The Ethics of Empiricism: Why We Should Oppose Christian "Science"
If beliefs aren’t responsive to empirical evidence, and therefore fail to track what’s actually going on in the world, damaging consequences can ensue. Believing that HIV doesn’t lead to AIDS, or that humans haven’t contributed to global warming, or that seatbelts don’t reduce injuries, or that the levees in New Orleans were adequate to protect against hurricanes, are all cases in point. This means we have a cognitive responsibility to be empiricists when our beliefs have real world effects, which of course is most of the time.
The ethical obligation to consider evidence can be undermined by allegiance to non-empirical beliefs, whether religious or pseudo-scientific. A telling example combining both religion and pseudo-science is belief in Christian Science, which holds that prayer can by itself heal physical illnesses. Sadly, children of Christian Scientists have died or suffered permanent disabilities because their parents didn’t seek appropriate medical care but relied on prayer instead. In Massachusetts, the two year old son of Ginger and David Twitchell died in 1988 from a bowel obstruction treated by “spiritual means”.
In response to such tragedies, a few states including Massachusetts have passed laws repealing the religious exemptions that make it possible for parents to avoid prosecution for child neglect. The Massachusetts legislature decided in 1993 (S.219) that the state can and should criminally sanction those that don’t heed the empirical fact that medicine is far more reliable than prayer in preventing death or disability in the event of disease. Christian Scientists are free to believe what they like, for instance that there is a deeper reality beyond the temporal physical realm, but they must behave in an empirically responsive fashion when it comes to their children’s health, or risk prosecution. See here (link is external) for a recent example (1/2009) of parents prosecuted for failing to seek medical treatment for their child, who they believed needed only spiritual healing.
Christian Scientists and other denominations that withhold medical care to children might protest on two counts. First, they might say, empirical evidence of the sort which grounds standard medical practice is just one type of evidence. What about the evidence given by faith, intuition, revelation, Mary Baker Eddy’s writings, and the occasional apparent cure via prayer? Doesn’t the sincere belief in the efficacy of prayer, as supported by such evidence, carry any weight in favor of letting Christian Science healers, not medical doctors, take the primary role in treating sick children? Second, is a child’s death really such a tragedy, when in actual fact he’s gone to a better world, perhaps by the will of god?
In both instances, the democratically elected representatives of Massachusetts have in effect ruled against Christian Scientists. Sorry, but empirical evidence is objectively more reliable and thus worth enforcing as a cognitive norm for parents, since it produces far better outcomes when translated into life-saving medical treatments. Your belief in the power of prayer, when it comes to children, must give way to the ethical obligation to provide science-based medicine. And second, avoidable deaths of children are indeed a catastrophic tragedy according to our community’s agreement that life in this world counts for more than what your faith says might be life in the next. As persons protected by the state, all children have a basic right to health care that trumps parental rights to act on their religious convictions.
Laws protecting children from faith-based neglect are only necessary, of course, because some parents are in thrall to non-empirically justified beliefs and as a result fail to meet their cognitive responsibilities. To prevent such failures, we must do all we can to promote respect for science and empiricism, while challenging faith (or more broadly, non-empiricism) as socially irresponsible when it blocks or distorts the consideration of evidence. When acting in this world, it’s morally wrong to ignore the hard won, collectively validated knowledge bequeathed to us by science in favor of convictions that lack such backing, and that therefore fail to track the world accurately. As interdependent social beings, we owe each other nothing less than well-substantiated beliefs.
TWC, September 2005
 For an argument in favor of allowing spiritual healing on the basis of such evidence, see Spiritual Healing On Trial: A Christian Scientist Reports (link is external).