The Washington Post, on June 14, 2013, reported on a case in Philadelphia. A couple, Herbert and Catherine Schaible, were arrested and held without bail on a charge of third-degree murder. They are members of a small Pentecostal church in North Philadelphia, which teaches that Christians should not use modern medicine but rely on divine healing. In 2009 their three-year old son Kent died of pneumonia after the couple did not seek medical help. At the time they were convicted of involuntary manslaughter and put on ten-years probation, which included the order to get medical help if any other child got sick. Last April eight-months old Brandon also died of pneumonia, again without medical help. An irate judge found that the Schaibles had violated the terms of their probation and sent them to prison.
Herbert Schaible explained: “We believe in divine healing, that Jesus shed blood for our healing and that he died on the cross to break the devil’s power. Medicine is against our religious beliefs.” Catherine Schaible added: “It means that we pray and ask to be healed the way Jesus did when he was on earth.” Their pastor supported this position. They have seven surviving children, who are now in foster care. There is a factor not related to religion: The prosecutor maintained that Brandon was sick for nearly two weeks before he died; the defense maintained that it was only three days, a period short enough for caring parents to wait before calling a doctor. This will obviously be significant in determining culpability. However, the Schaibles’ own statements make clear that their faith provides an underlying motive to eschew recourse to modern medicine. Thus the case points up a clear limit to the free exercise of religion protected by the First Amendment to the US constitution.
As the law now stands, an adult has the right, on whatever grounds, to refuse medical treatment. I believe that this is also the case in other democracies. In this case, of course, the law intervened because minor children were involved, whose protection (if necessary against their parents) is a duty of the state. Most of the time willful neglect or endangerment of children has no religious angle. For example, parents could be culpable if they repeatedly take a child on a mountain-climbing exercise where there is a high chance of a fatal accident. No scientific knowledge is required to keep parents from doing this; common sense should be enough. What is interesting here is that in a modern society common sense includes the presupposition that, at least most of the time, science provides a reliable way of describing how the universe works. Medical science is included in this presupposition. We may assume that the court in Philadelphia has no professional expertise in medical science, and may not call on experts to give an opinion. In most such cases courts rely on the common sense prevalent in the culture to define reality, in this instance that the medical understanding of pneumonia is more reliable than an understanding that includes supernatural interventions. In other words, courts, like other modern institutions, assume a distinctively scientific cosmology.
Why did science attain this dominant role in defining reality? The answer, I think, cannot be the compelling evidence for its view of the world—for the obvious reason that very few people are competent to assess this evidence. Right now I am using my computer: I know that modern science made possible the technology on which it is based, but not only do I not know the relevant science, but (in my case) I am barely competent in using the resultant artifact. All I have is what Alfred Schutz called “recipe knowledge”: I know just enough to produce this text. Although I readily admit that I am technologically challenged more than most people in my social environment, they too basically have no more than (a somewhat more sophisticated) recipe knowledge. It is not science as such that explains its cosmological status, not even technology as such, but the results of technology. This technology has fundamentally changed human existence on this planet, and I am aware of this history. But it has also been verified, over and over again, in my own experience. Thus, if I were asked right now to prove that flat-earth theory is wrong, I would have some difficulty doing so offhand; but I can testify that three times I left the US for Asia going west and came back from the east via Europe. One can easily recount similar direct experiences with the results of modern medicine. Of course the incorporation of a scientific worldview in what passes for common-sense knowledge has been greatly helped by propaganda from powerful institutions—education, the media, and (as we have just seen) the law. But the enormous practical successes of science underlie both the official propaganda on its behalf and its status in the minds of ordinary people. Science works, and we know this.
Scientific knowledge is accumulated by a methodology that excludes supernatural explanations. The mistake of much of modern thought has been the idea that this distinctive way of looking at the world must replace all other ways—aesthetic, moral, religious. There is no scientific way of demonstrating or falsifying that a child is beautiful, that it deserves special protection, let alone that it is created in the image of God. In human experience, a scientifically based discourse co-exists with other discourses. This is not the place to describe how such co-existence can work. But the important thing to understand is that science and technology have created a space, in the mind and in society, which operates without religious assumptions. This religion-free space is what Charles Taylor (A Secular Age, 2007) called the “immanent frame”, meaning a view of reality that excludes or brackets any religious transcendence (though Taylor is a philosopher, and I’m not sure that he would agree with my understanding of the very mundane sources of the ideas he describes). Once established, this space expands beyond science and technology to other areas of life. It certainly includes the area of law, as in the separation of church and state.
If there is a phrase that succinctly describes the secular discourse that prevails here, it is the one coined by Hugo Grotius, the seventeenth-century Dutch jurist who was one of the founders of modern international law. He proposed that such law cannot be based on any theological premises, but rather must be developed in a purely rational manner etsi Deus non daretur/”as if God were not given”, that is “as if God did not exist”. It is important to emphasize that Grotius was by no means an atheist. He was a pious and practicing Protestant, an adherent of the Arminian or Remonstrant version of the Dutch Reformation (because of which the Calvinists, then dominant in the newly independent Netherlands, drove him into exile). If the term “atheist” applies here at all, it is to denote a methodological atheism, which (as in Grotius’ case) can co-exist with fervent religiosity. It is easy to see why Grotius wanted to describe international law in this way: In the course of the devastating wars of religion, western and central Europe was split into Catholic and Protestant states; if international law was to apply to both, it could not be based on the theological doctrines of either. And if that law was to be applicable even more broadly, it would have to be formulated in a way that Orthodox Russians and Muslim Ottomans could also make use of it. As long as individual states were mono-religious (as stipulated in the Peace of Westphalia in 1648), domestic law would not have to follow Grotius’ methodology. With increasing pluralism within nation-states domestic law too is pressured in the same direction. Thus there are important political motives for the separation of church and state, with domestic law also operating within a secular discourse.
Yet it is important to see that this discourse does not dominate in every society worldwide, and not even in every area within modern societies. As a dominating discourse, it is strongest in specific western societies and in an international western-education intelligentsia. In most of the world, even if it operates in the law, it competes with robust religious discourses in other areas of life. This is eminently true of Pentecostals (or, to use a more general term, charismatic Christians), very likely the great majority of Christians in the Global South. The discourse prevailing here is only beginning to find intellectually sophisticated expressions. A good example is in the work of James K.A. Smith, who teaches philosophy at Calvin College. In his book Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy (2010), Smith urges Christian thinkers to free themselves of the secular assumptions that dominate academic disciplines. Instead he advocates “an ‘enchanted’ theology of creation and culture that perceives the material creation as ‘charged’ with the presence of the Spirit, but also with other spirits, including demons and ‘principalities and powers’, with entailed expectations regarding both miracles and spiritual warfare”. (I just love to imagine exorcisms performed on the premises of, say, the Harvard philosophy department!)
I have not met Smith and I don’t know how far he would go in banishing the secular discourse. But I feel confident that he would not follow the example of the Schaibles in cases of illness. Neither would most Pentecostals, be it in the US or in the Global South. Rather, they will resort to both medical science and divine healing, either simultaneously or sequentially. The point I am making here remains: The Philadelphia court, as courts throughout the US and in many other countries, excluded Smith’s “enchantment” from its reasoning; it reasoned “as if God did not exist”, and would have done so even if, for all I know, prosecutor and judge were pious believers. (I will only add here that, for jurists to be capable of thus upholding the legal separation of church and state, there must also be a secular space in their own mind, a sort of internalized First Amendment.)
I have focused on a particular case because I like to illustrate larger issues by concrete current events. This case is by no means unique in exemplifying the secular cosmology implicit in modern law. It was much in evidence in the litigation about creationism in the public schools. The American courts were very solicitous of the free-exercise rights of Evangelicals to preach and teach that the earth is only some six thousand years old (an idea lyrically described as “young earth theory”). The courts only denied the claim that this idea was a scientific theory that should be taught as such in public schools, where science meant a disenchanted methodology. Quite recently, in a Texas court, a man lost when he sued for damages from someone who had (in best Biblical form) ceremonially cursed him; the court ruled against him because a curse cannot cause real damage. I also find it interesting how blasphemy laws are now being interpreted in Muslim countries and lately in Russia. Historically, blasphemy was an offence against God; now it is widely interpreted as an offence against the feelings of believers. This was the rationale for prosecuting the “Pussy Riot” women who had staged their protest dance in the Moscow cathedral. Despite the closeness between the Putin government and the Russian Orthodox Church, no theologians or priests appeared at the trial to explain how offended God must be by this desecration; a number of ordinary churchgoers came to tell how deeply they were hurt by the performance.
I am not in a position to assess the merits of the Philadelphia case. But even if one thinks that the prosecution has merit, one should understand the wider worldview implicit in the charge, its social location and cosmological assumptions, and its minority position in the contemporary world. Whatever the trial will decide on what the Schaibles did or failed to do, by admitting the case in the first place the court already decided that divine healing as a substitute for modern medicine is ruled out by the legal definition of reality.