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Killer Faith: The Death of Brandon Schaible

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I 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.