Thursday, August 13, 2009

"An unexamined life is not worth living" ~Socrates

Last week, Dale Neumann was charged with 2nd degree reckless manslaughter. The victim? His daughter. How did she die? Slowly and painfully, over the course of months, from a simple, highly treatable case of diabetes. Doctors said she could have been saved right up until the very end if her parents had only brought her to the hospital. So, why didn't they? Did they hate their daughter? Were they psychologically unstable?
No. They didn't take her to the hospital because they believed that God would heal their daughter. They surrounded her--family and friends, all accomplices--with prayer, right up to the moment she stopped breathing, believing that God would heal their beloved daughter.
It breaks my heart to think about that poor little 11-year old girl, dying so young of such a curable illness. But when I think about her parents, it fills me with horror--makes my blood run cold and the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.
Because, if not for a lucky roll of the dice, it could have been me standing before that jury.

You see, I understand exactly where Dale Neumann is coming from. The vast, vast majority of Christians--even the ones who don't see the Bible as metaphor, and consider themselves literalists--will look at Mr and Mrs Neumann with a sad shake of their head; "God gave us doctors and medicine to use," they'll say. They'll recite some old adage about a man on a roof in a flood, turning down rescue boats and helicopters because he's "waiting on God to save him." God wants us to use our intellect to find cures to diseases; it's not a lack of faith to go to the hospital.
But I know what Dale was thinking. He was thinking of Proverbs 3:5, "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding." He was thinking of 2 Chron 16:12 "And Asa... was diseased... yet in his disease, he sought not to the Lord, but to physicians." He was praying Phil 4:13 (I can do all things through Christ...) and Luke 1:37 (Nothing is impossible with God...). He took literally the passage in James 5:14-15 (...and the prayer of Faith shall save the sick...) and Psalms 103 (The Lord... healeth all thy diseases). He believed Jesus was the Son of God and meant what he said in John 14:12 when he said, speaking of his miracles of healing the sick and raising the dead, "I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father." Then he assures all Christians, "whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that I will do." Then he repeats it in the next verse, just in case you didn't get the message!

I could go on for paragraphs quoting more verses like this. I know them, because I used to pray them, too. I was taught to believe that the Bible is THE Word of God, and that everything in it is capital-T True. These verses are not talked about in most churches, because if they were, it would have to be explained why Christians go to the doctor and why the church elders aren't anointing anybody with healing oil (that actually heals anybody). It would have to be explained how we could know that THOSE verses are meant metaphorically, or are actually talking about something other than what the plain reading would suggest (which is usually the test for Biblical literalists). So, they're largely ignored.
But not all the time. Some Christians desire to go deeper than their Sunday lessons, and they realize there's a lot their pastors left out. Some branch out on their own and start their own churches, preaching "everything" the Bible actually says, not just the traditional Protestant parts. And that's when things become dangerous.

I was one of those Christians. And when my daughter was only a year old, she had a febrile seizure. My wife and I totally freaked out (as any parent would). We called an ambulance, which took her to the emergency room--all sorts of worse-case scenarios running through our heads. We were there for hours, spending most of our time, as is typical, waiting. Waiting, with a feverish, cranky one-year old, I might add.
Turned out, after spending our entire day there, running our daughter through some terrible tests, and then having to pay way more than we had to the hospital so that we had to ask my parents for money (we were quite poor)... that everything was ok. They gave her some tylenol, sent her home, call us if there's any changes. All she'd had was a rather high fever, which the sharp temperature changes of getting out of the bath had aggravated. There was nothing wrong with her.
It was a sign. We knew it. We knew those verses I quoted above (and more), we professed to believe them. But when our daughter was in trouble, we took her straight to "the physicians," and our terrible time of it was God showing us how it doesn't pay to be unfaithful. Isn't that obvious? It was to us, anyway, the same way little coincidences are obvious Signs From God to most casual Christians. We resolved, from that point forward, that if anything were to happen to Eva--anything at all--we would not call the doctor. We would not call 911. We would not seek any treatment aside from what the Word of God recommended--prayer. Lots and lots of prayer.

The same way Dale Neumann and his wife treated their little girl. I'm terrified to even imagine what would have happened if my daughter had gotten badly ill or hurt back then.
Everyone's heart breaks for little Kara Neumann. Most people are angry at her parents, even literalist Christians. "Why didn't they just see this verse, or this verse, that would have told them it's OK to take their daughter to the doctors? It's obvious to me!" But I understand Dale Neumann's faith, and I understand his pain. Because, even now, sitting in that jail cell, Mr. Neumann believes he did right. He believes he put his faith in God and not in Man, and so he'll be rewarded after he dies. He has to believe it--it would be far too painful to question it, now. You see, Kara Neumann wasn't the only one that was sick. Her parents have a mind virus; a set of ideas that passes from one person to the next and protects itself by saying, "Never doubt! Never question! Doubting Thomas questioned, and look what a fool he was! Adam and Eve questioned, and look where it got them!" "Reason is a whore, the greatest enemy that faith has," said Martin Luther, the founder of the Protestant Reformation. That blind faith, that avoidance of reason, is what kept Dale Neumann from questioning whether his interpretation of the Bible was right or not; and it cost his daughter her life. Ironically, that same blind faith, that same avoidance of reason, keeps those Christians who snub their nose at the Neumanns from questioning whether ~their~ interpretation might be the one in error. After all, with a belief that proposes "We won't know until we get there [meaning heaven]" as an acceptable answer for difficult questions, how could any interpretation ever be questioned? Only by reason, that whore, that enemy; thine own understanding that is scoffed at in Proverbs.

I believe Dale and Leilani Neumann deserved their conviction--their daughter died through their inaction, and the law must be followed. But I don't for one minute believe that I am better than them; that four short years ago I wouldn't have done the same thing. And if any of you harbor any beliefs--no matter how small or innocuous--that you do not constantly subject to reasoning, thoroughly examining them without hesitation or trepidation, do not imagine yourselves better than the Neumanns, either. Your beliefs may not result in anyone's death, but beliefs become actions, and actions have consequences, both for yourself and for others.
I look at the Neumanns, and I feel sorrow and pity, but I also feel a powerful need to examine my own life, my own assumptions. Because I know that there, but for the luck of the draw, go I.


  1. I find it interesting that one of your catalysts was the insanely high medical bill, and wonder whether psychologically parents are nudged toward these beliefs because they are less embarrassing than admitting one is too poor to properly care for your children.

  2. If I understand what you're saying (and I'm not exactly sure I do), it would be an interesting theory. Especially since the reason we were so poor was because a literal interpretation of the Bible would seem to frown upon getting a good education and working your way up in the world, and instead encouraged working simple manual jobs and giving whatever you didn't need to survive over to the church. (which is just what we did)

  3. I was just llinked to this post, and know nothing of your previous posts, so maybe you have clarified this ad nauseum... If so, I apologize, just point me to the right entry and I'll read up on it myself.
    I am curious what it was that brought you to a point where you started allowing yourself to reason again? What interrupted the blind obediance? How did you allow yourself to think for yourself again?

  4. Just as an attempt to examine life, I find the expression "deserved their conviction" interesting. I can't pin down exactly why. What do you think it means? Why are we concerned about what they "deserve" and not what would improve society, do you think? Most people just see this as a silly question. Do you?

  5. @Gorgo-- I spent a lot of time thinking about that when the Neumann's case first started. When I said they "deserved their conviction", I mean this and only this: that, according to the letter of the law, the Neumann's are guilty of 2nd degree reckless manslaughter.
    That does not mean that I think that they necessarily deserve the punishment that goes along with that conviction--I think our whole damn justice system needs rewriting from the ground up in order to rehabilitate rather than just incarcerate. However, so long as we're stuck with the legal system we have, the Neumann's fit the description, and should not be granted special favor on the merit of any "Freedom of religion" or other tripe that they were trying to get out on.

    @Medussa--you ask a very interesting question, and I've had to think really hard about how to answer it because I think your question kind of revealed to me an aspect I hadn't really thought about.
    You ask when I started to reason again, what interrupted the blind obedience, and I realize that was part of the "problem" with my christianity to begin with: I was never happy with blind obedience, and I always had to reason everything out for myself. The issue was that I was raised in a relatively sheltered environment (homeschooled, very strict control of the media I absorbed), and so I never really witnessed anyone using reason outside of our own narrow view of christianity. I was purposefully frightened off of using my natural skepticism and logic on the Bible--as I mentioned in the post, bad things happen to people who doubt--but I felt free to turn that skepticism towards our "religion," which I saw as man-made (versus the Bible, which I was taught was God-made, and lied to that there were no errors or contradictions in it). So starting from a standpoint of "The Bible is THE Truth," I quickly realized that there were no churches that actually practiced what it taught. Chasing after that elusive "True" church led me further and further into crazyville. I remember confessing to a close friend, towards the end, that I was very honestly beginning to think that you couldn't be a "True" christian without actually going a little crazy.
    So, really, it was my reasoning and thinking for myself that just kept crashing against the Bible, over and over, that eventually did me in. My "problem" was that I took the Bible more seriously than most christians, and, since it is a book written by men with different beliefs and viewpoints over hundreds of years of time, you WOULD have to go crazy to follow all of it to the letter!
    I finally gave up, almost three years ago, and said that if I was ever to be a christian, God was going to have to speak to me and show me how because I just couldn't follow the Bible.
    In the meantime, I started looking into other people's worldviews for the first time--really trying to understand them, and not just looking for ways to proselytize, like I was trained--and I really began to see how tiny and narrow a view christianity had. I also rediscovered a love for science that had been squashed by YEC lies, and the more I learned, the more those gaps for God to fit into shrunk. Eventually, there was nowhere left for a god to fit and, more importantly, no need.

    So, that's kind of a nutshell version, related to just your particular question. There's a lot more I could say about my deconversion, but I should probably make it a series of posts one day, rather than trying to hash it all out in the comments! Hope that offers you some insight. (and feel free to ask more questions!)

  6. That was a VERY thoughtful answer, I appreciate it. And of course, I have a follow up question. Have you read Dan Barker's "Godless", whose story seems very similar to yours, at least in some aspects. If you have read it, I wonder if his quest for religious truth, which led him to reject religion altogether, sounds familiar to you? Is it in any way similar?
    I realize there are probably as many ways to "deconvert" as there are failed christians, but he is a very articulate writer, and I understood his quest for truth, at least as far as an atheist (never was religious) can understand it.

    Regardless of that, however, I'm profoundly touched by your quest for the truth, and the courage to follow that wherever it leads you. I know it can't have been easy to turn your back on religion, and I imagine it's difficult to train oneself in critical, independent thinking after a lifetime of mandated submission.
    Peopel like you are a credit to humanity.

  7. Very thoughtful replies. Thank you so much.

  8. In fact, Dan Barker's "Godless" is my favorite of the "once a pastor/christian, now an atheist" autobiographies. Though I was never a preacher (I did give my youth group a sermon once, and was always told I should be a preacher, though), I found our thought processes very similar... and the reaction of our christian "friends" when we deconverted!

    Thank you both for your kind words. I find it not so much difficult to think critically--that's something that always came naturally, it was just frowned on--but I find it difficult to weed out what things I learned "on authority" from my upbringing. For example, even now with evolutionary biology being one of my biggest passions, whenever I'm watching a documentary and the narrator says "millions of years," I suffer a kneejerk reaction, like a little trapdoor is trying to snap closed over my brain, even though I ~know~ now that the narrator's right! It can be very frustrating.

  9. Wow, John. I'm very impressed with your insight.

  10. I have read all that you have written with much interest. My Catholic upbringing sent me on the path you took at a much earlier age - reading the Bible for the first time brought questions and inconsistencies - not answers. I attended many different churches in high school (my mother attributed it to rebellion) and settled on the problem as the "human factor" and so swore off organized religions in early adulthood. A proclaimed agnostic while raising my children, I reverted to a different form of faith in middle age. I have become a form of a "new age" believer. Lets just say that the force is strong in me, but I loosely refer to it as the energy of the universe. Since I can feel it, and somehow channel it, I can't seem to go "atheistic" and deny it. However, I cannot give it a "creator god" definition, so there is no "theism" in my world either. Most likely I would attempt to define it as the energy from which all is formed and so I feel the connection. It is my hypothesis that this is what the sensitives have felt through the ages and as the ignorant often do - they have misdiagnosed it as "god" based on limited understanding and inadequate tools to investigate... It is also my theory that somewhere in the future - science will be able to define and measure it. This personal theory entails no faith, it is my method of defining what has lead us to this point.

    Thank you for opening a provocative discussion...

  11. So is that close friend to whom you confessed you thought you couldn't be a "True" christian without actually going a little crazy still a close friend?

  12. Two posts in the same day? Interesting! Has someone plugged my blog somewhere, or is it just coincidence?

    @Strider-- sadly, not. I don't know how much of it I can blame on my deconversion, and how much is just a result of my life becoming so busy that we don't see each other anymore... we worked together for a long time, and we were always cordial and friendly, but I don't know how much I would call that "friends" after my deconversion. We used to have Bible studies at his house, actually, and several other couples were kind of going through their own deconversions or difficulties with the religion, and the more critical and skeptical the conversations became, the less he seemed to be interested in having us at his house.
    I guess, though I don't see him anymore, I'd still consider him a closer friend than a lot of my other circle of friends who have simply avoided me like a leper.

    @Lori-- I'm glad you saw through the biblical bs at a young age. As a naturalist, I can't give much credence to your new beliefs... but as long as they're not affecting your actions, I guess they're not hurting anybody?
    My own personal journey, since deconverting, led me to really delve into science... I was absolutely amazed how much we actually know--like, KNOW know, not just guess or speculate--that I was always taught was just made up ad hoc. I found the comfort of knowing actual truth far better than the mystical beliefs I toyed around with for a little bit after deconverting.
    If your interested, I would recommend Carl Sagan's "The Demon Haunted World"... he was a true wordsmith and storyteller and was truly gifted at making scientific knowledge accessible and enjoyable.