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Saturday, August 04, 2007

Myths about science and religion: A little research saves a lot of apology

(This is my most recently published ChristianWeek column, focusing on stuff that religious people supposedly used to believe that no one ever believed (except maybe some gullible materialists). )

The ignorance and opposition to science of religious folk has been staple of antireligious tracts for centuries. Often, the tales remind me of bogus miracle stories - so good they can’t be false. Two recent examples are worth noting:

Religious folk, we have been told, opposed anesthesia in childbirth because women should suffer the Biblical curse of Eve (Gen 3:16). Medical historian A. D. Farr actually went to the trouble of methodically searching the literature from Britain in the 1840s and 1850s, when modern anesthesia during childbirth was first introduced. He found that religious opposition was a figment of later propaganda.

How did the idea get started, despite a lack of evidence? Well, now, that’s a story ....

Most clergy, theologians, and religious physicians approved the painkiller pioneered by Edinburgh professor of midwifery James Young Simpson in 1847. A few clergy feared that Satan was behind pain relief, but a key theologian (Chalmers) dubbed these dissenters as “small theologians” and advised ignoring them. Religious objections seldom turned up anywhere in Farr’s systematic search of the literature of the day.

Actually, lay women were more likely than clergymen to oppose anesthetics. Some unhappy women saw labor as the price girls ought to pay for the “joys of marriage.” But when Queen Victoria—the legendary soul of propriety—accepted anesthesia for the birth of Prince Leopold in 1853, such objections came to sound unfashionable, and perhaps uncouth. Farr also suggests that the pioneer anesthetists unintentionally created the impression of a religious debate by writing tracts supporting anesthesia—though few actually opposed it.

How then did the idea that religious objections hindered the spread of anesthesia in childbirth become so widely believed that it became a staple of twentieth century accounts of the history of obstetrics? Mainly through unsupported statements.

First, a Simpson biographer referenced “religious objections” in 1873, without quoting evidence. Twenty-three years later, Simpson's daughter Eve made the same claim, but she did not cite any new evidence. In fact, as Farr notes, she was only 14 when her father died. Thus she was unlikely to be his confidante, hearing sensitive information that he withheld from others.

In 1896 American diplomat A.D. White claimed in History of the Warfare of Science with Theology and Christendom: “From pulpit after pulpit Simpson's use of chloroform was denounced as impious and contrary to Holy Writ; texts were cited abdundantly [sic], the ordinary declaration being that to use chloroform was ‘to avoid one part of the primeval curse on woman.’”

Of course, these events had not occurred. But in the right environment, unsupported statements mushroomed into indisputable factoids.

An antireligious factoid of more recent vintage held that the turn of the year 1000 A.D. was “a time of apocalyptic panic, fevered preaching, penitential excesses and, for the Christian faithful, ominous signs and wonders. Daily work was set aside and property, even family, abandoned as Christian Europe waited on both dread and hope for the end of the world and the Last Judgment. Call it the Y1K problem.”

Really? As Peter Steinfels—whose mocking purple prose is quoted in the preceding paragraph— reports (July 17, 1999, New York Times), there was no universal calendar back then, hence no general agreement about when midnight 1000 A.D. would occur. Many cultures did not begin their day at midnight. In any event, many parts of Eastern Europe were not Christian yet. No mass panic was even possible, let alone documented. The mass panic thesis entered popular imagination via anti-religious literature of the 19th century, written by people who probably knew little and cared less about the history of our current calendar, which dates only from 1582 and was not universally accepted until the 18th century.

Why raise these matters? Because I sometimes hear well-meaning Christians make excuses for “the ignorance of the Christian past” when in fact, the main problem is the ignorance of the Christian present So many of the anti-religious claims turn out to be myth that it is wise to disbelieve them all, until independently verified. Knowing the facts is always empowering, and it can even be reassuring.

*Farr, Senior Chief Scientific Officer for the North East of Scotland Blood Transfusion Service in Aberdeen, Scotland, published his paper in Annals of Science, 40 (1983), 159-177).

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