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HPV and control-by-threat

The debate in this country over the new HPV vaccine highlights one of the fundamental characteristics of most religions. For this discussion, I'll limit my comments to conservative Christianity since they are the loudest voice in this country, but my comments could as easily apply to other issues and other religions. The fundamental characterstic I have in mind is the feature of 'control-by-threat'.

I use the term control-by-threat to highlight what it really is. Often in language we use clever metaphors, like 'the stick approach', but after a while, we become so accustomed to these metaphors that we forget what they really mean: we become desenstitized to their meaning. But controlling someone by means of threatening that person with violence or dire consequences is exactly what we are talking about.

The HPV vaccine recently approved for use is designed to prevent women from getting cancer. The kind of cancer we're talking about is cervical cancer. I went to grad school with a woman who had this kind of cancer. If the woman doesn't die, she is often unable to ever have children. This does not even account for the damage done financially and emotional to both the rest of the woman's body as she undergoes treatment, or the trauma her partner and family experience when they wonder if their wife/mother/daughter is going to die. HPV is the cause of 70% cervical cancers. Suffering could be reduced significantly through the use of this vaccine. We as a nation would lose fewer young women to this disease and spend significantly less money on treating preventable forms of cancer.

A recent study showed that around 1-in-4 women in the US has some form of HPV. It's fortunate, that not every strain of HPV causes cancer, but the number shows the vulnerability of women to this disease. The high infection rate is probably due to the fact that strains of HPV often do not exhibit symptoms in men, so men pass the disease on without knowing they have it.

And what are Christian fundamentalists doing?

They are freaking out because giving a vaccine to a pre-pubescent girl might encourage her to have sex. As if preventing her from having sex before she gets married is more important than saving her life.

The sad thing is that many fundamentalist Christians do indeed come across as believing this. And why might that be? Because they admit to fearing the loss of that threat of illness to hang over her head. They fear that they will not be able to control her by merely instilling values in her, but that only by threat of death or dire illness will they be able to retain control.

It's not just HPV, of course. These kinds of believers who subscribe to a philosophy of control-by-threat will use it anywhere they can. Even just when it comes to sex, they have pregnancy, AIDS and other STDs. Why else would abstinence programs attempt to convince students that condoms don't work? Because it reinstates that threat if they disobey.

Beyond the world of sex, the pattern continues. Consider the way that many Christians approach atheists? Do as I say or burn in hell... if that isn't a threat, I don't know what is.

The problem with control-by-threat is not whether it works or not; the problem is that it is essentially advocating violence. And violence promotes violence. Particularly under the colour of religion, when violence is advocated by god, a recent study shows that even nonbelievers are more likely to behave aggressively. Sadly, this strikes me as an awful feedback loop, with violence encouraging violence, leading to the advocacy of violence and so on.

Perhaps the conclusion here is that since violence is antithetical to civilization, that perhaps religion also is antithetical to civilization. Certainly, some would argue that my statement is too broad, that surely what I mean to say is that only violent religions are antithetical to civilization. I would give you that violent religions, religions that resort to control-by-threat being only more subtlely violent, are more antithetical than others, but if the last study is to be believed, even otherwise peaceful religions contain the seed of violence in them because of our susceptibility to edicts from 'god'. This is not, per se, an attack on religions of peace, perhaps, so much as it is an attack on our own weaknesses. If we were speaking of a weakness like addiction, we must either abandon it altogether (as most addiction programs preach) or we must learn to use (legal) substances in moderation, which as anyone addicted to food knows, is a far more difficult challenge.

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