THE ISLAND OF DOUBT
An irregular exploration of the ongoing struggle between the power of rational discourse and the scientific method on one hand, and the forces of superstition and dogma on the other.
The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
by Carl Sagan
The Doubter's Companion:
Skeptic Magazine: www.skeptic.com
Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal: www.csicop.org
A poem by Yehuda Amichai:
Chris C. Mooney
The Meaning of
the Island of Doubt
VECTOR OF A WEIRD DISEASE
Among secular humanists, theism has long enjoyed a similar reputation. But even the most resolute of atheists would be surprised to learn just how dangerous the tenets of Christianity are considered in Fredericton, New Brunswick. There the board of directors of the River Valley Health Authority was so afraid of the Bible that it had all copies removed from bedside tables for fear of spreading infectious agents.
Having the good fortune to have been spared the need for hospitalization, I had no idea the Gideons had managed to infiltrate Canada's healthcare system, but I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. What better place to take advantage of people than where they're at their most desperate? Crafty folk, those Gideons.
The River Valley Health Authority said they had more earthly concerns. While surgical instruments and bed sheets can be sterilized, Bibles can't. So said a hospital spokesperson. So out went the good book. For a while. Following the objections of the local chaplain, the Bibles were back within a few weeks. The solution, it turns out, is a germ-proof plastic bag. Patients who break the seal (the seventh?) are now asked to take Moses, Matthew, Mark et al., home with them when they leave.
This story's legs were short in the mainstream media. But the concept of the Bible as disease vector is simply too good to resist. It evokes one of Richard Dawkins' most intriguing contributions: the "meme." Just as genes, eager to increase their numbers within a population, assemble copies of themselves from the raw materials within a cell's nucleus, so memes spread through society as "a unit of cultural transmission."
Which brings me back to dangerous ideas. I won't argue that religion, with its holy wars, inquisitions, witch-hunts and ostracizations is the most destructive of memes. There's a great deal of merit to that argument, but it is tempered, I will concede, by examples of personal faith's palliative potential. I will argue that there is one environment in which the effect of religion is almost entirely debilitating: the public sphere.
There is no mention of God in the U.S. Constitution for good reason (though there is one, lamentable, reference in Canada's). Its authors understood only too well the need for the separation of church and state. People don't like to be told how to worship or, just as importantly, why they should bother in the first place. The alternative is the mess that is the Middle East, Northern Ireland of the recent past, and the Kansas educational system.
The Marple Newtown School District of Oregon's Delaware County has a better grasp of the memetic threat of theology. Its directors are being sued by a parent who was refused the right last October to read from the Bible in her son's class.
At first glance that might seem like going a bit too far. The Bible is, after all, an important piece of mythic literature. A properly prepared teacher can and probably should expose our students to the role religion plays in society. But consider that the son in question was in kindergarten. That's simply too young -- I would say by about a decade -- to expose a child to religious dogma, especially through uncritical readings from what can be a very disturbing, violent, misogynist and racist book. Dawkins goes as far as to call a religious upbringing a form of child abuse. Whether or not that's a fair assessment, it seems to me that a public school kindergarten class should be off-limits to proselytizing.
So should a hospital. The testimony of a troubled medical volunteer in the Dominican Republic and Ecuador, Elizabeth Svoboda, goes right to the heart of the matter:
The overarching goal of each of the projects I participated in was to deliver medical and spiritual aid in an all-inclusive package, heightening the risk that the patients would believe they couldn’t have one without the other.... If you’ll listen to what we believe to be God’s truth, we’ll provide you with the health care you need. (Science and Spirit, May/June 2005).
The River Valley Health Authority up in New Brunswick should have stuck to its guns. Not because the Bible is a literal carrier, but because many of the ideas found inside are anathema to the common weal. And I sure hope the Gideons are paying for the plastic wrap, because Canada's healthcare system can ill-afford any unnecessary expenditures.