book reviews

Review of Bad Faith: When Religious Belief Undermines Modern Medicine

I just finished my latest book today. I know I’m on vacation, but I like to review books right after I finish them because otherwise, I will forget important details. Aside from that, there’s a storm going on in Italy and some of the people with kids have decided that now is the time to be loud. So, with that in mind, here’s my review of Bad Faith: When Religious Belief Undermines Modern Medicine, written by Paul A. Offit, M.D.

I found this book in the Duggar Family News group on Facebook. Someone was interested in reading about extreme religious beliefs and a poster recommended Dr. Offit’s book, which was published in 2015. I love a good non-fiction read, especially when it’s about unusual religions, so I decided to download it. Paul Offit is a pediatrician. In fact, he’s Professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. He has also served as Director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Obviously, he’s more than qualified to cover this subject, at least in terms of the medical details.

This book is mainly about cases of people whose religious beliefs prevented them from seeking appropriate medical care for their children, resulting in the children’s premature deaths. Offit mostly covers people who are Christian Science believers, but he also includes commentary on other groups such as the Amish, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and certain fringe fundamentalist Christian groups. He focuses on groups popular in the United States, so they’re mostly of the Christian persuasion, but the kind of “Christians” that some Americans would take a few paces back from. We’re not talking mainstream Methodism or Catholicism.

Dr. Offit clearly has little patience for the parents who let their extreme religious beliefs put their children in danger. I can sense disgust as he writes about how parents have the power to veto medical treatments that would cure their children– some of whom with bacterial infections that could be cured with a simple round of antibiotics– simply because they’d rather put their faith in God. Frankly, I understand his frustration, particularly given that he’s a medical doctor. Many physicians I have known don’t like to be argued with, but some of the cases outlined in Offit’s book really could and should have been easily saved. But instead of seeking medical attention, some parents prefer to call their pastors or prayer groups and pray to the Almighty… and they are SHOCKED when that does nothing for their child and they end up having to plan a funeral. One family Offit writes about lost two of their eight children to bacterial pneumonia. The parents were on probation after the first child’s death and finally got sent to prison when a second child died.

Well… I myself rarely visit doctors. However, I do have faith in medicine, and I do think it’s important to seek proper medical care when it’s clearly needed. On the other hand, I have to admit to being a little bit leery of Dr. Offit’s tone at times. He seems to think that good parents who don’t agree wholeheartedly with doctors are universally negligent. In one case, he writes about Amish parents whose daughter got cancer. The chemotherapy she needed made her very sick, so her parents decided not to make her get more treatment. A nurse, who happened to also be a lawyer, filed for limited guardianship of the girl, because her parents weren’t submitting to doctors’ orders for their child. Initially, the court sided with the parents, but that was overturned on appeal. When the hospital won the right to force the girl to get treatment, a taxi was sent to her home to pick her up… but her parents had taken her and gone into hiding. Four months later the hospital dropped the case. Offit seems disgusted that the parents won, after all… although I’m not sure what happened to the girl.

I do think this is an important subject. It’s one that needs discussion, particularly right now, as we face a pandemic and people are spouting off a lot of unscientific bullshit to support their “rights”. However, Offit comes off as a bit biased, and his tone is rather impatient and unsympathetic. I get that he’s passionate about this subject, especially since his job is to save children’s lives, but I was kind of turned off by his tone, which seemed to promote an anti-religion agenda. As much as I understand not liking some religions– I am not a fan of Mormonism, for instance– I do support people’s rights to their religious beliefs and, within reason, decisions regarding how they will raise their children. On the other hand, I also understand that sometimes children really do need to be protected from their parents. I guess it was Offit’s outraged tone that put me off. It seemed overly biased, as if he wouldn’t even try to understand where most of the parents were coming from. Instead, he just dismisses them.

Anyway… I did find the book readable and mostly interesting. This is a timely subject, even though I think this book could have been better. It will definitely appeal more to people who put all of their faith in medicine. And, for the record, I have more faith in medicine than religion.

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