Science, Catholics, and Fear

It is a disgraceful and a dangerous thing for an unbeliever to hear a Christian, presumably explaining science, nutrition, and medicine, talking nonsense on these topics. Many non-Christians are well-versed in Natural knowledge, so they can detect vast ignorance in such a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The danger is obvious-- the failure to conform interpretation to demonstrated knowledge opens the interpreter, and by extension, Christianity as a whole, to ridicule for being unlearned.   

All right, so St. Augustine didn't say "science, nutrition, and medicine," he said "the meaning of scripture."  But other than that, he's describing a good 40% of my Facebook wall.

More and more, religious people are pitching their tents in the vast, squashy wilderness that calls itself "natural living" or "alternative medicine," and are rejecting science and modern medicine -- not some of it, but all of it.  Their creed is this: drugs are evil, chemicals are evil, doctors are evil.You can cure most diseases, mental or physical, with a handful of seeds and a few essential oils squirted into the proper orifices. Above all, be afraid.

It's not only Catholics, of course, who are using the most dubious of weapons in the backlash against science and medicine. Religious, agnostics, and atheists may all believe that, based on something they overheard on Oprah, they have pierced the veil and now they know better than the Mayo Clinic.

But it's especially galling when Catholics become anti-science. Catholics have an ancient tradition of rigorous inquiry into the natural world that the Creator made for us. We invented the university. Catholics have dominated science and medicine for centuries. It's baffling to see so many turning against this august heritage -- pooh-poohing polio,  scorning dental care, urging their friends to treat depression with cashews and to cure their cancer by sprinking lemon rind and baking soda on their salads

And as Augustine lamented, when religious people flock to false prophets like the Food Babe, Jenny McCarthy, Dr. Tenpenny, the Healthy Home Economist, Guggie, Natural News and Mercola, it puts ammunition directly into the hands of scoffing atheists who point to our foolishness and say, "See? Believe in God, and you'll believe in anything!"

Catholics, be better than this.

I understand why people mistrust science.  Women, especially, still carry the collective memory of being patted on the head and told, "Don't worry your pretty little brain; we'll make the hard decisions for you." And so we had thalidomide birth defects, secret or forced sterilizations, and brutal medical experiments performed without consent. And it's not all historical: even toay, we're told that the morning after pill is perfectly safe (it's not), that abortion is safe (it's not). We've met doctors who medicate first and never even wonder why the patient is sick. Many patients have been told that their rare or confusing conditions are psychosomatic, simply because doctors don't know how to cure them.  And we know that shopping for healthy food is no longer a simple, straightfoward, affordable task. Corporations do lie to us.

So yes, we have reasons to be skeptical and mistrustful, or at least cautious, especially when we're taking care of children and the sick and helpless. But please remember: Catholics are a people of faith and reason. We are a "both/and" people, not an "Aieeeee, science!!" people.  We are all called to be thinkers, to discern, to consider and weigh information, and to consider the source of our information. We are called to be honest about our own limitations to understand specialized fields, and we are called to be wise in choosing whom to trust. And we are called to be courageous, to make sure that our thoughts aren't being molded by a desire to be accepted by our friends, or even by a desire to be thought of as courageous for refusing to be accepted.

There's the crux of it: our ideas about science and medicine should not be molded by desires, at all. They should be formed by facts and faith, not feelings. Not fear. Yes, many times our Faith puts us at odds with the scientific world. We reject any form of experimentation on or commodification of human beings. We speak out about unpopular topics and face ridicule or indifference.

And so atheists may scoff at us and call us anti-science. Let them scoff. They're not the ones who will judge us in the end.

But if they are going to scoff, let it be in spite of the way we examined the evidence. Let it be in spite of the way we educated ourselves as much as we are able, and in spite of the way we chose worthy teachers to help us understand things that are beyond our expertise. Let it be in spite of our allegiance to scientific and spiritual truth. Let's not give them a chance to scoff at us for being ignorant and afraid.

There are sources we can trust. Here are some links to get you started, if you find yourself wondering if the latest flashy meme is giving you the whole story. (NOTE: Some of these sites are written for religious people; some are neutral; some have an anti-religious slant. I tried to include a wide variety, and cannot vouch for every single bit of information contained in them. The point is: read widely and be smarter!)

The National Catholic Bioethics Center 
Married to Medicine
Kevin MD
Science Based Medicine 
Skeptical Raptor

Respectful Insolence on
The parent-driven site Voices for Vaccines
Catholic Pediatrics 
Red Wine and Applesauce 
Doula Dani 
Vaccine Education Center from the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia
and a promising, brand-new blog designed specifically for Catholics striving to find the balance between faith and reason: Rational Catholic 

One more thing: if you read some claim about health or science and are not sure whether to believe it, you can always Google the claim + "fraud," in case someone has already debunked it. 

So how can we tell if we're being healthily skeptical, or crossing the line into gullibility and superstition? Here are some questions to ask yourself:

Do you believe that most doctors are out to get you? Do you believe any story from a website that has "natural" in the title, and do you automatically mistrust any story written by anyone associated with a large, well-known university or hospital? Are you suspicious of words you can't pronounce? Do you routinely pass along information you don't understand, but which makes you feel like you are being brave? Do you believe that conventional doctors are interested in only money, but anyone with natural or organic products or information to sell is doing it out of the goodness of their hearts? Do you take medical advice from someone who has not actually studied medicine (online degrees and Google University don't count)? Do you believe articles with no citations, or which cite only themselves? When you hear of a story of someone being injured or damaged by modern medicine, do you feel a dark pleasure because your dire predictions turned out to be true?

And the most important question: Are you more and more fearful every day?

If you could answer "yes" to more than one of these questions, then you are on the wrong path. This is not Catholic.  This is giving into temptation. There is evil out there, but when we meet it, we must arm ourselves with truth, not fear.