Okay, normally I would write this story (Christian Scientists Prepare to Battle Bird Flu With Prayer) off as just some wacky religious folks going about their business. Not my cup o’ tea, but to each their own, I guess. But this part is chilling:

Then there is the question of what Christian Scientists would do if they were prohibited from going to church.

When the Los Angeles City Council passed an ordinance prohibiting people from going to churches and movie theaters in 1918, a handful of Christian Scientists challenged the constitutionality of the law in court. The judge ruled in their favor, saying that the city had a legal right to prevent public gatherings, but that the ordinance illegally singled out churches among other public places like hotel lobbies, stores and streetcars.

Heather Davis, a 44-year-old television producer, said that if a bird flu pandemic struck today and she could not go to church, she would want to go “twice as much.”

“I’d want to pray with anyone then,” she added, “not just Christian Scientists.”

Johnson, the college student, said: “I would go out. I would definitely protest and fight it” in the courts. “As soon as in my thoughts, I accept the fact that by going out and gathering with people, I become potentially susceptible, it’s as if I completely nullify all the work I’ve done.”

Y’know, it’s one thing to practice your religious beliefs in private. Whatever. I may not agree, but I won’t go pounding down your door in protest. It’s another to threaten to go out and potentially expose people to a disease which, even if you don’t “believe” in it, the rest of the world does. Especially if the govenment decides to close public places–can’t you pray as well at home as in your church?

(For those of you who may be unfamiliar with Christian Scientists, they generally refuse modern medicine in favor of faith-healing [skeptic's view of it here]. As a result, they’ve been involved in several high-profile cases where the parents refused treatment for their child, and the child later died.)

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Comments

  1. #1 razib
    January 26, 2006

    CS are powerful enough to have legislation designed to exempt them from child abuse statutes. to some extent, i see this as a “soldiers huddling on the battlefield” phenomenon. rationally you know that clustering together only makes it easier for the “enemy” to cut you down, but as social creatures you have a psychological need to be around others. people aren’t good at conditional probabilities, so they might be calculating that a slight increase in dying in the midst of others is better than a lower chance of dying alone.

    got any numbers on pandemic flu’s infection and lethality as a function of density?

  2. #2 Dave S.
    January 26, 2006

    I wonder how prayer works for the flu (and other diseases) we have now? I imaine you’ll find a healthy amount of the confirmation bias – get better, prayer is working…don’t get better, must not have prayed well enough.

    Note to Rusty: When Tara writes “…just some wacky religious folks…”, I assume she means only these particular ones, not all religious folk in general. She can correct me if ‘m wrong.

  3. #3 Tara
    January 26, 2006

    razib–I’m in and out of classes and meetings today, but I’ll try to track down some figures.

    Dave–yes, you are correct. I have nothing against religion in general, but some of them are just so strange and foreign to me that I don’t know how else to describe them. I figure “wacky” is better than some other adjectives I could employ.

  4. #4 Apesnake
    January 26, 2006

    I don’t know if Christian Science folk accept evolution or not but attending large gatherings during a pandemic sounds like playing chicken with natural selection if you ask me. It is kind of like a real life version of that urban myth (I hope it was a myth) about young fundamentalists playing “let Jesus do the driving” where you take your hands off the wheel for as long as you can at highway speeds.

    I just need to remember to get a good set of N95 masks to keep out the virus and a Satanic shirt to keep the Christian Scientists away.

  5. #5 Ocellated.com
    January 26, 2006

    It does raise an interesting question though… Legally, how does the government get to decide that people can’t meet together because of public health risks?

    I’ll be the first to say that I agree that during a pandemic, people would need all the isolation they can get.

    That still begs the question, just how does a government enforce this? We’ve built a society on the idea that government can’t stop you from meeting together with other people, etc.

    So during a pandemic, what’s allowed and what’s not? If we think certain things are absolutely necessary, like visiting the grocery store for example, we might allow those. But presumably, we would want to take things that aren’t absolutely necessary and tell people not to meet there for a while. Like movies and going to church.

    I think many religious people, myself included, would have no problem with skipping church if going put others at risk… But some people will view attending church and the grocery store as the same necessity. And while I too may think they’ve wrong, how does the government step in to regulate this?

  6. #6 Tara
    January 26, 2006

    Ocellated,

    That’s another thing that’s going to have to be explicitly laid out in pandemic planning. In the best case scenario, the folks in charge–pastors, business owners, school superintendents, etc. would voluntarily close on advice from government and public health leaders. In 1918, many cities levied fines for infractions (as minor as spitting on the streets), so that’s one possible deterrent.

  7. #7 CmentMixer
    January 26, 2006

    Sorry, new guy and I don’t mean to step on any toes. However, not to put to fine a point on it, we are constitutionally guaranteed the right to assemble.
    The Founding Fathers didn’t say “Yes, except for…”

  8. #8 Dave S.
    January 26, 2006

    We are constitutionally guaranteed the right to peaceably assemble Mixer.

    Now, if this assembly is such that it endangers both those assembled and others, then it’s arguable that that is peaceable.

  9. #9 Rusty
    January 26, 2006

    Note to Rusty:. . .

    Oh, we’re funny today, aren’t we? ;^)

    . . .get better, prayer is working…don’t get better, must not have prayed well enough. . .

    Unfortunately, there are Christians who think that that’s the way it works. Note: Christian Science is considered heretical to orthodox Christianity (what with the concepts of death being illusory, etc.). Biblically speaking, prayer is not taught to be some method of cashing in one’s chips with God. God is not under obligation to provide us with what we have asked for. The complete picture that is portrayed is one of understanding who God is, what we are obligated to give Him, and how we can submit to His will. Any confessing Christian who prays to God should do so with the understanding, “not my will, but yours, be done.”

    …it’s one thing to practice your religious beliefs in private… It’s another to threaten to go out and potentially expose people to a disease… …can’t you pray as well at home as in your church?

    There are a few things going on here, Tara (and I realize I’ve cut up the original paragraph – one can easily scroll up and read the entire paragraph). I won’t speak for other religions, but Christianity is not a religion that is done “in private.” It is a community based religion in which a body of believers gathers together. What’s more, its tenets mandate that its followers interface with society as a whole with regards to proselytizing, charity, and service. This would, in fact, be considered the free exercise of Christianity. You are certainly free to view religion as a private (and, thus, subjective?) endeavor, but such an analysis of Christianity (and most other religions, I would suspect) is simply incorrect. That said, I don’t think that temporary gathering restrictions, if applied to all areas of society, would be a problem for most Christians.

    With regards to potentially exposing people to a disease I’m also wondering, from a logistical point of view, just how extensive one would expect restrictions on public gatherings to apply. And, also, how such restrictions would be enforced. It seems to me that it would be a logistical nightmare (to say the least).

    It’s interesting, in one respect, to compare how the early Church responded to plagues in the first few centuries after Christ. While the secular mores of the time resulted in many of the healthy fleeing the cities, and leaving the sick behind, it was the early Christians who refused to leave in order to care for the sick. They did this fully understanding that they might – and they did – fall victim to disease (for they did not view sickness as a mere illusion). Reference: The Rise of Christianity by Rodney Stark.

  10. #10 Anonymous
    January 26, 2006

    To combat a pandemic effectively (assuming such could be done) would you want to focus on preventing assembly or preventing travel?

    The constitution does present a little bit of a problem, since it guarantees both the right to assemble peacefully to petition the government for redress of grievances and the right to travel to the seat of government to do so.

  11. #11 Dave S.
    January 27, 2006

    I agree with Rusty that temporary restrictions on public gatherings, if perceived as a necessity based on the best science, should certainly not be limited to Christians (or any relgion) and must be acrossed the board to make any sense. This must include concerts, sporting events, movies, schools, etc.

    With regards to the Constitution, I think its best to be seen not as a charter granting rights, but as a document designed to limit the powers of government. We already have rights which are “self evident” and “inalienable” in the words of the Declaration. However inalienable does not mean limitless, and the government has the power to circumscribe those rights if it can show a compelling case for doing it. For example we have free speech, but not the freedom to slander, libel, commit perjury, incite riots, or yell “fire” in a theater or “bomb” on an airplane. The government has a legitimate interest in curbing speech in those instances. The government may also have a legitimate case in curbing our rights to assembly in the event of mass epidemic vis isolation and quarantine.

    States have the rights under policing laws to safeguard the health and safety of their citizens within their borders (intra-state). The federal government has the right to do so both at the international level, and via the commerce clause at the inter-state level. The Constitution does demand that such measures be as restrictive only as absolutely necessary (in duration and severity), and that this need, through due process, be shown in court.

  12. #12 Sempronius
    January 27, 2006

    I worked at a place over a period of years, and one of the guys who made it a bit more fun was nick-named Moose, I suppose because he looked like what you might expect a Canadian Mounty to look: tall, perfectly fit, a Clark Gable pencil mustache, and a kind of Monty Python playfulness before there was a Monty Python.

    One day, however, it turned out he was sick, which seemed incredible, but it sometimes happens even to the most hardy. We heard reports from time to time on how he was doing, and his condition languished. His wife (and perhaps he) was a Christian Scientist, so all conventional medical treatment was withheld. So, his condition got worse and worse and we were absolutely floored when he died of (treatable) pneumonia.

    Years later, his grown-up son came to our workplace, asking around, wanting to know what his Dad was like….

    It’s remarkable what flagrant cruelty can be inflicted in the name of religion: Any ‘God’ responsible for this and countless other horrors inflicted by His/Her devotees richly deserves to not exist.

  13. #13 Tara
    January 27, 2006

    Rusty,

    I won’t speak for other religions, but Christianity is not a religion that is done “in private.”

    Well, you’re once again getting into a theological argument, which I really have neither the time nor patience for right now. It can certainly be argued that the Bible is contradictory on this point (y’know, Matthew 6:6 and all).

    You are certainly free to view religion as a private (and, thus, subjective?) endeavor,

    Y’know, I am really sick of the innuendoes and questions about my motivations. I write in a straightforward manner, and if you can’t be bothered to take it at face value, I won’t be bothered to respond any longer.

    but such an analysis of Christianity (and most other religions, I would suspect) is simply incorrect.

    I’m talking about one particular situation–gathering during a pandemic caused by a highly transmissible agent. I’m not suggesting shutting down churches here, nor am I denying that evangelism, service, etc. are important parts of Christiantiy (well, most denominations, anyhoo). Please don’t extrapolate, ’cause again, you’re putting words in my mouth. I don’t appreciate it.

    That said, I don’t think that temporary gathering restrictions, if applied to all areas of society, would be a problem for most Christians.

    Thank you. That’s all I’m asking.

    With regards to potentially exposing people to a disease I’m also wondering, from a logistical point of view, just how extensive one would expect restrictions on public gatherings to apply. And, also, how such restrictions would be enforced. It seems to me that it would be a logistical nightmare (to say the least).

    As I mentioned earlier, that is a problem, and one we need to have hammered out. If it struck now, we’d be in a mess, and everything would be done in a very ad hoc manner.

  14. #14 CmentMixer
    January 27, 2006

    Tara,
    You ask us to take you at face value, but then stretch a regrettable circumstance into a stereo-type. Your argument started with an adverse statement that set the timbre of the conversation.
    To be clear, the regrettable circumstance was the State dictating that only congregating in a church was illegal. The law was challenged, not because the faithful were prohibited from gathering. It was challenged because ONLY the faithful were prohibited from gathering. You didn’t mention the “atheist demagogues of the State”, though that is just as likely a stereo-type as “wacky religious folks”.
    There is no denying that a gathering of any sort during this hypothetical pandemic would lead to a spread of the disease. You are much better trained in that area than I ever will be (and, BTW, thank you.)
    However, in a time of crisis, the mind and soul of some people crave a consoling presence. We are, by all accounts of science, social animals. If I choose to spend my last moments with like minded people on a golf course, the beach or in church, I have that right. I have that right, not because of the US Constitution or temporary orders of the State, but because I decide I have that right. Not to be too glib, what will the State do if I determine to congregate with my contemporaries at church or the basketball court? Put us all in jail?
    It is widely held that the Great Fire of London in 1666 assisted in wiping out the Plague, both by killing the rats and those too weak to escape. It could be hypothesized, therefore, that a pandemic could be thwarted by the eradication of the weak. This is a horrible conjecture, to be sure. But to some, this is just as horrible as the State telling me what I can and cannot do. Especially, if I am being told I cannot go to church (or even worse, the golf course).

  15. #15 Dave S.
    January 27, 2006

    To be clear, the regrettable circumstance was the State dictating that only congregating in a church was illegal.

    This was a Los Angeles city ordinance, and banned gatherings in movie theatres as well. The Church was correct that gathering prohibitions should not have singled out only certain institutions and ignored others.

    You don’t have the right to endanger others simply by deciding you want to congregate regardless the outcome. Quarantine/isolation a serious step and one that must be carefully considered in advance (hopefully we need never be put in that position), but one that may need to be taken for the public good. That means all the public, not just you and like minded thinkers.

    The influenza epidemic of 1918, larger than any plague, wiped out primarily the young and the strong, not the old. The London Fire did kill a lot of rats, but less than 20 of the weak perished. Mosly the plague was in the slums where it was most crowded. Wouldn’t it be better simply not to have crowded rather than have that option forced by burning all the buildings down? They didn’t have many options, but I think we do. Hopefully we also have a bit more knowledge.

  16. #16 Tara
    January 27, 2006

    CmentMixer,

    I already clarified in the comments that I was referring *only* to the Christian scientists, and I think calling their beliefs “wacky” is an understatement, personally. (Additionally, I’m certainly not advocating that *only* churches be prohibited from gathering [and as Dave pointed out, they weren't the only ones singled out even in 1918]. I already mentioned businesses, schools, etc. above.) Do you really think there aren’t nutty people in any group? There are certainly people within groups I consider myself a member–scientists, feminists, atheists, midwesterners, what have you–that I’d characterize in a similar manner. That doesn’t mean I think *all* people in those groups are wacky, and that you extrapolate in that manner is twisting what I’m saying. It’s getting really old.

    And be assured that the state already *has* the powers to “tell you what you can and cannot do” in the event of a health emergency. Though it’s generally a local power, the federal government can even institute a quarantine or order symptomatic people into isolation. And I do think you are being glib, especially if something happens in this administration that seems to favor shows of force over reasonable discussion. People have been shot in the past for violating these orders, and Bush has already said that the military is an option for enforcing quarantine.

  17. #17 CmentMixer
    January 27, 2006

    I’m not saying the State should not advise against congregating. On the contrary, the State is chartered to “provide for the common Defence and general Welfare…” at the federal level. (Since we’re discussing pandemics, we’ll assume, with some argument I’m sure, Federal laws would prevail and therefore a Federal Plan.)

    I am suggesting that armed with this information, people will insist on being
    together with the knowledge that it could be harmful to each other. Are we comfortable denying people the ability, if not the right, to be with loved ones in a time of crisis? Are we willing to suggest that anyone should die alone in their house for the benefit of the “greater good”?

    Now, in the spirit of valued discussion, I can’t merely tear down. I must also add. I believe that we learned with Katrina that Nagin’s policy of not enforcing the evacuation of New Orleans before and immediately after the hurricane had detrimental
    impact to the citizens of the city. Some analogies can be drawn from that.
    That situation showed that the chain-of-command will break-down at some point.
    Perhaps we are looking at the wrong paradigm. Perhaps a top-down, or even
    a bottom-up, approach is inappropriate.

    Can an analogy be taken from the internet architecture? Reduce or
    eliminate the single points of failure. Decentralize and create redundant
    paths. Granted, increased redundancies increase costs, but the result
    should be an increased potential for success. The decision process must be
    swift, but can it be de-centralized? Can multiple health organizations be
    chartered with the same objectives to cover slightly overlapping areas. and then
    over-staffed (slightly) in anticipation of failure of another organization?

  18. #18 Tara
    January 27, 2006

    Have to run but just want to quickly add:

    Are we comfortable denying people the ability, if not the right, to be with loved ones in a time of crisis? Are we willing to suggest that anyone should die alone in their house for the benefit of the “greater good”?

    This isn’t what’s being suggested. Previously when quarantine was used, there were allowances for getting families together (even having some cross state lines, which was more difficult). Additionally, clearly there will have to be people who are out there responding to thigns–police, health care workers, public health officials, etc., so it’s not as if anyone thinks places will just become ghost towns overnight. There’s a big difference between gathering with a few family members and dozens to hundreds of people in a church.

  19. #19 impatientpatient
    January 27, 2006

    During the Sars scare, I remember people having fits over how it changed how they practiced communion-they couldn’t drink from a communal cup and that bothered them. Common sense- don’t drink from a common cup ever, and especially not if a wierd bug is out and about. I should see if I can find out if there are any articles left online.

    Here is one group that continued to use a common cup.http://www.niagara.anglican.ca/issues/sars.cfm

    The Catholic Church did the following:What has the Church done in localities where the outbreak of SARS is most significant?
    In those localities where the outbreak of the disease has been the most significant, Bishops have introduced several liturgical adaptations in regard to the distribution of Holy Communion, the exchange of the sign of peace and the celebration of the Sacrament of Penance in order to limit the spread of contagion.http://www.usccb.org/liturgy/innews/503.shtml

    I think that people should use the telephone, wear masks, follow the rules, and hunker down with family in bad times. If you must go to church or a movie- well that just may not be possible. I would go crazy not being able to go to work, but we all would just have to do the best we could.

    And if you go to a place where food things are communal, make them stop please. Even without Sars or Bird Flu. That is just something that is kind of icky at the best of times.

  20. #20 Rusty
    January 30, 2006

    Well, you’re once again getting into a theological argument, which I really have neither the time nor patience for right now.

    You placed religion on the plate; I’m simply making a comment which entails religion and theology. And, btw, you certainly are under no obligation to respond.

    It can certainly be argued that the Bible is contradictory on this point (y’know, Matthew 6:6 and all).

    The verse you refer to is in a passage that is contrasting hypocritical behavior with proper behavior. It is not prescriptive in terms of corporate liturgy, nor is it contradictory with regards to the manner in which corporate liturgy is modeled elsewhere. (this is… my cup ‘o tea)

    Y’know, I am really sick of the innuendoes and questions about my motivations.

    Note that I placed a question mark after the word “subjective.” Why on earth would I do that unless I was questioning whether or not you view religious belief as subjective? You have stated in the past that belief in God requires no evidence. Couple that with your comments on the private practice of religion and I begin to infer that you view religious belief as a subjective thing. Could I be wrong? Of course! But why get all bent out of shape about it?

    Do you see religious belief as merely a private, and subjective, thing?

    Words have definitions, and the context in which they’re used has meaning. Despite my disagreements with Ed Brayton, one of the things I learned in my debates with him was that one needs to carefully choose their words. Phrases such as, “Prayer: weapon of choice…”, “…some wacky religious folks going about their business…”, “…to each their own…”, etc., reveal (to me) a certain bias towards religion in general.

  21. #21 Dave S.
    January 31, 2006

    Some people make extremely bad arguments in defence of their faith Rusty. Augustine warned the faithful about that, but obviously it fell on deaf ears. That does not mean that everyone of faith is so inclined. Faith based arguments might be perfectly good arguments for some purposes, but don’t help us much in determining what’s going on in nature.

  22. #22 Rusty
    January 31, 2006

    Dave S.,

    I agree that some people make bad arguments in defense of their faith, whether or not that faith is grounded in religion or science.

    It doesn’t take a Ph.D., in any discipline, to pick up on the general sentiment towards religious belief over here. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but opinions are not necessarily simply a matter of personal taste. For instance, you may prefer chocolate ice cream over rocky road, but such a preference is not based on an objective truth that chocolate ice cream is better tasting than rocky road. You simply like it. Your preference for chocolate is neither correct nor incorrect. However, opinions about certain abstract concepts, such as religious belief, are not quite so simple. Either Christianity is true, or it isn’t. That someone may consider relgious belief subjective is irrelevant to whether or not the belief (in this case, Christianity) itself is true.

    This also plays out in other areas of the abstract, such as morality, love, altruism, evil, etc. I understand that an empirically based methodology is incapable of explaining such phenomenon, or even how they originated. Yet proponents of such a methodology seem to insist on engaging in rhetoric that ventures deep into the realm of the abstract. It seems to me that if science can only deal with the natural, then said proponents would simply stick with explanations and discussions that are limited to the natural. But, of course, they don’t. And all I’ve done is raise issues related to the very notions they bring to the table.

    I’m surprised at Tara’s reaction to my comments on this site. Blogospherically speaking, they have been pretty mild. I’ve made inferences (who doesn’t?) and have, I think, been correct in some and incorrect in others. Such is life.

    Anyway, I’ll see you around (maybe over at Ed’s site).