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.

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About Adam Lee

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


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