Saturday, August 20, 2005

Public health, religion, war, blog: Part II

[A multipart series exploring the relationship between these topics. Part I. Part III., Part IV. Part V.]

We'll take the more difficult problem first: public health and religion. Some readers have been dismayed at posts they viewed as ridiculing "matters of faith," although our target was not individual beliefs but organized and institutionalized religion. For the record we state clearly we are atheists. But our personal beliefs are not the issue here.

Clinical medicine deals with individuals, but public health with populations. Medical training is individual-oriented, so to acquire the tools needed to deal with populations the Reveres underwent additional post graduate training in epidemiology, biostatistics, environmental health, etc. Population thinking is the essence of our perspective. The difference between a concern with individuals and populations is crucial. Things important at a population level may not be important at an individual level. A risk of one in ten thousand per year to an individual might warrant little attention in a clinical setting but the same risk in a 3 million person metropolitan area would amount to 300 cases a year, enough to fill every bed in a typical community hospital. Whether I, as an individual, drive an SUV makes little difference to climate change, but public policies that affect how populations make vehicle choices does.

This is the principal reason that organized religion is at issue for public health, not matters of individual faith. Organized religion is the population counterpart of individual faith. Questions of individual faith are only relevant when those with similar views blend them with ideology and political power, as they have done countless times in history. When that happens, great harm can result. The most vicious resistance to the abolition of slavery, the emancipation of women, civil rights, civil liberties, reproductive rights and now the teaching of rational science in secular education, has come from organized religion. The claim that churches (except for those in the black community) were the bulwark of the civil rights movement conveniently forgets that most mainstream white churches were either silent, neutral or viciously and violently racist during this period. On the other hand, the participation of “freethinkers” (agnostics, atheists, the non-observant) was disproportionately large. This historical pattern is a result of a persistent anti-Enlightenment, anti-rationalist -- indeed anti-humanist — orientation of most organized religions, based on a belief that a power higher than human reason and aspirations guides our destinies. It is an orientation that mixes poorly with science and even more poorly with democracy, where political power derives from the citizenry, not some supernatural source.

It is predictable our anti-religious positions have provoked a reaction. In the course of American history tolerance for people who question or criticize organized religion has waxed and waned. In the Revolutionary period, when many of the Founders were Freethinkers, there was substantial tolerance, allowing the framing of a Constitution which contains not a single mention of the Deity. Not one. Modern liberals didn’t remove God from the Constitution. God has never been in the Constitution. No ever. A period of religious backlash and intolerance followed, only to be succeeded by a Golden Age of Freethought at the end of the nineteenth century (we have quoted in our Sunday Sermonettes Robert Ingersoll, "The Great Agnostic," who was also a major Republican Party activist and gave the nominating speech for James G. Blaine's presidential candidacy at the Republican Convention in 1876). We are again in a period of intolerance and reaction. Any general criticism of religion is considered inappropriate, impolite and un-American. Atheists and agnostics are marginalized and many great figures denied their proper place in our history (for example Thomas Paine, Robert Ingersoll, the feminist Ernestine Rose; see Susan Jacoby’s wonderful book, Freethinkers: a history of American secularism for many more). No matter that religious institutions propagete the grossest lies about "liberals" and others they disagree with or those who try to block attempts to extend their beliefs as mandatory for everyone. Fighting back is not allowed.

In our view, fighting back is not only allowed, but required. In the next post we begin to explain why we consider a secularist agenda essential to a progressive public health strategy.