Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Christian Science Peddled at the University of Waterloo

Yesterday I attended a talk by Christian Scientist Barbara Fife entitled "The Power of Prayer", held at the University of Waterloo in the building where I work, the Davis Centre. Although the room can hold about 250 people, I would estimate that no more than about 25 people were present.

For those who don't know much about it, Christian Science is a sect of Christianity that maintains unsupported claims about "spiritual healing". (For a critical look at Christian Science claims, see my article here.)

Supposed evidence for Christian Science claims is nearly always anecdotal, and Barbara Fife did not disappoint there. She started with an anecdote about her husband who wanted to quit smoking. She prayed for him, and he was able to quit. This was offered in support of the idea that prayer can bring about change. From a scientific point of view, however, this kind of claim is essentially worthless, since it does not have any control. What if she had not prayed? Maybe her husband would have quit even sooner! Without a control, it is impossible to conclude that prayer was effective.

Ms. Fife discussed various definitions of prayer. In one definition, a prayer is a petition. Prayer, she claimed, is more effective if it is for self-improvement rather than material gain. Her prayer for her husband was unselfish and so it was answered.

Ms. Fife discussed various aspects of Mary Baker Eddy's life. She claimed Ms. Eddy was "scientific", when in fact Eddy conducted no experiments, had no scientific training, and was completely unfamiliar with the notion of double-blind study.

Ms. Fife related the story of her son, who had a bike accident and hit his head while at Principia College, the only Christian Science institution of higher learning in the world. Afterwards he threw up. Although his face was gouged, he was only treated with prayer and cleaning and bandaging of the wound and quickly recovered. Three weeks later at graduation his wounds were hardly visible. Again, this was offered as proving the power of prayer. But it is not surprising at all that one can naturally recover, without prayer, in three weeks from a wound like that. And it is certainly irresponsible, after a head injury with vomiting, that one does not get checked out by a competent neurologist.

She said that "God had a divine purpose" for everyone and nothing could change that, certainly not a bike accident. It makes me wonder, what was the divine unchangeable purpose behind Pol Pot?

Prayer, Ms. Fife claimed, helps us see and think differently. It is not to help God hear us; it is for us to be close to God.

She told the story of a woman who had uterine fibroid tumors. After she took up Christian Science the tumors shrank and disappeared. She did not mention the fact that fibroid tumors often shrink spontaneously, and this is perhaps due to changes in estrogen levels.

Ms. Fife claimed that Mary Baker Eddy's book Science and Health actually heals; there is a 130-year history of healings. Mary Baker Eddy "proved everything she wrote". There is a law of God underlying Creation. Anyone can pray and find healing.

All told, it was a fairly typical Christian Science performance: vague stories of healings, usually with no names given; claims of miraculous healing following prayer; no controlled studies ever referred to. After tepid applause, Ms. Fife did not take questions from the audience.

I went up afterwards and asked her, if Christian Science healing is effective, why is Principia College one of the very few universities in the US that has recurring measles epidemics? Why did Mary Baker Eddy need glasses? Why didn't she heal herself of poor vision? Why do Christian Scientists live shorter lives than non-Christian Scientists? Fife had no answers to any of these questions, saying only that Christian Science healers "need to do better". She said she had not read Simpson's study comparing longevity of Christian Scientists and non-Christian Scientists and she also said she was uninterested in reading it. Clearly, Ms. Fife is a woman whose mind is not open to evidence against her point of view.

Why was the University of Waterloo chosen as the venue for this talk? Possibly it was due to a wildly optimistic forecast of the number of attendees, but I would guess it was partly to give a "scientific" veneer to the claims made.


Rita Swan said...

Thanks for your analysis, Jeff. I'd be glad to send you complimentary copies of a few issues of our newsletter if I had an e-mail address for you.

Rita Swan/CHILD Inc.

Miguel said...

Right, because praying for self-improvement--when there are so many genuinely sick people in the world--is not at all selfish. Or maybe the spell's radius of effect extends only to family and friends?

cody said...

I was raised in christian science, but for as long as I can remember I have been a strict physicalist (and in my opinion, they adhere to something more akin to spiritualism, rather than dualism, as many religions do). It made it very awkward as a child to have to listen to their ambiguous and nonsensical reassurances, when I was well aware that my skinned knees or cut or whatever would stop hurting and heal itself in time.

I always found their 'proof' to be entirely unsatisfying, as Dawkin's put it (with respect to other religious healing), ``you never hear of people re-growing limbs, it's always something that could have gotten better on it's own.'' You're critique I think is pretty dead on, though I'd like you to be aware, my parents always said that if we wanted, or if they felt their methods weren't working, they would take us to a hospital, and both of my brothers broke bones as children, and both went to the hospital for it. (My younger brother broke his collar bone at an age where he didn't really know any better, and my parents took him out of their own concern I think. On the other hand, my father broke his leg and did not get professional medical attention, which I remember invoked a great deal of fear in me that he could actually die very unnecessarily. He did recover completely, but I believe it took quite a bit longer than normal.)

I also think I probably inherited a level-headed-ness and optimistic outlook from my parents, though that might be more a consequence of their intelligence. The other ``positive'' effect I believe it had on me as a child was that unlike most other religions, it refrains from scare tactics and threats (as far as I could tell, they have no hell, no sin in the sense of something a child could do wrong and be punished for). Though this too may be better attributed to my intelligent hippy-like parents than to the religion's doctrine. (Obviously the positive aspects I've described are more reliably and beneficially obtained by parents who refrain from supernatural and spiritual delusions.)

I think that the sharp decline in christian science is probably largely the result of it's lack of threats (which appear to provide strong contributions to many other denominations membership), as well as the above average incidence of higher education of its adherence.

Thanks for this post, as well as much of your other writing.

Oh, one other thing, in seventh grade, my sunday school teacher introduced me to the wave-particle duality ``paradox'', (I think as an attempted analog to some spiritual concept, which I tended to ignore completely). It triggered what has become a fairly successful pursuit of physics in the intervening 14 years. (Though obviously atypical as far as religious experiences and lessons are concerned.)

Culcut said...

More profs should do what you do and attend such events on campus. I find that all too often, such strange claims are ignored by everyone.

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