In the first post of this series, I wrote about some of the diseases that afflict human beings from without. In this post, I will shift focus and discuss two articles about disorders that afflict us from within. The first, from March, is titled A Hunt for Genes That Betrayed a Desert People, about inherited genetic disorders among Bedouin people in the Negev Desert:
In a sky blue bedroom they share but rarely leave, a young sister and brother lie in twin beds that swallow up their small motionless bodies, victims of a genetic disease so rare it does not even have a name.
Moshira, 9, and Salame, 8, who began life as apparently healthy babies, fell into vegetative states after their first birthdays.
Now their dark eyes stare enormous and uncomprehending into the stillness of their room. The silence is broken only by the boy’s sputtering breaths and the flopping noise his sister’s atrophied legs make when they fall, like those of a rag doll, upon the mattress.
“I cannot bear it,” said the children’s father, Ismail, 37, turning to leave the room as his daughter coughs up strawberry yogurt his wife feeds her through a plastic syringe.
The article lists, in a litany of horror, some of the more severe genetic disorders that afflict the Bedouin: disorders in which babies are born with no skin covering their skulls or with no eyes; mental retardation and lethal neurological diseases; twisted and malformed limbs; and a genetic disorder which leaves a person unable to feel pain, which sounds like a blessing until one realizes that it means sufferers are constantly hurting themselves, sometimes seriously, without feeling it, and end up with infections, amputations and the other consequences of untreated wounds.
As the article explains, the frequency of these genetic diseases has to do with the Bedouin custom of marrying cousins. But although interbreeding increases the risk of children being born with these disorders, due to the greater chance that more closely related people will share the same rare recessive disease genes, it does not create them. No child could be born with diseases such as these unless those genes already existed in their parents’ DNA.
Another article, this one from March, is titled Finally, With Genetic Discovery, Hope for Escape From a Prison of Bone, and concerns a truly horrifying genetic ailment called fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva. In this condition, stem cells that normally congregate at the site of an injury and differentiate into muscle, ligament or whatever type of tissue is needed to heal the damaged area instead turn into bone. The more time passes, the more healthy tissue is inevitably replaced, and eventually sufferers become living statues, immobilized by twisted ribbons of bone running throughout their bodies. Death finally comes when cages of bone immobilize the lungs. There is no cure and no effective treatment, although new genetic research pinpointing the specific mutation at fault may someday give us the ability to do both. But most heartbreaking is that, like the ailments of the Bedouins, FOP is a childhood disease.
Peering into the hollow stump of a redwood tree, Hayden Pheif, 5, finds a cache of treasured river rocks exactly where he left them.
It’s a luminous afternoon in Mill Valley, Calif., perfect for tossing a few of them back into the creek that runs through this small park. But Hayden’s mother, Megan Pheif, knows better than to let her son scramble down the steep embankment to the stream.
Hayden can barely bend forward, and he cannot raise his arms much above his shoulders. Once down that slope, he may not be able to get back up. So she lifts him, over loud protests, back onto the walking trail, lingering for a moment over the hunch that has begun to form on his back. In Hayden’s body, too, there are pockets of stone.
“It’s upsetting, obviously,” said Ms. Pheif, 41, a sales representative for a textiles company. “The childhood you thought your kid would have isn’t possible. The doctors don’t have a cure, and they can’t tell you what’s going to happen to him or when.”
The suffering and misery caused by diseases like these beats with overwhelming force on the wishful thinking of theistic religion. According to the tenets of theism, God was and is directly responsible for creating diseases as terrible as these and others – diseases that primarily afflict children, causing them to suffer without reason and robbing them not just of the joy and innocence of childhood, but of the prospect of a long and happy life ahead. That deprivation and the fear and despair that accompany it may be far more terrible than the simple physical pain and agony these conditions cause. How can a theist who believes that God has dominion over all things dare to call him good when, according to their beliefs, he stands by and watches these boys and girls – and their families – suffer and does nothing?
But even let us say, as some theists do, that God did not create these diseases directly but that they are the unfortunate yet inevitable byproduct of a world ruled by regular natural laws. That still does not alleviate the dilemma in the slightest degree. If you were an engineer and discovered that one of your products had the possibility of malfunctioning in such horrific and dangerous ways, would you not take every possible measure to fix the problem, or at the very least warn users of the danger and what they can do to forestall it? If you choose not to do that, then are you not, through your negligence, every bit as culpable for what results? Why does God, if he exists, not issue a safety recall on the human species?
But while the frail hopes of faith shatter against these hard shoals of facts, atheists steer a clear course through them. We have no higher designer to blame, or worse, praise; all we have is the recognition that our bodies, marvelous products of evolution though they are, are still vulnerable to malfunction and breakdown. If we ever wish to be free of these afflictions, it is futile to beg the empty skies for aid. We must track down the causes of these illnesses and we must find ways to cure them ourselves, using our own intellect and our own skills of reasoning. We are in this by ourselves, and we can and must turn to each other.
Other posts in this series: