killed their kid through lack of medical intervention – sometimes through an organised religion like the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Christian Scientists, others from some general free-range concoction of beliefs. In most cases the religious fanatacism shades into some form of strange cultism or family psychosis, and such cases only come up once every few years …
Except in the States, where they arise so regularly that a whole series of laws have been enacted to specifically target the homicide arising from such behaviour. The combination of religious freedom together with the degree of irrationalism that is sweeping American life as a sense of society starts to fray.
The latest such indicates the American dilemma in full force: a Wisconsin couple, accused of second-degree reckless homicide, for failing to take their diabetic daughter to get the basic care she needed while praying for her for weeks as she slipped into a coma and died. The incident was no snap life-or-death decision in an ER room. Everyone around the couple – who, inevitably, led a prayer study group from their coffee shop – knew what was going on. Most tried to argue them out of it. But none staged a direct intervention or called the cops. Why? It was not only the strength of their faith, and the bond to a locally-charismatic religious couple, it was that, plus their scientific ignorance – they simply didn’t know what a diabetic coma was. As the couple in question noted, they were not opposed to doctors per se – they just though that, in this case, their daughter’s illness was a test of her, and their, faith.
Now here’s the interesting bit. On the one hand the US protects religious freedom by privileging no one religion over another. It also respects the principle of in loco parentis – that, within broad limits, you have the right to raise your kids how you want. Yet the idea of a child dying for those beliefs is so abhorrent that it cannot be tolerated, and is thus put on the statute books as a crime. In effect, such laws establish that justice is not philosophically blind – we do not regard the religious account of a diabetic coma as equal to the scientific one. For legal purposes the latter is true, and those who refuse to act on that assumption are guilty of a crime. In effect it determines that American society is a scientific-materialist civilisation, and that people have to hew to those rules. The religious bits on top are, in the last analysis, just bells and whistles.
For decades this conflict rarely arose, because there was no such thing as patient consent. Doctors just did what was needed, never explained it – presuming the child of religious types ever got to the doctor in the first place.
The issue went live when medical technology became increasingly invasive of everyday life – there’s no place fore religion to hide from materialism. That further crossed over into the increasing desire to impart a “correct” version of social life. Thus the radical Mormon sects have been practicing polygamy for quite a while without anyone much bothering – now, given all we know, or think we do, about healthy relationships, their compounds have to be raided.
But of course it’s also the fact that as a scientific civilisation has arisen, so too has a desperate need for meaning, invested in identity politics. People don’t assert whacky religious ideas despite the fact they make no sense – they do it because of that fact, as away of carving out meaning in a hi-tech world. Thus the conflict between these beliefs, and what we otherwise know to be true, intensify.
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No-one’s yet done an irrationality audit on the US – an attempt to gauge just how many decisions have been made based on literalist religion and the idea of divine intervention. Mike Huckabee, for example, believes that God intercedes every day, steers the course of bullets and missiles. Had he become President would the whole process of scientific verification have been altered? Or is such all just for show, a way of supplying meaning to a meaningless world?
Americans haven’t yet sorted out how the hi-tech empire they’ve been running for decades sits together with the profoundly irrationalist faiths on which many say their lives are based. If they lived by them, they’d be the sort of pious agrarian republic that some of their founding fathers intended. Not gonna happen, so the religion-science controversy is coming towards some definitive crunch sometime down the track.
Oh, politics? Obama’s pastor came out and made more problems for him, Hillary deepened the sense that she was more for McCain than Obama by endorsing a gas tax “holiday”. And we sailed on towards Indiana …