Sacred Ponds, Sacred Cows

Sacred Ponds, Sacred Cows May 26, 2006

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.

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