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 peers.
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.