Sacred Ponds, Sacred Cows

In a recent post, A World in Shadow I, I wrote about how religious superstition was hindering the efforts of health workers to eradicate several treatable Third World diseases. For example, one village in the remote region of Ogi, Nigeria refused permission to treat their local “sacred pond” with a mild pesticide that would wipe out the parasitic guinea worms infesting it, on the grounds that doing so would anger their deceased ancestors.

However, if I left it at that, Christians might accuse me of unfairly lumping them in with other, more harmful religions. They might point to the following passage from that article, which tells how the sacred pond impasse was resolved:

That evening, [the aid worker] visited Matthew Ogbu Egede, the paramount chief of the area around Ogi. Chief Egede was mortified.

“I am a Christian,” he said in an interview. “I don’t believe in anything about juju. These people objected out of ignorance. The devil made them object.”

He convened a meeting of “the elites,” a local chiefs council. Furious, they ordered the village to accept the pesticide treatment and pay a fine of “one very mighty native cow, plus goats, yams and kegs of palm wine,” Chief Egede said. The council sent.. an effusive letter of apology.

True enough, in this case the introduction of Christianity into this region provided at least one real benefit, overcoming a harmful native superstition that could otherwise have caused more people to suffer needlessly from the parasite. Does it follow that the wider spread of Christianity is a net positive?

In my experience, every religion has its own equivalent of the sacred pond, some harmless or beneficial action which they are prevented from engaging in by superstitious taboos. They are not always as obvious – sometimes they are not even tangible objects – but they exist nevertheless.

What is the Christians’ sacred pond? There are many things that arouse religious conservatives’ ire, but anyone who has been watching the rise of the theocratic right in this country over the past several years can probably identify the one thing they fear and detest more than any other: namely, sex.

For example, consider Gardesil. Recently approved 13 to 0 by an FDA advisory panel, this newly developed vaccine is extremely effective against human papilloma virus, HPV, a common sexually transmitted infection that can cause cervical cancer in women. HPV is responsible for almost 300,000 deaths annually, and a widespread program of vaccination could dramatically slash this death rate. However, as reported in New Scientist last year, religious right groups such as the Family Research Council are opposed to the vaccine, arguing that it could encourage promiscuity among young people. (In much the same way, having air bags in cars makes people riskier drivers.)

Along similar lines, consider abstinence-only sex education. The religious right lobbies ferociously to make this only kind of sex ed that is taught in schools, omitting all mention of birth control other than its mention in scare tactics about how often it fails. This, despite the fact that every well-designed study has shown that abstinence-only sex ed is far less effective than comprehensive sex ed at reducing rates of STDs and out-of-wedlock births, as well as studies finding that virginity pledges break more often than condoms. Of course, when students who have had abstinence-only sex ed do choose to have sex, they are uninformed about how to protect themselves, and the results are predictable.

Or take the issue of contraception, both ordinary contraception and emergency “morning-after” pills. Religious conservatives oppose both of these as well, and have done their best to make difficult the lives of other people who desire them. As a March article from the Washington Post states:

“There are pharmacists who will only give birth control pills to a woman if she’s married. There are pharmacists who mistakenly believe contraception is a form of abortion and refuse to prescribe it to anyone,” said Adam Sonfield of the Alan Guttmacher Institute in New York, which tracks reproductive issues. “There are even cases of pharmacists holding prescriptions hostage, where they won’t even transfer it to another pharmacy when time is of the essence.”

Make no mistake – this refusal is not just because these pharmacists feel personally uncomfortable dispensing birth control. On the contrary, it is the explicitly stated desire of the religious right (including many Protestants) to outlaw birth control altogether and deny it to everyone. A recent article in the New York Times Magazine, Contra-Contraception, makes this quite clear:

Bishop John W. Yanta of the Diocese of Amarillo, Tex., who oversees an organization founded last year to train priests in the “Gospel of Life,” has called contraception “intrinsically evil” and “a big part of the culture of death.”

Some Protestants have come to a similar view recently. [Albert] Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, explains the evolution of modern evangelical thought… “I cannot imagine any development in human history, after the Fall, that has had a greater impact on human beings than the pill… It became almost an assured form of contraception, something humans had never encountered before in history. Prior to it, every time a couple had sex, there was a good chance of pregnancy. Once that is removed, the entire horizon of the sexual act changes. I think there could be no question that the pill gave incredible license to everything from adultery and affairs to premarital sex and within marriage to a separation of the sex act and procreation.”

Religious conservatives are not opposed to abortion because they are in any way concerned for the welfare of unborn children. (Simple logic refutes that: By the religious right’s logic, children who die before the “age of accountability” are guaranteed admission into Heaven, whereas children who age beyond it have a better than even chance of ending up eternally damned. If they were consistent in their beliefs and really cared about people’s souls, they would want as many abortions as possible.) On the contrary, religious conservatives are opposed to abortion because they want people, especially women, to be punished for having sex. Forcing a woman to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term is one way to do that; making it more likely that she will die from an STD is another. This hypothesis consistently accounts for a broad range of religious positions on sex-related issues.

And none of this even touches on the religious right’s number one target, homosexuals. The absolutely savage and unrelenting hatred directed at gays by today’s theocrats surpasses all possibility of rational explanation. The multiple state and federal laws banning gay marriage, denying gay couples civil rights such as the right to share employment benefits or visit an incapacitated partner in the hospital, are bad enough; but how could one possibly explain efforts such as those to prevent gay and lesbian couples from adopting children, or opposing laws that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation?

No rational reason could possibly justify the depths of bitter, spiteful rage the religious right has shown in this and many other matters. On the contrary, the only logical explanation is that they are driven to irrationality by their chosen set of superstitions.

More generally, I would argue that this tendency is a characteristic of every religion. It is the essence of every religion that it contains one or more faith-based beliefs, items which believers regard as extremely important regardless of whether there is any evidence showing them to be important. And as long as humanity continues to consider blind belief in the insupportable to be a positive and desirable character trait, we will continue to be plagued by these nonsensical and needless battles, whether they are over wiping out parasitic worms or granting consenting adults who love each other the chance to live together in peace. Blind faith is never a positive, and what morally good and praiseworthy teachings there are in religion do not need it to be justified.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Philip Thomas

    Characteristic of every ideology when fully implemented, I would say. Amazing though it may seen, some religous believers who are against abortion are motivated by concern for the welfare of the embryo (or “baby” as they like to call it). You say “But they believe in the afterlife, so they should kill as many innocents as possible!” Well, maybe. In fact the Cathars of Medieval Provence took the logical step of outlawing all sex in order to bring about the extinction of the human race and thus hasten the second coming… However, with the occasional exception such as the Cathars, normally theistic practise is to ignore the afterlife from a moral perspective: when you find an extremely good man, you are not supposed to kill him in order to get him to heaven before he sins… and of course you could argue that universalists, who reject Hell, should attempt to cause a nuclear war and kill everybody…

    I reiterate my opposition to the idiotic behaviour of the Christian religous right in the United States, over sex education as over so many other things.

  • andrea

    In my experience, there has been no relgiious believers who have ever indicated one iota of concern for the well being of the embryo as their basis for being anti-abortion. If this was true for any of the anti-choice people, wouldn’t they be up in arms about the poverty in this country that affects millions more embryos and children (not to mention adults), a truly Christ-like concern? Or, to take it to a perhaps ridiculous extreme, shouldn’t all women be put in camps so that their pre-natal behavior could be controlled to demostrate this concern with the embryo?
    Unfortunately, from what I can see, the “sacred pond” of sexual rights in the US is just a power play, completely unconcerned with spirituality. It is just a bunch of weak-faithed people who need external indications that they are “right” and everyone else is “wrong”.

  • Philip Thomas

    andrea, I am sorry that has been your experience. I was referring to my close friends, who are admittedly British. In general I tend to take a generous view of my political opponents’ motives, and I would be very suprised indeed if there were no pro-life americans who were motivated, at least in part, by the well-being of the embryo.

    Poverty is a serious problem: but the religous right equates abortion with murder, and murder should be prevented before accidental death, in general. Putting all women in camps would be a grotesque violation of human rights and in any case counter-productive for your suggested purpose.

    No doubt there is an element of power play and faith reinforcement at work. But of course, needing external indications ought to be recognised as a healthy sign when one is forming one’s opinions: the problem might be restated that theists do not need external indications…

  • SpeirM

    “In my experience, there has been no relgiious believers who have ever indicated one iota of concern for the well being of the embryo as their basis for being anti-abortion.”

    I think you need to broaden your experience. Indeed, sometimes, when I read comments here and elsewhere, I wonder whether the posters really know any Christians at all. The words used simply don’t match the reality of my experience. They aren’t all hypocrites. Misguided, I’m sure; hypocrites, no.

  • Azkyroth

    I agree, to an extent. I can’t say I’ve never known an antichoice believer who wasn’t partly motivated by concern for the fetus, though I’ve certainly known many whose claimed concern for the fetus proved on closer examination to be a shallow conceit at best. Usually, though, unless they’re making a blatant emotional appeal, their arguments are phrased in terms of God’s will rather than the well-being of fetuses as inherently valuable “people.”

    As for the HPV thing…that appalls and disturbs me at a number of levels, but since I have a daughter it especially bothers me. I’ll ask her what she thinks of it when I get home; I imagine she’ll wet herself when she hears about it (though in all fairness that’s what she’d do anyway… ^.^)

  • lpetrich

    This makes me wonder where are the contraceptive-industry lobbyists. So many businesses lobby for favors from various levels of government; why not makers of birth-control devices?

    And I wonder if abortion clinics will get into lobbying also.

  • Love

    Earthlings are freaky.

  • Philip Thomas

    Abortion clinics do well enough: most charities that give aid to the Third World spend some of that aid on abortion clinics. Of course, health services are imporant in a developing economy, but it strikes me as an odd priority when food, water, shelter and clothing are in short supply…

  • Bechamel

    Could it be that said health services would result in fewer births, hence less need for food, water, shelter, and clothing down the road?

    For that reason, I absolutely hate it when I see commercials for sponsor-a-child charities. For only 80 cents a day, you can give this child food, water, and an education. Okay, but if this child is going to need a sponsor from the ages of, say, 6 to 18, you’re looking at about $3500 to prevent one human from suffering. (Then, with the dire conditions still in place, that child will likely have more children, and the problem repeats itself, only with more mouths to feed.)

    But, what if we take that $3500 and spend it on birth control? Given that one can buy a 12-pack of condoms at the local 99-cent store where I live, and estimating that one in 100 condoms will prevent an unwanted birth, that same $3500 could prevent over 400 children from being born into poverty and suffering, and requiring food, water, shelter, and clothing from charities in the future.

    So really, birth control is only an “odd priority” if you’re looking solely at the extreme short-term. If these places are ever to become self-sufficient, they need to get their population under control first. When they’re able to feed most everyone, then they can acquire new technologies to increase output, and their population can grow comfortably. Food and water without birth control will merely assure that those areas will remain in poverty for years and years to come.

  • andrea

    “Putting all women in camps would be a grotesque violation of human rights and in any case counter-productive for your suggested purpose.”
    Really, Philip? Why? It may be an unsavory thought but to restrict a woman’s right to her body in any way is quite the same IMO. It’s just a little “prettier” to wrap it up in the witholding of medical care without the barbed wire. If you were so concerned, you would prevent women from cosuming alcohol, tobacco, accutane, various drugs, etc. The embryo then is truly suffering when they “live” with the birth defects caused by those. Is it more merciful to allow some vegative human to live with bedsores, poor caregivers, etc? Your “concern” is situational and symptomatic of people being more concerned with the embryo in the womb than the baby out of it.

    And SpeirM, I do know quite a few Christians. I *was* a Christian till I was oh, about 14. I still go home and see people in the community. That’s why I said “in my experience” and not “all”. Your experience may indeed differ. But don’t discount mine just because it doesn’t mesh with yours.

  • Philip Thomas

    Bechamel, I wasn’t tallking about condoms: I was tallking about the surgical equipment needed to perform abortions. That is rather more expensive than a condom.

    Of course, one could just exterminate the whole third world population and have done with it.

    Andrea there is a very real difference between imprisoning a woman in a camp and not giving her access to the surgical techniques necessary for an abortion (which do not qualify as medical ‘care’). The first requires postive action, the second merely requires inaction. The various substances you list do not kill the embryo: it is killing I wish to prevent. I am more concerned with the embryo in the womb today than with the potential baby out of the womb in the future: this obeys a normal moral priniciple which directs your attention to the present situation rather than what may or may not happen in the hereafter.

  • Azkyroth

    I believe the assumption that inaction is better than positive action is recognized as fallacious…or at least as a cognitive bias.

    Second, you say you are more concerned with a current embryo than a future baby. Which isn’t terribly surprising, considering that you’ve already made clear that you’re more concerned with a current embryo than a current woman. But you seem to be going back and forth with this; first you claim that the future state of the embryo as a human being (that was you, wasn’t it?) justifies forcing a woman to carry the pregnancy, and now you’re claiming that you’re concerned with the here and now, not the future. Why is it that it’s the future that matters when it comes to abortion, but the future is irrelevant in the case of severe birth defects, etc?

  • Philip Thomas

    No, that wasn’t me. I claim that the embryo, once it has acquired cognitive capacity, is a human being, so one shouldn’t kill it. One does not kill people just because one thinks their future will be unhappy.

    I am just as concerned with the woman, indeed if there is a choice between the two lives I would preserve hers.

  • Azkyroth

    I take it back, then. But that being more or less Adam’s position, why is this argument occurring? *blinks*

  • Philip Thomas

    Well, Adam hasn’t been participating in the argument, andrea and bechamel have, and they seem to have a more pro-choice view than mine (or Adam’s).

    My original post on this thread wasn’t an attack on Adam’s stance on abortion, but an objection to his characterisation of the pro-life lobby as unconcerend for the welfare of the embryo. Over on Onward Christian Soldiers, I didn’t know Adam’s position.