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BMJ. 2007 November 24; 335(7629): 1099.
PMCID: PMC2094136
Between the Lines

The God delusion

Theodore Dalrymple, writer and retired doctor

In his essay “Nature” (one of the Three Essays on Religion published posthumously in 1874), John Stuart Mill denies that one can decide on the morality or immorality of a course of action by describing it as natural or unnatural. Either the word “nature” means all that occurs in the universe; or it means all that happens in the universe with the exception of the deliberate actions of mankind. In neither sense can nature provide us with any moral guidance. This is obviously of interest to medical ethicists struggling with morality or otherwise of genetic engineering.

The following words appear in Mill's essay: “The consciousness that whatever man does to improve his condition is in so much a censure and a thwarting of the spontaneous order of Nature, has in all ages caused new and unprecedented attempts at improvement to be generally at first under a shade of religious suspicion . . .”

In my copy, a first edition, a previous owner (a Victorian, to judge by the handwriting) has written the word “Chloriform” (sic) in the margin opposite these words. And this, of course, brings me to Sir James Young Simpson's pamphlet, “Answer to the Religious Objections Advanced Against the Employment of Anaesthetic Agents in Midwiferey and Surgery,” which he wrote in December 1847, shortly after his discovery of chloroform anaesthesia.

Simpson, a man of fairly humble background—who, showing extraordinary academic promise at an early age, was selected by his father from among his siblings for an education—was a man of wide interests, including archaeology; he loved nothing so much as a good controversy. He was a formidable pamphleteer, commanding an excellent, vigorous style in the service of relentless logic.

He argues against those who said that to give chloroform to women in labour was impiously to try to reverse God's curse on women in Genesis, “in sorrow shalt though bring forth children.” If this part of the curse were taken literally to mean physically pain, he says, why not the other part of the curse, that “in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread?” All attempts to mitigate labour, and improve the land by removing the “thorns and thistles” that it “shall bring forth to thee,” would likewise be forbidden, says Simpson. Indeed, the whole of the medical profession would be sacrilegious on the same view, because it attempted to delay man's return to dust (“dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return”) that was part of the same curse.

If God had not wanted man to relieve the pain of childbirth, says Simpson, he would not have made chloroform available to him. Besides, those who argued against chloroform on religious grounds had long attempted, unsuccessfully, to relieve the pain of childbirth, and it cannot be forbidden to do successfully what it is forbidden to do unsuccessfully.

Simpson then goes on to demonstrate, by reference to Hebrew philology, that the common acceptance of the meaning of the Bible is based on a misapprehension of Hebrew words. Sorrow in the Biblical curse on women means labour, not pain. Finally, Simpson points out that the same argument from sacrilege was advanced against Jenner's vaccination, but everyone now acknowledges that it was a ridiculous argument.

Altogether, it is a bravura performance on Simpson's part. The only problem is that Simpson, being an avid self promoter, had made up the religious objections himself. He was destroying a straw man: but he did it very thoroughly.

If God had not wanted man to relieve the pain of childbirth, says Simpson, he would not have made chloroform available to him


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