Jesus vs. Alexander Fleming

Jesus vs. Alexander Fleming November 5, 2017

I am trying to remember where I read a quote to the effect that the discovery of penicillin saved more lives than Jesus did. Even if we add up all the cures in all the Gospels (accepting them as literally factual historical accounts for this purpose), and multiply them by a thousand or ten thousand in keeping with the ending of the Gospel of John, which says that all the books might struggle to contain the many works that Jesus did, the 300 million lives saved by penicillin – to say nothing of other antibiotics whose discovery was made possible by the pioneering discovery of penicillin – would still exceed that.

This could lead one in any number of directions. In relation to the idea that Jesus was a divine omniscient person, it would raise the question of whether Jesus knew about penicillin – but told no one of its lifesaving potential. And in relation to the problem of evil and miracles, one might ask why God would not have sent knowledge of penicillin into the world along with Jesus, rather than making healing in that time (according to the stories in the Gospels) depend on a touch, a word, or a decision by Jesus and his followers.

One should not shirk away from such difficult questions. Indeed, if your theology is such that it makes you unwilling to engage with such difficult questions, because you fear that your worldview might collapse if you think about it too much, then your theology ought to be discarded right away. Something so weak that it cannot bear this rather obvious line of inquiry will not serve you well in the future and isn’t serving you well now.

But I think that it is also worth considering another aspect of this, which I left hidden behind the title of the blog post. How can the matter be “Jesus vs. Alexander Fleming” when Fleming was himself a devout Roman Catholic?

The problem of evil is a serious one, but it is based on the assumption that there is a better way to make a world than one which is dynamic, as ours is. A healthy planet, of the only sort that we know can give rise to living things, has shifting plates, tumultuous weather, and of course a diverse biosphere filled with fungi and bacteria – things that harm other living things. Humans have sometimes imagined that a simpler world in which nothing grows or changes, nothing develops or threatens, would be preferable. But few of us would actually want to live there.

And so we inhabit a world of health and disease, and within that world, people of faith and people without religious convictions share in the suffering, and in contributing to the easing of suffering in various ways. The claim that religion and science are at odds with one another is an ideological one, adopted at times by fringes at the far extremes. It is not based on observation and evidence, but on the conviction either that God being who God is, or the world being what it is, the realities of suffering and processes like evolution ought not to be embraced as compatible with religion. Or it is based on the assumption that Jesus was a divine figure striding about the earth who knew about penicillin and could have told his contemporaries has he wanted to.

But those who are determined to weigh their ideas over against evidence will find that, whatever one thinks of the miracle stories, there is reason to think that Jesus at least did what other faith healers have done and sought to relieve suffering where he could, in the absence of advanced medicine. And they will find that Alexander Fleming was devoutly religious and contributed a major advance to out understanding of microorganisms and of medicine, in a manner that continues to save lives today.


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  • David Evans

    If we ask “Why didn’t Jesus do X?” we can equally ask “Why didn’t God do X?”. If Jesus, as a human, wanted to tell the world about penicillin he would have to find someone with the relevant skills and resources, and convince them he wasn’t talking nonsense. That might not have been so easy in Israel. God, on the other hand, could have gone where the skills and resources were to be found. And he could be pretty convincing.
    But then, God could have done all sorts of useful things he chose not to do.

  • Phil Ledgerwood

    I sort of see the issue, but if someone were wanting to bring up the problem of evil, this specific example seems weird. God doesn’t prevent evil because Jesus didn’t discover penicillin? There’s just a lot of highly questionable assumptions that would need to be in play in order for that to even be cogent. There are so many really strong objections the problem of evil brings up; it’s hard to imagine someone bringing this one up, unless they were just being obnoxious.

    • John MacDonald

      Never mind penicillin. The one thing that has prevented more deaths than anything else in history is soap. In southern Sudan soap can cost more than a day’s wages. Because some in the region can not wash, they get sick. Across the globe, 2.4 billion people do not have access to clean sanitation, according to the World Health Organization. An estimated 1.5 million children die every year because their immune systems are not mature enough to battle diarrheal and respiratory diseases spread in contaminated environments.

      • John MacDonald

        Where’s the sermon about washing your hands?

        • David Evans

          And, indeed, since God can do anything, why not create a common plant species which, when cut, exudes liquid soap? And mention the fact in scriptures, or in dreams.

        • There are actually warnings about washing hands – showing that the understanding was about ritual purity and not about hygiene or health.

  • John MacDonald

    Earthquake statistics between 1980-2008:

    No of events: 706
    No of people killed: 385,630
    Average people killed per year: 13,298
    No of people affected: 136,333,515
    Average people affected per year: 4,701,156

    God couldn’t have created a world without earthquakes? This doesn’t sound like a very creative, or very powerful God!

    • David Evans

      He did. But then he had to flood the entire world and that messed up the tectonics.

      • John MacDonald

        I like this above passage from James:

        “One should not shirk away from such difficult questions. Indeed, if your theology is such that it makes you unwilling to engage with such difficult questions, because you fear that your worldview might collapse if you think about it too much, then your theology ought to be discarded right away. Something so weak that it cannot bear this rather obvious line of inquiry will not serve you well in the future and isn’t serving you well now.”

        That should be a meme.

        It reminds me of the following quote from Star Trek TNG:

        Capt. Picard: “I understand what you’ve done here, Q. But I think the lesson could have been learned without the loss of 18 members of my crew.”
        Q: “If you can’t take a little bloody nose, maybe you ought to go back home and crawl under your bed. It’s not safe out here. It’s wondrous, with treasures to satiate desires both subtle and gross. But it’s not for the timid.”

        This reminds me of when James, with an open mind, started investigating Doherty’s theories. Ultimately he found Doherty lacking, but James was up to the challenge, irrespective of what consequences it had for his faith.

    • It is very easy to say “Couldn’t God have created a world without X.” That of course assumes an anthropomorphic sort of deity who creates according to a human-centered plan and who can do absolutely anything, all of which are widespread views, but not therefore beyond question. But even within a somewhat traditional theistic framework, plate tectonics are part of the healthy workings of the only planet that we know of that has evolved life. If life’s emergence is one of the aims of creation, then it is not clear that we are able to say that we have a better way of bringing this about than the universe we inhabit. There might be – but we don’t know that, and certainly aren’t creative or powerful enough to test alternatives!

      • Herro

        >”It is very easy to say “Couldn’t God have created a world without X.”
        That of course assumes an anthropomorphic sort of deity who creates
        according to a human-centered plan and who can do absolutely anything,…”

        I think you are making a lot of assumptions about what this person is assuming. Since the next sentence after that question is “This doesn’t sound like a very creative, or very powerful God!”, I think it’s safe to assume that he isn’t assuming that the god in question “can do absolutely anything”. 😉

        • I understood him to be offering an insult at the theistic notion of God, rather than proposing a serious alternative. Sorry if I misunderstood!

          • John MacDonald

            I sometimes tend toward humor like sarcasm rather than just presenting a dry, boring counter example/analogy – I’m Scottish, after all, lol. But humor is very related to logic. In sarcasm, are we not playing with concepts in the same way that we do in logic with the principle of non contradiction/contrariety? And with satire, are we not making absurd the principle of identity: A=A? I don’t think such attempts at humor are an insult – maybe just teasing a little, lol. I have the utmost admiration for religious people and have often said they have a faith I wish I could have. But, just as you can’t fall in love with someone you have no feelings for, you can’t force yourself to believe in God. I readily admit my life would be much more meaningful and wonderful if I believed in God. My lack of belief isn’t because I think atheists have a better argument. I think both sides are wanting, which is why I’m agnostic. For example, the cosmological argument seems to persuasively demonstrate the need for an uncaused first cause (how did the materials and forces that made up the big bang get there in the first place?). But at the same time, simply invoking God as the answer to the problem of the uncaused first cause is a God of the Gaps fallacy, simply positing/speculating God due to a gap in current scientific understanding (like the ancient Greeks speculating that Helios ferried the sun across the sky).

          • If God is by definition that which simply is – the universe, multiverse, or the uncaused cause thereof – then surely the existence of God is not a matter of agnosticism, but it is rather the attributes of God that are uncertain?

          • John MacDonald

            Yes, we don’t know if the ultimate ground of beings is a “Mind,” but ultimately the ground or Θεός can be necessarily posited. As three young Swabian friends (Hölderlin, Hegel, and Schelling) saw in the Greeks, this is expressed in the notion of Ἓν καὶ Πᾶν, “The many is one,” in the sense that all beings stand in relation to their ground and give testimony to their ground in their very being.

          • Realist1234

            I dont think you misunderstood!

        • John MacDonald

          I think Dr. McGrath’s point is that it’s important to determine whether the evolutionary development of life requires planets with plate tectonics. If God could have just as easily created an earth where life evolved without earthquakes, God may indeed be legally guilty of depraved heart / depraved indifference murder for the over 10 000 people every year who are killed by earthquakes. Depraved-heart murder is the form of murder that establishes that the willful doing of a dangerous and reckless act with wanton indifference to the consequences and perils involved, is just as blameworthy, and just as worthy of punishment, when the harmful result ensues, as is the express intent to kill itself.

          I don’t think there is a strong argument to be made that the evolution of life requires a planet with plate tectonics. For example, this article argues:

          “If our conclusions are right, and plate tectonics is an adolescent phase in the evolution of Earth-like planets, then this has big implications for habitability … Life evolved on the Earth very early. There is evidence in carbon isotopes from Hadean zircons, and solid fossil evidence from 3.5 billion years ago. It probably evolved on a planet with a stagnant lid, not plate tectonics.”

          If you would like to read the full article, it is here:

          • Thanks for sharing that link! It is true that “one out of one planets with life that we are aware of has feature X” is not a sound basis for deciding what is needed for life to develop. But in a sense, that is my point – we often can imagine a better way of doing things, yet we do not really have a way of knowing whether different universes or different planets would in fact work well at accomplishing this or that.