In my most recent post, Ugandan Doctors – Balancing Medical Science and Magical Thinking I discussed how medical professionals in Uganda, while advocating the importance of using science-based medicine, nonetheless, implicitly and often explicitly endorse the viability of prayer induced miracle healing. They do this by sending mixed messages, in utterances such as:

"While we believe in God and his ability to perform miracles, we also encourage our clients to adhere to their medications."

Robert Ochai, the executive director of The Aids Support Organisation (TASO) who made the above remarks back in 2008, reiterated similar sentiments while criticising the recent comments by the Minister of Health where she claimed that prayers can cure AIDS. From the Daily Monitor of 2nd August 2011 :

The Head of The Aids Support Organisation (TASO), Mr Richard Ochai, who refused to believe that a minister could say such a thing, said such statements, most especially from born-again churches, are continuously curtailing TASO efforts to fight against HIV/Aids whose prevalence in recent years is said to have increased in the country.

He said science has proved that if one takes ARVs the viral load will become low such that they may not be detected but once they stop taking the drug, the virus will definitely be seen again. “We know God can do miracles if he so wishes but these many possibilities still need scientific prove,” Dr Ochai said.

Note: He is Robert Ochai, not Richard – Daily Monitor made an error

People are opting for miracles over medication precisely because they believe in ‘God’ and his ability to perform miracles. It is therefore difficult to see such a statement, while well intended, as not exacerbating the problem it seeks to solve. On one hand he’s conceding that ‘God’ can do miracles – on the other hand he’s castigating the Minister of Health for claiming that ‘God’ had done miracles. All in the same speech. That’s what they call sending out a mixed message. Once Ochai grants that there exists a ‘God’ and that this ‘God’ can do miracles, well of course believers are going to try to obtain one!

mixed Mixed messages

This led me to suggest that the onus lies on we who are non-religious to be the voice of reason on this matter:

It thus appears that it will be the job of we freethinking atheists, rationalists, skeptics and humanists in this country to keep voicing our views in the public domain about the inefficacy of prayer induced miracle healing. We are the only ones able to speak out candidly on this matter without sending mixed messages, and without being put in a position where we have to explain where a ‘God’ fits into all of this if we say there are no miracles (after all, we contend that there’s no reason to think a ‘God’ exists in the first place). We are the only ones who are able to say, without mincing words, that MIRACLE HEALING IS A SHAM.

So let’s say it, and let’s not be silent about it.

But maybe I’m being harsh.

Most doctors in Uganda are probably true believers and DO believe that prayer induced healing miracles happen. But then maybe there are those who are skeptical of such a notion, such as the those that think the ‘age of miracles’ ended with Jesus and the apostles, or those that believe that a ‘God’ exists but does not interact with the world. There might also actually be some who are atheists.

Perhaps, a medical doctor belonging to the latter category (skeptical theist/deist/atheist), faced with the crisis of an increasing number of people opting for miracles, needs to find a way to get them to stick to medicine, without appearing to mock their beliefs.

Accomodationism:

In a society in which almost 98% are religious – it might probably difficult for a doctor to openly say “look, guys, your pastors are quacks, and healing miracles  don’t happen… so please stick to your medication” even if that’s what he believed. Out of politeness, he might want to down play the ‘miracle’ part without appearing to rule it out, while reminding people about the importance of taking their medicine. The concern being that ruling out the viability of prayer induced healing miracles will offend believers and make them reluctant to accept the medical advice being offered.

This approach discourse is called accomodationism, and there is much discussion about it, particularly on how it pertains to getting more religious believers in America not to reject the theory of evolution in favour of creationism. But unlike the rejection of evolution, rejection of medication by HIV positive Ugandans in favour of miracles is by far more dangerous and has more immediate and devastating consequences. An HIV positive person who rejects anti-retroviral drugs and visits a pastor for a miracle instead is more than likely to die of AIDS – whereas the conservative Christian in America who rejects evolution will be little more than a nuisance to secularists who prefer to see the wall of separation between church and state respected in the US education curriculum. Might this suggest that an accomodationist approach to discouraging miracle healing (e.g. saying “Yes, God performs miracles BUT do take your medicine”) is, realistically, the better option for Uganda – than the rationalist approach (e.g. saying “Healing miracles do not happen)?

I don’t think so.

The importance of speaking bluntly:

I’m inclined to think the rationalists need to keep speaking up, with bluntness and clarity. The rationalists need to keep raising awareness about the inefficacy of prayer induced healing miracles. Indeed, some believers will be offended, but then others will be given something to think about – the very strong possibility that praying for miracles will yield no cures for HIV infection. And whether they accept it at first or not, at least it will be a view point that ends up being part of the national conversation on healthcare issues. There will be more discussion, with more questions asked – and just like the persistent barrage of reasoned secular view points during the Enlightenment helped drag Medieval Christianity from its murderous past into its currently more tolerant and peaceful present, so will our persistent open criticisms of claims of miracle healing drag the gullible into having a more skeptical mindset. From a long term perspective, the blunt approach is definitely more beneficial.

Another reason medical professionals (those that are skeptics) may feel shy to speak honestly about these matters – and prefer to tow the accomodationist line – is that they feel that views critical of claims of miracles will be greeted with hostility from the general public. They might lose clients (many of whom are religious – it is Uganda, after all). Those who work in government hospitals may also be afraid losing their jobs for publicly criticising miracle prayer healing (considering we have a PASTOR as the national Minister of Health, and a highly influential First Lady who hobnobs with some of the most famous quacks in the faith-healing business).

The only way such medical professionals will be empowered and encouraged to speak up openly is by we rationalists, freethinkers, skeptics, atheists, and humanists helping to create an environment that accepts the expression of such view points. And the only way that is going to happen – is by us continuing to speak loudly, bluntly, and consistently, until the rational and skeptical view point as applied to claims of miracle healing becomes a respected and integral part of the national conversation on health matters.

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