Disease, Medical Technology, Earth, God
I heard this quote on an episode of “Tooning Out The News,” a show available on CBS All Access that parodies top news stories and also interviews real-world guests. Most evangelical Christians have strong beliefs that are contradictory and mutually exclusive. For example, they claim that everything that happens on Earth is God’s will, and that God is all loving and merciful. If God is all loving and merciful, why are there natural disasters and pandemics? Why do children die and people around the world suffer for lack of food and shelter? When confronted with these disparities fundamentalists often claim bad events are the work of the devil, not God. Doesn’t this contradict the assertion that everything that happens on Earth is God’s will? While the woman who is quoted above believes that God protects her, she also said she had a weakened immune system and that over the past year she had suffered two of the worst colds in her life. Why had God allowed her immune system to become weakened, and how had the cold viruses that infected her slipped God’s attention? In spite of God being all loving and merciful, evangelicals believe he insists that we believe in such things as the immaculate conception, the resurrection, Jesus’ ability to turn water into wine, Jesus’ ability to feed a crowd of 5,000 people with only five loaves of bread and two fish, Jesus’ ability to raise the dead, and Jesus’ ability to walk on water before he will grant any favors to us. He will punish and eternally condemn those who do not flatter him by believe these things.
But let’s suppose just for a moment that those who oppose vaccinations on religious grounds are correct, and that events that happen on Earth (at least with regard to pandemics, natural disasters and other occurrences that are not the result of human behavior) are God’s will. If we then assume that vaccines contradict God’s will, we should also assume that all medical interventions to treat disease contradict God’s will, since, like the pandemic, these diseases are of his design and part of his grand plan. Would this logic also not hold for applying any scientific knowledge toward technological advances in the interest of making life for humans on Earth more comfortable, and more survivable?
One way of describing science might be to say it is the slowly improving process of looking around at the ways things are and making guesses as to what we see, and then testing whether those guesses are right. One way of describing technology might be to say that it is taking what we know about the way things are and using it to try to make life better. With regard to vaccines, our greatest minds have taken past knowledge and current information about viruses and the human immune system to develop chemical compounds that protect the human body from infection. This is modern technology. If, according to evangelicals, this is wrong today because we are supposed to allow Jesus to be our lord and savior when it comes to disease, has it always been this way? Have we always been going against God’s will when we’ve applied any form of technology in the interest of public health? For that matter, have we always been going against God’s will when we’ve applied any form of technology in the interest of convenience, comfort, or efficiency?
I would not argue that all applied technology is good. Those who have made millions and billions of dollars by extracting and burning fossil fuels still argue, whether they truly believe it or not, that the benefits continue to outweigh the environmental harms. They manage to keep half of the U.S. population believing the same through advertising, political lobbying, and control of funding to develop alternative sources of energy. Yet anyone who keeps an eye on air quality alerts, rising global temperatures, and associated changing climate and weather patterns must be concerned about the harm this technology is causing. Our petroleum-based lifestyle could not be possible without science, so it is true that the application of scientific discovery to technology, despite its benefits, has dangerous unintended consequences, and throughout history the application of medical technology, by improving health, survival, and longevity, has allowed humanity to thrive to the point where we dominate all other life forms on Earth and we have subsequently changed the environment in disastrous and deadly ways. We’ve wiped out many species and many more are on the brink of extinction, and some argue that climate change is on an irreversible course to wipe out modern human civilization.
Science and its application to medical technology has provided us with the tools to voluntarily control our runaway population and our destructive consumption of fossil fuels, but just as with vaccines, we have as of yet ignorantly failed to reach a consensus on the practicality of birth control, wind power, solar power, bicycles as popular forms of transportation, and other innovations. But I wonder if evangelicals who believe that God’s will controls events on Earth might consider pandemics and natural disasters as God’s attempt to undue the environmental damage humans have done to their planet through the misapplication of technology? What it we let COVID-19 run its course without masks or vaccines? What if we didn’t heed the advice of epidemiologists and public health experts? What if developing a vaccine and effective treatments had not been top priorities of scientists since early 2020? How much of the world population would we have lost by now, and how many more would be dying still? Does God want us to return to our pre-civilization state, where we survive on a hunting and gathering economy? Consistent logic on the part of evangelical thinking would say yes.
If science had never taught us that certain substances were poisonous, that unclean water made us sick, that we could build shelters to hold in heat, that we could lift and transport heavy objects with the aid of a lever and a wheel, that certain diseases were communicable and stricken people needed to be isolated, that infections could be cured with topical treatments and later with antibiotics, and that we could teach our immune systems to resist diseases, civilizations could never have developed and lasted. Were all these advances against God’s will in the eyes of anti-vaxers? If so, do they think we were never supposed to advance into thriving communities in the first place? Again, consistent logic on the part of evangelical thinking would say yes, but I doubt there are any evangelicals who would agree.
We are at a critical point in history where the application of science to energy and medical technology has created a planet overrun with humans and fouled with toxic air and water. I believe God, however it is defined, is indifferent to life of Earth, but science can help humans reverse our polluting ways, stabilize our population, and enable humans to live healthy, educated, productive, aesthetic, loving lives. Ironically, by ignoring the applications of science, and/or by continuing to apply them the wrong way, we will revert to a state much more like hunters and gatherers than creatures who have landed vehicles on Mars. But by pretending to be overseen by a vain, vindictive god who requires passive submission we run the risk of forsaking all the beauty, knowledge, and understanding that history has bestowed upon us.