Posts Tagged ‘Jenner’

The Lack of Conflict between Medicine and Religion

May 27, 2013

According to some atheist and anti-religious polemicists, such as Richard Dawkins, religion and science are in conflict. This view has long been discredited by historians of science, but it is nevertheless repeated and remains very strong. Dawkins himself has made statements suggesting that people of faith are somehow unfit to be scientists, simply because they believe in something beyond philosophical materialism. This false view of scientific history has also infected the history of medicine. There are a number of myths, which have been repeated in books on the history of medicine, about how Christian ministers and ordinary worshippers have supposedly blocked advances in medicine. These myths were attacked and discredited by Alfred D. Fair in a Ph.D. thesis submitted to the Open University. Fair examined three areas, where it was alleged that Christian belief had been opposed to an advance in medical science. These were the inoculation for smallpox, c. 1720; the introduction of anaesthesia and the issue of unborn children.

In the introduction of smallpox inoculation, Fair noted that there was some opposition to it amongst scatter Calvinist communities in Scotland. Their objections were largely not to the procedure itself, but against the use of compulsion. These objections were not raised in 1798, when Jenner introduced his vaccination for the disease using cowpox, and they were entirely absent during the 19th century. The statements that the English clergy strongly opposed inoculation were myths produced by J.W. Draper and A.D. White, the originators of the belief that science and religion are at war.

There was similarly no conflict between the clergy, lay people and the medical establishment over the introduction of anaesthetics in childbirth. The origin of this myth appears to be a defence by the doctor, James Young Simpson. Simpson was responsible for introducing the use of anaesthetics in childbirth. He was afraid that some might object to it on religious grounds. In the event this was unnecessary, and the expected opposition did not arise. Unfortunately, some scholars appear to have taken his pre-emptive defence as proof that it did actually occur. This particular myth was attacked some time ago in the ‘Mythbuster’ column of that magazine of the weird and wonderful, The Fortean Times.

The issue of the status of unborn children is rightly the subject of intense, and frequently emotive debate. This is entirely correct, as the status of the unborn directly affects debates on the nature of humanity, the person, and humans’ innate dignity and right to life. These arguments clearly affect the issues of abortion, embryotomy and caesarian section. The Roman Catholic Church considers the fetus to have an absolute value as a living human being, the same as others. Apart from this, there has not been mass religious objections to abortion and other medical procedures and operations on the unborn. My own view here is that the Roman Catholics are mostly correct in their opposition to abortion. Their attitude is based not only on theology, but also on philosophy, particularly that of St. Thomas Aquinas. The view is that human life begins at conception, and aborting a fetus is the same as killing a developed human being. There are arguments for the use of abortion, when complications in pregnancy would endanger the mother’s life. These cases are very small, perhaps only about four a year in Britain. The issue of abortion is the subject of intense debate in America, and Roman Catholics are joined in their opposition to it by Evangelical Protestants. Nevertheless, despite this particular issue, there is no evidence for conflict between medicine and the established and Nonconformist churches of Britain and America.

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