Paul Offit, a professor of pediatrics and vaccinology at the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school, has seen children die of treatable diseases, and of diseases that vaccines could have prevented in the first place. Years ago, Offit witnessed a devastating—and deadly—outbreak of measles in Philadelphia. At the center of the contagion was a group of children whose parents belonged to a church that eschewed the use of vaccines and other modern medical treatments. To a man like Offit, who has dedicated his life to the health of children, these preventable deaths must have seemed utterly wasteful and unconscionable—proof that religion is a force for evil.
Indeed, when he set out to write a book about religious belief and modern medicine, Offit assumed that he, like a number of authors whose disdain for religion has landed them on bestseller lists, would conclude that religion is harmful to children and other living things.
That’s why Bad Faith: When Religious Belief Undermines Modern Medicine proves such a pleasant surprise. Glancing at the provocative subtitle, one might assume that the book belongs on a shelf alongside Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and likeminded skeptics. But Offit comes to praise religion at its best, and not to bury it. Unlike so many non-religious (or unconventionally religious) people writing about religion today, he is unashamed to celebrate all the good that has been done in the name of God—and by Christians in particular. The book unequivocally praises “Christian missionaries who have brought the latest medical advances to every part of the globe.”
What caused this shift from foe to friend? “Somewhere during the process of reading large sections of the Old and New Testaments,” he writes, “I changed my mind, finding myself largely embracing religious teachings.” (I spoke with Offit over the phone, asking what it means to “largely embrace religious teachings.” He acknowledges that he hasn’t exactly become religious—he was raised in the Jewish faith, although he’s not observant. But his reading of the New Testament moved him deeply, giving him profound respect and wonder at the person of Christ.)
Opportunities for Compassion
Offit is well known and deeply reviled in anti-vaccination circles, where he is often branded “Dr. Proffit.” As the co-creator of the Rotateq vaccine, which was purchased by pharmaceutical giant Merck, Offit has certainly profited from his study of vaccines, although, as Eula Biss notes in her recent (and excellent) book On Immunity, most of the profits from Rotateq went directly back into research at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Furthermore, pediatricians in private practice generally have a better chance of having financially lucrative careers as compared with researchers.
Despite having received death threats, Offit has been outspoken for the cause of public health measures like vaccination. He has little patience for the scaremongering and thinly disguised profiteering of the anti-vaccination movement and aspects of alternative medicine, topics he addressed in two of his previous books.
Offit is admirably unflinching in his description of how badly children were treated in the ancient world—and, in particular, ancient Rome, where infanticide was legal and abandoning a child to the elements was seen as merely “leaving the child to the will of the gods.” At this point, Offit could have (and perhaps should have) drawn a parallel between this hands-off practice and that of contemporary faith-healing groups and cults (like Christian Scientists). These groups assume that what God desires will be accomplished through prayer alone, either because resorting to modern medicine bespeaks a lack of faith or because, as in Christian Science, the physical world and its ills aren’t real in the first place.
But to reject modern medicine “because [it is] a product of man, not God,” Offit argues, is “illogical” and “inconsistent.” If God made humans in his own image, “and that image includes a brain,” which is “responsible for scientific and medical advances,” why not, Offit suggests, regard the work of human minds and hands—vaccines, antibiotics, life-saving surgeries—as gifts from God? Offit quotes Galileo: “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”
With respect to religion, Offit is at his best in a chapter on how Jesus opposed the views of illness and disability that prevailed among devout Jews in his own day. Rather than looking at disease, impairment, and calamities as signs of divine retribution, Jesus, in striking parallel to the outlook of the Book of Job, sees these misfortunes as opportunities for compassion, and for the glory of God’s grace to be made manifest.
Offit also celebrates Jesus’s redemptive view of children, which starkly contrasts with the culture of his time, where children were often regarded as disposable and even worthless. Indeed, Offit says, Christian influence led Constantine to outlaw infanticide in 315, and, in 321, to institute a system of relief, distributed from his own treasury, to aid poor families forced to sell off their children because they couldn’t feed them.
Religious Liberty and Child Welfare
Bad Faith is not without flaws. The chapters on faith healers dragged a little: Who, after all, needs much convincing of Bakker’s and Swaggart’s hucksterism? Occasionally, the book suffers from a lack of clarity on the current legal situation in the US. In Pennsylvania, “parents can still claim a religious motive” for “withholding life saving medicine,” and Offit alludes to other states that protect parents’ religious freedom in doing just that, but a comprehensive policy overview would have helped immensely.
The book raises complicated and freighted issues. While Offit is proud of America’s founding principles of religious liberty, he is troubled by what he perceives as Americans’ desire for absolute autonomy within the realm of the family. He doesn’t propose policy changes, and in general handles these questions with admirable grace.
Balancing freedom of conscience and child welfare isn’t always clear or uncontroversial. How to work that out isn’t always clear or uncontroversial; as on many important issues, sincere Christians will disagree. But, as Offit reminds us, Christians have a fine and admirable tradition of caring for the least of these—especially in contexts where leaving children to die, or ending their lives in the womb as a matter of convenience, is somewhat normal.
For Christians, Offit’s book is a challenge to press on in upholding the best impulses and practices of our tradition, and to redouble our efforts to prevent children from being sacrificed on the altar of an idea of religious freedom that may, in certain contexts, be far more oppressive than liberating. This is a difficult but necessary task.
Rachel Marie Stone, a Her.meneutics contributor, is the author of Eat with Joy: Redeeming God’s Gift of Food (InterVarsity Press).
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