For the sake of argument

Religious beliefs mustn’t shackle human welfare

N. J. BERRILL SAYS February 28 1959
For the sake of argument

Religious beliefs mustn’t shackle human welfare

N. J. BERRILL SAYS February 28 1959

For the sake of argument

Religious beliefs mustn’t shackle human welfare


The religious beliefs of parents must not be allowed to damage the health or endanger the lives of children. The recent cases where members of the Jehovah’s Witness sect refused permission for blood transfusions to be given when physicians deemed it necessary have brought the matter to urgent public attention. Courts have ruled in favor of the child, though in one instance too late, and the ruling seems popularly acceptable. Nearly everyone agrees that it is wrong to withhold a standard lifesaving procedure such as blood transfusion from anyone in need of it, particularly when the person in need is a helpless infant or is a minor who cannot legally make the decision for himself. Only the Witnesses and fellow believers object. Why? Are their beliefs well grounded? In an issue of this sort does it make any difference what the parental opinion may be?

Children are a privilege

The answer, through the years, has been increasingly a denial of parental authority over the growth and welfare of children except in so far as parents and state are in agreement. Children must go to school whether parents like it or not. Children whose parents neglect to feed and clothe them according to accepted standards may be placed in institutions. Society in fact says that children must be kept in a healthy state of growth both in mind and body until they are old enough to be considered adults responsible for themselves. Parents, in other words, produce children and raise them as a privilege, in trust, and not with any property rights or true ownership. Theirs is the right to enable a child to develop his full stature as a person, never to stint it or stunt it or spoil it, let alone to refuse aid on his behalf when the issue is life or death.

The Jehovah's Witnesses on the whole are simple folk who sincerely believe that they alone hold

the truth and that all other Christian churches, Protestant and Catholic alike, are misguided by Satan. Their attitude to blood transfusions is based on a very literal though broad interpretation of certain statements in the Old Testament prohibiting the eating of blood, and to them transfusion is essentially just that. To most of us it seems a silly superstition. Biblical injunctions are generally taken with a certain amount of latitude. And Jehovah’s Witnesses being a minority sect, we find little trouble in disregarding their views when a child’s life is at stake, even though to them it may mean the difference between paradise and final destruction for the child and themselves. Yet both public opinion and the law are right in putting a higher value on a young life than on the beliefs of parents, although we are not entitled to feel smug or self-righteous in doing so. Our own enlightenment is only too recent, for this feeling about blood runs wide and deep in human history.

Blood is the stream of life, often the life itself, to most primitive peoples and not so long ago this was the common belief everywhere, as the phrases “blood brothers” and “blood relatives” indicate. The essential spirit or soul was either in the blood or was the blood itself, and blood was accordingly both sacred and not to be consumed or contaminated.

Superstitious segregation

The legacy of this belief has come down to modern times in one form or another, and it is only since the physiological function of the blood as a circulating fluid concerned with the respiration and the general maintenance of the body has come to be understood that we have been able to look upon it in a more impersonal way. Even so the feeling runs so deep that, during the war especially. blood from Negro donors has been kept separate from that of white because of this ancient inbred fear

continued on page 44

For the sake of argument continued from page 8

“Our so-called modern society is imbued with ancient beliefs“

on the part of superstitious, bigoted or ignorant whites.

Not too long ago there was widespread feeling against smallpox vaccination and other inoculation, not so much by any particular religious sects hut by Protestant groups generally, particularly the nonconformist, who regarded them as intolerable contamination of the life blood. Opposition of this sort has now almost entirely died out but it stems from the same basic beliefs concerning the significance of blood, only with intrusions of religious concepts from the East. In any case, animals were once believed to have souls, just as human beings, and the draining of blood from animals used as food was originally intended to get rid of the animal spirit before eating its flesh. Injections of serum derived from supposedly diseased animals evoked this old ghost in the form of a deep-seated though poorly understood prejudice, and it required one or two new generations before knowledge of modern medicine supplanted old semi-religious superstition.

These unreasonable prejudices concerning blood carry over to a great extent to water, for where blood represents the spirit, water is the great cleanser that washes away sins. Anything added to the water we drink is a contamination strongly objected to by many people on grounds that are essentially religious in origin. Hence the recent fuss over fluoridation which is approved by practically all health authori-

ties. The issue here is merely one of good teeth or bad—though for w'hole communities of children. The same people presumably object to chlorination, only in this case the alternative is epidemic disease, and public welfare therefore reigns supreme. If some of the noise and energy put forth by the squawkers could be directed towards keeping the waters from becoming befouled in the first place it w'ould be more in keeping with their claimed respect for purity.

Old superstitions, new light

The main question now before us is whether any such beliefs should interfere with comparatively new medical practice. Christian Scientists, for instance. rely rather heavily upon prayer and good thoughts for healing sickness and are reluctant to call in a doctor. The danger exists that medical help may here also be rejected and death result, although in practice Christian Scientists, as a rule being more sophisticated and better educated than Jehovah's Witnesses, play safe by obtaining good medical attention when seriously needed, while giving the credit for cures to their own spiritual procedures.

The fact is that our so-called modern society is imbued with many ancient beliefs of long-forgotten origin, and all religions are by their nature and long history the repositories for old misconceptions as well as new light. When

obstructive beliefs are those of small splinter sects there is little trouble in overruling them for the sake of individual or public health. When a belief is part of a major religion, even a dominant one, the problem becomes acute, a:, in the matter of birth control so strongly opposed by the Roman Catholic and the Mohammedan religions, not to mention various other but relatively small religious groups. Opposition is again based upon an implicit belief in the sacredness of the procreative act, that any interference is obstruction of Divine Will and is an evil that cannot be countenanced.

Within the Catholic Church there can be no argument concerning this dogma, but it should be pointed out that the Christian Church, as a whole, has inherited from far older religions many concepts that have since become frozen into its fabric, concepts that are as vulnerable as those concerning the significance of blood were it not for the claim to infallibility. This is explosive territory but so are the practical issues involved. Quite apart from the question of any particular family producing offspring in numbers that injure the health of the mother and the prospects of the individual children, which is serious enough, the greatest threat to the welfare of mankind at large is the prospect of too many human beings, a threat that is far more menacing in the long run than that of nuclear war. Overpopulation has yet to hit the Americas, least of all

the well-endowed United States and Canada, but it is only a matter of time and for most of the world the crisis has already arrived. The United Nations has estimated the present human population to be approximately twenty-eight hundred million, which is about five hundred million more than were here just ten years ago. The present production rate appears to be the highest on record and by the year 2000, a mere forty years away, the estimate is for five thousand million hungry human beings expecting or hoping for a satisfying life. And that is not any stopping place but only a stage in a human explosion that has no end in sight.

If mankind collectively could put on the brakes even now with a sense of emergency, we would still coast through to that five-thousand-million mark before we came to a population standstill. As it is, with the present accelerated pace, humanity will amount to ten thousand million within the lifetime of individuals now being born and so on until some kind of unforeseen strait jacket calls a disagreeable halt. The prospect is disturbing in the extreme and only the most short-sighted view of the future makes it possible to discount it.

This may not seem to be of immediate consequence to anyone in particular and it is all too easy to ignore the problem and say let future generations take care of themselves, to say that science has done wonders already and will find ways to feed and house the teeming myriads of the future. This simply is not so. No matter how ingenious we may be in exploiting and developing food and other resources, we are already lagging behind in the effort to fill stomachs, despite the presence of certain food surpluses in parts of the Western Hemisphere. As food supplies become generally more inadequate and deficient, physical deterioration will progressively appear everywhere—it is only a matter of time. Man, however, does not live by bread alone, as our religious authorities would be the first to say, and here we find ourselves already embroiled.

We are literally in the midst of a human explosion that has been building up for more than a thousand years and is rapidly approaching a climax, with the inhabitable open spaces of the world having virtually disappeared. We are even pathetically looking at our neighboring and climatically hostile planets as places where we might dump our population excesses. In any case the symptoms of social disorder are already all about us. As towns and cities multiply and enlarge it becomes increasingly difficult to escape from them even for a weekend; no sooner are you out of one than you are into another, or so many people are trying to do the same thing no one gets anywhere. Frustrations multiply accordingly. Children growing to physical maturity in these enormous, infinitely ugly, heavily congested stone jungles are already showing the psychological marks of caged animals—they are embittered, unruly, hopeless and increasingly amoral and savage. Double, triple, quadruple the number of people, the number of families crowded together, the number of children who are instinctively wanting above all else to grow and develop their unique personalities, and the outcome is inevitable— misery and a general psychotic state of an appalling nature, breeding strife at all levels from individuals to nations and leading to a spiritual deterioration far more serious than the consequences of improperly fed bodies.

Both ihe problem and the predicament are widely recognized. Two courses are

open. We can let matters drift and let our grandchildren suffer the consequences—taking the course of inaction. Or we can study and tackle the problem on a world-wide or regional basis with the intention of doing everything possible to control the outburst. Studies have already been made under United Nations auspices, but the sensibilities and latent or active opposition of predominantly Moslem and Catholic nations are already blocking any real progress. Archaic religious attitudes stand in the way of open and honest attempts to control the great-

est menace humanity has ever had to face, which is its own unbridled capacity for reproduction, and even the most powerful governments ignore the problem or pussyfoot around it for fear of antagonizing large sections of their own public support. Sooner or later, and probably sooner than we think, the issue will be forced upon us and any institutions that obstruct the only sensible or possible solutions will surely lose both prestige and power, and all religion may suffer because of intransigent stands taken by priestly hierarchies. The in-

dividual human being is born with an irrepressible drive towards self-fulfillment. In the end this will become universally recognized and encouraged and quality will be placed before quantity. Anachronistic beliefs, whether embodied in religious creeds, national laws, or in the general culture of particular peoples, cannot forever stand in the way of the physical and spiritual human welfare, whether of individuals as such or mankind as a whole. The overruling of the Jehovah’s Witnesses should be taken as a warning. ★