Religious advice - the general and the specific
by: John Tyrrell
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Paul A. Offit in an Op-Ed in the New York Times asked what Jesus would do about measles vaccinations. His answer is "Vaccinate!" (and mandatory vaccination, at that.) based on Matthew 25:40.
... Jesus stood up for children. In Matthew 25:40, he said, “Verily, I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of my brethren ye have done it unto me” — a quote that could be emblazoned onto the entranceway of every children’s hospital in the world.
Now that passage from Matthew is very general advice. Essentially turning it into a specific recommendation amounts to "If Jesus knew what we know now, then because of his concern for children, he would recommend the correct specific course of action - and that's vaccination."
Unfortunately, elsewhere Jesus gave advice which is interpreted by some Christians to be very specific - don't get medical care unless you are sick:
Luke 5:31 Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick."
This means preventative medicine - unheard of in Jesus' day - is not allowed in the present time even though highly effective preventative medicine is available.
Of course, his brother James goes even further with the anti-medicine recommendation by saying:
James 5:14-15: "Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: and the prayer of faith shall save him that is sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, it shall be forgiven him."
And of course there are those Christians to whom this passage is infallible gospel. Not only don't you vaccinate your children to prevent measles, you cure the disease with prayer, not medicine.
And isn't that the problem? General advice can be transposed to the present day and circumstances. It can be continually reinterpreted in the light of present day knowledge and circumstances. Specific advice remains rooted in the level of knowledge and in the circumstances of the past. And religious fundamentalists seem incapable of adjusting - incapable of recognizing that prophets and founders of religions were men (yes, almost always men) of their times, not timeless seers.
Specific religious advice needs to be recognized for what it is - advice given for a specific era and circumstances - to be disregarded once outdated. And religious general advice needs to be applied based, not on tradition, but on what we know now and what the current circumstances are.
- a pediatrician and the the author of “Bad Faith: When Religious Belief Undermines Modern Medicine.”
- What Would Jesus Do About Measles? by Paul A. Offit, New York Times, Feb 10, 2015
- Arguably this advice is being taken out of context - but taking bible passages out of context is only forbidden for those non-believers criticizing the bible. Believers are of course free to do so - particularly to justify ignorance.
- I'm making a general point about religion here - not just Christianity. Recently, an attempt to to establish the age of marriage to at least the start of the teenage years failed in Saudi Arabia, because to do so would be to implicitly criticize Muhammad who married a six-year old. Surely if Muhammad were alive today with current understanding he would act differently (Well we can hope so.) But relying on the Prophet's unchangeable example from 1400 years ago, Saudis are stuck with legal child marriage.
- Originally, my intention was to use Mark 7 in support of this point - then I realized that the specific advice given there was not even rooted in Jesus' time but rather rooted in Jesus' ignorance, so Mark 7 became a separate article.
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