The case of Dale and Leilani Neumann is desperately sad. Their daughter died from a treatable form of diabetes because of their belief in the healing power of prayer. Because of their strong faith in a god, they trusted that prayer would cure her condition, so they didn't take her to a doctor. That's a huge burden for any parent to bear.
Now they've been sentenced to one month in jail each year for the next six years and a further ten years probation, with their surviving children subjected to regular checks. They are appealing their conviction.
This is a very stark case and will surely arouse very strong emotions. One of the problems with the case is that the parents exercised their rights to believe in a god and act in accordance with the requirements of their religion. But the consequence was fatal for their child. The judge, also clearly a believer, described them as "very good people" who had acted recklessly. He said that "God probably works through other people, some of them doctors."
This effort to coax them towards a more rational approach to medicine is laudable but does not really address the most important issue. Most people, whether religious or not, would accept that prayer will not cure a child of diabetes, any more than it will heal a fracture. Many would agree with the court that to rely on prayer is reckless. But some would argue that it just might help.
This optimistic expectation of religion is very pervasive. Although all the evidence indicates that nothing fails quite like prayer, many still entertain the idea that it can affect the real physical world. The belief that a supernatural being is watching over us, looking after our interests, guiding us, protecting us even, is psychologically very comforting. Of course, there is no evidence for any of this, but the belief itself, particularly in the US and Islamic countries, is very strong.
Many who would not subscribe to such fundamentalist views as belief in faith healing nevertheless share in the underlying irrationality. Faith healers are simply further along the belief spectrum, more irrational than those nearer the pragmatic end, which is the real world of cause and effect.
When the judge suggested to the Neumanns that their time in jail would give them an opportunity to reflect on what God wanted them to learn from this tragedy, he is reinforcing the same irrationality that led to the catastrophe in the first place. It is unfortunate that the judge's own beliefs should interfere in the sentencing, and in doing so, perpetuate the irrationality that led to such a tragedy.
We can all feel for the family that has lost a child. They will also feel a heavy sense of guilt and responsibility. One can only hope that they will reflect on the dangerous irrationality of believing in a supernatural being as the source of medical care. It should make all believers sit up and think about the irrationality of their own religious beliefs. Private inner contemplation is one thing, but expecting a real consequence from belief in a supernatural being is another. Just how far would you trust your god?