Sunday, August 21, 2005

Public health, religion, war, blog: Part III

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

Public health practice is built on science, so it must confront the problem of science vs. faith. Our perspective may not be a sophisticated philosophy of science, but it does represent a widely shared “spontaneous philosophy” of practicing scientists:
  • there is a real world out there;
  • it exists independently of our perception of it;
  • we can know something about it and how it works;
  • and science is our method of acquiring that knowledge.
This leaves open the question of other ways of "knowing the world" (religion, art, music). We are in philosophically deep waters when it comes to the definition of "knowledge," but we hope to sidestep it by only considering one decisive difference between scientific knowledge and whatever might be called religious knowledge. Scientific knowledge is not certain, but it is public. Scientific explanations can be stated, displayed and tests of their reasonableness and validity performed. With time comes consensus, even if that consensus later breaks down and is replaced by a new consensus.

No such thing is true of religious knowledge. Religious knowledge cannot explain how the world works (one of the goals of science and a necessary condition for practicing rational public health), not because it can't explain anything, but because it can explain everything. But those explanations cannot be tested. When the Twin Towers came down, a catastrophe that no one thought possible, jihadists had a ready explanation: it was God's will. President Bush had another. It was God's test of American commitment to fighting the Forces of Evil. Take your pick. Whatever your choice, there is no possibility of deciding which is true knowledge or if either are. Indeed the explanation that there is an invisible person inside my wristwatch who rules the world is an explanation of the same sort. All are qualitatively different than a scientific explanation. If there is such a thing as religious knowledge, it is of a different kind and character than scientific knowledge and more pertinently, it is not "public." This is not to disparage anyone’s experience of personal, private spirituality. But that kind of reality cannot be shared.

All of this matters because what is shared and taught by religious institutions has public health implications. Organized religious institutions of all major sects, historically and currently, have often had a baneful influence on the health and well-being of populations, whether in the form of sectarian violence, coerced conversion, oppression of minorities or women, or the mere teaching that other people are unworthy because of their race or beliefs. Religions have been major opponents of countless human advances: abolition of slavery, emancipation of women, reproductive freedom, opposition to war, equal legal rights for gays and lesbians, civil rights.

Not every Catholic is responsible for the Vatican's position on abortion; not every Jew is responsible for Jewish settler abrogation of human rights in the occupied territories of Palestine; not every Muslim is responsible for jihadist invective and violence; not every Protestant is responsible for the extreme rightwing evangelical Christian policies so willingly adopted by the Bush Administration. Neither is every Republican or Democrat responsible for what its party does, or every American responsible for what its country does. That doesn't mean the Republican or Democratic Parties or our government shouldn't be roundly and strenuously criticized--even ridiculed--when their policies are threats to the health and well-being of populations.

If organized religion were a type of government (like a dictatorship) responsible for the same harm to populations, we would have no difficulty condemning it. But in this country there is a reign of "religious correctness" that says one cannot criticize the source of so much misery in this world. To the contrary, we believe a rational and progressive public health strategy cannot ignore it.

The next post deals with other aspects of religion.