The Herod Prize

I do not believe, as many do, that religion is a malign influence on intellect and morals. On the historical evidence, it would seem to be morally neutral, like physics or evolutionary biology. (Life is like a sewer: what you get out of it depends on what you put into it. --Tom Lehrer) But some days test my faith in this position.

Today's news hook is the confirmation that the current small polio outbreak in Indonesia is due to the same strain that's circulating in Nigeria and nearby areas. (Nearby is a big term in a place the size of Africa.) We shall now examine how this relates to the King Herod Memorial Prize for Massacre of Innocents. Naturally, we'll start with a huge digression.

The late Pope John Paul II was an indubitably great man. His political importance was huge, even when stripped of recent exaggerations. He was a man of powerful intellect and deep convictions. He was a man of peace, so far as is possible at all for a public person. He loved humanity, and a very large part of humanity loved him with good reason. But there were flaws; and de mortuis nil nisi bonum doesn't really apply to anyone who was a major world power for decades and continued as one right up to the end.

Some hostility has been expressed towards John Paul because in the name of his pro-life doctrine he killed, and is still killing, hundreds of thousands of babies in Africa. One of the implications of being pro-life is that you love fetuses and zygotes and maybe gametes, and need to preserve them; so no birth control. Condoms are for birth control, so they're bad. And if they are needed as part of the containment of AIDS, an epidemic that in Africa has reached a level quite unthinkably awful, then it's necessary to believe that they don't really stop the virus at all. This faith-based scientific initiative is one important contributor to the congenital AIDS that is killing small children in Africa in large numbers, probably millions in the long term. Assessing just how many of those deaths are the Church's fault is something I'll leave to the American trial lawyers.

That's the quantitative half of the Herod Prize. But if you want to reward real evil, you need to take account of malice and sheer nastiness. On this, the late Pope and his successor the former theological Rottweiler simply aren't in the running. For the qualitative champion among faith-based initiatives, we need to go to Africa itself.

Following the extermination of smallpox, there has been an effort to do the same to other epidemic diseases, polio in particular. If you achieve a brief period in which no one in the world has polio, it's gone. It will never appear again unless it escapes from a laboratory. This campaign has been going well, though it has been very difficult. You need to get to places that are not well connected to the rest of the world: places that are, to be blunt, poor and oppressed and ignorant. You need to bring vaccine, which is hard to transport where there's no refrigeration, to any place that has an outbreak; and then you persuade people to be vaccinated en masse. And in Africa you do this through a maze of civil and uncivil wars. To the degree that these are the legacy of imperialism, it's a special duty of Westerners to carry out the effort.

Which brings us at last to Nigeria. (For the lighter side of that tragic nation's most famous export, see the 419 blog.) A few years ago, a number of imams in the outback discovered that polio vaccine is not intended to improve Africans' health; it is a White man's plot to make you sick and exterminate Black people and especially Muslims. They have been quite successful in stopping the vaccination campaigns in some places where polio is still endemic. Recently, the disease has been getting out of hand, and spreading into more of Africa where it had been eliminated before.

The viciousness of this faith-based science initiative, and of the [13-letter plural of 12-letter obscenity omitted] who have spread it, is breathtaking. (Andrew Rilstone deprecates the use of the word evil, but my faith in that position is often shaken.) The qualitative Herod prize goes to them, hands down.

And now their pet disease has hopped out of Africa, all the way to Indonesia. They must be really proud of the gift that they've sent to their fellow Muslims. And it could be something big, a competitor for the quant prize. But no! The world's largest Islamic nation seems to have no use for cruel medieval obscurantist fanatics. There will be no major polio problem in Indonesia because, through all its recent troubles, that nation has maintained its polio vaccinations and has the means and the will to keep on. I will not wish the lunatic-fringe imams better luck next time.

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