Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production


V021-01_witchdoctorWRemember when all those missionaries used to go to remote, undeveloped places to win new souls for Christ?   In addition to all those shiny beads and other material goodies, they used to bring what stood for modern medicine to ingratiate themselves with the “locals.”   It was science in the service of religion.   Well, maybe selective science.


There have been loads of books and movies one could enlist in aid of memory, films like A Nun’s Story , in which (Sister) Audrey Hepburn goes to an African mission to help the sick, and also to assist in medical research being done by Belgian doctors. [1] There have been several dramatic lines that have some doctor or nurse curing the dying son or daughter of the king of some aboriginal tribe, saving the lives of the great white doctors in the bargain.


Real missionary-medical adventures have been more complex than that, especially since they have often been employed as a wedge for economic exploitation of the people that they were putatively “saving” from disease or damnation, not to mention as an excuse to trash their environment as well.   Moreover, a case can be made that there have been instances where a couple of good sneezes from the white angels, or some injections of a non-medical sort, could send most or all bodies and souls on their way.


But I want to highlight one other dynamic of this process of bringing modern religion and science to the heathens.   I say “modern religion” because the bringing of Christianity (Islam seems to have employed different techniques, which I won’t go into here) to the aboriginal world often involves a “faith” that antedates the religions of the subject populations by millennia.   So very often the bringing of crucifixes, “moo-moos,” and bibles, as well as vaccinations and surgeries, involves the obliteration of the traditional religions and, of course, those whose power and interests are associated with those belief systems.  


How many times has it been the “witch-doctor” of the aboriginal who is portrayed as some vile obstruction to the march of science and the salvation of the Lord?   Witch-doctor is an interesting term, combing elements of religion with the some empirically derived medicaments such as toads testicles, some leaves, a dash of secret powdery ingredient and, almost always, some spit.   Scaring people well, or convincing them that their sickness was expelled in that vomit, is at least “placebo-istic” medicine.   But, usually, the witch-doctor has to go.   He’s usually toast right after the White Bwana Doctor has brought the chief’s favorite wife back from the brink of death.


There is a certain ruthlessness that science exerts on superstition and religious tradition.   (Sometimes the reverse is true as well; just ask Galileo.)   This seems very much to be the case with the prevailing controversy over stem-cell research.   Cast in the role of witch-doctors are those politicians and pastors bent on characterizing the harvesting of embryonic stem-cells as equivalent to the taking of life, when they are little more that balls of cells.   The real terror for them is that these “white Bwana-Doctors” in lab coats are the latest heterodox threat to a cosmology that sees life cast in Biblical and doctrinal terms, not it terms of its possibility and process.   For the most hidebound religionists all is written, and the mind exists primarily to conjure new ways to bend the state to its will.


Stem cell research holds promise to relieve a range of diseases that afflict hundreds of thousands in America alone.   But America, thanks to the lack of prescience or conscience of George Bush, may not take the lead in finding cures for them.   The world, and science, will not sit still to see that promise squandered for a the sake of a political payoff to religious zealots masquerading as the protection of “life” by a man who is responsible for thousands of deaths and, who would arrogantly withhold the taxes of those who suffer from scourges like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and other neurological maladies from being expended in service of their cures.


Today it is the descendants of the pill-pushing missionaries who are attempting to bar the door to stem cell research.   But these evangelists are interested in winning souls so that they can control the bodies of their converts.   They oppose measures – women’s choice, right-to-die, and now medical advances – that threaten their self-appointed status as society’s witch-doctors.   They rattle their rattles and fulminate over the threats to their old superstitions, of Genesis-generated earths and geocentric universes, of whatever does not square with the orthodoxies based on their book of fables, and they base their ministries on the ignition of their flashing powders no hell fire.     They claim to serve “the truth, the light ,and the way,”   but they have become “the Dark Side.”


In the end the witch doctors will not be able to hold things back.   Stem cells, if they hold their promise, will come into the practice of therapeutics, perhaps even with some counterintuitive and negative effects, but they will come because they represent the side of hope that one doesn’t have to die for, but to live with.

©2005, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 6.1.2005)

[1] Although the canonized Mother Theresa of Calcutta has been criticized for dispatching souls to their salvation with her prayers rather than focusing on secular remedies that might have saved their lives.