WRITTEN BY JO STEPHANIE, AAI NEWS TEAM
In late November 2013 a woman from Kitwe, Zambia’s
second largest city, died from pneumonia after allegedly following the advice
of her pastor to stop taking her medication. Rather than advise the woman in
question to continue taking her medication he recommended that she instead pray
and fast. Faith healing was the solution he suggested, not medicine. The woman
obliged and four days later she was dead.
A person’s religious belief can bring them comfort during times of illness but it is no replacement for sound medical advice. Those who so strongly believe that God wants to and is capable of healing them should question why a benevolent god would allow disease to thrive in the first place. Religious people, unfortunately, often avoid asking themselves such questions. And when they do, the conclusion many come to is that God is so complex that we can never understand his ways and that we should instead simply trust him. Unsurprisingly, one of the best-known Bible passages (one that I memorised at a very young age) is Proverbs 3:5-6. The verses instruct the reader to completely trust in God, disregard their own reasoning and let God direct their path.
Ridiculous as the events of late November may seem they almost make sense when put into context. Having lived in Zambia for much of my life I know how highly revered church leaders are. A pastor or priest is not just a spiritual leader but is almost seen as a second father. More and more pastors are gaining celebrity status. Advice from a man (or woman) of the cloth is believed to be divinely inspired and people feel compelled to follow it.
There are relatively few religious leaders telling congregants to stop taking their medication but they are still a danger to society. In the Kitwe case the illness was pneumonia but there are many reported cases of pastors advising patients against taking medication for a far more serious condition: HIV. This is true in Zambia (where in some cases people are led to believe that AIDS is not caused by a virus but is instead caused by demons), other African countries and also in the UK. Much progress has been made in the fight against HIV/AIDS but we will never reach the goal of no new infections with even a minority of people promoting faith as a cure, rather than medication.
Religious dogma has also been a hindrance in the fight against polio. The Pakistani Taliban opposes polio vaccinations and has targeted health workers administering the vaccine in a series of fatal attacks. In Cameroon, which had been polio free for about five years, four new cases were reported last year and there is evidence to show that the teachings of fundamentalist Pentecostal pastors are to blame for the resurgence. At least 2 of the 4 people infected with the virus were not vaccinated because their families believed they could rely on God to provide healing and good health rather than vaccines. Additionally, illegal Cameroonian churches have been accused of “performing fake miracles” and “killing citizens in deadly exorcisms.”
The actions of the unnamed Kitwe pastor are akin to murder and the same is true of other religious leaders whose advice has led to the death of even just a single member of their congregation. Similarly, strongly preaching against prophylactics (as in the case of the Catholic Church and their anti-condom stance) and therefore encouraging the spread of diseases is also akin to murder. Any adult should know not to take the advice of their pastor over that of medical professionals when it comes to medical matters. However, when a religious person believes that God speaks to them through their pastor, there is pressure on them to obey the instructions they receive. Refusal to do so can be perceived as disobeying God and showing a lack of faith in his power. Others question why they should continue taking their medication when they can simply pray for a cure. All things considered, any religious leader who advises any of their followers to choose faith healing over the advice of a medical practitioner should face legal action.