I dislike faith-based religious belief for lots of reasons. A big one is that innocent people often are hurt by irrational, science-denying dogmas.
Like, the crazy notion that vaccines somehow are ungodly. Or even that all sorts of medical care are.
Driving around yesterday, I was channel-surfing on satellite radio and came across an interview with pediatrician Paul Offit on Radio Times. He's written a book called "Bad Faith: When Religious Belief Undermines Modern Medicine."
What he said pushed the child-protecting buttons in me.
I'm OK with people endangering their own health (physical and mental) in the name of religion. But I firmly agree with Offit that it is utterly wrong, wrong, wrong to endanger a child just because a parent thinks God is pleased by foregoing urgently needed medical care.
Offit noted that it would be illegal for a parent to drive a car with a child not properly secured in a car seat or safety belts. Ditto if a parent was allowing a child access to dangerous substances, or not feeding a child.
But putting a child at risk because a parent thinks vaccinations are unnecessary since God, Jesus, or some other imaginary friend will take care of true believers better than modern medicine can, often that religious belief will be accepted as a good reason to engage in what is properly termed child abuse.
Why? There's no good reason, just as there is no good reason to believe in God.
So, bizarrely, all too often these two no good reasons combine to produce a societally acceptable reason for religious parents harming their children in the name of a divinity that, almost certainly, doesn't exist. Whereas, of course, children definitely do.
In a New York Times opinion piece, "What Would Jesus Do About Measles?", Offit writes about a serious measles outbreak in Philadelphia in 1990-91.
To prevent doctors from violating his church’s beliefs against vaccination, the pastor of the Faith Tabernacle Church asked the American Civil Liberties Union to represent him. It refused. “There is certainly a free exercise of religion claim by the parents,” said Deborah Leavy, the executive director of the A.C.L.U. of Pennsylvania, “but there is also a competing claim that parents don’t have the right to martyr their children.”
When spring came and the epidemic faded, C.D.C. officials published the results of their investigation. Over a third of those infected — 486 of 1,424 — belonged to one of those two churches, as did six of the nine dead children.
At the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, we saw more than 200 children in our emergency department and admitted about 40. Children would come in, covered in rashes, squinting in the bright light (a side effect caused by eye irritation), struggling to breathe and often extremely dehydrated. It was like being in a war zone. When I asked their parents why they had done what they had done, they all had the same answer: “Jesus was my doctor.”
In the Radio Times interview I recall Offit relating a story about parents wanting a religious exemption from vaccination requirements to bring in a "note" from their religious leader (pastor, rabbi, whoever) that cited the reference in a holy book which prohibits members of that faith from being vaccinated.
Almost all of the world's religions, Offit correctly said, had their origins in times prior to modern medical knowledge and vaccine research. Thus not only is there no fact-based justification for denying vaccines to children (other than for rather rare medical reasons), there isn't even a sound religious reason.
Rather, Offit writes in the New York Times piece:
It seems to me that if religion teaches us anything, it’s to care about our children, to keep them safe... Parents shouldn’t be allowed to martyr their children — or in this case, those with whom their children have come in contact. Religious exemptions to vaccination are a contradiction in terms. In the good name of all religions, they should be eliminated.
I heartily agree. Check out some previous blog posts on this subject.
Offit was asked by the interviewer what should be done to get religious parents to give their children necessary medical care. Is education the answer?
No, he replied. We need laws that force parents to take proper care of their children. Makes sense.
Religious beliefs are by their very nature highly resistant to logic and facts. The goal shouldn't be to convince parents that their religious beliefs are wrong, but to ensure that their children aren't harmed by those beliefs.
Of course, it isn't only religious believers who are anti-vaccination, or anti-other medically necessary care. This is a point made by a reviewer of Offit's book.
And Dr. Offit’s paradigm ultimately doesn’t explain very much. The anti-vaxxer community, to take the obvious example, includes libertarians, conspiracy theorists and New Agers who are deeply skeptical of biblical religion. Irrationalism, including the fear of science, courses through America’s veins, and it’s only sometimes religiously inspired.