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2nd place — Kelly Chen: Keep the bible out of public policy

Kelly Chen

FFRF awarded Kelly $2,000.

By Kelly Chen

Growing up attending Alabama public schools, I remember opening my biology textbook to find a prominent sticker placed on the inside cover. This page-long insert, conceived by conservative Christians and implemented by the Alabama Department of Education, emphasized that evolution was a “controversial theory” and “always subject to change.” While the sticker’s message claimed to encourage an “open mind,” it was clearly a closed-minded attempt to question science-based teaching that contradicted creationism.

I went on to major in biology in college, learning to value empirical evidence and the scientific method over competing and contradictory religious claims. Science fascinated me for its objectivity and burdens of proof, and I put my faith in facts, rather than in a single spirituality. Now, as a medical student, I can appreciate moments when patients derive comfort or strength from the bible. But I cannot overlook the threat bible-based public policy poses to the health of Americans.

Alarmingly, bibliolatry deems the bible inherently and irrefutably correct. Former Congressman Todd Akin is one of many religious politicians who cites meritless claims rather than evidence simply because they adhere to the bible. During an interview, Akin scoffed that rape victims did not deserve access to abortions because, “If it’s legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down.” At best, public officials such as Akin are lazy or ignorant. At worst, they are hypocrites like former Congressman Tim Murphy, who held a very public and religiously justified anti-abortion stance, yet privately urged his mistress to have an abortion. Public officials with this holier-than-thou mindset impose their views on others even though they themselves do not practice what they preach.

The beliefs of some should never apply to all. Atrocities like the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials and subordination of Untouchables show the dangers of zealous religious belief. A famous medical ethics case makes this point potently clear. In 2014, Herbert and Catherine Schaible were jailed after they chose “divine healing” over medical treatment for their two children. Tragically, these children suffered from the hubris and damaging influence of their parents. The parents had the right to make decisions regarding their own care, but they had no right to force these views onto their helpless children, who died unnecessarily as a result. Similarly, policymakers are free to hold religious beliefs, but should not support bible-based laws that impose those beliefs on all Americans. Evangelism is particularly dangerous when combined with political power. Two lives were lost due to the Schaible’s biblically based actions; millions more have been affected by policies rooted in religion.

Most of all, I mourn the scientific progress lost to bibliolatry. Imagine what treatments for devastating diseases would already exist if the church had not outlawed the study of human anatomy during the Middle Ages, if the Reagan administration had not waited for more than 20,000 Americans to die of AIDS before addressing the crisis, or if the Bush administration had not killed eight years of stem-cell research from 2001-2009, excused as “deficit reduction.” President Reagan won the presidency with the staunch support of “The Moral Majority,” led by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who later preached, “AIDS is the wrath of God upon homosexuals.” When Reagan finally acknowledged AIDS in 1987, his message to Americans was to promote religious principles like marital fidelity and sexual abstinence, rather than fund medical advances. Years later, President George W. Bush justified his decision by saying it was “shaped by deeply held beliefs . . . I also believe human life is a sacred gift from our creator.” Bibliolatry blinded Bush to the public support of embryonic stem cell research and to the hopes of patients desperate to enroll in clinical trials. Bible-based policies have consistently stymied scientific inquiry and innovation.

To remedy these problems, policies should be informed by experts. Ask statisticians to analyze the outcomes of comprehensive versus abstinence-only sexual health education. Have OB-GYNs testify to the merits and faults of abortion policy. Assemble a team of public health officials, businesspeople and physicians to tackle health-care reform. Find experts trained to consider evidence-based work to integrate comprehensive, transparent and unbiased data into laws. Any policymaker who thinks citing the bible is equivalent to citing data should be excluded due to conflict of interest. Years of painstaking learning and investment by our scientists, at the world’s highest standard, should remain untainted by bibliolatry. Bibliolatry is not inherently bad; it is only when the bible is weaponized to implement a belief system over well-informed policy that it becomes toxic.

Kelly, 22, of Vestavia Hills, Ala., attends the University of Alabama School of Medicine. She graduated with distinction from Stanford University with a degree in biology. She published neurology research in peer-reviewed scientific journals and served on the national leadership board of United Students for Veterans’ Health.