Tue | Oct 16, 2018

Michael Abrahams | Should we respect religious beliefs of others?

Published:Monday | May 8, 2017 | 12:28 AM

It is often said that we should respect people’s religious beliefs. Many persons adhere to this principle and avoid even commenting on the topic of religion, not wanting to cause offence. But, is there a valid reason to automatically respect all belief systems? If a belief causes harm to others, why should I respect it?

Recently, a colleague of mine, an anaesthetist, related a very disturbing story to me. A few years ago, a girl was involved in a horrific motor vehicle accident. One of the child’s arms was severed, resulting in massive blood loss. The child was rushed to hospital, and while surgeons were assiduously trying to save her life, an unfortunate series of events unfolded.

The child’s family were Jehovah’s Witnesses, and family and church members presented themselves at the hospital, congregating outside the operating theatre, insisting that under no circumstance was the child to receive blood or blood products. They said that if she were to receive any of the life-saving substances, it would be a sin, and that they would have nothing to do with her after that. She would become an outcast.

Jehovah’s Witnesses delight in telling others that blood substitutes exist and that transfusions are often unnecessary. The fact is, if a person’s blood count drops below a certain level, oxygen transport throughout the body will be severely compromised, and death becomes a certainty.

My colleague was not prepared to allow an innocent child to die. She contacted a judge to overrule the church folk, but it was on a weekend, and the legal system would not have been able to facilitate the process.

Meanwhile, the child’s blood count was falling tumultuously. A normal blood count is above 11. The anaesthetist watched helplessly as the child’s fell to 1, accompanied by an ominous drop in her blood pressure. Her tissues could no longer be adequately perfused, and despite valiant efforts on the part of the medical team, she died.

In my opinion, any belief system that allows a child to die is evil, and I have absolutely no respect for it. I have friends and patients who are Jehovah’s Witnesses, and I love them dearly. However, I have no respect for some of their religious beliefs.

Similarly, with the Roman Catholic Church’s stance on contraception, prohibiting its use, even in women in whom pregnancy could prove fatal, and its discouragement of the use of condoms, even in societies with a high incidence of HIV/AIDS, I have little respect for their belief system as well.

As a physician and human rights advocate, how can I honestly respect dogmas and doctrines that place people’s lives at risk?

Some beliefs are downright ridiculous. If one of my children were to visit the Hope Zoo, and come home and tell me that while there they had a conversation with a Burmese python about Batman, I would tell them to stop lying and reprimand them. So, if someone tells me, with a straight face, that a serpent spoke to naked woman in a garden and told her to eat a fruit, and that women experience pain in labour as a result of that, how on earth can I respect that belief?

It is considered politically correct to not criticise religious beliefs. As a matter of fact, some countries have blasphemy laws that make it illegal to do so. For example, English comedian Stephen Fry, an atheist, was asked by the host of an Irish television programme:

“Suppose it’s all true, and you walk up to the pearly gates, and are confronted by God, what would Stephen Fry say to him, her or it?”

Fry responded: “Bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault? It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?” He was reported for his remarks and is now being investigated by Irish police for violating the country’s blasphemy law.

In Saudi Arabia, apostasy is punishable by death, and a man is awaiting execution there after tweeting disparaging remarks about Islam and Muhammad. As a matter of fact, atheism is punishable by death in at least a dozen other countries, and in some others, although the death penalty is not a formal punishment, atheists and humanists have been murdered by religious extremists because of their beliefs.

Religion has been given a free pass for way too long. I believe that people are entitled to their beliefs. However, I strongly support the analogy that states: “Religion is like a penis. It's a perfectly fine thing for one to have and take pride in, but when one takes it out and waves it in my face, we have a problem.”

And this is the issue. Too many persons of faith not only do not keep their beliefs to themselves, but present it to others as fact, which is being dishonest. They knock on our gates, preach on buses, approach us in the streets, tell us to bow our heads in prayer before meetings, seminars and conferences, and brainwash our children in schools. But when there is a pushback, they cry foul.

Every belief system should be questioned and challenged, and if any places people’s health or lives at risk, violates the rights of others, or stifles critical thinking, there is absolutely no rational reason to respect it.

- Michael Abrahams is a gynaecologist and obstetrician, comedian and poet. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and michabe_1999@hotmail.com, or tweet @mikeyabrahams.