It had to happen: David Barton, pretend-historian, now pretend medical scientist, claims that science won’t be able to cure AIDS because AIDS is a punishment for sin. David Barton didn’t invent the idea that AIDS represents divine wrath but he is certainly willing to run with stupidity when he hears it.
Even ancient Pagans knew that there were things that could make people sick that weren’t of divine origin, or to be explained by demonic possession. Superstition has not always held sway over every mind. How is it otherwise to be explained that Marcus Terentius Varro, writing in 36 BCE (On Agriculture) and without benefit of a microscope, could know that “there are bred certain minute creatures that cannot be seen by the eyes, which float in the air and enter the body through the mouth and nose and there cause serious diseases” but David Barton, with access to all the annals of modern medicine, cannot?
Another way to frame the question might be, why appeal to the complexities of medical science when you have an angry God on hand? After all, succumbing to mundane disease doesn’t make for much of a morality lesson, does it?
This is the future of American theocracy: abandonment of science and embrace of superstition, of malign divine influences, demonic possession, and prayer. Millions will die because the Inquisition won’t like it if you say “germ”. Don’t wash your hands for 20 seconds after going to the bathroom: it will only prevent the spread of infection; it won’t keep God from hating you. Get on your knees and pray: beg for forgiveness.
Seriously, there is a reason the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) publishes a page on hand-washing but not on prayer. And I am certain David Barton would condemn them for that.
As Right Wing Watch reports,
We have also pointed out before that Barton believes that everything in our society ought to be governed by what is in the Bible, even our medical practices … and today Barton returned to this topic, claiming that science cannot create a cure or vaccine for AIDS and that abortion causes breast cancer and mental health problems, proclaiming that to be “good news” because it proves that the Bible is correct.
So forget Marcus Terentius Varro, forget Madame Curie, forget Louis Pasteur, and forget the father of microbiology, Anton van Leeuwenhoek. Forget Philippe Gaucher, the first to identify the disease named after him in 1882. It is easy to see a Republican theocracy prescribing prayer for my son rather than enzyme replacement treatment.
But prayer won’t break down the waste material in his blood or keep it from accumulating in his spleen and liver. Prayer won’t keep him alive if the source of Cerezyme dries up. Prayer wno’t keep an AIDS patient alive and it doesn’t promise a cure anymore than it will drive away a drought, return gasoline to a dollar a gallon or kill the women of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.
Prayer, as Karl Marx correctly identified religion, is the opium of the people (“Die Religion … ist das Opium des Volkes”).
Yet that is what pseudo-historian/pseudo-scientist David Barton wants you to believe. Forget everything after the first century that isn’t Christian:
There’s a passage that I love in Romans 1 – I don’t love what the topic is – but it talks about homosexuality and it says that they will receive in their bodies the penalties of their behavior. And the Bible again, it’s right every time, and studies keep proving that and that’s why AIDS has been something they haven’t discovered a cure for or a vaccine for, because it’s the fastest self-mutating virus known to mankind. Every time they just about get a vaccine discovered for it, it transmutes into something new and they have to start over again. And that goes to what God says, hey you’re going to bear in your body the consequences of this homosexual behavior.
The same thing goes with abortion and now we’re getting studies, and these are somewhat negative studies, but they’re positive studies in that they prove that the Bible is right. So I want to read you the results of a couple of new studies that are out. Here’s a new study that out, now this is the second study that shows that women who have abortions double the risk of mental health problems … Now that’s not good news; the good news in this is God says “don’t kill unborn babies.”
Now, along the same thing, here’s another study, a new study now shows those who have abortions nearly triple the risk of breast cancer. It’s bad news, but it’s good news in the sense that it does show that the Bible is right. When God says don’t kill those unborn babies, there’s a reason. And He tells us in Deuteronomy 6:24 and Joshua 1:8, everything I tell you to do is for your good, for your benefit, so that you can prosper and you can have success. So when he tells us not to do this stuff, whether it’s homosexual behavior or whether its abortion, hey it’s for our benefit he tells us not to do it and now studies prove that to be true.
Actually, there are no studies that prove the Bible is right. With regards to a link between mental health problems and abortion, Barton is speaking of a single 2009 article in The Journal of Psychiatric Research “purporting to show “a link between abortions and long-term mental health problems” but there are two critiques of that study which show that it is seriously flawed.”
The first, by Julia Steinberg of the University of California at San Francisco and Lawrence Finer of the Guttmacher Institute and also published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, “found what they called, in a letter to the journal’s editors, ‘untrue statements about the nature of the dependent variables and associated false claims about the nature of the findings.'” Dr. Steinberg dismisses the first report’s findings in no-nonsense terms:
“This is not a scholarly difference of opinion,” Dr. Steinberg said. “Their facts were flatly wrong. This was an abuse of the scientific process to reach conclusions that are not supported by the data.”
The second critique, an analysis of data in Denmark (reported last year in the British Journal of Medicine), also “found no support for the hypothesis that abortion increased the risk of mental disorders.”
The American Cancer Association says that abortion does not cause an increased risk of breast cancer: “After adjusting for known breast cancer risk factors, the researchers found that induced abortion(s) had no overall effect on the risk of breast cancer. The size of this study and the manner in which it was done provide good evidence that induced abortion does not affect a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer.”
In 2003, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) Committee on Gynecologic Practice concluded that “”Early studies of the relationship between prior induced abortion and breast cancer risk were methodologically flawed. More rigorous recent studies demonstrate no causal relationship between induced abortion and a subsequent increase in breast cancer risk.”
The American Cancer Society does not rest its anti-Barton case there:
In 2004, the Collaborative Group on Hormonal Factors in Breast Cancer, based out of Oxford University in England, put together the results from 53 separate studies done in 16 different countries. These studies included about 83,000 women with breast cancer. After combining and reviewing the results from these studies, the researchers concluded that “the totality of worldwide epidemiological evidence indicates that pregnancies ending as either spontaneous or induced abortions do not have adverse effects on women’s subsequent risk of developing breast cancer.”
But David Barton does not care what scientists say; he doesn’t even care what the Bible says, really, since the Bible doesn’t talk about mental health problems or breast cancer resulting from abortion. And in fact, God does kill unborn babies, according to the Old Testament: God repeatedly commands that the Israelites kill men, women, and children, even pregnant women – hell, they even have to kill the livestock! That doesn’t sound like a pro-life God to me.
But misinterpretations of Scripture and dishonesty aside, theology does not explain disease – wallowing in ancient superstition is not going to save lives. Scientists may not so far have a cure for AIDS but they don’t have a cure for my son’s Gaucher Disease, or a cure for cancer, either. They also once upon a time did not have cures for many diseases that are now curable. Now, in other words, is not forever. Scientists do know what causes AIDS. As the Mayo Clinic explains:
“AIDS is a chronic, potentially life-threatening condition caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). By damaging your immune system, HIV interferes with your body’s ability to fight the organisms that cause disease.”
AIDS, in other words, is not a theological problem. It is a medical problem, just as female contraception is a medical, not a religious issue.
David Barton claims to be a historian but a historian cannot indulge in fantasies of prayer and miracle. As Bart Ehrman explains, “the natural sciences use repeated experimentation to establish predictive probabilities based on past occurrences.” A hundred times out of a hundred a bar of soap will float in water; a bar of iron will sink. This provides “an extremely high level of…presumptive probability” that all future bars of soap and iron will behave in this fashion, whereas a miracle involves “a violation of this known working of nature” – floating bar of iron, for example. A historian cannot disprove a miracle took place but a historian must establish “only what probably happened in the past” and miracles are “at odds with how the natural world typically works.”
The germ theory of disease freed humankind from dark superstition and science is indeed a candle in the dark, as Carl Sagan said, holding back the demon-haunted world. Republicans hate science and conservative Christian Republicans most of all: science is inconvenient: it impedes the spread of ideology and it impedes the spread of religious doctrine. When Stephen Colbert said that reality has a liberal bias he was speaking truth, and the literature is abundant on this score.
The sin of science is that it tries to explain the world as it is, now how it should be, not to buttress this or that ideology or this or that religion. Science is the facts on the ground, an object not of belief but of fact. Medical science is the same.
David Barton and pseudo-scholars like him (and dark disciples like Glenn Beck and Republican politicians who trumpet their claims) should be seen for what they are: agents of destruction. If you are a fan of Thomas Hobbes’ “nasty, brutish and short” then their gospel of destruction will no doubt find favor with you and in fact Christian Scientists are free to dismiss the germ theory of disease if they wish and if you want to think your cold is caused by demonic possession I suppose you are free to do so.
But this sort of Bronze Age thinking, promoted at the expense of centuries of scientific and medical advances, should not become public policy to inflict all humankind. Penicillin is a cure but prayer is a panacea, and disease as a divine punishment should hold no more allure in the 21st century than the philosopher’s stone.
 Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, Third Edition (Oxford University Press, 2004), 227-29.
 Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (Ballantine Books, 1996).
 Just a few examples: Chris Mooney, The Republican War on Science (Basic Books, 2005); Russell Shorto, Descartes’ Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason (Doubleday, 2008); James Hoggan, Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming (Greystone Books, 2009); Timothy Ferris, The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature (HarperCollins, 2010),
 Thomas Hobbes, The Leviathan (1651).