Holy Water, Frail Hope

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – Shivering under a tattered blanket, a young woman tries to sleep at the foot of the mist-shrouded Entoto Mountain, north of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

…”I decided to come to Entoto to seek a cure from the holy water after a doctor told me that I am HIV-positive,” Abebech Alemu, 35, said.

“I am a follower of the Orthodox faith. I strongly believe that I will be cured by drinking the holy water rather than drugs,” she added.

—Tsegaye Tadesse, “Believers seek AIDS cure at Ethiopian springs“. Reuters, 29 November 2006.

Though past killers such as tuberculosis and influenza have their place in the history of human suffering, any list of the most deadly epidemics ever to afflict our species will have to rank AIDS near the top. The World Health Organization estimates that over 40 million people are currently living with the disease, while over 25 million have died already, with several million added to that grim total every year. Africa especially has been devastated by HIV; in some sub-Saharan countries, the virus has infected up to a quarter of the population, decimating an entire generation and creating millions of AIDS orphans. Though progress has been made in battling this deadly disease, the poverty-afflicted people hardest hit by it are the very ones for whom expensive antiviral medications are furthest out of reach, and the ultimate goal of a safe, inexpensive vaccine still seems far from sight.

And that brings us to Entoto Mountain, where a spring that courses from a ravine in the shadow of the peak is reputed to have miraculous healing powers that draw desperate people from all across the Horn of Africa. This belief is actively promoted by the clergy of the Ethiopian Orthodox church, most of whom make a living by soliciting alms from pilgrims (although the Reuters article mentions “wealthier visitors”).

If this were a story of desperate people turning to religion to help them when human effort could provide no solace, that would be one thing. But that is not the case. The woman quoted earlier states her awareness of a free program distributing antiviral medicine that could keep the virus in check and potentially extend her life by decades, but chose to pass it up in favor of foolish superstition. And she is not the only one:

“I know about the free distribution of HIV medicine, but I have decided not to take it. I am convinced I could be cured by the holy water,” Abebech said.

…Dr. Solomon Zewdu, administrator of Johns Hopkins University HIV/AIDS Drugs Distribution Center in Addis Ababa, said he had appealed to the Orthodox Patriarch to tell HIV-positive people that they can take anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) along with the water.

“HIV drugs are life-saving. Those who are drinking the holy water can also take the drugs. I do not see any contradiction,” he said, adding he had seen patients abandoning their hospital beds and the ARV regime, opting for holy water.

Although I do not believe a religious person cannot be a scientist, this story is a compelling argument against the philosophy of watered-down accommodationism that would treat faith and reason as equally valid ways of knowing. If we as a society promote such a vapid compromise, this is what we will end up with – doctors and scientists reduced to pleading with religious leaders to permit their flock to accept treatment that could save their lives, along with their daily dose of muddy spring water.

When we hold back for the sake of “respect” and treat religious faith as if it were a decision-making method equal in validity to the scientific method, which it is not, this is what we inevitably end up with – faith dominant and reason at best allowed to tag along by the wayside, at worst thrown away entirely. After all, once we grant that reason and faith are equally good ways of finding out the truth, science will inevitably lose out, because what believer in their right mind would choose the scientific findings of fallible human beings over what they believe to be the certain and perfect wisdom of God?

To grant parity to religion is to surrender the battle. Instead, we should be telling people like this, as loudly and frequently as possible, that this is a sham, that the people promoting the holy-water treatment are frauds and con men, and that if you trust in this faith-based quackery, in all likelihood you will die a painful and needless death.

Are these harsh words? Yes, but they are justifiably so, because people’s lives are at stake. When a house is on fire, firefighters do not knock gently on the door and politely entreat the people inside to come out. The same applies here. There is no time for meekness and diplomacy. Instead, to save these people’s lives, we must jolt them out of their complacency. Polite and self-effacing efforts at persuasion will probably only encourage them to believe the danger is not so serious.

It is all well and good to say that most believers are more rational and will not fall into such lethal self-deception. But the truth of the matter is that a believer is irrational to the precise degree in which they believe their religion and take its claims seriously. After all, the Bible clearly does record many instances of miraculous healings in the past, and it clearly does promise that all the believer’s prayers will be answered if only they have faith. Why, therefore, would a serious, knowledgeable Christian not trust in holy water to cure AIDS? There is one and only one reason: because they know that there are no miracles and that supernatural treatments do not work. And that realization did not originate from religion, oh no. Much the contrary, it was knowledge that humanity arrived at after long and painstaking empirical study of the world, almost always in the teeth of fierce opposition from the advocates of dogmatic faith.

I have written before about the folly of trusting in superstition over science when life and health are at stake. But I would like to go further, and assert that reason and faith cannot exist side-by-side in the same society as equivalent means of forming beliefs. The latter inevitably undermines the former, and we end up with clashes like this, or creationism, or apocalypticism, or any of the other pernicious human beliefs rooted in religiosity. The only solution to our troubles is reason, and we must insist on that strongly. The self-destructive effects of faith-based decision-making are intolerable to any enlightened civilization and should not be tolerated.

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.

  • Archi Medez

    “The World Health Organization estimates that over 40 million people are currently living with the disease, while over 25 million have died already, with several million added to that grim total every year.”–Ebonmuse.

    One wonders how many of those people died, or died much sooner, as a result of acting on religiously-based erroneous beliefs.

    Some basic courses in scientific methodology and reasoning (especially as applied to health issues) could probably save a lot of lives. It is often stated that a basic education is a right of all human beings, but I think we need to specify further that this basic education must include sound scientific knowledge, not unsupported superstitions.

    Ultimately, it is the individual’s (i.e., adult of sound mind) choice as to what treatment they receive, but informed consent depends on good quality information. Without good quality information, the normal advantages associated with freedom of choice are compromised.

  • http://seaoffaithhawkesbaygroup.blogspot.com/ Terry

    I have a sister who is a fundamental Christian. Her son contracted AIDS in the 1980′s. He was on antiviral drugs but seemed to have had severe side effects and I think, though I have not been told the whole story, he abandoned them in favour of goint to Nigeria to seek a faith healing. He returned and we were told that he was healed and that I must not ask any more about his health. Well inevitably his health went down hill but they remained in denial even when he was weighing a mere 40 kgs and we were constantly told that he was on the mend. He died about four years ago. Just over ayear ago my sister went down with lung cancer eventhough up till then she seemed very healthy. She was very positive and told us that God would heal her . She received the best treatment, with chemo theropy and seems to have recovered completely.. She wrote that God receives all the Glory.Its not surprising that I have difficulty relating to her.

  • ellen

    Darwinism at work.

  • Chris

    Darwinism at work.

    I suppose that’s meant as some kind of gallows humor, but it doesn’t work anyway unless you assume that the victims are genetically gullible.

  • Alex Weaver

    Memetic Darwinism, perhaps. Though memetic evolution is demonstrably Lamarckian…

  • Alex Weaver

    PS: Terry: My condolences. I had an uncle die of colon cancer 2-3 years ago, and out of what I gather was some absurd macho stoicism he didn’t go to the doctor until the tumor had metastasized and completely blocked his intestines. Supposedly one of his brothers was cured of cancer by some alternative treatment, but the same thing didn’t work for my uncle; I’m not sure whether they actually abandoned conventional medical treatment in favor of it, though.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    While I don’t think anyone is genetically programmed to be religious, it’s worth considering whether that might not become the case over sufficiently long periods of time. There’s a phenomenon called the Baldwin effect in which memetic evolution can feed back into genetic evolution – if a certain set of culturally learned behaviors boosts an individual’s success, natural selection will favor phenotypes that are able to learn those behaviors more quickly and adopt them more thoroughly.

  • Kate

    Sigh. That’s so horrifically sad. It’s hard to understand how people can be so dependent on the worst kind of blind faith- until I remember the horrific poverty that goes along with it.

    For my final exam in a human evolution class, I’ve got a paper on whether the human species is a success or failure. This will make it in.

  • Freeyourmind

    I agree with the article but I guess I just lack the compassion that would be truly needed to make a difference. While one side of me says “yes, we must show people that medicine tested by science is truly the only hope”, the other side of me says “that’s fine, let them used faith based healing and die from the disease. It will only further prove that it’s completely useless”.

    Cold I know. But my tolerance for irrational people doesn’t run very deep.

  • Jeromy

    Freeyourmind, I agree with you, it’s very hard to feel sorry for somebody who makes such a decision. Oddly, my own mother is in that category. She didn’t used to be such a dingbat, but I guess her old age is making her irrational. She has a rather large growth in her left leg, and she refuses to go to the doctor. She says, “If god wants me to die, I guess I’ll die, if he wants me to live, then I’ll live.” So, of course, I told her that maybe god wants her to see a doctor. That, as you may have already guessed, is a ridiculous proposition. How could she still have faith that god can cure her (if he wants to) if she goes to a doctor? So I asked her if she thinks doctors are more compassionate than god, because they will try very hard to cure the illness, even if they don’t like you, whereas god may or may not try, regardless. This is not a winable battle for me, as I am sure you all know. The conversation runs in insane circles.

    What is very odd about all this is that there is no god. So, basically what people are saying when they choose the faith-healing path is not: “If GOD wants me to die…”, but rather, “If I want me to die…I will.” It is no different than an atheist refusing treatment for a curable illness. This is the big danger of believing in a deity – blind faith. It conditions the mind to rationalize all sorts of crazy things, such as: “I will be fine, if only I BELIEVE I will be fine.” It is certifiably insane to rationalize like this. It is not even proper grammar to use the word “believe” in this context.

    And so…back to your original point…faith healing essentially culls the gene pool. And sometimes, it kills people who otherwise (without religion) would have no other thought than to seek medical attention. Religion takes an otherwise normal person and turns them into a suicidal maniac.

    Where we need to combat this is at it’s very source: The people who are preaching such nonsense. Fox news publicizes this junk, as does the Learning channel and Discovery. It would be nice to have a television show much like Penn & Teller’s Bullshit show. One that could actually be shown on the Learning channel or Discovery, but racy enough to get coverage on Fox news (I’m sure they would put it down, but hey, publicity is publicity, right?)

    We all need to start demanding PROOF. Proof from our families and communities. Proof from the networks and cable. When something this absurd is muttered in any venue, in any situation, it should be questioned.

    Just like yesterday, my christian son mentioned a “project” he was working on with a friend, about how in the bible, a wall was broken down because they blew horns. I instantly challenged him, saying, “But that’s impossible.” He answered, “Yeah, I know, that’s why god did it.” To which I replied, “The bible does not say god did it, the bible says the army did it. It’s impossible, it did not happen, it’s just crazy words by primitive arab men.”

    Slowly, but surely, I am getting through to him. He’s a smart young man, he’ll pop out of it some day.

    In this same way, we can all make a difference. Challenge these goony statements every chance you get! Go to their blogs and demand proof! Do it with love in your heart, for the greater good of mankind.

    The more vocal, the more exposure we all get, the more good it will do. Just like the old saying goes, “If only one life is saved, it will be worth the effort.”

    Later

  • Alex Weaver

    It’s not actually impossible to demolish something with sonic vibrations, but it’s certainly implausible that such vibrations could be produced by lung-powered horns…

  • bassmanpete

    But Alex, what if von Daniken was right? Maybe visiting aliens gave the Israelites super-duper ghetto blasters :)

  • http://infophilia.blogspot.com Infophile

    Where we need to combat this is at it’s very source: The people who are preaching such nonsense. Fox news publicizes this junk, as does the Learning channel and Discovery. It would be nice to have a television show much like Penn & Teller’s Bullshit show. One that could actually be shown on the Learning channel or Discovery, but racy enough to get coverage on Fox news (I’m sure they would put it down, but hey, publicity is publicity, right?)

    Well, there’s Mythbusters, but they generally steer clear of medical myths and quackery. (Not always, though, they did do a segment on Pyramid Power once, but after it Adam requested not to do that type of myth again for a while.)

  • http://thegreenbelt.blogspot.com The Ridger

    God always gets the credit when things work out, never the blame when they don’t. When miners are saved by engineers, technicians, rescue crews, and miners who keep their heads, it’s a miracle. When the mine blows up and the miners die, well… The saddest thing I’ve seen in a while was those people who were erroneously informed those miners were alive – all of them praising God. When it turned out the men were all dead, God vanished from the dialog.

    Who was it said that if a highly improbable set of circumstances that saves a life is a “miracle”, an equally improbable set that takes one must be the same thing? Only, it never is…

    God can’t lose. His PR firm is brilliant.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Oddly, my own mother is in that category. She didn’t used to be such a dingbat, but I guess her old age is making her irrational. She has a rather large growth in her left leg, and she refuses to go to the doctor. She says, “If god wants me to die, I guess I’ll die, if he wants me to live, then I’ll live.” So, of course, I told her that maybe god wants her to see a doctor. That, as you may have already guessed, is a ridiculous proposition. How could she still have faith that god can cure her (if he wants to) if she goes to a doctor?

    That reminds me of the old joke…

    A neighborhood was hit by a flood, and as the waters rose, a man climbed to the roof of his house for shelter. As the water lapped around his feet, a rowboat full of firefighters rowed by, and urged him to climb aboard. “No,” the man said, “I have faith that God will save me.”

    The waters continued to rise, until even on the roof of his house, the man was up to his neck. A helicopter flew by and dropped a ladder, and the pilot shouted to him to grab it. “No!” the man called back. “I have faith that God will save me!”

    The waters continued to rise, and the man drowned. At the gates of Heaven, he met God and said, “God, God, I had faith in you. Why didn’t you save me?”

    “I tried,” God replied. “I sent you a boat and a helicopter.”

    More seriously, Jeromy, it’s worth considering whether religion is truly at the root of your mother’s problem. In my experience, a lot of elderly people in poor health get stubborn about medical care; I think it has to do with a fear of losing their independence. If your mother had a history of refusing medical care on the basis of religion, I’d say that that’s probably the root cause. Otherwise, it may just be that she’s refusing medical care for other irrational reasons and is using her religious belief as a cover for those reasons. Of course, it says something that religious belief can be used to justify irrationality so easily.

  • Alex Weaver

    Of course, it says something that religious belief can be used to justify irrationality so easily.

    Or sadism. The consensus seems to be that bringing up Albert Fish in debates over religion’s supposed beneficial effect on people isn’t fair play. x.x

  • Eric Hillis

    If only all christians refused medical treatment we’d someday be free of them.

  • Alex Weaver

    You know, comments like that are a lot funnier if one doesn’t have Christian friends and relatives….

  • Kate

    Alex, I’d agree with you, but all of my Christian friends and relatives are so far from the die-cast mold of “good Christians” (Catholics and a few Baptists in my case) that if there were a hell, they’d be coming with me!

    And Jeromy, best of luck with your son. If you want to get him off religion, have him read the entire bible, cover to cover. Remind him that you have biblical authority to stone to death a “rebellious, stubborn son” (Deuteronomy, 21:18-21).

  • Matt R

    The author is correct that fanatical belief in religious “cures” has caused undue suffering, however there are also good ideas regarding health that have come from religious beliefs.

    If everyone in the world (I recognize this as a hypothetical flight of fancy) practiced monogomous responsible sex, then I think it is reasonable to expect that the AIDS epedemic would be brought under control in just a few generations. Such sexual chastity is a component of at least 3 of the major world religions.

    Some religious beliefs do indeed result in more responsible sexual behavior, therefore it is ungracious to portray religion in such a light and declare it incompatible with a rational society.

  • Alex Weaver

    Responsible, socially positive behavior can stand on its own, without the support of religion. Meanwhile, it’s worth asking whether sexual monogamy is actually *practiced*, rather than simply *preached*, by the religions in question.

  • lpetrich

    “Good ideas” like refusing to accept that marital sex can transmit sexually transmitted diseases? Or objecting to anything that would keep marital sex from doing so?

    And “good ideas” like rejecting highly-safe alternative sex acts like masturbation? And ways of making sex safer like condoms?

    And “good ideas” like getting much more worked up over nonmarital sex by mutual agreement than over marital rape?

    And “good ideas” like objecting to women’s sexuality much more than to men’s sexuality? As in men have the right to go to as many prostitutes as they want to, while prostitutes are evil, sexual women.

    And “good ideas” like gloating over sexually transmitted diseases as punishments for the sins of their victims? Like the way that a certain eminent theologian smugly pointed out that God had caused an earthquake in Boston because many Bostonians were installing lightning rods, thus thwarting one of God’s favorite punishments for their sins.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    If everyone in the world (I recognize this as a hypothetical flight of fancy) practiced monogomous responsible sex, then I think it is reasonable to expect that the AIDS epedemic would be brought under control in just a few generations.

    …Some religious beliefs do indeed result in more responsible sexual behavior, therefore it is ungracious to portray religion in such a light and declare it incompatible with a rational society.

    I agree that monogamy is a good idea, but I don’t think it needs religion to justify it. And more importantly, any good that religion has done by promoting monogamy for heterosexual couples must be weighed against the immense harm it has done in other ways. For example, what about the Roman Catholic church’s (and, increasingly, many Protestant churches’) opposition to comprehensive sex education and the distribution and use of contraception? These beliefs have caused a staggering amount of human misery and have, without a doubt, played a major role in accelerating the transmission of these and other STDs. And what about those same religions’ furious opposition to homosexual monogamy?

    If, as you say, Matt, some religious beliefs result in more responsible sexual behavior, then shouldn’t we expect to find the most responsible sexual behavior where religious beliefs are strongest? Yet the evidence shows that the exact opposite is true. Areas of the world where religiosity is widespread, such as America’s Bible Belt, have STD rates, teen pregnancy rates, and abortion rates well above what is observed in many other areas of the country. This phenomenon has been noted by numerous observers over the years. By contrast, many comparatively secular areas such as the Scandinavian countries have rates of these phenomena well below the average American rate.

  • Matt R

    Alex Weaver,

    I did not intend to imply that religion is the only path to responsible behavior. I did intend to state that religion is also a path to responsible behavior and that it does not necessarily lead to absurdities such as the ones depicted in the above article.

    I cannot compare the chastity of the non-religious to the religious, but I have read an interesting study from the Journal of Sexual Research that indicates that religion is significantly correlated with a later date of sexual initiation in teens. So I think it is fair to say that there is hard evidence that religion does have at least some positive impact on responsible sexuality.

    Below is the reference for the articl. You can look at the abstract on http://www.pubmed.gov by pasting the reference below into the search field and clicking “go”.

    Refrence: Coital debut: the role of religiosity and sex attitudes in the Add Health Survey.J Sex Res. 2003 Nov;40(4):358-67.

  • Matt R

    lpetrich,

    I seemed to have pushed some of your buttons. Sorry, I didn’t mean to offend. In fact I agree that lots of bad things have been done in the name of religion. I too think that discouraging prophylaxis, marital rape, gloating over the downfall of one’s advesary, neglecting the sexuality of women, and installing lightning rods are bad things. (just kidding about the lighning rods).

    I certainly didn’t mean to imply that *all* ideas born of religion are good. I just wanted to assert that all religous ideas aren’t bad.

    P.S. That lightning rod thing is really funny. I’d never heard that before

  • Matt R

    Ebonmuse,

    I am not knowledgeable enough to address the actions of the Catholic Church, nor am I knowledgeable about any official stance protestant organizations have taken regarding comprehensive sex education or prophylaxis distribution, but I can relate my own experiences.

    Please consider that although some religious groups may be portrayed (or indeed actually be) irresponsible in dealing with the issues of sexuality, others address it in a responsible considerate manner.

    Every protestant church that I have been to has behaved very responsibly when dealing with the issue of sex education. As a teen, I grew up hearing about the importance of responsible sexual behavior and the dangers of STDs and teen pregnancy ad nauseum. I can truthfully say that the sex education I received at church was comprehensive.

    In my experience, protestant christians disagree with distributing condoms in schools becasue they fear it will send the message to children that adults expect them to have sex. By providing them with the necessary materials, adults would be condoning teen sex. Protestant christians believe that teens would be better off waiting for sex until they find a special person with whom they will share the rest of their life. I also think (this is speculation based on 20 years of interaction with protestant christians) that most if not all protestant christians do support the use of condoms (or other prophylaxis) as a less desireable second option.

    Regarding the observation of negative sexual outcomes (teen pregnancy, std’s), there are many factors to take into consideration when evaluating the trends of a given geographical area. It is possible that the trends oberserved in the Bible belt have nothing to do with religion (indeed if I were to generalize the train of thought, I might make the case that religion causes an obsession with NASCAR).

    There are studies in respected journals that indicate religious activity promotes responsible sexual behavior.

    1) See my response to Alex Weaver
    2) The effects of religious commitment on the attitudes and behavior of teens regarding premarital childbirth. J Health Soc Policy. 2003;17(1):1-17.
    3) The Church Partnership Program. Educ Update. 1999 Apr;3(5):1-3. (this one isn’t a study, but it outlines the efforts of some churches to improve sexual responsibility)

  • Polly G.

    Matt R. and responders:

    Discussion on whether churches spread good or bad ideas, or how much support they give to good behavior is valuable, but it’s not the point of this article as I understand it. The idea is not that all religious practices are as absurd as the example given, or that religion can’t promote a good idea.

    The follower of a religion and one who doesn’t follow a religion can agree on many behaviors to promote better health or preserve from disease. It is possible that we can be in agreement 99% of the time.

    But the origin of an idea is relevant. Even if it were conclusively proven that a religion promotes dangerous, unhealthy practices, it is irrelevant, and vice versa. Churches do not promote marital fidelity because it is a good practice; they promote it because it is biblically mandated. A believer may have faith that his religion will always give good advice, but if the advice runs counter to what that believer thinks or experiences he must choose faith first (or cease to be a believer). Matt, if you became convinced that a religious tenet caused unnecessary health problems, would you abandon it? Or would you have faith that what is ordered is good and you just didn’t understand how?

    People who seek faith healing or handle snakes may not have a religion as ‘rational’ as one that discards those ideas and promotes healthy sexual practices, but there is no difference between the two except what is mandated by the religious body involved. The god followed is more rational, not the followers.

    If healthy and safety practices are based on rational ideas, empirical evidence, etc., they can change in response to evidence and experience. Religious practices cannot, unless they are willing to accept that their divine rules are secondary to temporal ideas.

  • Matt R

    Polly G.

    I find irrational or unquestioning adherence to religious dogma unsettling, frustrating, and yes, dangerous. What good is believing in something blindly? Why believe and base your whole life on something that is completely unfounded? What could be more absurd and hopeless? Blind faith can hardly be called faith at all. It would be more accurate to call it “guessing” for it is an arbitrary shot in the dark with hopes that one has guessed the right answer. If religious adherents don’t question their faith, then their faith is weak indeed.

    On the other hand, pronouncing all faith-based decision making as self-destructive and intolerable, seems a little harsh especially if we consider the multitude of good that has come of religion.

    Fortunately reason and religion do not have to be diametrically opposed. Reason is a mental process, a way of thinking, whereas religion is a group of assertions held to be true (much like science, or math, or evolution).

    I propose that religion can be rational if the followers of the religion evaluate their religion using reason.

    Allow me to elaborate…

    For a follower of a religion to be considered rational, she would have to weigh the outcome of her religious beliefs. Let us consider your example of churches promoting marital fidelity.

    If one practices marital fidelity because one believes God has mandated it and promises that it will lead to happiness and fulfillment, and it turns out that marital fidelity leads to unhappiness and dispair, then one must question whether God actually mandated it or question the god who mandated it.

    On the other hand, if it turns out that marital fidelity does lead to happiness and fulfillment, then that lends rational support to the source of the idea. It also provides a rational motivation for the behavior.

    In this “mental experiment” we can observe religion, faith, and reason working together. Indeed, in this scenario, reason supports religion and religion supports reason.

    So this is great as long as the religion in question proves to be reasonable. But what if it doesn’t?

    When part of a religion (set of ideas held to be true) doesn’t appear to follow rational thought (a logical clear process) or doesn’t agree with another set of ideas held to be true then the adherent must make a decision. Either:
    1) the religion is wrong
    2) the other set of ideas is wrong
    3) He misconstrued the parameters of the comparison (in my mind this choice is a bit of a cop-out)

    The adherent must take all the rational things he knows about the competing sets of ideas and weigh them against each other. Based on his exeriences and knowledge he must evaluate which has proven to be true in more instances.

    This is how reason and religion can co-exist.

    Regarding your specific question:

    “Matt, if you became convinced that a religious tenet caused unnecessary health problems, would you abandon it? Or would you have faith that what is ordered is good and you just didn’t understand how?”

    I would definitely question my religion if one of the tenets lead to unnecessary health problems. In the interest of honesty, I don’t really anticipate this being an issue as I truly cannot think of any tenants of orthodox Christianity that could possibly bring about health problems. However, if you have heard of some or just want to ask me more about this I am more than willing to oblige your questions.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Hello Matt,

    Every protestant church that I have been to has behaved very responsibly when dealing with the issue of sex education. As a teen, I grew up hearing about the importance of responsible sexual behavior and the dangers of STDs and teen pregnancy ad nauseum. I can truthfully say that the sex education I received at church was comprehensive.

    I’m glad to hear that. And yes, there are certainly many mainstream Protestant churches who respond maturely to issues of sex education. However, it is increasingly and unfortunately becoming the case that powerful right-wing Protestant churches are opposing the education, distribution, and even use of contraception at least as vehemently as the Catholic church always has. I wrote about this in a post from May titled “Sacred Ponds, Sacred Cows” – here’s an excerpt:

    R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is considered one of the leading intellectual figures of evangelical Christianity in the US. In a December 2005 column in The Christian Post titled “Can Christians Use Birth Control?” he wrote: “The effective separation of sex from procreation may be one of the most important defining marks of our age – and one of the most ominous. This awareness is spreading among American evangelicals, and it threatens to set loose a firestorm…. A growing number of evangelicals are rethinking the issue of birth control – and facing the hard questions posed by reproductive technologies.”

    … In July, a group of Democrats in Congress, led by Representative Carolyn Maloney of New York, sent the first of four letters to the president asking outright: “Mr. President, do you support the right to use contraception?” According to Representative Maloney’s office, the White House has still not responded.

    …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.”

    And let’s not forget abstinence-only sex education, supported fervently by many Protestant groups, which study after study has shown to be far less effective at preventing STDs and teen pregnancy than comprehensive sex ed.

    I cannot compare the chastity of the non-religious to the religious, but I have read an interesting study from the Journal of Sexual Research that indicates that religion is significantly correlated with a later date of sexual initiation in teens. So I think it is fair to say that there is hard evidence that religion does have at least some positive impact on responsible sexuality.

    You’re glossing over a rather crucial point. Though religious teens may indeed start having sex later than other groups, when they do start, they still choose to have as much or more risky, unprotected sex than everyone else. In every way that matters, they are behaving less responsibly, and the numbers bear that out: more teenage pregnancies, more abortions, higher rates of divorce, and higher rates of STD infection, including gonorrhea, syphilis, and HIV/AIDS. Here’s one pertinent study:

    “Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies.” Journal of Religion and Society, vol.7 (2005). (full text online)

    The evidence is really a double whammy: not only do areas of the U.S. known for their religiosity suffer more sex-related social ills than more secular regions of the country, but the U.S. as a whole, which is unusually religious for a First World nation, has substantially higher rates of these ills in general than other developed countries that are less religious.

    It is possible that the trends oberserved in the Bible belt have nothing to do with religion…

    Your point, as I recall, was that religion can lead to more responsible sexual behavior. It does not appear to be doing so. Even if religion is not the cause of these problems (though I would argue that it is), it does not seem to be doing anything to alleviate them.

  • Matt R

    Ebonmuse,

    Wow, that article was really eye-opening. I do feel that the lack of regression analysis does somewhat lessen the level of evidence, nevertheless the raw data comparison is indeed compelling. Furthermore it does support your point very well.

    I think that apart from simply saying “nuh-uh” to the research that supports your viewpoint, my only recourse would be to try and dig up other research that supports my viewpoint (if it does exist). The problem with that is I see it turning into a Looney-tunes type scenario in which Bugs and Elmer fudd alternate drawing successively larger pistols on each other.

    In the interest of avoiding that, I will say that this discussion have been thought provoking and enjoyable. Thank you.

  • Shawn Smith

    Matt R,

    I must say, you are one of the more reasonable and well-spoken defenders of Christianity to comment here, especially since Philip Thomas took a powder. Thank you for not getting sarcastic or abusive–it is a good experience.

  • Matt R

    Shawn Smith,

    Thank you.

    Ebonmuse, and anyone else who would care to comment.

    I have been mulling over the article you referred me to.

    “Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies.” Journal of Religion and Society, vol.7 (2005). (full text online)

    There is one logical inconsistency that puzzles me. Here it is:

    The top three religions in the United States are Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, and they comprise approximately 78% of the population (Adherents.Org). Each of the top 3 religions is saturated in teaching against the very social ills (or causes of the ills) that the study in question reviewed (with the exception of Juvenile Morbidity which isn’t an issue of morality). By definition, a follower of a religion is one who adheres to the tenets of said religion. The United States was indicated to have more religious followers (a majority of whom we can infer belong to one of the top 3)who were more devout than in other prosperous western democracies.

    So, the study concludes that following religions that teach against social ills actually leads to the very social ills the religions forbid.

    This puzzles me exceedingly.

    I assure you I am not being argumentative or sarcastic. I am genuinely puzzled and would like to hear anyone’s thoughts on the matter.

  • http://nesoo.wordpress.com/ Nes

    So, the study concludes that following religions that teach against social ills actually leads to the very social ills the religions forbid.

    This puzzles me exceedingly.

    I think that Alex Weaver’s earlier comment could sum up one possible reason why that is:

    Meanwhile, it’s worth asking whether sexual monogamy [or anything else, for that matter - Nes] is actually *practiced*, rather than simply *preached*, by the religions in question.

    Though I would change the end to say “by those who follow the religions in question.”

    On a completely unrelated note… What happened to Philip? I liked reading his comments. Oh, looked it up, I’ve never heard “took a powder” before. But, still, my question remains, does anyone know?

  • lpetrich

    That lightning rod bit I found in Chapter XI: From “The Prince Of The Power Of The Air” To Meteorology — IV. Franklin’s Lightning-Rod of Andrew Dickson White’s History of the Warfare of Science with Theology.

    And Matt R., you may want to ask yourself why faith-based ways of protecting against lightning, like ringing church bells, are no longer popular. And also faith-based ways of curing disease like exorcism.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Hello Matt – some thoughts:

    So, the study concludes that following religions that teach against social ills actually leads to the very social ills the religions forbid.

    This puzzles me exceedingly.

    If people followed their religion’s instructions to abstain from sex completely until marriage and then remain monogamous and faithful to one partner for life, we would see a drastic decline in the rate of STDs and other sexual ills. That is undeniably true. But although this policy is effective in theory, I would argue that in practice it is utterly infeasible. It was conceived without reference to human nature or human ability and cannot be successfully put into practice by most humans, even if they want to abide by it.

    First, there’s the issue of lifelong monogamy. As I said earlier, I agree that monogamy is generally a good idea. However, it is utterly unreasonable to give everyone just one chance to decide who they want to spend the rest of their lives with and expect everyone to choose correctly the first time, especially before ever having any intimate contact with the person they choose (or even having sex themselves so they know what they like!). That requires an unrealistically perfect degree of judgment which most people just don’t have.

    In this respect, religious teachines doubly undercut themselves – the push for abstinence until marriage puts people under strong pressure to marry early, and encourages them to do so without knowing whether they are sexually compatible with the person they marry. Even worse is the expectation that a person will always marry whomever they first have sex with, by definition the most experimental and tentative act of sexual exploration. And when, to no one’s surprise, some of these marriages don’t work out, a society that discourages divorce leaves people with no good options, and that causes infidelity, domestic violence, loveless marriages, and all kinds of other undesirable effects.

    And we could also talk about the demand for abstinence until marriage. Again, a good idea for those who abide by it, but let’s be realistic, most people are not going to abide by it (and that includes Christians). Teenagers and young adults have been having premarital sex for as long as human beings have existed. In the teenage years the body has the sexual maturity and drive of an adult, but usually not yet the judgment of an adult (to be fair, many adults never develop that judgment either). Of course they’re going to have sex – what do you expect? We can accept this fact, and teach teenagers how to behave responsibly so that having sex does no harm either to them or to others; or we can deny this fact, teach abstinence to the exclusion of all other options, and then when they end up having sex anyway they don’t know how to protect themselves, and we have a society beset with STDs, teen pregnancies, and other undesirable outcomes. I’ve always observed that if you want young people to act like adults, you have to treat them like adults. If you treat them like children who need to be kept ignorant and protected from themselves, you will run into disaster every time.

    On a completely unrelated note… What happened to Philip?

    I don’t know what happened to Philip Thomas. His last comment was made on September 5, and I haven’t heard from him since. He gave no indication that he was moving on, though he might have chosen to do so anyway. I hope nothing bad has happened to him.

  • Matt R

    Nes and Ebonmuse,

    I also think that it is due to a disparity between profession of and adherence to religion.

    Incidentally, Ebonmuse, the Bible does set impossibly high standards of conduct for people. This principle is part of Christianity. (In case you wondered…..)

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    I’m well aware that the claimed impossibility of living up to the Bible’s standards is one of the selling points. But we can use an impossibly high standard in one of two ways: either we can hold it up as an ideal to strive toward, while catching the people who fall short and helping them to do better next time; or we can demand perfect adherence to it from the start, and set up the system so that those who fail are made to suffer.

  • Matt R

    Ebonmuse,

    We have strayed far on a tangent, and I don’t want to misuse this space to discuss something that is somewhat unrelated to the article above. Soooo… If you want me to stop this tangent, just say the word (as I believe this is your website, am I correct?).

    With that said, You appear to object to what people do in the name of Christianity more than Christianity itsself. I say this because most of your responses deal with the poor behavior of prominent Christians and Christian organizations, whereas when it comes down to the basic moral principles of Christianity, you seem to be in agreement. Is this an accurate observation?

    I will add that the latter part of your previous post, about helping people who don’t achieve the standard, is the teaching of the Bible as well. The Christian belief system is set up so that we love one another and help, not judge, those who fall short.

    Here are some relevant passages from the Bible

    Regarding helping people do better next time:

    Galatians 6:1-5

    On the general love and humility Christians are called to demonstrate:

    Colossians 3:12-14

    Jesus’ famous denoncement of judgement:

    Matthew 7:1-5

  • andrea

    of course, you do ignore the exhortations to kill homosexuals, the insistance that childbirth is the *only* way for a woman to be saved, etc. etc. And the final thing of everyone who didn’t take Christ as their savior getting an eternity of hellfire. Seems like a lot of judgement here.

  • Matt R

    Andrea,

    You have condemned Christianity based on an incomplete understanding of it. No orthodox Christian believes it is right to kill homosexuals. No orthodox Christian believes that childbirth is the only way to salvation for women. If you are interested in gaining a more complete knowledge of the orthodox Christian viewpoint on homosexuality or women’s issues. I will gladly share, but I doubt you came here to hear a sermon (you kind of got one anyway, though. Sorry, it’s all those sundays in church) :)

    That hellfire thing is an exception, though. You hit the nail on the head with that one. Then again, I don’t think anyone ever claimed that God was snuggly soft. I sure don’t. If it makes you feel any better, I don’t want anyone to go to hell and am sick to my stomach at the thought.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    We have strayed far on a tangent, and I don’t want to misuse this space to discuss something that is somewhat unrelated to the article above. Soooo… If you want me to stop this tangent, just say the word (as I believe this is your website, am I correct?).

    Yes, this is my site. Please, don’t worry about going off on tangents; I’m enjoying this discussion and I wouldn’t shut down a productive conversation just because it was expanding to include more subjects. In any case, this post indirectly concerned sexual ethics, so I think this is still on topic.

    You appear to object to what people do in the name of Christianity more than Christianity itsself. I say this because most of your responses deal with the poor behavior of prominent Christians and Christian organizations, whereas when it comes down to the basic moral principles of Christianity, you seem to be in agreement. Is this an accurate observation?

    No, it is not accurate. While the poor behavior of some prominent Christians is deplorable, my principal objection is not to the people who dismiss the Bible’s rules, but the ones who actually believe in them, try to follow them and demand their enactment. Those are by far the more dangerous people.

    As I said, I think the Bible’s teachings on sexual ethics are highly unrealistic. They would work well for a race of beings that could realistically abide by them, but humans are not such beings. By demanding impossibly perfect judgment in selecting one’s partner, putting people under pressure to make that selection as early as possible, and discouraging separation as a means of resolving the inevitable mistakes, Christianity only ensures the creation of far more misery and unhappiness than would otherwise be the case.

    And more than that, I think these rules are just irrational. There is no good reason to expect that everyone will only have sex with one person in the course of their lives or to use sex solely for procreation, or to think that this is the sole ideal we should strive towards. If you are behaving responsibly and harming no one, there is no wrongdoing.

    I will add that the latter part of your previous post, about helping people who don’t achieve the standard, is the teaching of the Bible as well.

    That depends on whether we mean the same thing by help. I didn’t mean that we should just encourage people who fall short to try harder next time. I meant that we should provide realistic alternatives in the form of the distribution and education of birth control, and the availability of safe and legal abortion as a last resort, so that people who choose not to follow the unrealistic abstinence-only model still have the tools to act responsibly.

  • Alex Weaver

    What I want to know is, if Jesus saves souls…what kind of file format is that? :)

  • Matt R

    That’s funny Alex. It reminds me of another joke.

    Satan decides to challenge Jesus to a typing contest, then he sabotages Jesus’ keyboard so that some of the letters don’t work very well. On the day of the contest, God the Father acts as the referee and Satan and Jesus go to work. They type and type for days and finally satan starts to pull ahead. Just as the contest is almost over and Satan is about to claim the victory, the power goes out and the screens of Jesus’ and Satan’s computers go blank. Satan is understandably devastated because all of his hard work was lost. Worse, he looks over and sees Jesus printing out the final copy of his document after the power comes back on.

    Satan looks to God the Father and says, that’s not fair, how is it that my computer erased all my data and Jesus’ didn’t. You must have cheated for him!

    God replies: Haven’t you heard, Satan, Jesus Saves!

    Ebonmuse:

    I am still working on yor reply.

  • Matt R

    Ebonmuse,

    It is not accurate to state or imply that cohabitation prior to marriage improves the stability of the marriage. Research indicates that it has no positive effect. In fact some research indicates that cohabitation is actually a destabilizing factor in marriage. Cohabitation also tends to be more violent. Therefore it is at least as good, if not better to wait for marriage to live together.

    It is also significant to note that cohabitation, the least binding of any living arrangement is the most violent. This weakens your argument that forcing a binding marriage breeds violence since marriages, with their inherent property of being more binding, are less violent than cohabitation. I recognize this is not conclusive by any means and relies heavily on inference. Nevertheless it weakens your argument.

    It is also not accurate that premarital sex is a stabilizing factor in marriage. Research indicates that people who have multiple sex partners before marriage have a tendency to have multiple sex partners after marriage. And he wasn’t talking polygamy! :). Other researchers correlate premarital sex with higher divorce rate. So, although it sounds good in theory, the statistics indicate that experimenting with sex prior to marriage does nothing to improve marriage.

    It is also not accurate to imply that making a marriage last requires “impossibly perfect judgement” is not accurate either. There is little if any evidence to support that viewpoint. There is, however, ample evidence to support the fact that marriage counseling, conflict resolution training, and commitment to achieving a good marriage have a significant stabilizing effect on marriage. Success in marriage involves who you choose to be more than who you choose to marry. Also if the judgement required to make marriage last is “impossibly perfect”, then why is the divorce rate only 50%. If the judgement required to choose the right mate the first time was so hard, shouldn’t it be closer to 90% or at least 75%. One out of every two couples, using your premise, exercises “impossibly perfect judgement”. You may say that the divorce rate cannot be used to infer the number of marriages that last a lifetime. I wholeheartedly agree with that point. The only reason I use the divorce rate is because I was unable to find any statistics on what percent of marriages last for the lifetime of one of the partners. I say one because no marriage lasts the lifetime of both partners, since the marriage is over as soon as one of the partners dies. If you can find such statistics and refute this portion of my argument, then I will concede, but only on this line of thought, regarding this particular argument, not in principle.

    To deal with some misconceptions, the Orthodox Protestant Christian standpoint on sex is that is for pleasure and reproduction. This is in accordance with Biblical teachings. The purpose of reproduction can be found in Genesis. The purpose for pleasure can be found in The Song of Solomon, which makes for some interesting reading no matter who one thinks wrote the Bible.

    I recognize that you still have one pillar of your argument that appears irrefutable. And it very well may be irrefutable, but that is irrelevant because I have no wish to refute it. Sexual restrictions on hormone-laden teenagers do provide motivation for marrying young. In fact a study by Barnes which indicates that Baptists have a higher divorce rate than the American average (about 10% higher, in fact) speculates that this motivation to marry young could be a contributing factor.

    So why do I appear to concede my point on this issue so easily. Am I weak? No. Am I dumb? No. Do I lack the intellect to deceptively beat around the bush of truth and make tons of other excuses for this? Probably, but I could still try.

    No, I am not in the business of lying about facts. But in view of my honesty please give my answer in this situation an honest and fair consideration.

    Christianity doesn’t “work” in pieces. With Jesus, it is all or nothing. That is why so many Christians behave so deplorably. They want to have the good time religious feelings without the hard work that goes into following Jesus’ teachings. They want to believe that they are “ok” without doing the hard work of being “ok”.

    Teenagers who marry young are obeying the letter of the law. They are avoiding “sexual immorality” by getting married to satisfy their carnal lusts (which we all have, me too). The problem is, if they do this without responsibly considering their preparedness for marriage, they are violating the spirit of the law. The spirit of the law in the Bible boils down to “Love God with all your being, Love your neighbor as yourself”.

    By getting married to satisfy their carnal desires, they are not loving their partner. They are loving themselves because they are trying to satisfy their desires without considering the repercussions of getting married too early.

    So, they have obeyed part of the letter of the law, but they have forsaken the entire spirit of the law by acting selfishly and irresponsibly.

    We have already agreed that Christians do not always act like they should. In reality Christians never “act” like it. The standard is perfection Ebonmuse. None of us meet that. But, as you said “we can hold it up as an ideal to strive for”.

    If you want to discuss my logic behind defending a moral system that I admit is unattainable, we can do so, however it will lead to topics far divergent from this one.

    If you want any sources for the studies or statistics that I speak of, ask and you shall receive. I don’t include them because my time is short and I am very bad at xhtml.

  • lpetrich

    Matt R., it looks like what you are doing is cherry-picking, selecting out what you think will impress us, and leaving out anything embarrassing. Like where the Bible decrees the death penalty for homosexual acts and for worshipping other gods.

    And jumping to unwarranted conclusions about causality — conclusions that are just so convenient for you (imagine SNL’s Church Lady saying that). If people with unhappy marriages tend to get divorced, then those who remain married will be happy, thus suggesting a false causality of marriage causing happiness and divorce causing unhappiness. Charles Darwin’s principle of natural selection has implications in the social realm as well as the biological realm.

  • Matt R

    lpetrich,

    I enjoy explaining Christianity to people, but we must address one topic at a time.
    The current topic of discssion is the relative benefits of differing viewpoints as they apply to the sexual health of our society. When this discussion is finished, I would be happy to discuss the death penalty in the Old Testament of the Bible.

    Regarding “jumping to conclusions”:

    Demonstrating causality is not necessary to validate a null hypothesis. My null hypothesis was:

    “Premarital Sex and Cohabitation are no better than waiting until after marraige for sex and cohabitation. ” I

    think I supported my null hypothesis rather well. If I have jumped to any conclusions, please state them specifically, show that I have “jumped” and I will retract the conclusion in question.

  • Tom

    Atheists can generally address one topic at a time, Matt R, because our world-views and moral stances tend to be rather modular. On the other hand, Christianity, like pretty much any religion, is a complete package – it’s all or nothing. Rigidly focusing on one topic at a time won’t help you the way it helps us; if you defend the good bits, you defend the awful bits too, unless you’re cherry picking.

    It does strike me as somewhat inconsistent that you wrote

    You have condemned Christianity based on an incomplete understanding of it.

    not very long before

    I enjoy explaining Christianity to people, but we must address one topic at a time.