Allies or Adversaries
By JIM NICHOLS
The question jumped out of the page to me: “How did faith and medical science become, for some people, mutually exclusive?” The question should be broadened to ask how, for some people, did faith and science itself become mutually exclusive, even antagonistic?
We could point back to Darwin as a possible instigator. People of many faiths have since solved the problem of connecting organic evolution with their faith, but for a few the seeds of distrust were sown.
More problematic is the distrust of science by some faithful moderns. For individuals (such as me) who walk relatively comfortably through both faith and science camps, this situation is both puzzling and discouraging.
Not all readers will agree with me, but I suggest that the problem is not with science, but with what we believe faith demands of us. Furthermore, we do not recognize the considerable number of specific idiosyncrasies that we claim as fundamental aspects of our personal faith. We also ignore the monumental advances to human life that science has brought us.
More specifically, you and I are often blind as to how culture affects our religious stances. In the area of medical science, practitioners must be sensitive to the faith and cultural beliefs of patients and how they influence medical decisions. For example, there is clear tension between patient autonomy and the interests of the patient’s families.
Many of us Americans are influenced by the importance of autonomy; that is, a patient should have the sole right to make medical decisions for her/himself. That seems clearly logical. On the other hand, others would argue that families play important roles when a loved one is ill or injured. This tension is often clear and problematic when decisions must be made.
For instance, consider a case where the patient and family are immigrants from a culture in which a physician normally informs the family rather than the patient about a serious diagnosis. I have posed such a situation to students often and have gotten a wide range of strongly held beliefs that have a faith basis to them. The stances of the responding students are often clearly tied to their cultural family background. You can see the complications for those trying to provide care for these patients.
A related situation is one in which patients (or a culture) believe that language has the power to shape reality and control events. Their faith supports the notion that health is maintained and restored through positive ritual language. Offering a diagnosis or treatment plan that sounds negative or hazardous (though realistic) would be thought to increase the likelihood of a negative outcome. “Don’t tell dad that there is a high chance of a second heart attack. That will make it more likely.” None of us would deny that language can have negative or positive outcomes, but the dilemma for choices for moving through an illness or injury is clear. Do we want the most obvious truth or not? And who is to receive such information?
How about the family or patient use of the Isaiah 53 passage “. . . by his stripes we are healed”? Does that stance lead to accepting medical care? How extensive care? Or just denying it.
In 1796 English physician Edward Jenner took a novel approach to combatting smallpox. This devastating disease (3 out of 10 who contracted it died) hardly ever appeared in milkmaids who showed signs of a mild infection named cowpox. Making the connection between the two similar viruses (although he did not know what a virus was), he initiated the use of pus from a cowpox sore and administered it to another person resulting in protection from smallpox. Thus, was born the magnificent concept of vaccination. You and I have lived to be our current ages because of this.
In recent years to my amazement, misguided skeptics have seriously questioned the effectiveness of vaccines. We now have parents skipping well-child visits and vaccinations and a scientifically minded person sees viruses and bacteria just sitting in the environment waiting for this opportunity. The debunked autism scare of 1998 and the malicious misinformation surrounding the COVID vaccines should be and are deeply disturbing.
Science is our ally; it is not our adversary.
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current hospice chaplain