The deeply exemption

Yesterday the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the conviction of a couple for homicide – or, as NBC News put it, the conviction of a “deeply religious Wisconsin couple who prayed over their dying daughter rather than seek medical help.” Not fanatically religious or irrationally religious or stupidly and dangerously religious but “deeply” religious. Let’s give them extra deference and admiration for the profundity of their unreasonable magical thinking even as we report that their “deep” religion caused them to let their daughter die of an easily treatable condition.

Kara Neumann, 11, of Weston, Wis., died March 23, 2008 — Easter Sunday — of complications of untreated juvenile onset diabetes.

According to the case records, Kara had been showing symptoms of exhaustion and dehydration for more than a week, but her parents, Dale and Leilani Neumann, refused to take her to a pediatrician, and decided to respond to her illness with prayer, not medicine.

How deep. Or rather, how inexcusably stupid and self-indulgent and whimsical. They might as well cut their children’s arms and legs off to make a nice dinner, in the expectation that praying will make the bleeding stop and the arms and legs reappear.

The Neumanns don’t belong to any particular church, but they identify as Pentecostals, according to factual findings in the court record, none of which the Neumanns disputed. Some Pentecostals — but by no means all — believe that prayer and strong religious belief can cure all illnesses, a tradition that helped give rise to famous “faith healers” like Oral Roberts and Benny Hinn.

They have no right to believe that. They might as well believe a power saw is the best implement for combing their children’s hair. If your beliefs are lethal to other people you have to stop coddling them. You don’t get to believe that you can push your child out of a tenth floor window because God will catch her.

As Kara weakened, the Neumanns asked family and friends to pray for her, too. The day before his daughter died, Dale Neumann posted a message on a Christian listserv with the subject line “Help our daughter needs emergency prayer!!!”

“We need agreement in prayer over our youngest daughter, who is very weak and pale at the moment with hardly any strength,” the message said.

He posted a message on a Christian listserv, did he. So technology is ok for him. Technology is ok when it gives him an extra tool with which to mess around with idiotic “beliefs” – but when it comes to his daughter’s health and life, why, no, only magical incantations will do.

Dale Neumann testified that he knew Kara was sick but never thought she might die. In fact, he testified that he thought that Jesus would bring her back from the dead, as he did with Lazarus in the Gospel of John.

Wisconsin is among 17 states that allow religious defenses against felony charges of crimes against children, according to records compiled by Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty, a nonprofit activist group that opposes religious exceptions to child health and safety laws.

Shame on you Wisconsin, and the other sixteen states along with you.

“If we were to adopt the parents’ reasoning, no prayer-treating parent would know what point is beyond ‘a substantial risk of death’ until the child actually stopped breathing and died,” Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson wrote.

Steven Miller, Dale Neumann’s attorney, criticized Wednesday’s decision as having “essentially gutted the faith healing privilege under the child abuse statute.”

The what??! There shouldn’t be such a thing as a faith healing privilege – it’s insane! You can’t abuse your children except you can if faith. Wrong! Bad idea. Bad, bad, bad idea.



  1. cubist says

    sez the news story: “Steven Miller, Dale Neumann’s attorney, criticized Wednesday’s decision as having ‘essentially gutted the faith healing privilege under the child abuse statute.”’
    That’s true—but let’s not forget that the decision might also have bad consequences.

  2. Bjarte Foshaug says

    Oh yes, our old friend “two wrongs make a right”: Crimes that would otherwise be considered inexcusable somehow deserve a lot more sympathy if you are also guilty of leaving questions of life and death up to blind faith…

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    The day before his daughter died, Dale Neumann posted a message on a Christian listserv with the subject line “Help our daughter needs emergency prayer!!!”

    I dunno about Wisconsin law, but in the state where I now live law enforcement officers would be authorized obligated to obtain the addresses on that listserv and charge each subscriber (or at least those receiving Neumann’s message before his daughter died) with negligently contributing to child abuse &/or conspiracy to commit manslaughter, for not reporting the girl’s situation to proper state agencies.

  4. Rey Fox says

    “Help our daughter needs emergency prayer!!!”

    Unfortunately, Divine 911 is a joke.

  5. Claire Ramsey says

    the faith healing privilege????????

    sickening. I have to go vomit now.

  6. Anthony K says

    So the life of a child is deeply sacred and more important than the wishes of the parents, but only for the time period of 20 weeks until birth.

    Happy Birthday, America. The world cannot wait until you end.

  7. Anthony K says

    Uh, that last line is totally inappropriate, rude and mean. I typed that in anger over the agony that dying from untreated diabetes is.

    I’m sorry.

  8. smrnda says

    If a parent has a deeply held belief that pouring bleach on a wound is a way to heal it, we’d consider them too ignorant to be trusted with a child because their belief is *obviously dangerous nonsense.* Why a dangerous, ridiculous belief deserves special consideration just because it has ‘religion’ slapped on it is beyond me.

    I’ve also noted that some states (Pennsylvania I believe is one, from a similar case) allows exceptions for a “bona fide religious belief,” meaning that the state is setting itself up as an arbiter of what constitutes ‘real’ or ‘fake’ religion.

    Refusing to get medical attention for a sick child is as much abuse as refusing to feed a hungry child.

  9. bcmystery says

    Anthony K, I can’t pretend I haven’t had a lot of similar thoughts. I’d like to think the last few years, with all the anti-women, anti-LGBT—anti-decency in general—has been a kind of extinction burst. But then I look at the gerrymandered electoral maps around the country and I realize it doesn’t really matter. There don’t need to be many regressives if the few there are have their thumbs on the scales. In the face of that, it can be hard to argue against what you typed in anger, except that perhaps what follows may be even worse.

  10. says

    Maybe I’m missing something, but I kind of like them being described as “deeply religious” as opposed to “fanatical” or some more extreme adjective. “Deeply religious” is supposed to be a virtue, but in this story it got a kid killed, which seems to discredit the adjective. And that’s a good thing.

  11. Cuttlefish says

    Back in grade school, I had a friend who died and whose parents tried prayer–we don’t know if there would have been time for medicine to have helped, because they prayed for several days after his death without reporting it, and it was summer…

    I guess I only knew this in the way a grade school kid knows it. The story from Wisconsin brings to mind the early days of my son’s diagnosis with diabetes, and a much-later instance of diabetic ketoacidosis; diabetes is a thoroughly nasty thing, and there could have been no doubt of the seriousness of the situation. No parent could ever make the decision to do what they did without a strong scaffolding of a faith community with a history of praying away colds and upset stomachs. The larger community is every bit as to blame as the parents, and religion as a whole is a contributing factor.

  12. says

    I feel sorry for this whole family. They were duped.

    Two of them were duped. One of them was killed.
    I feel sorry for the killed one.

    There are a lot of religious dupes in this country, and some of them want us dead, others just want laws that will kill us or prevent us from being saved from death.

    If a couple of dupes kill me, please don’t spend TOO much time feeling sorry for them.

    (My parents abandoned me and bad things happened. I forgive them, but please don’t feel sorry for them for having had to bear the pain of neglecting me to where I had to get food from pedophiles.)

  13. oursally says

    I don’t get that prayer bit. Surely if a child is really sick then it’s divine will and praying to change it must be blasphemy?

  14. stever says

    It’s an unwritten article of faith in all of the Abrahamic death-cults that the Tyrant in the Sky loves to have his boots licked. What those parents deserve is prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.

  15. Bjarte Foshaug says

    I like how Daniel Dennett puts it:

    We need to change the prevailing assumptions in the same way that public opinion has been reversed on drunk driving. When I was young, drunk drivers tended to be excused because, after all, they were drunk! Today, happily, we hold them doubly culpable for any misdeeds they commit while under the influence.

    I look forward to the day when violence done under the influence of religious passion is considered more dishonorable, more shameful, than crimes of avarice, and is punished accordingly, and religious leaders who incite such acts are regarded with the same contempt that we reserve for bartenders who send dangerously disabled people out onto the highways.

    It reminds me of the old Donald Duck classic in which our feathered friend is converted to “flipism”, i.e. the philosophy of settling every question by flipping a coin. This works just about as well as you’d expect, and in the end Mr. Duck has to appear before the judge to answer for the mess he has caused with his uninformed decisions. Mr. Duck tries to defend himself by telling the judge that he was only doing what the coin required of him. The Judge then increases his penalty “for letting a dime do your thinking for you!”

    Would Mr. Duck’s method of thought be any more excusable if the coin hadn’t accidentally flipped the wrong way? Not as I see it since this would in no way be thanks to him. I know there are problems with Sam Harris, but I think he hit the nail on the head when he said that “faith, if it’s ever right about anything, is right by accident”. In that respect leaving the most important questions in life up to faith is very much like flipism, and like the judge in the story, we should judge the “flipists” of the world more – not less – severely for letting something other than reason “do your thinking for you”.

  16. says

    That’s true—but let’s not forget that the decision might also have bad consequences.

    Which are?
    Sorry, we need to do away with this whole paternal rights bullshit, whether parents are religious or not. Parents are entrusted with the healthcare of a child because that child cannot make reasonable decisions themselves.
    If adults choose to make stupid decisions about their healthcare, that’s their right because they’re the ones to suffer.
    You shouldn’t have the right not to vaccinate your child, you shouldn’t have the right not to give them treatment that’s avaible, you shouldn’t have the right to veto their sex-ed.

  17. Bjarte Foshaug says

    To be fair, I suspect what cubist really meant was that the “gutting” of the “faith healing privilege” is not a bad consequence. That’s how I read the comment anyway..

  18. Bjarte Foshaug says

    On a side note, cases like this always struck me as one of the strongest rebuttals to accomodationist “believers in belief” who deny any causal link between religious beliefs and harmful behavior. According to them religion itself is never what really motivates the atrocities. Religion is just used as a convenient excuse for doing what people would be doing anyway for reasons that have nothing to do with religion, whether it’s money or poverty, imperialism or anti-imperialism, power or powerlessness, protecting or rebelling against the status quo.

    So I guess my question is: What is the secular motive that would have caused otherwise loving and caring parents decide to let their own children die rather than allow necessary medical treatment no matter what any of them believed? Is it just an accident that the parents in such cases always just happen to subscribe to some religious teachings that favor faith healing over medicine?

    I know there’s only so much you can conclude from anecdotal data, but for what it’s worth I must have read dozens, if not hundreds of testimonies of former believers who said “Yes, that’s* exactly what I used to believe” (* where “that” represents doctrines like martyrdom and jihad, divine laws demanding the death penalty for victimless “crimes”, the demonization of infidels and heretics, the apocalypse, hell, the inferior status of women, prohibitions against medicine or birth control etc.), or “That was exactly what motivated me, and now that I no longer believe it, I have stopped behaving in that way”. I don’t think I have ever heard an ex-believer say “No, I never really believed in any of that crap. I just thought it was a great excuse for doing X, and now that I’m an atheist I would still behave in all the same ways”.

    (Sorry for taking up an awful lot of space in this thread, but this rant just had to get out).

  19. yahweh says

    The dissenting judge writes

    “Under the Neumanns’ interpretation of the statute, it was perfectly lawful for them to create a high probability of
    great bodily harm because the treatment-through-prayer immunity in Wis. Stat. § 948.03(6) allowed that conduct.”

    Praise the Lord.

  20. yahweh says

    One other point which is rarely spoken: if these people believe so strongly in what they did, then why do they have a problem going to prison for it?

    In other circumstances, any one of us might have to suffer the consequences of doing what we think to be right. What sort of principle is it that does not have a price?

    It’s particularly ironic that ‘true believers’ think they should get an exemption.

  21. dogfightwithdogma says

    I agree comptelely with all you have said except the following:

    They have no right to believe that.

    Their belief is repulsive and barbaric, but they most certainly do have the right to believe it. What they don’t have is the right to act on that belief in such a way that it brings injury to another person. I am as offended, angry and disgusted as any person can be by their belief and by the act that led to their daughter’s death. But I believe we do harm to the cause of civil and human rights when we declare that a person does not have a right to hold a particular belief. The right of conscience grants us the right to believe anything we wish, no matter how silly, repugnant or untrue the belief might be. To retreat even the slightest from this position is, I think, to endanger all right to conscience.

  22. says

    I was using the word “right” somewhat figuratively there, or perhaps ambiguously.

    Of course people have a legal right to believe anything they want to (and how could such a right be abrogated anyway?). That’s so obvious it’s not worth saying.

    But they don’t have an epistemic right to believe anything they want to. Now don’t get alarmed: epistemic rights have no teeth. My point was (and is) just to say that many beliefs (in fact an infinite number of beliefs) are so arbitrary and baseless that they merit sharp criticism if not contempt.

    I’m reacting to the smugly silly phrasing in the article, which I quoted – “Some Pentecostals — but by no means all — believe that prayer and strong religious belief can cure all illnesses” – that is a ludicrous thing to believe, and grown up people ought not to believe such ludicrous things.

    That doesn’t mean they don’t have a legal right to believe it. Of course they do. But what about (for instance) a vocational right? If they work in health care, that gets tricky, doesn’t it.

    But anyway. I think it should be obvious that I didn’t mean people should be thrown in prison for believing the above.

  23. says

    And there’s a further point about this “right to believe” idea. If you take that “right” too literally then it means you can’t try to convince people that any belief is wrong. So much for education, then.

    If people were actually right to believe that prayer cures diseases and that seeking medical help is rude to god, then it would be a mistake to compel them to get medical help for their children. But they’re not right. We know they’re not right. We have reasons. They don’t have a “right” to ignore all that and just say “believe” instead, because that is a threat to their children’s survival.

    In a way, it’s much less of a violation to convince them that they’re wrong about their “belief” than it is to compel them to obey the law despite their “belief.”

  24. dianne says

    Dale Neumann testified that he knew Kara was sick but never thought she might die.

    I find this statement a bit strange, given the defense. Neumann didn’t think his daughter might die-but he asked for “emergency prayer” for her. This demonstrates that he knew, at the very least, that she was very ill and in danger (otherwise why ask for help-which, in his own way, he was doing.) I think he was trying to reduce his culpability in the case: claiming in retrospect that he didn’t think she was all that sick, possibly to get out on the grounds that he simply misjudged the severity of her illness.

  25. says

    So I guess my question is: What is the secular motive that would have caused otherwise loving and caring parents decide to let their own children die rather than allow necessary medical treatment no matter what any of them believed?

    Well, i actually know some people who are per se atheists but who believe in shit like homeopathy and are anti-vaxxers and anti-anything and their beliefs are not religious but pseudo scientific. believe me, if the world ran according to me my cousin’s ex-partner would be in deep trouble because she refused to give her son antibiotics or anything except “Golbuli” who first suffered from scarlet fever and then from pneumonia as a secondary infection, who wasvery sick for 6 weeks and who had to learn how to walk again afterwards. Had she directly caused so much harm she’d be in prison…

  26. great1american1satan says

    yahweh@24 – Agreed! If I killed somebody because I thought they deserved it (and if these asshats believed the death was god’s will, then they believe that), then I’d be willing to face the consequences, and proudly. What’s up with the cowardice, guys?

    giliell@30 – Always worth pointing out the lack of religious monopoly on hateful, deadly stupid. Why does a person’s faith in whatever stupid crap they believe trump consideration of their child’s suffering? On a related note, I think this country’s laws are too generous to con men, which is what the Woo industry is all about.

  27. J says

    Ok, when I read in the comments that there was a dissent, I had to see who it was. Surprise, surprise. It’s David Prosser–best known for his 2011 decision to assault fellow WI Supreme Court Justice Ann Walsh Bradley. Or rather if you believe Prosser, Bradley assaulted him. With her neck.

  28. Bjarte Foshaug says

    @Giliell #30
    True, but what I meant was, what’s the secular motive that would invariably have caused the same people – i.e. those who do site explicitly religious motives for letting their children die rather than allow necessary medical treatment – to behave in the exact same ways if you took away their belief in the efficacy of faith healing and/or the sinfulness of medicine while keeping everything else the same. It could just as well be argued that your cousin’s ex-partner’s behavior had nothing to do with her belief in the efficacy of homeopathy, that homeopathy was just an excuse and that she would have acted the same way regardless of her pseudoscientific beliefs.

    In fact I once made the same argument I made above on another forum, and an accomodationist believer in belief brought up homeopathy as a counterpoint. He never answered me when I asked him if – according to his own logic – belief in homeopathy was not a problem either, since people sometimes do terrible things for reasons other than belief in homeopathy.

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