Saturday, 13 November 2010

Biblical medicine #1: How to be cleansed from leprosy

An occasional series on medical nonsense in the bible (I've met a couple of colleagues who are biblical literalists, both of them seemingly excellent docs but thankfully neither infectious diseases specialists).

(thanks to for the Leviticus reference).

The cleansing ritual is necessary to "make atonement for him that is to be cleansed because of his uncleanness". I wonder how many religious doctors, guided by the bible or its even wackier interpretations such as Christian Science, see their patients' illnesses as consequence of sin.

Cleansing ritual from leprosy:
Get two birds. Kill one. Dip the live bird in the blood of the dead one. Sprinkle the blood on the leper seven times, and then let the blood-soaked bird fly away. Next find a lamb and kill it. Wipe some of its blood on the patient’s right ear, thumb, and big toe. Sprinkle seven times with oil and wipe some of the oil on his right ear, thumb and big toe. Repeat. Finally find another pair of birds. Kill one and dip the live bird in the dead bird’s blood. Wipe some blood on the patient’s right ear, thumb, and big toe. Sprinkle the house with blood 7 times.
– Leviticus 14:2-52

Friday, 5 November 2010

Tolerating the intolerant? Bigoted views not apparently bigoted if they’re held by persons of faith

George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, has been taking time out from the House of Lords, where he and 26 other 'Lords Spiritual' enjoy governing power on the basis of their faith, to argue that we discriminate against people of faith (saywha?). Not withstanding this paradox (or the somewhat questionable record of Christian tolerance as indexed by such trifling historical episodes as The Crusades or The Inquisition), he was at the Intelligence Squared debate where the motion "Stop bashing Christians! Britain is becoming an anti-Christian country" was defeated by 378 to 216 with 48 undecided.

More worrying for doctors is his association with the Spirituality Special Interest Group of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, which held a session entitled ‘Intolerant Secularisation'.* In the chair was the psychiatrist Chris Cook, who believes that mental disorder can be caused by demonic possession. Though psychiatrists are the least religious of doctors, this group has an agenda is to allow doctors to bring their faith into the workplace (with the inevitable foisting of evangelism upon patients) without fear of reprisal that has rightly greeted nurses who offer to pray with patients, evangelical NHS employees refusing to tuck crosses into their shirts, and relationship therapists who refuse to counsel homosexuals.

(Source: Matt cartoon, Daily Telgraph UK)

Lord Carey's argument appears to be that we should tolerate discrimination by religious organisations because it's not really bigotry if it's faith-based; far from being your common-or-garden homophobia, Lord Carey's desire to see homosexuals denied rights that the rest of us take for granted is far more high-minded, you see. His testimony (roundly criticised by a rather bemused Court of Appeal) in the case of the sacked relatonship therapist speaks for itself:
The comparison of a Christian, in effect, with a 'bigot' (ie a person with an irrational dislike to homosexuals) begs further questions...In my view, the highest development of human spirituality is acceptance of Christ as saviour and adherence to Christian values. This cannot be seen by the Courts of this land as comparable to the base and ignorant behaviour [of homophobes]. My heart is in anguish at the spiritual state of this country.
As is mine, Lord Carey, as is mine. And not least because of illogical and nonsensical arguments like this perpetrated by supposed role models for people of faith. How much more irrational can dislike of homosexuals be, if it's based upon freely chosen subscription to iron age ancestral dogma?

*To give the Spirituality group their due, they did have a dissenting speaker, Prof. Rob Poole, on their programme who argued that faith in the workplace clearly violates important professional boundaries in direct contravention of General Medical Council guidelines. They declined to let me speak on intolerant secularisation as a 'Just War' - my abstract is below - but I received a very polite note from Chris Cook quite reasonably pointing out that the agenda had already been drawn up. The title and text of my abstract submitted to the meeting was as follows:

Intolerance of Intolerance: A Just War.
Religious communities portray predominantly secular society and its healthcare system as being intolerant of their beliefs and right to express them through practices at work. Recent cases, for example, have addressed whether Christians should be allowed to refuse public and private services as diverse as sex therapy and accommodation to homosexual persons whose sexual orientation conflicts with their faith. I argue here that such practices are themselves intolerant, and that a fortiori they therefore have no right to be tolerated by the wider community which sees intolerance as a social ill. In the same way that 'Just war' principles sanction proportional aggression towards actual or threatened military action from aggressive states, intolerance is a reasonable (and possibly imperative) societal reaction towards intolerance. The reaction (such as increasing
secularisation) of society (and its healthcare system) to intolerant religious beliefs and practices cannot thus be referred to as intolerant, in the same way as a proportional and legally sanctioned military response towards an aggressor cannot itself be described as 'aggression'. Dr. Ed Mitchell has begun his CT1 psychiatry training this year. His medical degree was from Oxford University. He has an undergraduate degree in experimental psychology also from Oxford, and Masters and PhD degree from Cambridge University in criminology. He has been a Fulbright visiting research fellow in with the Program in Psychiatry and Law at Harvard University.