A Skeptic Looks at Christian Science

A talk given for Freethought Waterloo on March 4, 1999.

Jeffrey Shallit
Department of Computer Science
University of Waterloo

What is Skepticism?

The modern skeptic movement is devoted to scientific examination of extraordinary claims, particular involving paranormal events. The skeptic does not necessarily deny claims of ESP, dowsing, astrology, UFO's, ghosts, poltergeists, channeling, faith healing, near-death experiences, etc., but believes that such claims are and should be subject to scientific inquiry. Furthermore, the more unusual a claim is, the more evidence must be presented to support that claim. This credo of the modern skeptic movement can be briefly summarized as

Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof.

Famous modern skeptics include James Randi (The Amazing Randi), a professional magician and MacArthur prize winner, and Martin Gardner, former Scientific American columnist and author of many books. Magazines such as the Skeptical Inquirer and Skeptic represent the skeptical point of view.

What is Christian Science?

Christian Science is a religion founded in 1879 by Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910). Its two main religious texts are the Bible and a book written by Mrs. Eddy entitled Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures.

An old joke is that Christian Science is like grape nuts -- it is neither Christian nor science. Since I am interested primarily in the health claims of Christian Science, I am not particularly interested in determining whether Christian Science is really a Christian sect or not. If this question interests you, there are plenty of sites on the Internet, mostly run by evangelical Christians who are incensed by the Christian Science re-interpretation of the Bible (such as this one) that claim to address this question.

Christian Science is in direct opposition to scientific materialism, the belief that physical matter represents the world's underlying reality. In Christian Science there is nothing but divine Mind, and everything derives from Mind. Mrs. Eddy has claimed that "Man is not matter" (Science and Health, p. 475) In Christian Science, sickness is a manifestation of incorrect belief by mortal mind. Once a sick person understands that fact, he or she will be healed. In particular, then, Christian Scientists reject the germ theory of disease, sometimes with disastrous consequences, as we will see below.

To a Christian Scientist, then, the world as we see it is like a vast Truman Show, where everything we think we see is actually nothing but an illusion, a product of divine Mind.

Christian Science Demographics

This section is based on the article of Stark [Sta].

In contrast to the stereotype of believers in faith healing as uneducated, 42% of adult US Christian scientists have a college education, and an additional 24% have some college attendance. 8% did not get a high school diploma.

16% of Christian Science households earned more than US $50,000 in 1990, well above the national average.

30% of Christian Scientists are over 65; this is three times the national figure.

Christian Science is overwhelmingly female (70%) and overwhelmingly caucasian.

Christian Science's Health Claims

Christian Science holds that "false beliefs are the procuring cause of all sin and disease." (Science and Health, p. 171) Indeed, relying on medicine is a sin because it is "anti-Christian". (Science and Health, p. 169)

Supposedly, physicians themselves actually cause disease! They "are flooding the world with diseases, because they are ignorant that the human mind and body are myths". (Science and Health, pp. 150-151) "[T]he ordinary physician is liable to increase disease with his own mind..." (Science and Health, p. 159)

Drugs do not work. "[A] drug has no efficacy of its own, but borrows its power from human faith and belief. The drug does nothing, because it has no intelligence." (Science and Health, p. 12)

Finally, Christian Scientists claim that Christian Science healing is a "science" which has been empirically demonstrated beyond doubt.

Mrs. Eddy's Checkered Career

Most Christian Scientists display a great deal of reverence for Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of their religion. For some adherents, such as Bliss Knapp, author of The Destiny of the Mother Church, Mrs. Eddy was a semi-divine being whose coming was prophesied in Isaiah. Knapp's book was originally suppressed by the Christian Science hierarchy, but eventually was published by them in what some saw as a cynical ploy to reap the rewards of Knapp's US $90 million bequest [Ost].

However, a careful examination of the record shows that Mrs. Eddy often acted in direct contradiction to the tenets of her own religion.

For example, a diary kept by Calvin Frye, a household servant of Mrs. Eddy, reveals that she was addicted to morphine, and in fact had a lifelong dependence on morphine pills and shots [Gar].

In her later life, Mrs. Eddy wore glasses (supposedly not needed by Christian Scientists) and was frequently attended by doctors [Sta].

In the last half of her life, Mrs. Eddy developed symptoms of paranoia, claiming that her enemies were attempting to attack her with "malicious animal magnetism" (MAM). She once wrote, "Mother never has and cannot be mistaken in her diagnosis of MAM." In the second and third editions of Science and Health, she demanded that courts recognize crimes committed by MAM [Gar].

She sued a former associate for using MAM to inflict "great suffering of body and mind and spinal pains and neuralgia and a temporary suspension of mind" on one of her followers [Gar].

As Martin Gardner has shown, she plagiarized material from many sources, particularly Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin [Gar].

Of course, none of these incidents have any direct bearing on the health claims of Christian Science, but they do cast serious doubt on the image of Mary Baker Eddy as ethical teacher and model promoted by the Christian Science church.

Mrs. Eddy's Tall Tales

Mrs. Eddy's writings are filled with bizarre incidents, leading one to believe that either she was extremely gullible or that she cynically manipulated her audience with these tall tales.

For example, she once claimed [Gar, p. 57] that some Oxford students killed a criminal by making him think he was bleeding to death. "Had they changed the felon's belief that he was bleeding to death, removed the bandage from his eyes, and he had seen that a vein had not been opened, he would have resuscitated." No documentation was provided for this claim.

In Science and Health, p. 245, she wrote of an English woman who, "disappointed in love in her early years, she became insane and lost all account of time. Believing that she was still living in the same hour which parted her from her lover, taking no note of years, she stood daily before the window watching for her lover's coming. In this mental state she remained young. Having no consciousness of time, she literally grew no older. Some American travellers saw her when she was seventy-four, and supposed her to be a young woman. She had no care-lined face, no wrinkles nor gray hair, but youth sat gently on cheek and brow. Asked to guess her age, those unacquainted with her history conjectured that she must be under twenty." Mrs. Eddy cited as her source an article in the Lancet, but without volume and page numbers it is impossible to verify the source.

Also in Science and Health, pp. 556-557, she wrote: "It is related that a father plunged his infant babe, only a few hours old, into the water for several minutes, and repeated this operation daily, until the child could remain under water twenty minutes, moving and playing without harm, like a fish." Again, she provided no documentation.

Philosophical Problems with Christian Science

In addition to its dubious medical claims, there are severe philosophical problems with Christian Science.

For example, If "God, divine Mind, governs all, not partially, but supremely", how is it possible that mortal mind can be so deluded? Why wouldn't divine Mind take precedence?

How about people who take poison by mistake? Don't they die even though they have a belief that what they swallowed wasn't poison? Mrs. Eddy explains this as follows:

If a dose of poison is swallowed through mistake, and the
patient dies even though physician and patient are expecting
favorable results, does human belief, you ask, cause this
death?  Even so, and as directly as if the poison had been
intentionally taken.

In such cases a few persons believe the potion swallowed by 
the patient to be harmless, but the vast majority of mankind,
though they know nothing of this particular case and this special
person, believe the arsenic, the strychnine, or whatever the
drug used, to be poisonous, for it is set down as a poison by
mortal mind.  Consequently, the result is controlled by the
majority of opinions, not by the infinitesimal minority of
opinions in the sick-chamber.
But this "explanation" doesn't explain how people get sick or die from poisons or diseases discovered after the fact, before anyone knew they were harmful.

If disease is a consequence of incorrect belief, why do babies get sick? After all, their understanding of disease must be small if not nonexistent, yet they often get sick. Furthermore, some diseases in small infants (e.g., bacterial infections) are cured by antibiotics. Are we to believe that babies had incorrect beliefs and these beliefs somehow changed after the administration of antibiotics?

Similarly, if disease is a consequence of incorrect belief, why do animals get sick?

Why do plants get sick? After all, their understanding of disease must be rather small. Elms in North America were devastated by Dutch Elm disease. Are we to believe that the trees had incorrect beliefs, too?

Although her writing was not clear on the subject, Mrs. Eddy apparently thought that domesticated animals got sick because of the incorrect beliefs of people: "You can even educate a healthy horse so far in physiology that he will take cold without his blanket, whereas the wild animal, left to his instincts, sniffs the wind with delight.'' (Science and Health, p. 179) But this doesn't explain how wild animals get sick (and they do).

Why did dinosaurs get sick? After all, there were no people living in the time of the dinosaurs. Did they get sick because they had incorrect beliefs, too? (See, for example, [RM, SE].)

Why do people die? After all, if sickness is an illusion, death must be one, too. Which Christian Scientist has conquered death (by, for example, living to at least 140 years)? Why was Mrs. Eddy unable to prevent the death of her third husband?

Does Christian Science Really Work?

The Christian Science church is somewhat schizophrenic in its attitude towards verification of its doctrinal health claims.

On the one hand, the Christian Science church avidly collects testimonials about alleged incidents of healings through Christian Science. Science and Health, With Key to the Scriptures gives many examples of such anecdotes, as do sympathetic accounts such as those of Robert Peel [Peel]. Personal testimony of healings play a large part in organized Christian Science gatherings.

On the other hand, the Church ardently resists any attempt to test Christian Science in a scientific manner, involving blind studies and controls.

However, there are a small number of studies which attempt to determine the efficacy of Christian Science health practices.

Gale Wilson was an autopsy surgeon for the coroner in King County, Washington, USA who studied death records in that county from 1935-1955. He (or she) found that Christian Scientists tended to die at a slightly earlier age than non-Christian scientists; that the cancer death rate for Christian Scientists was twice the national average, and that at least 6% of Christian Science deaths were medically preventable [Wil].

William Franklin Simpson conducted the study most devastating to Christian Science's health claims. He compared graduates of Principia College (a Christian Science school) to graduates of the University of Kansas, and concluded with high confidence that graduates of Principia died at an earlier age than the control group [Simp].

Yet another piece of evidence against Christian Science is its failure to protect students at Christian Science schools from disease outbreaks. For example, in 1985 a measles outbreak hit several US colleges. "Worst hit of all was Principia College of Elsah, Ill., a tiny Christian Science-affiliated school where at least 96 students have been infected and two have died, apparently from complications. (Rubeola, which tends to be more serious in adults than in children, can lead to pneumonia and encephalitis.)" [Time] Later a third student died [Shi2].

In summer 1989, 55 children came down with measles while attending a Christian Scientist summer camp. In fall 1989, 88 students at Principia Academy and 12 students at Principia College got measles [Shi2].

It happened again in 1994. This time, an infected Christian Scientist helped spread the disease to 176 people in six states [Shi]. The local medical officer was quoted as saying, "Every four or five years we have an outbreak, and everyone at Principia gets it who hasn't had it before and isn't inoculated."

Based on this evidence, there is currently no reason to believe that Christian Science treatment is effective, and reasonable evidence to believe it may actually be harmful.

Why Christian Science Appears to Work

There is no question that many people believe they have been healed through Christian Science. And there is also no question that belief can affect the state of one's health -- one need only consult the huge literature on the placebo effect.

However, there has been very little systematic evaluation of Christian Science techniques compared to other methods of healing. The large number of testimonials accumulated by the Christian Science church is therefore almost entirely without value, since it rests entirely on the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy.

Post hoc, ergo propter hoc means, roughly, "after, therefore because of". Nearly all Christian Science testimony has the same flavor: "I was terribly ill. Nothing helped me until I studied Christian Science (or was visited by a Christian Science practitioner). Immediately I felt better. Since then I have enjoyed good health."

While this sort of testimony has great emotional and persuasive power, there is nothing scientific about it, since no competing explanations are entertained or evaluated. The rate of cures is not compared, for example, to standard medical treatment, or no treatment at all, or other competing forms of faith-healing.

Human beings are the result of billions of years of evolution in a hostile environment, filled with other competing organisms and semi-organisms, such as bacteria and viruses. It is therefore not in the least surprising that we have evolved elaborate and complex schemes for self-repair and fighting infectious disease. The vast majority of these schemes are not easily available to our conscious mind -- for example, the average person is not conscious of the workings of his or her immune system as it battles against the influenza virus. The bottom line is that most illnesses are cured automatically, without conscious intervention. As Lewis Thomas remarked in his famous book, The Lives of a Cell:

 The great secret, known to internists and learned early in
marriage by internists' wives, but still hidden from the general public,
is that most things get better by themselves.  Most things, in fact,
are better by morning.
[Tho, p. 100]

If one can excuse the dated sexism, the quotation suggests a reasonable alternative explanation of Christian Science "healing": it is the result of the body's own autonomous processes.

In 1954, sociologist R. W. England studied a sample of 500 letters attesting to Christian Science healing. He found

Perhaps most conspicuous was an apparent ignorance of or
indifference to the natural healing powers of the human body.
Thus, a vast number of minor ailments, ranging from athlete's
foot to the common cold, were treated and cured by the 
application of Divine Truth...

...Thus, by virtue of the peculiar emphases of their faith and the
peculiar functioning of the human body, [Christian] Scientists
have a constant and automatic source of evidence confirming
their beliefs.

England points out that the Christian Science practitioner, perhaps inadvertently, plays the role of psychotherapist for emotionally disturbed patients. For example, here is an excerpt of a letter quoted by England:

I can never express enough gratitude to the practitioner who
helped me from the beginning, because during the first three
months that I read Science and Health by Mrs. Eddy,
I did not understand it.  I would talk with the practitioner
several times each day on the telephone, and I have always
had a feeling that if it had not been for her untiring,
unselfish, and loving encouragement, understanding and help
during this most trying time, I should have lost my way
In November 1998, a Toronto Christian Science practitioner named Joni Overton-Jung spoke at the University of Waterloo. In the conclusion to her talk, she claimed that while a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa, she developed malaria but cured herself with prayer.

In many respects, Ms. Overton-Jung's story is typical of unsubstantiated Christian Science claims. She offered no independent evidence, such as a doctor's examination, in support of the claim that she really had malaria. The symptoms of malaria are very easily confused with those caused by other infectious agents. For example, dengue fever is endemic to many areas where malaria is also present, and the symptoms are similar. Dengue fever is self-limiting, however, and often cures itself, prayer or no prayer. Which is more likely, a miracle like that touted by Ms. Overton-Jung, or a misdiagnosis by a layperson with no medical knowledge?

It's worth recalling what philosopher David Hume said about miracles more than two hundred years ago:

[N]o testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony
be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the
fact, which it endeavors to establish...
Of course, for every tale of miraculous cure, there's a tale of a terrible disease and unmitigated suffering. Only thing is, you won't hear about the latter from official Christian Science publications. For example:
Judging from photographs taken a year or so before her
death, Ashley King was a beautiful girl, with long, straight
dark-brown hair and high cheekbones.  When she was taken
to Phoenix Children's Hospital, she had a tumor on her right
leg that was forty-one inches in circumference.

Her hemoglobin count ... was "almost incompatible with life."
Her heart was enlarged from the burden of pumping blood to the
tumor, her pulse was twice normal, the cancer had spread to her
lungs, and she was in immediate danger of dying from
congestive heart failure.  Immobilized by the tumor, she had
been lying in the same position for months.  Her buttocks and
genitals were covered with bedsores.

Nurses who testified before the grad jury said that Ashley
had told them, "I'm in so much pain" and "You don't know
how I have suffered... [Fra]

The Demise of Christian Science

The number of adherents to the Christian Science religion has been in decline since its peak in 1936. For example, Figure 1 below, based on data from Rodney Stark, graphs the estimated number of members per million in the United States. It has decline from a high of 2098 in 1936 to 427 (estimated) in 1990.

Figure 2 below, again based on Stark's data, gives the number of Christian Science practitioners in the US from 1883 to 1995. These figures were obtained from a tedious enumeration of the practitioners listed in the Christian Science Journal.

What accounts for this decline? Stark gives a number of reasons, but the most significant seems to be the rise of modern medicine. When Christian Science began, medical science was still in its infancy. Now, with the advancements of antibiotics, surgery, decipherment of the genetic code, vanquishing of smallpox, etc., it is extremely difficult for the well-informed person to deny the germ theory of disease.

The Consequences of Christian Science Belief

If Christian Science were simply an unusual belief system with no health consequences, I would have little quarrel with it. However, Christian Science beliefs do have an impact on society, particularly in the transmission of infectious disease.

This impact is most evident in Christian Science treatment of children with serious or life-threatening diseases for which established medical practice have a good success rate. These include bowel obstruction, diabetes, dehydration, epilepsy, diphtheria, measles, meningitis, and pneumonia.

Asser and Swan [AS] studied 172 cases of children in faith-healing sects who died between 1975 and 1995. Of these, they found that 140 had conditions for which standard medical practice would have given a survival rate of 90% or more. 18 more had conditions with survival rate of 50% or more.

Religious beliefs, however odd or unreasonable to outsiders they appear, are protected in North America by the US Bill of Rights and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. However, these rights have limits and in my opinion should not guarantee the right to withhold medical treatment from children in life-threatening circumstances when its efficacy is well-established.


[AS] Seth M. Asser and Rita Swan, Child fatalities from religion-motivated medical neglect, Pediatrics 101 (April 1998), 625-629.

[Eng] R. W. England, Some aspects of Christian Science as reflected in letters of testimony, American J. Sociology 59 (5) (March 1954), 448-453. See also reply by Will B. Davis in 60 (2) (September 1954), 184-185.

[Fra] Caroline Fraser, Suffering children and the Christian Science church, Atlantic Monthly 275 (4) (April 1995), 105-120.

[Gar] Martin Gardner, The Healing Revelations of Mary Baker Eddy, Prometheus Books, 1993.

[Ost] Richard N. Ostling, Religion: Tumult in the Reading Rooms, Time, October 14 1991, p. 57.

[Peel] Robert Peel, Spiritual Healing in a Scientific Age, Harper & Row, 1987.

[RM] Bruce M. Rothschild and Larry D. Martin, Paleopathology: Disease in the Fossil Record, CRC Press, 1993.

[SE] Glen T. Sawyer and Bruce R. Erickson, Injury and diseases in fossil animals: the intriguing world of paleopathology, Bulletin - Field Museum of Natural History 58 (6) (1987), 20-25.

[Shi] Martha Shirk, "Measles trail unvaccinated students turn 1 case into 176", St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 5 1994.

[Shi2] Martha Shirk, "Outbreaks among religious groups", St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 5 1994.

[Sig1] Roger Signor, "Officials: Measles Outbreak Map Spread but it is slowing among Christian Scientists", St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 5 1994, p. 01B.

[Simp] William Franklin Simpson, Comparative longevity in a college cohort of Christian Scientists, J. American Medical Association 262 (12) (September 22/29 1989), 1657-1658. Corrigendum, 262 (21) (December 1 1989), 3000. Criticism and reply, 263 (12) (March 23/30 1990), 1634.

[Sko1] Andrew Skolnick, Religious exemptions to child neglect laws still being passed despite convictions of parents, J. American Medical Association 264 (10) (September 12 1990), 1226,1229,1233.

[Sko2] Andrew Skolnick, Christian Scientists claim healing efficacy equal if not superior to that of medicine, J. American Medical Association, 264 (11) (September 19 1990), 1379-1381.

[SBP] R. P. Sloan, E. Bagiella, and T. Powell, Religion, spirituality, and medicine, The Lancet 353 (1999), 664-667.

[Sta] Rodney Stark, The rise and fall of Christian Science, J. Contemporary Religion 13 (2) (1998), 189-214.

[Tho] Lewis Thomas, The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher, Bantam Books, 1974.

[Time1] Time, March 11 1985, p. 66.

[Wil] Gale E. Wilson, Christian Science and longevity, J. Forensic Sciences 1 (4) (October 1956), 43-60.

Related Web Sites

Note added January 11, 2003. Caroline Fraser's remarkable book, God's Perfect Child: Living and Dying in the Christian Science Church is essential reading for anyone interested in Christian Science.

Note added September 3, 2003. An edited version of this article was recently published in Skeptic Report.