I’ll give Brian Palmer this: in his article for Slate he’s not at all shy about telling us how he really feels. It’s great, he says, that Christian medical missionaries are out there trying to do good works in Africa: “Rather than parachuting in during crises, like some international medicine specialists, a large number of them have undertaken long-term commitments to address the health problems of poor Africans.” And yet, after all the kind words like these he has to say for medical missionaries, they only serve to underscore the weirdness of his central point:
When an infected American missionary was flown back to the United States for treatment… a fair number of Americans were thinking a much milder, less offensive form [thinking that he should “suffer the consequences” or that he was “idiotic”]. I’ll hold my own hand up. I still don’t feel good about missionary medicine, even though I can’t fully articulate why.
So let me point out the first obvious irony, which is for someone flying the proud flag of rationalism and skepticism to be so open and honest about his totally irrational and credulous animosity towards Christians. Gee, if only we had a word to describe irrational, unarticulated prejudices…The sad part is that religious skepticism has descended so far below the heights of freethinking iconoclasm that no one even seems to remember when rejecting theism was a carefully considered intellectual proposition that actually meant something. Now it’s a fashion statement. Some of us don’t like normcore. Some of don’t like Christianity. People are weird, am I right?
I’m definitely not the first to take Palmer to task, and I’m avoiding the most obvious problem with his argument. David French handled that admirably in his piece for the NRO:
In other words, [Palmer] has a problem with medical missionaries because they’re not operating in first-world hospitals with first-world reporting systems and first-world systems of legal accountability? If there weren’t staffing shortages, drug shortages, a lack of large health-care facilities, and all the other issues that dominate developing-world medicine, we wouldn’t need medical missionaries.
French is right, and so I don’t repeat it. Instead, let me raise just one other issue. It’s subtle, I think, until you state it out loud. Then it seems really, really awkwardly obvious. We’re on the threshold of an unprecedented humanitarian tragedy unfolding in Africa with the potential to kill millions (both directly and from the resulting chaos and upheaval) and, on the verge of this nightmare, Palmer thinks it’s a good time to talk about the queasiness with which he regards the religiosity of strangers? That is what the threat of a continent-wide pandemic makes him think is a really pressing issue?
Now that’s some privilege right there.
13 thoughts on “Those Darn Medical Missionaries”
“Palmer thinks it’s a good time to talk about the queasiness with which he regards the religiosity of strangers?”
He spends most of the article discussing how others are already reacting to missionaries’ religiosity, so we can’t say he started that conversation. It is the business of news sites to talk about things people are talking about.
In his final paragraph the answer to the subtitle’s question is clearly “no”. He’s shutting down the distasteful conversation. What’s the problem?
Absolutely. It’s not an article about the queasiness with which he regards the religious it’s of strangers, it’s an article about overcoming queasiness about the connection between medical care about which we are unusually poorly informed and proselytization. I’m with him in his queasiness (which is not about anyone’s religiosity), but also with him in understanding the need to get past it and be grateful for medical missionaries.
While it’s true that if a bunch of people are talking about something a news outlet would carry it just for that reason alone, it’s certainly much more true that news outlets lead rather than follow the trend of what people talk about. I don’t really buy the “journalists just report” handwashing when it comes to other issues (say: racial disparities in treatment of kidnapping victims) and I don’t buy it here, either.
It’s nice that you consider it a “distasteful conversation,” but there’s no way you can say he’s shutting it down. He doesn’t merely state the objections of others, he reiterates multiple times that he shares the objections and finds them valid. After listing some of the criticisms he states: “And yet, truth be told, these valid critiques don’t fully explain my discomfort with missionary medicine.” Note the present tense (here and elsewhere): his “bias” (his term) is just as present at the end as it as at the beginning.
The best you can say is that, after trotting out his anti-religious prejudices and defending them, he concludes that they ought to be tabled for now because no one else will do the work that Christian medical missionaries are doing and so their good works outweigh their suspect nature… for now.
So not only is this an entirely provisional cease fire, it actually cements the fundamental prejudice: which is that religious people are worthy of suspicion unless and until such time as they can prove themselves indispensable.
His queasiness is about religiosity, for one thing. And for another he never rises to anything like what I would call gratitude. His response is that religious missionaries are valid targets for suspicion purely for being religious and that this suspicion exists over and beyond any rational basis, but that he’s (grudgingly and temporarily) willing to give their religiosity a pass only because no one else will do the work that they are doing.
I’ve come across this condescension many times. It’s very real and–in the right circles–ubiquitous. The thing that can make it so frustrating to deal with is that the folks who suffer from it are completely unaware that they are biased at all. So I’ve got to give him real credit for that. At least he doesn’t try to pretend either (1) that his prejudice can be fully rationalized or (2) that it’s about something other than religion.
Slate is increasingly becoming a vast wasteland of half thought nothing, where posing a possibly interesting question in the headline seems to be the only requirement. I just ranted about this for five minutes to my wife over the weekend who wanted to know why I still bothered to click on their terrible articles… which shut me up enough that she could go back to talking about horse color genetics
Yeah, maybe the real takeaway here is that I should just stop reading Slate.
Perhaps you’re more familiar than I with the author, but I don’t see any evidence that his objection is to religiosity rather than lack of awareness of manipulation of vulnerable populations. Can you explain why you think his objection is to religiosity alone?
I get being irritated at the condescension. The target audience appears to be condescending atheists/agnostics who are overly suspicious of religious missionaries, and I think it’s smart to take a tone which lets that population know you’re sympathetic to their concerns. On the other hand, Difficult Run is in absolutely no position to cast stones; the “fashion statement” bit above is particularly galling, for example. That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be less condescending, both in public words and private thoughts. We atheists should strive to turn the other cheek. :-)
“this suspicion exists over and beyond any rational basis”
Suspicions of any medical professional with stated motivations beyond medicine are rational. Mother Theresa wouldn’t have got away with denying palliative care (eg: painkillers) to the dying for so long had people applied some rational skepticism to her generosity.
If a doctor got paid more money for prescribing a particular supplement, a rational person would be suspicious of that supplement and that doctor.
Here’s the difference between my condescension (which is noble and pure) and his (which is venal and lowly): I don’t pretend for an instant that all atheists are worthy of my contempt or my suspicion. I have stated many times that I respect atheism as an intellectual position. And it’s not just one of those “I’m going to say I respect something so that I can criticize it more freely” stances. Some of the most important thinkers on my life, personally, have been atheists (Camus and de Beauvoir come to mind immediately).
What I have an issue with is *any* point of view taken as prejudicial dogma. And it just so happens that the New Atheism–of which this writing is a perfect example–fits the bill.
Absolutely not, Ryan.
The problem isn’t that we shouldn’t be suspicious of religious people, which is what you seem to be assuming. The problem is that there’s no rational justification for deploying suspicion in a way that is primarily reflective of religious positions one way or the other. You talk about how religion can (in the case of Mother Theresa) lead a person to do bad things. So can stone, cold, atheist reason. See also: the 20th century.
What you have to defend is not the proposition: “It’s OK to be skeptical of believers.” That’s an inane proposition. It’s OK to be skeptical of everyone. What you have to defend is the proposition “It’s Ok to be skeptical of believers to a greater degree than non-believers because of the fact that they are believers.”
What you’re really implying is an irrational prejudicial favoritism towards reason alone. And yes: it’s irrational. It’s irrational in the first place because reason alone is incapable of making any judgment whatsoever. (There are interesting medical cases to verify this, and you’re probably familiar with them.) It’s irrational in the second place because no one ever even tries to state what it is about reason that supposedly makes it so impervious to error, which underscores that reason itself has become largely an empty social signal as opposed to a serious, legitimate concern.
“he concludes that they ought to be tabled for now because no one else will do the work that Christian medical missionaries are doing and so their good works outweigh their suspect nature… for now.”
And what’s wrong with that? Suspicion and respect are not mutually exclusive. I respect police officers. That doesn’t mean I can’t be suspicious that some officers are racist and/or on a power trip.
There is abundant evidence that on the whole this group is good, but there are problems. In a riot or an ebola outbreak, I’m going to overlook those problems. Once things have calmed down we can talk about body cameras and tracking medical outcomes in the third world. What’s wrong with that?
“Suspicions of any medical professional with stated motivations beyond medicine are rational…”
Note that this statement doesn’t mention religion at all. Medical decisions should be based on medical guidelines. Medical guidelines have all sorts of sources: most rational, some cultural, and some belief-based. I’m not commenting on the source of accepted medical practice, just that medicine should be practiced based on accepted medical guidelines alone. When a doctor starts the conversation by saying they’re not following accepted medical guidelines, whether faith-based or not, it’s rational to want a different doctor.
Defending the proposition: “It’s Ok to be skeptical of believers to a greater degree than non-believers because of the fact that they are believers.”
Try changing it to ““It’s Ok to be skeptical of ___ to a greater degree than non-___ because of the fact that they are ___.”
Who should we be skeptical of? To simplify, lets say we should be skeptical of criminals: folks who hurt people, get convicted, and go to jail for it. If people claiming to be ___ are more often criminals than people claiming to be non-___, it’s rational to be more skeptical of avowed ___ than people who are openly non-___.
Note that this is about people who claim to be ___, not evaluating whether they’re right or not about being ___.
Given that the proportion of people claiming to be Christian in prison is higher than the general population, it’s rational to be suspicious of people making that claim. Absent any other data (which never happens), additional suspicion is rational.
I doubt many missionaries spend time in jail, so that’s a separate question. Adding more data is going to change things.
The proposition was “It’s Ok to be skeptical of believers to a greater degree than non-believers because of the fact that they are believers.” Based on that one datum (stated belief) and the higher proportion of criminals with that stated belief, a greater degree of skepticism is rational. This isn’t an indictment of faith – it’s impartial statistical trends.
Then I ask again: where do you see contempt or suspicion for all religious people in the article? That seems to be your sole basis, but if simply having some of the most important thinkers in his life be religious would be adequate evidence for Palmer as it is for you, I’d be shocked if he didn’t pass that test. I admire the humility and humor with which you put your point about condescension, but it seems like you’re just responding to one of my two questions by assuming the other has an answer without actually providing it.
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