Sunday Morning Atheism
The sickle cell trait.
It’s often given by biologists as an example of balancing selection, which is when two different alleles (traits) are actively maintained in a population. In the case of the sickle cell trait, if it is inherited from one parent and not the other – i.e. in heterozygous form, it provides significant protection against malaria. But if the sickle cell trait is inherited from both parents – the homozygous form, it is devastating.
People hear the word “anemia” and think of pale, Victorian maidens fainting in church; but the consequences of sickle cell disease are far more severe than simple fatigue. Ten percent of children with sickle cell disease fail to make it to their twentieth birthdays. The ones that do survive continue to suffer attacks of vaso-occlusive crisis: blood vessels become blocked and ischemic, which can lead to necrosis (and subsequent amputation) of the various peripheral tissues of the body (including the digits and penis) or painful or irrecoverable internal organ damage.
People who have ischemic strokes often fall into four categories: old people with low blood pressure, middle-aged people with high blood pressure, long-term cocaine abusers, and children of African descent. By the time they are adults, many children with sickle cell disease have diffuse encephalomalacia – cerebral softening – which happens in the aftermath of a stroke. Some of these sickle cell strokes have clinical symptoms such as hemiparesis (loss of function on one side of the body) or dysarthria (slurred speech). These kinds of strokes are large and significant enough to be noticed by family members and can at least be managed and controlled at hospitals after sickle cell patients are brought in emergently. However, some sickle cell strokes are “silent strokes”, which have no clinical symptoms or symptoms that are too nuanced to be detected by friends and family members. These types of strokes usually lead to cognitive decline and eventually the kind of dementia we associate with aging.
Thus, an unnatural senility awaits the “lucky” sickle cell patients who make it to young adulthood and middle age.
So, in light of the horrors of sickle cell disease, I have some questions for the theists here:
(1) Why do bad things happen to good people?
I realize this is well-worn territory in the Richard Dawkins versus Jesus literature, but the sickle cell trait is especially damning of religion I’m convinced. I’ve heard it said that “God has a plan”, and even that God’s plan sometimes includes the death of children (presumably for reasons we mere mortals are not wise enough to understand), but why does God make such children suffer needlessly? What does God get from a demented twelve-year-old drooling and staring into space? What reason is there for God to cause a young boy’s penis to become gangrenous and fall off?
(2) Why is the genetic mechanism for sickle cell such a gigantic, inelegant piece of crap?
I’m probably the last person who will tell you that nature isn’t beautiful or at least commanding of respect. Even HIV and Ebola are tremendously complex and worthy adversaries for the human race; but the sickle cell allele is just an absurd, cruel, ironic joke on humanity. If you have one copy of the gene, you’re protected from malaria, but if you have two, not only do you have a disease arguably even worse than malaria that you cannot escape from (by, say, moving to Finland), but homozygotes for the sickle cell allele are not even protected from malaria. This kind of sloppy work is hardly befitting an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent God.
(3) How can you look at something like sickle cell disease and see anything other than meaninglessness?
I was on the fence for a while, and I’ve mostly had one foot square on the atheism side for quite some time now (with the other foot still resting on one of the chain links and my hands on the top bar, ready to hop back over just in case). I have tried looking for alternate explanations that were still kind of consistent with God/Christianity and the notion of a purposeful universe but also consistent with reality: pantheism for instance is the basis for Unitarianism, a sane but slightly desperate form of Christianity. In a sense, the human that denies the existence of God is like the cell that denies the existence of the organism of which it is a part, and so pantheism appeals to me. The Society of Friends has much about it to be admired – as do many forms of Buddhism – in terms of those religions’ values and their day-to-day, operational outlooks on life. Even the ethical positions of my own native Catholicism (based in such attractive notions as simplicity and charity) are appealing to me.
But, at last, when I look down deep into my being, I find the search for meaning – whether this search is imposed by society or self or something else entirely – to be fruitless. For some time I’ve struggled coming to grips with the apparent assault of biology and evolutionary science on religion. I once wondered: how is evolution any more threatening to belief in God than the electromagnetic spectrum? Yet, the more I learn about and understand things like sickle cell disease, the more sick children I see, the more I am forced to accept the view that belief in a kind and omniscient God can never be reconciled with the reality that that God has apparently bequeathed on us.