The Chief Justice makes a huge mistake by calling on mythological creatures to assist with what is, in essence, a scientific (biological) problem that is best addressed by scientists and good public policy.

Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng has a right to his opinions, beliefs and general views about life, medicine, communicable diseases, vaccinations and just about anything in this, our universe. This does not mean he is right. In fact, his anti-vaccination screed, couched as it was in religious tones, was not simply wrong, it was downright dangerous….

In a society that values free speech, the Chief Justice should know, perhaps more than any of us, that his claims and statements carry a lot of weight. People listen to “respected” office-bearers, and as the growth in charismatic (mass) churches has shown, people are turning more and more towards faith, and biblical guidance for the problems that beset society. His claims, about “the devil” and prayer as a means to destroy the Covid-19 virus are so profoundly ridiculous and dangerously misleading, that they barely deserve repeating. With these claims, he stepped into that dangerous field of conflict between science and religion.

If the problem is biological, then scientific solutions trump prayer to a deity

I will lay down a marker. My view is that what he said is wrong, ill-conceived, based on myths, and that he is peddling dangerous views, knowledge and information. There is no evidence that prayer can cure disease in the human body. There is no evidence that prayer can eliminate viruses. Those are the short statements. The longer versions are, well, longer. But let’s try a Ladybird Children’s Book approach.

There are very many entry points to a discussion on religion versus science, or on religion in general. Given that the good judge made claims about medicine, vaccinations and, well, human responses to communicable disease, we don’t have to get sucked into the jibber-jabber of “the sign of the beast” (or is it the devil?). The big mistake Mogoeng made was invoking mythological creatures to address the Covid-19 virus. These creatures are mythological in part because there is no evidence to confirm their existence, and they belong, like most such creatures, in mythology. I am loathe, even, to place the good judge’s claims alongside Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. That would be giving the good judge way too much intellectual credit. He may be a legal expert, but there is little evidence to suggest that he is an expert in mythology. Perhaps I am wrong. The basic problem is the judge’s calling on mythological creatures to assist with what is, essentially, a scientific (biological) problem, that is best addressed by scientists, and good public policy.

Here’s the Ladybird version. The human body is made up of several biological systems that work together to keep us functioning. It also has very many parts; from a tongue to toes. Very simply stated, if you’re going to make any claims about afflictions of the human body, it’s probably best to do so in biological terms – not by way of mythical or supernatural claims. If prayer has any effect on biological malfunction, marasmus or malnutrition, death caused by malaria and, for the sake of this argument, Covid-19, then we might as well give up on the study and practice of medicine (including all its branches) and while we are at it, we ought to cease research in the natural sciences. That the judge draws on mythological tropes is actually quite pitiful – and as mentioned above, it is dangerous.

The comforts and discomforts of myths and false beliefs

Myths are handy – this is where the danger enters – when you want to explain to children where babies come from (god created them), who made the world (god created it), and what happens after we die (we go to meet god). I am not going to start a discussion on creationism versus evolution by natural selection. What I will throw down, here, is that the divine, miracle-working Jesus of Nazareth who holds such a central place in the Abrahamic religions is, indeed, a myth that has been developed over many centuries by successive communities of true believers, and was significantly influenced by mythic elements of Roman, Greek, and Eastern religions.  Myths are also useful when we want to explain stories about religious rituals or weather patterns to help people make decisions about their lives. 

It should come as no surprise when true believers, most especially in the US, invoke biblical justifications for, or shrug their shoulders in the face of the climate crisis. Their beliefs about the climate crisis as something god-given or created by god, draw (in part) on 2 Peter 3:10 which tells us that “the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the Earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up”. With respect, then, to the environment, their approach is akin to saying god gave us the Earth, we have to enjoy it in its totality, and god is going to destroy it all anyway, and take true believers to heaven. This is one way in which mythology helps people make decisions – in this case, about the climate crisis. 

But closer to Chief Justice Mogoeng’s foregrounding of Christian beliefs about the Covid-19 pandemic, we can reach back to history, to Tertullian of Carthage, who lived sometime between 150-240 CE, and is regarded as one of the early fathers of the Christian church. He professed that when there was a clash of ideas between science and sacred teachings Christians should always defer to the Bible. 

“When we come to believe [in Christianity], we have no desire to believe anything else; for we begin by believing that there is nothing else which we have to believe,” Tertullian wrote in his Prescriptions Against Heretics.

‘Don’t believe everything you read on the internet’ – Abraham Lincoln

One of Donald Trump’s greatest weaknesses, was to fall, and propagate every bit of middle-brow horse manure, and untruths he read online. One would expect a Chief Justice to know better. Anyway, we seemed to have reached the point where true believers (mainly evangelicals, and those who read their religious texts literally), place their faith in prayer over science, and invoke the spirit of Jesus, as did Chief Justice Mogoeng, when he said: “If there be any vaccine that is of the devil, meant to infuse triple six in the lives of people, meant to corrupt their DNA, any such vaccine, Lord God Almighty, may it be destroyed by fire, in the name of Jesus.”

We can pick that apart in the following way. Above all, there is no evidence of an actual “devil” who is working on a vaccine. And for the record, there really is no devil. A vaccine for Covid-19 is being developed by scientists. The idea that a vaccine may be used “to infuse triple-six in the lives of people, meant to corrupt their DNA” is really terribly confusing, absurd and a dangerous logical fallacy. It could turn people towards rejecting a Covid-19 vaccine, which would endanger their own lives, and the lives of others. It’s hard to grasp how, exactly, a mythical “mark of the beast” can change a human being’s DNA.

There is no scientific evidence that a vaccine would genetically modify humans. This is not to say that scientists are not working specifically on DNA vaccinations, but that has been an ongoing, and quite separate project that has different aims and objectives. The judge’s claims are grotesque. There are people, very many people, to whom faith-based reasoning is part of their way of dealing with life. There is a grave danger, however, when the Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court sounds like one of Donald Trump’s spiritual advisers – who have been trying to pray away the Covid-19 virus for most of the past year. Or the US televangelist Kenneth Copeland, who claimed earlier this year that the coronavirus pandemic would be “over much sooner you think” because “Christian people all over this country praying have overwhelmed it”.

Thus spake Copeland: “I blow the wind of God on you. You are destroyed forever, and you’ll never be back. Thank you, God. Let it happen. Cause it to happen…. Wind, almighty, strong, south wind, Heat: Burn this thing, in the name of Jesus. I say, you bow your knees. You fall on your face.”

Chief Justice Mogoeng has the right to say anything he wishes, but he has to bear in mind that people take him seriously, and that there is little evidence to support any of the myths he peddled about the coronavirus. If he thinks his god listens to prayer, tell that to the mothers of the 5.2 million children under five who died in 2019, through no fault of their own. I’m willing to bet that those mothers, too, prayed to the mythical god. If they did, god either didn’t listen to their prayers, or he couldn’t be arsed – or he is simply a very cruel god. DM

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