Alister McGrath rebuts Christopher Hitchens regarding the smallpox vaccine

McGrath, A. (2011). Why God Won’t Go Away: Engaging with the New Atheism (pp. 20–21). London: SPCK.

Let us look at one of the anecdotes Hitchens weaves into his account of the irrational and immoral idiocy of religious thinkers. The Christian writer Timothy Dwight (1752–1811), who was president of Yale College, Connecticut (later to become Yale University), opposed smallpox vaccination. For Hitchens this is typical of religious people. They’re backward-looking fools, and Dwight’s ridiculous position just shows how religious obscurantism stood in the way of scientific advance then, as it continues to now. Religion poisons all attempts at human progress. The specific example confirms the general principle.

Well, Dwight did indeed oppose smallpox vaccination. But Hitchens forgets to mention (if he knew at all) that an earlier president of Princeton, Jonathan Edwards—now widely regarded as America’s greatest religious thinker—had died a few decades earlier in 1758 after receiving the vaccine. As a strong supporter of scientific advance, Edwards was committed to this new medical procedure and wanted to demonstrate to his students that it was safe. Might not his advocation of smallpox vaccination have got a mention in Hitchens’ narrative? After all, it unfortunately cost Edwards his life. Yet any such admission would force Hitchens to make some rhetorically damaging qualifications in his analysis—such as ‘only some’ religious thinkers oppose scientific advance. His superimposition of a New Atheist template on history leads to the filtering out of highly important evidential inconveniences and inconsistencies. Does his intended readership expect—or even depend on—such highly prejudiced history to sustain their polemic against religion?

To explore just how persuasive this method can be, let us amuse ourselves for a moment by imitating Hitchens’ disregard for historical accuracy and presenting a piece of historical analysis that’s a perfect, if theistically inverted, image of Hitchens’ approach in God Is Not Great.

The great atheist writer George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950) opposed smallpox vaccination in the 1930s, ridiculing it as a ‘delusion’. He dismissed leading scientists whose work was cited in support of it—such as Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister—as charlatans who knew nothing about the scientific method. If I were to use Hitchens’ cherry-picking approach to history, I could argue that this outrageous anti-scientific attitude on the part of this leading atheist just shows that atheism is dogmatic and hidebound, unwilling to take scientific advance seriously. All right-thinking people will thus reject atheism as outmoded and reactionary. Except that it isn’t that simple—is it? Nobody of any intelligence or integrity could be satisfied with such a manipulative and flagrantly biased attitude to history—could they?

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