There is a little girl dying of cancer in Seattle (there are, of course, little girls dying of cancer everywhere). There’s a positive aspect to the story, of a community pulling together and providing support for her family, but there is also a poisonous taint to it all—most of the support isn’t actually for a suffering young girl, but for a communal fantasy.
For four years, the 11-year-old has been a patient and a symbol, suffering with grace and galvanizing a community into action. The support is immense and mesmerizing, hundreds unifying to help this family with seven children. Hundreds seeing their religious beliefs manifested in this girl. Hundreds believing what Gloria believes: Instead of a medical breakthrough for her terminal illness, God will heal her.
No, no god will heal her. Entreaties to an imaginary being will not bring solace — they are an excuse to avoid reality, and in this case, to heap further burdens on a sick little girl. God will heal you if are good enough, if we pray hard enough, if every member of your family is sufficiently pious, if everyone obeys the whims of the monstrous superbeing the priests tell us about … and if you die, well, god must have wanted you dead. It’s the perfect combination of misdirected, futile striving and acceptance of that futility.
I’m not alone in being aghast at the elevation of religious belief over human reality. A surgeon feels the same way.
There is nothing — NOTHING — worse than the death of a child. I’ve attended to dying children and their families; and, as some have noticed in the sidebar of this blog, I’ve lived with it in my family. I have nothing but sympathy and sorrow for the family and for this little girl. But I think if I knew them well enough, I’d be saying this to them, off camera and away from the press: pray if you need to. Pray for comfort, for understanding, for strength. But get off this miracle healing thing. You’re ruining what life your child has left. Keep up hope? Sure, as long as it’s reasonable. But give her an out; give her a way to accept what’s happening to her, if such a thing is possible, without blaming herself.
God help me, I can’t stop. I should just shut up at this point, and let it be about the care of the poor child. But I can’t. I must also say this: there’s something perverse to the point of revulsion in the idea of a god that will heal the girl if enough people pray for her. What sort of god is that? To believe that, you must believe he deliberately made her ill, is putting her through enormous pain and suffering, with the express plan to make it all better only if enough people tell him how great he is; and to keep it up unto her death if they don’t. If that sort of god is out there, we’re in big, big, BIG trouble. If people survive an illness because of prayer, does that mean that god has rejected those that didn’t pray? If you pray for cure and don’t get it, and if you believe that praying can lead to cure, then mustn’t you accept that God heard your prayers and said no? If so, are you going to hell? But if you say either outcome is God’s will, then what’s the value of the prayer in the first place? In this case, it seems, it’s only to make the girl feel guilty and unworthy. How sad. Since the whole idea is so internally inconsistent, give the poor kid a break.
Read the comments there, too. It’s the usual mix of a few horror stories of people substituting religion for medicine, and a few oblivious apologists claiming that god makes life worth living. I’d say, rather, that god makes it easier to give up on life, to avoid the unpleasant realities, to rationalize avoiding the responsibilities. And sometimes, like when someone you love needs you, retreating into blissful fantasies is not the answer.