Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Are churches responsible for bad consequences if their believers take their guidance seriously?


It happens all the time. Religious groups (call them churches, cults or whatever rocks your boat), busily marketing their superior wares, sometimes resort to suggestions along the lines that if their followers pray hard enough their ailments will be healed, without any need for medical interventions. There are plenty of examples of this, both with regard to religious groups in the West as well as with regard to cults like Falun Gong in the East or charismatic churches in Africa. To give you just two recent examples. I was recently in China, visiting both the Chinese as well as the Shanghai Academy of the Social Sciences, as well as community groups agitating against Falun Gong in the country. 

Falun Gong in China
Falun Gong is a nasty, racist, homophobic and misogynist cult that has successfully misled some of its adherents to not seek medical care and instead focus on its exercise regime as a means to fight illness. I met a man in Shanghai who told the story of how his family fell apart, his wife (like him and his daughter Falun Gong adherents) did not seek care for her cancer and died eventually. The woman believed that following the Falun Gong guru's teachings would translate into her being cured (without having to seek expensive medical care). The Chinese authorities have outlawed Falun Gong because they consider the organisation a destructive cult. Us Westerners get of course all flustered about this, because we believe that religious freedom is of greater importance than preventing the harm caused by these groups. 

Synagoge Church of all Nations in Britain
In East London the evangelical Synagoge Church of all Nations reportedly promises its followers miracle healing. As a result of this several people with HIV infection chose to stop taking HIV medication. At least three reportedly have died as a result of this choice. The BBC reports that a growing number of evangelical churches in the UK is making wild healing promises (no big surprise, they're outcompeting each other on this front in order to attract followers). Unlike Falun Gong in China, the Synagoge Church of all Nations as well as others like it may continues its practices unhindered in Britain and other Western countries, and more people will predictably die. 

I think it is reasonable to ask why religious freedom is somehow valued higher than other convictions (of an ideological kind) in the West. If a complementary medicine company made such false healing claims for its products, it obviously could not hide behind the religious freedom mantra, hence state authorities in the West would prosecute the company for making demonstrably false claims resulting into harm. I do wonder why there is this special dispensation in the context of religious belief, at least when this belief is uncontroversially harmful (as is the case in the context of miracle healings). 

Should groups who make such claims not be forced to provide evidence in support of their claims, and lacking that evidence should they not be prevented from making such claims? Why is the religious freedom mantra seen to be a more significant societal value than harm prevention? Most of the liberal reasons for permitting such religious groups to spread their deadly teachings are unsound. Just think of John Stuart Mill's famous justifications for permitting such ideologies to be spread without hindrance: 1)  we better be careful with censorship as they might be right after all - in this context surely an implausible proposition; 2) society can learn from debating their erroneous ways by getting a better understanding of why they're wrong, hence we are better off letting them continue to spread their views - what exactly are we learning in the case under consideration other than that poorly educated, vulnerable people tend to fall for such deadly quacks, no surprise in that; 3) people grow as persons if permitted to follow their eccentricities - in our case there's little growth as people die as a result of bad choices they make based on religious propaganda. Much of Mill's case seems based on all sides involved in freedom of expression cases having a serious (of sometimes faulty) case, ie that at least they believe what they say. This is a somewhat doubtful proposition in the case of money grabbing cults, they're in it for revenue generation and gains in political influence. If they were genuinely concerned about their members well-being they'd stop peddling lies about the benefits associated with following the cult rules, given that all the available empirical evidence points against their case..

I am not suggesting here that the Chinese answer to the problem of destructive cults is perfect compared to what we have in the West, but at least there is some recognition that harmful propaganda must be confronted and cannot be led go unanswered by the state under the guise of protecting religious freedom. Surely people's well-being must come first. Well, truth be told, I am ambivalent about this matter. Any comments are very much welcome.

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