I am reading Peter Berger’s question –- “Can Judges Define the
Structure of the Universe?” – I am sitting in the jury selection room of
the Superior Court of the County of Los Angeles. It is interesting that the jury orientation charges jurors to use common sense not scientific or medical reasoning.
The case that Berger describes is troublesome. I once served as a court social worker in child neglect and abuse cases. How
could any family determine if their 3-year old child had pneumonia or
influenza or the measles after 3-days as the defense in the case
asserts? Many elderly persons die of pneumonia because, like children,
they have weak immune systems. Would the same standard prevail for those caring for elderly persons? This is a strange decision in a legal culture where abortion is also permissible.
The Mayoclinic.com states that chest x-rays and blood tests would be necessary to diagnose pneumonia. The Mayo Clinic clarifies: “precise identification occurs in only about half of people with pneumonia.” Science is not always certain as in the case of false positive test results.
Pentecostal Christian parents may believe that radiation from x-rays is not divine healing. Wealthy,
educated parents are often more prone to believing cell phone radiation
can damage children’s brains. My guess is that Pentecostal Christians
are more likely to fall into the so-called less educated category.
Charles Markle and Frances McCrea in their book “What if Medicine
Disappeared?” answer probably there would be not much change to
mortality rates. A recent study in Oregon found that lack of health insurance has little or no impact on mortality rates.
What Berger is describing is what is called “cognitive dissonance” by social psychologists. There
is a tendency that when people have a belief –- such as God will heal
or that cell phones cause childhood brain tumors or mental retardation –
that when evidence disconfirms that belief, the belief tends to get
stronger not weaker. So if Pentecostalists believe Jesus ascended into heaven but science says it couldn’t have happened their belief gets stronger. Same
phenomenon appears to apply to secular beliefs in global warming –
especially if one’s livelihood is dependent on a mega-million government
research grant on climate change. It can be surmised that the beliefs
of the irate judge in this case were strengthened –- not only the
beliefs of the Pentecostal Christian parents.
is what is called “walking pneumonia” where adults with normal immune
systems contract the disease but it eventually disappears. However, this is less likely to occur in children. A similar phenomenon of “spontaneous remission” occurs with cancer. One
case of metastasized Stage 4 terminal cancer of the kidney in Northern
Ireland cites the patient’s belief in prayer as why her cancer
disappeared (see: “Medics baffled as woman’s killer cancer disappears,”
The Independent, April 22, 2009).
been in a courtroom when an imperious judge believed that a meddling
and judgmental social worker was the problem, not child absue, and
released a child back to the custody of the parents on a Friday. By Monday we learned the father had fried the infant in a frying pan! Judges and doctors don’t always have more wisdom or a higher knowledge than parents or social workers. Legal rulings of incredible certainty are often no more credible or reliable than those of strong religious parents. The
sociologist Max Weber described different types of authority
structures: traditional (religious) authority and rational-legal
authority. Neither has a corner on greater certainty.
strong religious parents be persuaded or even compelled to bring their
sick children to doctors with a social worker in lieu of the coercion of
police and courts? Certainly! X-ray equipment is now portable. Could an x-ray –- which is not “medical treatment” per se -– have been conducted on the child in the home? I don’t know. I am not contending that there is always a technological fix to a religious and Constitutional issue.
The point is not that parents should deny medical care to their children. The point is facing up to uncertainty. Bureaucracies
–- whether legal or medical – tend to be based on certainty in an
uncertain world. Generally speaking, parents tend to have more common
sense than those claiming expert knowledge. Strong court rulings can interfere with common sense just as strong religion does.
Can judges define the structure of the universe? No. Does the state ever have any business
overruling the decisions of parents whose view of the universe prohibits medical intervention for their children? Yes. Like Charles Taylor, Berger does not endorse the exclusively immanent frame of our secular age, but science is incorporated into common sense because “it works.” Not perfectly, of course—one thinks of Ivan Illich’s warning about “iatrogenic” (doctor-induced) illnesses in “Medical Nemesis.” Sociologist Anthony Giddens
speaks of the “manufactured uncertainty” that comes with exploding scientific knowledge. But if “best practices” are controversial, there is little doubt that bleeding patients is a worst practice. One need not endorse an ideologically scientistic worldview to recognize that there are reasonably reliable remedies available for various clear and present medical dangers. When the law is operating pragmatically and not trying to define the structure of the universe—not, for example, adopting Richard Dawkins’ view of religious education for children as a form of child
abuse—it should be empowered to protect children.
The fear that resorting to science represents a lack of faith in God is based on the same kind of “subtraction theory” that Taylor identifies as foundation of the modern devotion to science. Subtract the superstition from theism and one is left with resplendent naturalism. Misunderstanding science as subtraction, fundamentalists reject it. But subtraction theory is wrong. “The new
interest in nature [during the rise of science] was not a step outside a religious outlook, even partially; it was a mutation within this outlook” (“A
Secular Age,” p. 95). The scientific
study of nature was initially seen as a way of getting closer to the mind of God (and not in the purely poetic sense of some contemporary physicists).
I have previously cited Berger’s observation that, from a sacramental point of view, the empirical world in its entirety is a gigantic symbol of the face of God. Why should God be offended by the scientific study of His creation? Sounding much
like Berger, Taylor writes: “That things have a stable nature doesn’t prevent them from still being signs pointing to God. In the words of Hugues of St. Victor . . . ‘The entire sense-perceptible
world is like a sort of book written by the finger of God’” (93). And we mustn’t forget geneticist Francis Collins’ characterization of DNA as “The Language of God” (again, that’s not poetry).
Berger and Taylor share the belief that our secular age is not necessarily secular—that is, there is no
“intellectual sacrifice” inherent in a religious worldview. They also share the view that transcendence has a tendency to return when repressed. One place Taylor thinks he sees a difference with Berger is on the important question of the consequences of pluralism. Taylor speaks of “fragilization” as the “greater proximity of alternatives [that] has led to a society in which more people change their positions . . .. But
this has nothing to do with a supposed greater fragility of the faith they end up with (or decide to remain with), as Berger seems to imply. On the contrary, the faith arising in this contemporary predicament can be stronger, just because it has faced the alternative without distortion” (p. 833 n19). But this reading ignores the fact that Berger’s sociology of knowledge relativizes the relativizers and liberates one from the present. If one passes through the “fiery brook” (Feuerbach)
of relativism, one emerges with the understanding that modern pluralism is not normative for the existential believer. It is a challenge, not a fate.
So, I see significant agreement between Berger and Taylor on important issues. The main difference? Taylor writes longer books.
Its all about class and who is in charge here. The peasants will taste the lash and will say they love Big Brother.