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Friday, November 4, 2016

When "Spirituality" Is Confused with Primitive Superstition

In a proceeding presently underway in Fort Collins, Colorado, Leah and Doug Dyer are being tried on charges of child abuse because of the harm done to their daughter by their neglect of her medical needs ( The child, who has a seizure disorder, was found at the age of 7, weighing 37 pounds and unable to walk. With proper care, she has gained weight and can walk but still does not talk normally.

The Dyers are said to have thought that their daughter’s illness might have some spiritual component and had looked into this possibility. They sprinkled salt around her bed and through the house in an attempt at spiritual protection.

 The belief in the protective spiritual properties of salt was not unique to the Dyers. For example, one Internet site states that “if you are dealing with any kind of negative energy, black magic, ghosts, demons or other entities, salt can serve as a mighty spiritual weapon… Worried about entities invading your sleep? Place a little salt at each corner of the bed…Try sprinkling a circle of salt around the bed” ( Another Internet source advises the use of salt to provide protection against demons: “There are very few demonic elements that will venture to cross a line of protection once it has been established. What is it that gives salt these special qualities [?] First is the perfect cubic crystal shape. Second is that in solution salt will always dissociate into a perfect electrolyte. Blessing can be said over salt that turns it into a perfect weapon against evil. It has been demonstrated that proper constructed prayer generate an electric charge equivalent to 50,000 watts of radiant energy. And is capable of radiating that energy at a constant rate for 24 hours” ( These views are especially interesting in their mixture of material and non-material events, somewhat traditional to sacraments of Christianity (though in the modern world these saceamental events are usually considered to be in a metaphorical relationship), and in their neoplatonic appeal to the “perfect shape” as having a spiritual power.

Although few people in the United States consider seizure disorders to have spiritual causes, the Dyers were again not alone in the world in having this belief. Ann Fadiman’s book The spirit catches you and you fall down: A Hmong child, her American doctors, and the collision of two cultures, told the story of a Hmong family, immigrants from Laos, whose beliefs of this nature complicated the treatment of their child’s epilepsy. The Hmong family fortunately found people who could explain the two cultures to each other, but the Dyers, who were described as not social people, had no translator who could work with their belief systems and those of medical providers.

What do these points have to do with the trial? It appears that the defense attorney (doing her best by her clients, as indeed she should) has argued that the jury must give consideration to the Dyers” “spirituality” and its importance in the case. In doing so, I would suggest that she is confusing a world-view shared by an entire culture that considers a spirit world to exist hand-in-hand with the material one, with the ad hoc superstitions of a socially isolated couple. The use of the word “spirit” does not necessarily imply a life guided by spiritual considerations.

In the United States, laws and principles protect religious practices of the kinds that would have been recognizable to the framers of the Constitution. Beliefs and communications of beliefs are all protected, but all practices are not—as we see in the prosecution of polygamous Mormons and the disapproval of female circumcision (but not male, as far as most people are concerned). Animal sacrifices as part of Santeria are not considered acceptable or even seen as part of a religion.  What are the differences between protected and unprotected practices? When is a religious practice seen as a superstition? Just as the Hmong shared and protected a belief system, protected religious practices in the United States are those that are broadly shared and recognized even by those who do not share them. Superstitions are shared by few and unrecognized by many; they may even involve actions forbidden by law.
But since the 1970s, a new term has developed in an effort to bring hitherto unprotected practices under the aegis of religious freedom. This term is “spirituality”, and although it can be used as a protective description of superstition, it can be most properly applied to  beliefs that are deeply embedded in a culture so that neither can exist without the other. Alternatively, it can be used to refer to some set of non-material values that are considered independent of any organized belief system. (A Muslim student of mine once described herself as “spiritual” as she explained why she never went to the mosque, and plenty of nominal Christians take the same position.) Although it’s not completely clear what “spirituality” is—simple superstition, a fully-elaborated belief and value system, or something else—it is clear that people are arguing that it should be protected under the umbrella of religious freedom. With respect to the Dyers, this has meant that the defense claims that their use of “spirit” terms and “spiritual  warfare” methods, and their related reluctance to give their child effective medical care, are somehow deserving of protection as religious practices.

I would not argue that severe punishment of the Dyers would be to anyone’s benefit, but I am quite sure that a bad precedent would be set if the jury were to accept these people’s actions as deserving of protection under the First Amendment.

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