I have been brooding about the sad case of Syble Rossiter, the 12-year old child who died of diabetes complications because her parents withheld life-saving treatment from her because of their belief that faith would heal her. These entirely preventable tragedies are unfortunately not uncommon. I wrote in February about Herbert and Catherine Schaible whose 8-month old child had also died unnecessarily.
What struck me was that in each of those cases, the parents had already witnessed first-hand the failure of faith healing. Syble’s mother’s brother had died of leukemia at the age of seven because her parents had withheld treatment from him too, while another child of the Schaibles had died at the age of two just a couple of years earlier, again because of trusting in faith.
The believers find excuses for the failure, saying things like that the deaths occurred because it was ‘their time to die’. But why are they so reluctant to abandon their beliefs? In fact, it seems like the crazier the belief, the stronger the hold it has on those who succumb to it. We heard that same refrain from those who continue to believe in snake handling even after it takes the lives of its leading practitioners.
I recall reading some time ago that this is not an accident. Getting people to believe in something preposterous is similar in purpose to those outrageous initiation hazing rites practiced by some groups. Once you have gone through it, you are heavily invested in that group. Abandoning belief and leaving the group means admitting to yourself and others that you were a fool. People are reluctant to do so, so they double down and say they believe even more, come what may.
This maybe partly explains why the members of those religious groups that have the more extreme and bizarre beliefs (and this includes Catholics, Pentecostals, doctrinaire Muslims, Scientologists, Orthodox Jews, Mormons, and other fundamentalist religious groups) have the stronger hold on their followers.