Monday, August 22, 2005

Public health, religion, war, blog: Part IV

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

We conclude our attempt to clarify why we have made a point of criticizing organized religion on a public health blog, by pointing out one other feature we consider particularly harmful, the natural tendency of the teachings of each organized religion to set itself apart from others, in essence, to erect artificial barriers between itself and other people. Our approach to public health is not just population based but community based.

Our solutions to public health problems advocate people helping each other. Again, the Flu Wiki is the example. It is based on the idea that the way to cope with the consequences of epidemic infectious disease is not to retreat from others but to equip everyone to pitch in and lend a hand. It is an ideal of service also embraced by some religious institutions (the ones that don't put self-reliance as the highest Good), and to that extent there is no conflict with public health. But to do so these institutions must ignore or run counter to another tendency, the one that identifies people by their professed faith.

No one "is" a Jew or a Christian or a Muslim in the same sense that they are a member of the species Homo sapiens, or tall or short, or have phenylketonuria or are diabetic. For most people, "being" a member of a faith is an accident of birth, like being born in Scranton or Istanbul. For those who convert because they "see the light," that is, they experience some kind of inner conversion, it may remain a matter of individual faith. But often the nature of the conversion turns people away from empathy and rationality.

Accidents of birth have consequences, as do individual professions of faith that become organized to exert political power. In Bosnia, where people lived side by side for decades, had intermarried, had cried and laughed together, suddenly started to kill each other in the name of religion. The only thing that had changed was a policy of cynical manipulation of religious belief by political and religious leaders. It is likely religious beliefs are so often a convenient lever because they are disconnected from any tests of rationality. The only other explanation is to hold that these kinds of conflicts are an inevitable part of "Human Nature" and hence unavoidable, not the underlying fault of religion or other doctrines that produce and exploit artificial differences.

This last view has been a persistent theme in some of the comments to this blog. Yes, inter-ethnic violence has been a constant theme in recorded history, as has inter-racial violence. So has slavery and disease and exploitation. But these historical facts alone have not prevented societies (and public health scientists) from trying to address them and meliorate them as much as possible. We know it can be done. It is not a matter of eliminating ethnic and racial prejudice completely, any more than it is a matter of eliminating disease completely. It is a matter of trying to make things better on this earth, here and now, not wait for some other promised world, there and later.

Why have we singled out religion for attack, as opposed to other kinds of artificial differences of the same sort, like race, nationalism or ethnic "diversity." We don't separate them. All these forms of tribalism, to the extent they divide people, are also harmful. A man who is "Proud to be an American" would be "Proud to be an Italian" if he had been born in one place rather than another. The "pride" of oppressed groups is understandable as a means of empowerment or a way to enhance a self-respect that has been destroyed, but it is ultimately self-defeating when it separates them from others. The two institutional mechanisms most pervasive and most harmful in this respect are organized religion and nationalism (or its older equivalent, ethnic tribalism). All are threats to the health and well-being of populations.

Hence the need to address them by a progressive public health movement.

Next: Last in the series, nationalism and war.