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WHO Updates AIDS Model - Guess Who Attaches Moral Judgement?

June 10th, 2008 | by Daniel DiRito |

The inclination to view natural disasters and disease as signs of God’s wrath remains a frightening demonstration of the dangers of religious dogma. Time and again, a vocal group of religious leaders attribute these tragedies to the morality of those affected.

One long standing example is HIV/AIDS, though there are many more. When HIV first appeared, there were numerous religious leaders and politicians who chose to characterize the disease as punishment for homosexuality. Since the beginning, the fact that the infection rate in lesbians was a fraction of that found in gay men seemed to defy the efforts to apply a moral judgment. Regardless, the prevalence of these prejudices continues to exist.

The release of a new report by the World Health Organization, in which the organization acknowledges that HIV isn’t likely to become a heterosexual pandemic, has already triggered a new round of moral pronouncements. I’ll discuss the invective offered by the Family Research Council beneath the following excerpts. They are from an article in The Independent which details the reports conclusions.

A quarter of a century after the outbreak of Aids, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has accepted that the threat of a global heterosexual pandemic has disappeared.

In the first official admission that the universal prevention strategy promoted by the major Aids organisations may have been misdirected, Kevin de Cock, the head of the WHO’s department of HIV/Aids said there will be no generalised epidemic of Aids in the heterosexual population outside Africa.

Dr De Cock, an epidemiologist who has spent much of his career leading the battle against the disease, said understanding of the threat posed by the virus had changed. Whereas once it was seen as a risk to populations everywhere, it was now recognised that, outside sub-Saharan Africa, it was confined to high-risk groups including men who have sex with men, injecting drug users, and sex workers and their clients.

[...] But we have to be careful. As an epidemiologist it is better to describe what we can measure. There could be small outbreaks in some areas.”

Aids organisations, including the WHO, UN Aids and the Global Fund, have come under attack for inflating estimates of the number of people infected, diverting funds from other health needs such as malaria, spending it on the wrong measures such as abstinence programmes rather than condoms, and failing to build up health systems.

Dr De Cock labelled these the “four malignant arguments” undermining support for the global campaign against Aids, which still faced formidable challenges, despite the receding threat of a generalised epidemic beyond Africa.

Any revision of the threat was liable to be seized on by those who rejected HIV as the cause of the disease, or who used the disease as a weapon to stigmatise high risk groups, he said.

The biggest puzzle was what had caused heterosexual spread of the disease in sub-Saharan Africa - with infection rates exceeding 40 per cent of adults in Swaziland, the worst-affected country - but nowhere else.

“It is the question we are asked most often - why is the situation so bad in sub-Saharan Africa? It is a combination of factors - more commercial sex workers, more ulcerative sexually transmitted diseases, a young population and concurrent sexual partnerships.”

The inclination to assail the motivation of WHO may have some measure of merit…but the criticism is primarily a demonstration of all that is wrong with a reliance on hindsight. The truth of the matter is that we knew nothing about HIV when it first appeared which lent credence to the alarm that was disseminated. Frankly, any cynical calculation on the part of WHO (based upon the value judgments that accompanied the discovery of the virus) are understandable and, in my opinion, justifiable. Truth be told, the U.S. government drug its feet in addressing the epidemic…despite the evidence. I think it’s fair to conclude that some of that hesitation centered on the fact that gays were the predominant demographic.

In order to understand the motivations that may have led to some of the alarm generated by WHO and other organizations on the forefront of the epidemic, all we need to do is take a look at the Family Research Council’s reaction to this new report.

25 years after the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, the leader of the World Health Organization’s efforts against the disease has finally admitted the obvious–there will be no worldwide AIDS pandemic among the general heterosexual population.

In the article, however, one line stood out in particular:

“Any revision of the threat was liable to be seized on by those who rejected HIV as the cause of the disease, or who used the disease as a weapon to stigmatise high risk groups, he said.”

In other words: We couldn’t tell the truth, because it might have made people think there is something wrong with homosexuality, prostitution, and drug use.

Duh! Thank you FRC for confirming the legitimacy of the fears held by the World Health Organization. Aside from the obvious moral judgment, the position taken by religious groups like the FRC ignores a number of relevant considerations. First, if morality is the underlying concern…meaning HIV evidences immoral activities…then we should look at all sexual activity; not just the activity that can lead to HIV. Here’s the point. It’s easy to scapegoat gays, drug users, and prostitutes…but doing so ignores other available data…and therefore the moral judgments that could be applied because of it if one were so inclined.

I’ve long argued that the best way to understand how inappropriate it is to selectively judge the morality of the above groups is to look at the rates of sexually transmitted disease in the heterosexual population. In truth, the emergence of HIV received an inordinate share of attention (rightly so) because it was a fatal disease. At the same time, were any of the many STD’s commonly found in heterosexuals to have suddenly mutated into a similarly fatal infectious disease, the number of deaths would likely overshadow those found in the early stages of the HIV epidemic.

Hence, if unacceptable sexual relations (multiple partners, adultery, premarital sex, etc) are the grounds for judging gays, drug users, and prostitutes to be immoral, the same judgment should be applied to the millions of heterosexuals who have contracted an STD.

So why is the lion’s share of the negative judgment reserved for gays, drug users, and prostitutes? Well, the easy answer is because the religious heterosexuals leveling the charges prefer to focus on the actions of others rather than address their own predisposition for impropriety. Besides, the vast majority of heterosexually transmitted diseases can be discretely (and quickly) addressed by one’s physician or at any number of clinics that offer a degree of discretion and/or anonymity.

Thankfully, with many of these pillars of piety, their dalliances eventually betray their efforts to hoard the high ground. Regardless, they continue to insist upon directing their derision towards those groups they choose to vilify. I do find it rather amusing that they’ve chosen to include prostitution on their list of uber-sinners. After all, who do they think heads the list of “sinners” who make it possible for prostitution to flourish? It isn’t homosexuals and I think we pretty much know where drug users are spending their cash.

I want to address one additional area of hypocrisy that frequently goes unnoticed. Under the Bush administration, faith based groups have been enlisted in the efforts to combat HIV in Africa. The preferred model for many of these groups is to encourage abstinence over comprehensive sex education that would feature the use of condoms. The working assumption for many of these groups is that promiscuity is largely responsible for the crisis that exists in Africa.

However, you’ll note in the WHO report that they identify a distinction with regard to the cultural sexual practices found in some regions of Africa. That distinction is identified as “concurrent sexual partnerships”. My interpretation of this phenomenon is that it’s not unusual for some Africans to be simultaneously involved in multiple relationships that include sexual contact. This doesn’t mean that these Africans have more total sexual partners than the average American; it simply means that they approach the occurrence of multiple sexual encounters differently than one would expect to find in the United States.

I would describe the African structure as a form of polygamous interaction versus the American model of serial monogamy…or ongoing bouts of adultery. Based upon these two models, the passage of the HIV virus is apt to occur with more frequency and consistency in African society because of an ongoing pool (a linked web if you will) of repetitive sexual partners. Once one member of the pool is infected, all are apt to be infected over time. The fact that the American model would more likely involve one extramarital partner at a time makes the passage of an STD less of a certainty given the absence of an extended pool of simultaneously ongoing sexual partners.

The point I’m making is that many of those who are inclined to apply a moral judgment to those infected with HIV are prone to ignoring their own morality. They’re able to do so for three primary reasons. One, it’s rare for any of the common heterosexual STD’s to result in death so they can be kept under the radar. Two, not all of these STD’s are chronic infections so treatment resolves the infection and puts an end to ongoing transmission. Three, the manner in which Americans engage in multiple sex partnerships masks the number and frequency of such encounters and may minimize the potential for predictive infection patterns.

At the same time, none of these explanations can serve to remove any of the same moral considerations and/or judgments that are being routinely applied to those with HIV. While I’ve provided a justification for an equitable distribution of judgment, I am not making the case to enact it. Instead, I find the assertion of morality as an explanation for natural disasters or diseases that result in death to be abhorrent. Given that death is inevitable, attempts to attach moral attributions to the causation of death opens the door to doing so with all deaths (of course I’m excluding reasonable judgments made, and punishment applied, relative to murder or an identifiably criminal act). Further, such assertions simply can’t be substantiated.

Aside from an absolute disregard for the random nature of our existence…inclusive of death and disease…the presumption that we mortals could anticipate and apply the all knowing decisions of an immortal deity is arrogance of the highest order.

Cross-posted at Thought Theater

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  1. 9 Responses to “WHO Updates AIDS Model - Guess Who Attaches Moral Judgement?”

  2. By Craig R. Harmon on Jun 11, 2008 | Reply

    First, if morality is the underlying concern…meaning HIV evidences immoral activities…then we should look at all sexual activity; not just the activity that can lead to HIV. Here’s the point. It’s easy to scapegoat gays, drug users, and prostitutes…but doing so ignores other available data…and therefore the moral judgments that could be applied because of it if one were so inclined.

    Hence, if unacceptable sexual relations (multiple partners, adultery, premarital sex, etc) are the grounds for judging gays, drug users, and prostitutes to be immoral, the same judgment should be applied to the millions of heterosexuals who have contracted an STD.

    Do you not think that Evangelicals and Focus on the Family do NOT negatively judge heterosexual sex practices that lead to contracting STDs? Such people and groups approve interactions of a sexual nature between husband and wife exclusively. They call sex before marriage and sex outside of marriage sin as well. All sexual activities outside that relationship are condemned.

    Perhaps they are more publicly vocal about their condemnation of homosexuality than they are about pre/extra -marital sex (although I can remember a time, when the so-called sexual revolution was taking place, when the condemnation against pre/extra -marital sex was at least as public and vocal) but they still condemn any sexual interactions outside of marriage. Perhaps it is that the attempt to normalize homosexuality and homosexual relationships and to recognize gay marriage as a basic and constitutional right is so public and vocal and so completely outside of the political realm.

  3. By Daniel DiRito on Jun 11, 2008 | Reply

    Craig,

    Three observations. One, the idea of believing the notion that God is inflicting punishment when we experience natural disasters or disease is absurd…and that ludicrous belief is applied selectively all the time. When a baby is still born, is God punishing the baby, the mother, the father, or all of the above? Who gets to determine that answer?

    Secondly, if your assertion were correct, then why do we only hear the 700 Club telling us that God will punish us for voting for a party that has supported gay marriage or a woman’s right to choose while they remain silent about the party that fields numerous candidates who has been divorced or cheated on their wives?

    Thirdly, while I point to a justification for attributing the disease of heterosexuals to their immorality, I close by arguing against any such practice. We are not here to judge…and I believe that most religious ideology agrees with that because it is accepted that we are incapable of knowing what God knows.

    Frankly, those who believe that men like Pat Robertson are vessels of the Lord, capable of understanding the meaning of each calamity and all disease, are clearly delusional.

    Regards,

    Daniel

  4. By Craig R. Harmon on Jun 11, 2008 | Reply

    Three observations. One, the idea of believing the notion that God is inflicting punishment when we experience natural disasters or disease is absurd…

    Why absurd?

    and that ludicrous belief is applied selectively all the time.

    Perhaps but I don’t see how that invalidates my point. Evangelicals and FotF and others do condemn all sexual activity outside of marriage. That’s my point. Write Pat Robertson and Doctor Dobson. Ask them if they think extramarital sex is a sin condemned by the Bible and by them. Ask Pat, specifically, if he views sexually transmitted diseases as a punishment for sexual transgression. I’m pretty sure they do.

    When a baby is still born, is God punishing the baby, the mother, the father, or all of the above?

    Here, I do not propose to speak for Dobson or Robertson et al., since I don’t know their pastoral position on still-births. However, punishment is not the only possible theological explanation for when things like still-births. I think most religious folks are more likely to explain it as a blessing shrouded in the mystery of knowledge available only to God. One must understand that, for believers, death is not only an ending but an eternal beginning; not only a punishment (the wages of sin visited upon all flesh) but a blessing. “Only God knows why” may not be a very satisfying answer, particularly to one who doesn’t believe in God and thinks death is the end to the only good thing available to be experienced but not for those of faith.

    Who gets to determine that answer?

    I guess, each individual is free to determine that for themselves.

    if your assertion were correct, then why do we only hear the 700 Club telling us that God will punish us for voting for a party that has supported gay marriage or a woman’s right to choose while they remain silent about the party that fields numerous candidates who has been divorced or cheated on their wives?

    I don’t watch 700 club enough (nor, do I suspect, do you) to know that YOUR assertion is correct but you cannot possibly be asserting that Democrats never field candidates who have been divorced or cheated on their wives, so on that score, I don’t think there’s really much to choose from between parties.

    But as to why abortion might receive the greater condemnation than marital breakups and infidelity, that shouldn’t be too tough to figure out: no one dies in the typical divorce or marital infidelity whereas, at least from the point of view of those who view fetuses as living human beings, every successful abortion kills at least one human being. It is not, I suggest, one is wrong and the other is right. Rather, it is that both are wrong but wrong acts that kill a human being are more wrong than wrong acts that don’t.

    But as for your assertion that the 700 club remains silent about divorce and infidelity, I don’t have to watch the 700 club to know that’s not true. I know enough about their theology to know it’s not. If they go with a pro-life candidate who’s been divorced and cheated rather than with a pro-choice candidate who’s been faithful to his one and only wife, it has nothing to do with them approving of divorce or infidelity; it has to do with them viewing voting for those who promote a choose to kill innocent human beings in utero as the greater sin than voting for one who will act to protect human life in the womb but whose personal life has created the pain and wrongs associated with divorce and infidelity.

    Of course, if one views fetuses as nothing but clumps of tissue until the moment they draw their first breath, one will find that view to be skewed in the wrong direction, akin to crying bloody murder when someone clips a toe-nail but there’s nothing wrong with the moral calculation if one accepts the sciences of biology, embryology and genetics and has scruples about killing not yet born human beings.

    Thirdly, while I point to a justification for attributing the disease of heterosexuals to their immorality, I close by arguing against any such practice. We are not here to judge…and I believe that most religious ideology agrees with that because it is accepted that we are incapable of knowing what God knows.

    Well, there must be some reason that every religion has it’s codes of moral and immoral conduct, right? Or, for that matter, that even non-religious folks make distinctions among actions and attitudes of others, whether they call them sins or not, and disapprove of some and approve of others; what is that but judging? What could that reason be if not to make some distinctions between actions that people do, to commend some as moral and reprove others as immoral? Why take Jesus’s “Judge not…” but ignore Jesus’s “O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” or his “But woe unto you, Pharisees!”

    If we’re not here to make moral distinctions among the various actions and attitudes available to human beings, Jesus gave us some fairly poor examples to follow. I personally think that, when Jesus said, “Judge not, lest ye be judged” he was saying something like what immediately follows his command not to judge:

    “Matthew 7:2 For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.
    3 And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
    4 Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?
    5 Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.

    As I read that, he’s not saying we should never judge anyone’s behavior against that standard which we believe that God gave us in order to order our lives but, rather, to judge ourselves first. That is, understand that we are fellow sinners, under the same judgment, in the same fear of the same God who gives both law and gospel, judgment and blessings. To never approach another as though we were righteous and as though the other alone were guilty. Rather to approach others as fellow sinners, condemned by the same law and the other as though the same forgiveness and eternal life were available to him. That is, we are not to judge but to guide others into a better understanding of the life God would have us live but as one who also fails to live up to God’s standard.

    While we are incapable of knowing all that God knows, we believe that we are capable of knowing what God shows us, whether through conscience or through revelation.

    I have no desire to defend Pat Robertson or Dr. Dobson for the many screwy things they might say or do. My defense here is very narrowly tailored: I say they DO condemn extramarital sex, they DO judge divorce and infidelity to be sins and I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t have to listen long to 700 Club before you hear this, too.

    And I am not an acolyte or supporter of either Dobson or Robertson. They say plenty of wacky things. I have no problem seeing natural disasters as a warning against sin in general and as a reminder to live sober and moral lives for no one knows when his last day on earth may be. I think that to be a fair representation of something taught in the Bible. But to say, “This disaster is specifically a condemnation against this or that sin” is something that I don’t think anyone should be saying. In that sense, Pat Robertson may well be delusional, I’m not qualified to say but those who believe him to be a vessel of the Lord, capable of understanding the meaning of each calamity and all disease are, I would say, more likely, misplacing their trust than delusional.

  5. By Craig R. Harmon on Jun 11, 2008 | Reply

    Is saying, “the transmission of HIV/AIDS is the consequent of high-risk behaviors like sharing with others, needles, having unprotected sex, anal sex making transmission particularly likely, having sex with many partners whose sexual activities one does not know well or at all, as prostitutes do and, therefore, wisdom suggests avoiding these high-risk behaviors lest one become infected with HIV/AIDS” really all that different from saying, “these activities are sinful and HIV/AIDS may be the punishment visited upon one for engaging in them”?

  6. By Daniel DiRito on Jun 11, 2008 | Reply

    Craig,

    You might be surprised by the programs I watch. I hope you’ll take the time to look at this recent dialogue on the 700 Club:

    700 CLUB: BLACKS WHO VOTE DEMOCRATIC WILL BE PUNISHED BY GOD?

    Note that the discussion never gets around to the possibility that voting for the Republican presidential candidate can be equated with “partaking in the evil deeds”. Instead, the admonition is that African Americans who vote Democratic are apt to be punished by God.

    I’ll return to my original assertion…many on the religious right ignore the morality of their own while routinely deriding the morality of those who don’t share their same narrow ideology.

    I’m simply pointing out the bias and hypocrisy that exists and serves to undermine the moral authority these leaders so willingly wave in the faces of others.

    Regards,

    Daniel

  7. By Craig R. Harmon on Jun 11, 2008 | Reply

    Daniel,

    Well, if it is true that Pat Robertson’s 700 Club and Dr. James Dobson’s FotF etc., really are guilty of ignoring the morality of their own, then I agree with you, that’s wrong.

    However, one, this is one particular segment of one particular show. In other words, your selected pool of evidence is just too narrow to prove much of anything other than that, in this one segment, in addition to addressing the topic of the WHO report, they did not address issues not covered in the WHO report. It proves nothing about the frequency with which “many on the religious right ignore the morality of their own.

    And bias and hypocrisy are endemic to the human race, not particular sins of the religious right. One might point out that basing a generalization like “many on the religious right ignore the morality of their own…” upon an example pool of one segment from one show that has been broadcasting for decades…some might point out the bias and hypocrisy of THAT.

  8. By Craig R. Harmon on Jun 11, 2008 | Reply

    Amend that: one segment of one show of the 700 Club addressing what they view as immorality promoted by Democrats and one media release regarding the WHO report. Still, both organizations have been active for decades and no one media release or segment on a long-running show proves what you purport to prove about many on the right.

  9. By Daniel DiRito on Jun 11, 2008 | Reply

    Craig,

    I’m happy to alter my perceptions should you be able to provide one scintilla of evidence that the 700 Club, in covering this years election, has ever suggested that those evangelicals (note I avoided a racial inference unlike Kinchlow & Robertson) who “partake in the evil deeds” of the GOP will be punished by God.

    I doubt that is possible…which is the point I’ve made since the outset of this discussion. At the same time, I’m happy to allow them their bias…so long as they refrain from characterizing it as God’s judgment. At its best, it is nothing more than their human interpretation of a divine beings comprehensive awareness.

    Believing it is anything more is akin to elevating a mortal to a status these same individuals profess is unattainable in this existence. In the end, the arguments they make fail the test of rationality as well as the principles of their own ideology.

    Regards,

    Daniel

  10. By Paul Merda on Jun 11, 2008 | Reply

    Come-on Craig, the religous rights selective morality is unparalleled in human history. Jesus himself said that divorce is basically adultery and yet here the GOP candidates come not to mention plenty of religous right faithful, divorced, living in sin, banging a woman who isn’t their wife (ya know their second wife) and yet there is no outcry. No one is lauging at them at church when they get a serious disease as punishment, they pray for them.

    If thinking homosexuality is sinful because the bible says so, then they sure as shit should be treating every remarried person the same way since they are sinning so horribly too, and yet they don’t. In fact, hardly a word is ever mentioned about the serial adulterers in their midst. Sure is easy to pick on gays, but lets make sure we sweep that no divorce rule under the rug…too inconvenient. So until I hear Pat Robertson and the rest of those liars come out against divirce, I know they are full of shit…

    Yes Craig it is absurd to believe that god punishes people with Natural Distaster and disease. ABSOLUTELY absurd.

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