Review: Bad Faith: When Religious Belief Undermines Modern Medicine by Dr Paul Offit

Book cover of Bad Faith by Dr Paul Offit

Whilst I’d be the first to say that I’ve read a lot of great non-fiction this year, Bad Faith was my absolute, undoubted favourite (and I’ve only gotten round to writing a review because I’ll need to add it to my Top Ten Books of 2016 list shortly). I read quite a lot of medical non-fiction due to my career, but I’d never read one that was as accessible, well-written and thought-provoking as this one.

Summary: In recent years, there
have been major outbreaks of whooping cough among children in
California, mumps in New York, and measles in Ohio’s Amish
country—despite the fact that these are all vaccine-preventable
diseases. Although America is the most medically advanced place in the
world, many people disregard modern medicine in favor of using their
faith to fight life threatening illnesses. Christian Scientists pray for
healing instead of going to the doctor, Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse
blood transfusions, and ultra-Orthodox Jewish mohels spread herpes by
using a primitive ritual to clean the wound. Tragically, children suffer
and die every year from treatable diseases, and in most states it is
legal for parents to deny their children care for religious reasons. In
twenty-first century America, how could this be happening?

In Bad Faith,
acclaimed physician and author Dr. Paul Offit gives readers a
never-before-seen look into the minds of those who choose to medically
martyr themselves, or their children, in the name of religion. Offit
chronicles the stories of these faithful and their children, whose
devastating experiences highlight the tangled relationship between
religion and medicine in America. Religious or not, this issue reaches
everyone—whether you are seeking treatment at a Catholic hospital or
trying to keep your kids safe from diseases spread by their unvaccinated

I’m not going to discuss the content of this book. Anybody who knows me even vaguely will
know what side of the fence I fall on and hundreds of people (Dr Offit
included) have explained their views far more eloquently than I ever could. Yes, Hanna is keeping her mouth shut for once.

This book contains a variety of topics from a close examination of Christian Science (which believes that illness is an illusion caused by ignorance of God – therefore, as illness is not actually real, the only way to treat it is prayer), televangelists, child abuse, abortion, etc. It’s a well-balanced book with case studies, excerpts from the Bible and also scientific studies, which results in a discussion, not a rant.

What impressed me the most was the balanced nature of Bad Faith. Dr Offit is a Pediatrician specialising in infectious diseases and is the co-inventor of a rotavirus
vaccine. It’s fairly safe to say that his sympathies are going to lie with science and medicine, and so I was more or less expecting a diatribe on the dangers of religion and how their beliefs are ineffectual and redundant. As it turns out, I completely misjudged both Dr Offit and his work. Several chapters discuss how much good religion has brought about with regard to healing and how their efforts can be misintepreted by the more cynical. It’s only the (usually) well-intentioned few who are the cause of the controversy.

Faith healing parents often argue that they were only doing what Jesus would have done. But what would He have done? – this man who dedicated his life to relieving the illness, poverty, and death around him; who wept at the suffering of children; who stood up for those who couldn’t stand up for themselves. One can only imagine Jesus would have used whatever was available to prevent that suffering, much as Christians have been doing in His name for centuries.

What I loved about this book is that I still can’t tell if Dr Offit believes in God or not. He never once suggests that God does not exist and, to an extent, I don’t suppose it really matters in this context. It’s more about the ways in which the fervent, zealous beliefs of a few (not of religion as a whole) have affected the treatment of many.

Several case studies are discussed in depth (including the Texas measles outbreak and the case of Matthew Swan that led to the large-scale investigation of faith healing) and Dr Offit references a huge amount of papers and studies to back up his opinions. Whilst this is definitely a popular-interest book, its based on thorough research and investigation.

I think I would have preferred a little more discussion on abortion, euthanasia, vaccination (although I understand he has a whole book dedicated to vaccination, so perhaps he didn’t wish to repeat himself), etc, instead of the slight repetition with regard to faith healing, on which Bad Faith mainly dwells. My favourite section was (unsurprisingly) the part about the statutes which make it so difficult to prosecute faith healing parents.

Bad Faith is heart-breaking and shocking. I finished this book whilst getting a train to York to see a show, and I couldn’t get it out of my head during the train ride or the show itself. Sorry, Alan Cumming. Some aspects hurt me, some angered me and others just caused bewilderment at how anybody could think that was acceptable.

This is a compassionate yet logical discussion of how a misunderstanding of certain religious tenets can lead to severe harm, despite the multitude of scientific advances. Dr Offit has written several other books which I’m looking forward to reading, including Killing Us Softly: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine, which I’ve totally already bought.

I recomend reading Dr Offit’s article in the New York Times – What Would Jesus Do About Measles?  – or listen to an interview with him about this book here.


  1. Jean says:

    It sounds interesting, but I find it odd that it apparently says that "major outbreaks of whooping cough among children in California, mumps in New York, and measles in Ohio’s Amish country" are attributable to outlier religious beliefs. I do not know what the Amish do about vaccines, but I've always heard that they are model medical patients. NY and CA outbreaks of easily preventable diseases are FAR more attributable to woo-believing parents who think vaccines are poisonous/cause autism (and, in LA, to a large population of people who are not citizens and live semi- off the books) than they are to religious beliefs. Unless woo is classed as a religion (and indeed many parents will claim religious exemptions for vaccines when they aren't actually religious), I don't quite see the logic there.

    Does he talk about the new law in CA about how we now *have* to have our children vaccinated in order to attend a regular public school?

    Also my church is very big on medical advancement as a great blessing…just throwing that out there…

    1. Jean says:

      Oh, interesting. A Pediatrics article from 2011 comments on Amish beliefs and vaccines. There is no religious prohibition but many folks are concerned about side effects — so I would classify that differently, but others may disagree.

    2. admin says:

      Thanks for commenting, nobody else will discuss these things with me :p

      Dr Offit does state that some churches have embraced medical advancements whole heartedly because they are, after all, for the benefit of mankind. Do you mind if I ask which church you attend?

      What I particularly liked about this book is that it never lumps whole religions together. It doesn't imply that ALL Christians do this, or ALL Amish people do that. Instead it states that certain branches, certain offshoots, have THIS belief, which is where the Amish measles outbreak comes in. Perhaps the blurb should have been more specific. I've also heard that the Amish are fully in favour of modern medicine.

      I agree that the woo-believing parents (I've never heard the phrase before but I love it) are more to blame regarding the lack of vaccinations, but this book doesn't talk about that much as he has a whole other book dedicated to the subject! I agree that beliefs such as the autism causation argument are definitely not religious, however.

      He does discuss the legislation, but it hadn't come into effect at the time of writind. He is in favour of the new law though. Do you disagree?

    3. Jean says:

      Oh, I'll comment all day long! Ha. I am LDS, aka Mormon. We like medical advances a lot, and you'll see church leaders exhort people to get treatment for depression, etc, stressing that it's a physical issue, not a spiritual one.

      I'm not sure I've ever met anybody who refused medical care for religious reasons, but then I live in California and don't personally know a lot of JWs (there is a large Mennonite population here! But I never heard of a Mennonite objecting to doctors). I do know plenty of woo people, oh yes. Maybe I can get both his books and see what I think.

      I tend to defer to parental beliefs, but only up to a point. I am in favor of the CA legislation. If you're going to send your kid to the government school, it's fair to require immunizations, IMO; otherwise it's easy to infect swathes of children. I'm in a funny position as a homeschooling/charter school parent — the charter schools are a loophole and mine does not have to enforce the law, though I'm not sure how it works out for each school (if they have a real location, as most do, do they have to comply?). So the school expected a large upsurge in students this year from parents who objected to the law strongly enough to actually pull their kids out and homeschool, whether independently or through a charter. Homeschooling is hard work and you have to be pretty dedicated, and I'm not sure objecting to vaccinations is a good reason to do it, so we'll see how long that lasts. Myself, I'm on my last year of homeschooling and I'm tired.

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