Just when we thought the finish line was in sight, grief and anger are swelling again. My colleagues at hospitals far and near suffer battle fatigue in the moment, yet still experience PTSD that has not been honored from last winter. They are haunted by death and sadness as well as schedules that allow no time for personal healing, psychological reflection or their own daily needs. To a one, they are frustrated with rumor-mongering talk-show hosts and self-proclaimed experts who quote one quack after another on social media.
Meanwhile, the body bags are full, morgues are at capacity and life-or-death procedures and cancer treatments are being postponed. Politicians pandering to their base in the name of “personal liberty” is a badge of honor in some circles, while sound science is ignored or ridiculed by politicians and lay “experts” alike — most recently by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who decried what he called “medical authoritarianism.” Our children are caught in the crossfire of our national dysfunction, and the toll for that alone may be a huge price to pay for our selfishness and willful ignorance.
What can we do? What do we hope for? Perhaps most importantly, what kind of America do we want to bequeath to our grandchildren, assuming we have a country we even recognize at that point?
I’m immensely puzzled by human behavior — the claims we make, the decisions we base those claims upon, the actions we ultimately pursue. I was drawn almost 40 years ago to a branch of philosophy called “epistemology.” Getting to know eminent philosopher Robert Baird and his now deceased colleague and friend Stuart Rosenbaum, both fixtures at Baylor University, I was drawn to this truly absorbing field. Basically, it asks a question: How do we know what we know? It pushes, probes and forces us out of our comfort zones of accepting things just because, “well, I just know,” or because “so-and-so says it is true.” It forces us to examine our beliefs, and both true and false assumptions we make.
In a world of disbelief and rampant disinformation, we need to pause at this crucial moment in history and go back to our intellectual, historical and spiritual roots. For once we answer the question of how we know things, we face an even more crucial question: What do we do with this knowledge? The decisions we make based on those paradigms are nothing less than the structures that shape human endeavor. As we contemplate a post-COVID-19 world, it might behoove us to struggle a bit with the very foundations of knowledge. Hope, as elusive as it might seem in troubled times, becomes a cornerstone upon which we can build a viable future.
In short, if we persist in a dysfunctional manner as a nation, we sign our own death warrant. We cannot live on lies, on cultural and institutional selfishness, on information shared on social media as if gospel.
I focus here on three ways that we all use to shape our knowledge and subsequent decisions in the current crisis. Two we recognize immediately; the third might be more elusive. Imagine yourself at the center of a classic Venn diagram: a small, solo human interacting in a fascinating yet terribly broken world. Surrounding us are three concentric circles, each overlapping the others with us at the center. The three outside circles are individual liberty, theology and science. Let us examine each and see what conclusions we may draw.
The notion of individual liberty seems woven into our national DNA. We have the Emersonian notion of self-reliance and rugged individualism that we learned in junior high school. “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul,” writes Victorian poet William Ernest Henley in “Invictus.” Despite the language of “We, the People” prioritized in one of our most cherished founding documents, liberty has been co-opted by selfish forces in the tilt toward libertarianism and the radical notion of the individual as our own god. Drawing heavily on writer Ayn Rand’s notion that the only god is the one within each of us, the revisionist concept of liberty as uniquely “my right” thoroughly and terribly negates what the Founding Fathers knew at the heart of their struggle. The “we” has become “me.”
Liberty was never meant to be a uniquely personal experience but a way for the newborn struggle for freedom to express itself in the birthing process of a new nation. The very idea of my freedom pivoting on the suffering or death of others would be anathema for Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison and others. Indeed, personal liberty can easily drift from the noble sense of self into a selfish disregard for the well-being of our fellow humans. It can (and has) led to a slippery slope of narcissism — and from there it’s one short slide into full-blown sociopathic behavior: If refusals to mask and vaccinate result in more sickness and more death, then that’s “just the price we pay” for freedom. Is this attitude morally different than the school shooter whose actions result in the death and maiming of innocent people because the shooter is “free” to do so? Both, I submit, are acts of a disturbed selfish individualism in which the only thing relevant is “my freedom.”
Let us turn to religion. Obviously, religion or religious texts do not directly speak to how humans can or should respond to a pandemic. All they can legitimately address is how humans, when we suffer, can relate to others and how we can then relate to God. Not a single religious tradition even mentions the words “individual liberty.” That phrase, my friend, is a political statement, not a theological one. The only freedom the Judeo-Christian tradition acknowledges is the freedom to live in the kingdom of God. Any focus on individual liberty as paramount would be considered by the early church as nothing short of idolatry. The only liberty we can experience at any depth in a religious context is to love freely, walk humbly and do justice.
The actions of anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers would horrify those souls rooted in religious traditions thousands of years old. So I simply ask anyone this simple question: Are your actions and beliefs in congruence with the beliefs you profess on the Sabbath? If not, how do you deal with the cognitive dissonance of speaking publicly about your faith while engaging in actions we know harm others? Are you, in fact, practicing the very sort of idolatry Moses and Jesus called his people away from? Acts of willful selfishness and callous disregard for others are distinctly at odds with every religious tradition. Any claim to the contrary is outright hypocrisy bordering on blasphemy.
Science. The very word has unfortunately been politicized by right-wing media when it presents facts that challenge the powers and principalities of the world. When I was in medical school studying under some of the brightest minds from all corners of the world, I fell in love with science as perhaps the finest and noblest way to alleviate human suffering. By definition, the scientific model is always searching for truth, weeding out fiction from facts, learning from mistakes, reformulating hypotheses and finally moving forward. It has no one goal but truth, no one ideology but providing a framework for humans to flourish. But in today’s topsy world, science that doesn’t “fit” with a certain political narrative is dismissed as “fake news.”
Good people claim vaccines magnetize us and change our DNA. They claim the research was “rushed” without proper scrutiny. Hogwash! What utter and total hysteria! Messenger RNA has been under continual analysis for two decades. We have the scientific tools in place to deal with this and future pandemics. What was in fact “fast-tracked” was the regulatory approval process, thanks to President Trump’s decision to ignite Operation Warp Speed. I find it hugely ironic that the very folks who want to deregulate many industries suddenly complain that production and release of life-saving COVID-19 vaccines were rushed past the regulatory process. Finally, at long last, when deregulation actually provides for more public safety, not less, these same folks throw the entire streamlined Trumpian process under the proverbial bus! To quote McLennan County Republican Party chairman Brad Holland, a longtime physician encouraging our fellow residents to get vaccinated: “No health or safety concerns were cut in developing this vaccine. Only the bureaucratic red-tape corners were cut to hasten the development of this vaccine to the public. And that’s a key point. Those are the things we’ve always wanted to get rid of in the first place.”
We behold a moral abyss when good science is politicized and dismissed by politicians throwing red scraps to their ravenous base. My Jewish chief of cardiology lost most of his family in Poland to the Holocaust. He saw firsthand what happens when science is ruled by government or masses are whipped into frenzies by power-hungry madmen and their enablers. Science, when joined with a compassionate theology and political wisdom, may be the only hope for humanity to survive this and future pandemics.
The question remains for each of us at the center of our own Venn reality. Which of the three prisms through which we know the world — politics, religion or science — ultimately hold sway over each of us? How does our epistemology find ways to express itself in our actions? Is our political ideology what drives each and every decision? If so, then by all means say so boldly and honestly. If your god is individual liberty, then at least have the moral consistency to say so and don’t confuse others with hollow claims of religious piety. If religion is paramount in your life, then ask yourself simply: How can I best love my fellow humans? How can I help promote the love and kingdom of God that exists in every street corner, every synagogue or church, every barrio? Then your actions, beliefs and words will be in balance and harmony. If not, your words serve only to prove to others your moral and theological inconsistency. And if science is your driving reality, then use your hard-earned scientific knowledge to speak out against the charlatans and snake-oil salesmen who are the darlings of social media and infestations passing themselves off as news organizations. They’re nothing but con artists who do us all a major disservice.
By exclusively limiting our responses to COVID-19 to political debate or scientific questioning, we cheat ourselves of a very valuable source of intellectual and moral capital. Religious traditions, at their best, can serve as a moral compass or filter with which to respond to the current crisis. But in reducing our knowledge base to a bare-bones epistemology, we fail to draw upon a heritage and range of thought and deduction that can help us shape a future that is wise and compassionate and serves as a beacon of hope for future generations.
Michael Attas, retired chief of cardiology at Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center and a retired Episcopal priest, is author of "Medicine at the Crossroads: A Collection of Stories and Conversations to Forge a Vision for Health Care." Attas founded the medical humanities program at Baylor University, first of its kind in the nation.