Killer Faith: The Death of Brandon Schaible

chez_religionI genuinely don’t want to become the “anti-religion beat” reporter around here but, as with most columnists tasked with churning out daily content, when I see something that infuriates the hell out of me I can’t help but feel the need to turn it into copy.

Slipping through the gaps of the giant wave of news that’s washed over us within the past week is the story of Herbert and Catherine Schaible of Philadelphia. City prosecutors are preparing potential charges against the couple in the death of their 8-month-old son, Brandon, who apparently stopped breathing last week after several days of diarrhea and eating issues. The reason Herbert and Catherine Schaible may bear some responsibility in the child’s death isn’t that they did anything in particular; in fact, they didn’t do anything at all, and that’s the problem. They didn’t take Brandon to the doctor when he got sick and they didn’t rush him to the hospital as his condition deteriorated rapidly. What they did do, was pray. They prayed to God to make their son better and supposedly had absolute faith, as dictated to them by the fundamentalist Christian church they belong to, that God would in fact make him better. Like I said, they did nothing — nothing of value anyway.

Obviously, God didn’t come riding in to the rescue at the last minute and so Herbert and Catherine Schaible’s child is now dead and there’s a strong likelihood they’re going to face a manslaughter or negligent homicide rap. Now maybe you’re thinking that the Schaibles don’t deserve to be brought up on charges, that while what they did was awful and insanely ignorant, the loss of their baby is punishment enough. Believe it or not, I might agree with you if not for one thing: This isn’t the first time one of their children has died because they relied on prayer instead of modern medicine. The Schaibles, see, are currently on probation for a manslaughter conviction after a two-year-old son of theirs died four years ago of bacterial pneumonia.

They’ve got seven other kids, by the way, all of whom have now wisely been placed in foster care.

A week-and-a-half ago, I argued in my regular column here that we as a society tend to inexplicably give special dispensation to views and practices that we’d otherwise laugh out of the room if those views and practices happen to be associated with religious belief. We may think it’s a little odd, but we at least tolerate an orthodox rabbi wrapping himself head-to-toe in plastic on a commercial airline flight because he wants to protect himself from women and cemetery spirits; we do this because it’s impressed upon us not to mock anyone’s religion, no matter how irrational the tenets of that religion may be. We accept opinions and actions that are by any reasonable standard crazy and superstitious because our culture has determined that there’s sanity in numbers, that for whatever reason a few billion people can’t be wrong, as if popularity has ever been a barometer of quality. We do this with the assumption that there’s no downside, that there’s no harm in faith and, hey, whatever gets you through the day.

Except that there can be harm in faith. Obviously, the Schaibles are outliers and I would never argue that everyone who has faith in God runs the risk of letting not one but two of their kids die because they think Jesus doubles as their family doctor. But I’ve said this more than once and it bears repeating yet again: What you believe is actually important because belief informs action. You don’t simply believe something and that’s the end of it; you act on that belief whether you know it or not. Herbert and Catherine Schaible truly believed that God would cure whatever was wrong with their son — both of their sons. And because they believed that, they spent time on their knees that should’ve been spent at the local hospital and it’s very likely for that reason that both of those sons died.

And all of this brings me back to that original question I asked a week-and-a-half ago: Why can’t we admit that faith-based religion is crazy? Let me break down the dichotomy and see if you can make any sort of sense of it: Believing that there’s a god and that he’s all-powerful isn’t considered crazy in our society, but believing that God is all-powerful to the point where you’re willing to rely on him to heal your children, minus the intervention of modern medicine, is considered pretty crazy. Talking to God and believing that he communicates with you in return in an ephemeral way isn’t considered crazy, but if you were to say that God was actually talking to you, that would be considered crazy. Believing that at some point Jesus will return to Earth to usher his followers to heaven isn’t considered crazy in our culture, but put an exact date on when that will happen and everyone calls you a lunatic. See how, well, crazy it all is?

What Herbert and Catherine Schaible did, really, was nothing more than exercise a kind of perfect faith. They took the belief that so many purport to have to its, if you’ll pardon the irony, “logical” conclusion. And because of this, they killed not one but apparently two children. Their children.

For that, yes, they deserve to be locked up. They probably deserved to be locked up four years ago, when our tolerance of religious belief and a jury’s assumption that the grief of losing a child would be so punishing in and of itself that it would ensure that something like this never happened again led to leniency. Instead, the Schaibles seem to have gone home believing that the only mistake they made was not praying hard enough.

And now, another kid is dead.

He was a baby who never had a chance against an intractable faith in God that under normal circumstances might itself be considered worthy of praise, but which in this case is unforgivably crazy.

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  • kfreed

    Religion combined with some basic sense is fine.

    When you’re in the habit of killing off your young’uns through neglect it is a bridge way too far. Don’t care what your “beliefs” are.

  • http://www.politicalruminations.com/ nicole

    I don’t know how you do it, Chez. By that I mean continue to argue something that many of us know to be true (all that scientific dogma, ya know), and yet give those who believe in sky fairies at least a modicum of respect.

    I can understand why people might have believed in a god or gods back before humans knew little about actual scientific fact, but now? It boggles my mind to think that thinking persons actually believe in this tripe, in fact to the point where many of them choose to kill in the name of their god, or, as in this case, allow their own children to die because of their stubborn belief in a non-existent entity.

    I never argue with people re religion. I’ve found that it’s a fairly thankless endeavor. I do, however, appreciate those who make a cogent argument in the service of reality.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bob.simonhouse Bob Simonhouse

    I’d say sterilization is also in order for these f*ckups.

  • Christopher Foxx

    Two boats and a helicopter. When I hear of folks like Christian Scientists or those who believe “God” doesn’t want them t partake of modern medicine but only prayer, I can’t help but think of two boats and a helicopter.

    You’ve probably heard this one:

    The flood waters were rising and the man climbed on top of his house. Some others came along in a boat an offered to take him to safety but the man said “No, God will save me.” A while later, water up to his waist, another boat comes by and again the man declines a ride saying, “God will save me.” Still later, water up to his neck, and a helicopter offers to fly him to high ground. “No, God will save me.”
    The man drowns and when he gets to heaven he says to God, “I kept the faith, Lord. Why didn’t you save me?”
    God replied, “I sent you two boats and a helicopter. What more did you need?”

    If you’re praying for a cure for your ailing child, it’s been provided. It’s called medical care.

    The arrogance of folks who would believe they can dictate to God the form a miracle must take.

    • http://www.facebook.com/bob.simonhouse Bob Simonhouse

      Triple friggin stars!

  • Amy Claeys

    Faith based religion is not crazy. Relying solely on faith is crazy.

    • http://www.facebook.com/david.latona David Latona

      Then why have faith at all if you’re not supposed to rely on it “with your soul and heart?” Seems to me that both are crazy, and the pathology is simply what you call faith. Which is why Chez nails it when he says that different variations of the fairytale “theology” are regarded differently (and I think it’s because religion has had to adapt itself to survive in changing societies, i.e. if all mainstream Christians started to discard modern medicine in favour of praying, they would soon be dying in droves). The ones our christianized society shuns as “crazies” are just a minority with extremely anachronic, medieval/literalist readings and interpretations of scripture (fundamentalists). It’s tragic that two kids had to die because their parents were doing the equivalent of a shamanic raindance. Superstition sure is one of the most irrational and absurd facets of human beings.

      • Christopher Foxx

        Superstition sure is one of the most irrational and absurd facets of human beings.

        Not totally absurd, in that many folks draw comfort from their superstitious beliefs. That’s why they have them. Lightning is scary, but if we can come up with a cause (Zeus!) then it’s less so and we can be comforted.

        It’s also ego. Folks refuse to admit “I don’t know” and, again, come up with all sorts of explanations rather than admit ignorance. Even when the ignorance is very understandable.

        In the case of these two parents, it was ultimately an act of selfishness. They draw some comfort from their beliefs and their comfort is more important to them than the life of their children.

      • http://twitter.com/chezpazienza Chez Pazienza

        That’s a good point, David, and it’s one that I just haven’t really gotten around to making. The fact that Christianity has, for the most part these days in civilized societies, become more “acceptable” is that it’s been forced to make concessions to reality and to the advancements of mankind. It’s one of those things the highly religious don’t like to admit to: that they actually CAN’T rely entirely on faith because progress has proven them wrong. It’s also one of the reasons why Islam — and to be fair, other religions in less civilized areas — has been allowed to retain so many of its crazier qualities in places like the Middle East: because it’s been allowed a complete stranglehold on a region that refuses to give in to the march of actual progress in many facets of its culture. Politically incorrect? Probably. Unfortunately, also true. What’s also worth mentioning is that it cuts both ways. A strict adherence to ancient religion actually prevents the march of progress in other areas.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=663669914 Sean Richardson

        “Then why have faith at all if you’re not supposed to rely on it “with your soul and heart?””

        Speaking as a life-long atheist who has always had an outsider’s curiosity about “faith”, I believe that the distinction is between having faith as an emotional crutch when all action has failed and believing that faith itself is an action. Emotion itself is not entirely logical, so therefore successful coping strategies won’t necessarily be logical either.

        You could also argue it strictly logically; the difference is in putting your faith in God that, in the end, in Heaven, everything is fine, versus putting your faith in humans telling you that if you act a certain specific way, then God will make sure that here on Earth, everything works out for you. The former statement is technically “not true” from the perspective that it is inherently unprovable because of how the words themselves are defined; but that same (largely semantic) trick makes it equally unfalsifiable. The latter statement is blatantly untrue when compared with actual observable reality.

  • SexBobOmb

    Spot. Fucking. On.

    If only it didn’t take the death of a second child to make the point. These parents need to be in prison where they are unable to reproduce ever again.

    • Lady Willpower

      I’d be absolutely fine with life in prison for both of them. Let their faith serve them well in there, and let their kids be raised by normal people.