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Searching for Truth

All Religions

Dr David L. J. Freed, MB, MD, MIBiol


“All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree. All these aspirations are directed toward ennobling man’s life, lifting it from the sphere of mere physical existence, and leading the individual towards freedom.”
Albert Einstein

At a recent BSEM Scientific Meeting I had occasion to give a brief sermon about religious beliefs. Dr Ellen Grant had just finished telling us of the dangers of progesterone, both artificial and natural. One of our members took exception to the notion that natural progesterone can possibly have any harmful effects, “After all,” she argued from the floor, “we need progesterone to have babies!” Dr Grant replied to the effect that as a scientist she could not enter an argument about religious beliefs, a reply that I thought was rather lost on the questioner, so I rose to try to clarify. For the moment I had forgotten what an amusing spectacle I would make, talking about religion with my Orthodox Jewish garb complete with grey beard and skullcap, and a ripple of good-natured laughter ran around the room.

I attempted to explain what I think is the first lesson of Ecological Medicine, or at least one of the first, namely that a substance can be both good for us and bad for us. I gave the example of oxygen, which is essential for life but at the same time is slowly oxidising our tissues and will eventually kill us all (if we live long enough). An easier example to grasp, had I had the leisure to plan my remarks more thoughtfully, would have been food allergy, the topic that originally brought our Society into existence. Food is unarguably essential for our existence and therefore “good for us”. On the other hand, as we know, if can cause illness and even death in allergic or intolerant individuals, so it is also “bad for us” and probably more often than we realise. The same is true for most substances in the Universe, each of them both good and bad; one can think of thousands of examples – water, salt, light, you name it.

We are brought up to think that food is good for us and poison is bad, but that is not quite true. Wheat, to take the classic example, is a daily staple for most of us yet it contains gluten that damages everyone’s guts to some degree, increasing sloughing of the gut mucosa and increasing stool bulk correspondingly. More sensitive people get coeliac disease – the difference is only one of degree. The same is true for rice and other grains, also potatoes, legumes and many other food crops – indeed contemplating the known sources of lectins and alkaloids 30 years ago I was driven to observe that the most nutritious plant foods are also the most toxic – a paradox that I described to the students as “Nature’s great practical joke”. Yet scientists relish paradoxes, because pondering Nature’s apparent paradoxes is often the most fruitful way of understanding her.

One of the best paradoxes of Nature is indeed allergy itself. What ‘good’ to us is classic Type I (IgE) allergy? Why is it that we humans, supposedly the top of the evolutionary tree, the most advanced of all mammals, have the best-developed IgE system? If I were a primitive mammal out searching for food, and in the excitement of the chase I suddenly collapsed with an attack of asthma because of my supposedly advanced IgE system, I would hardly see that as much of an evolutionary advantage. What ‘good’ to us indeed is bronchial smooth muscle? Although many learned professors have attempted to find a value for it (as indeed have I), its only undeniable purpose is to cause suffering. Nevertheless Evolution demands that it must be valuable and that its survival value must be sufficient to outweigh its obvious mischief value, and I still believe that (although Theism, interestingly, requires no such premise). My answer to the paradox, for what it is worth, is that without constrictable bronchi we’d never clear our lungs properly of viruses, pollens and other detritus (see [1] for full discussion).

A consequence of all this, which I also tried to impart to the meeting, is that Nature is not necessarily benign – that which is natural is not necessarily good for us. Derek Bryce-Smith used to remark in that context that “typhoid is natural!” I added that in general we are inhabiting a toxic and hostile environment – life is dangerous and not one of us will get out of it alive. Our task as Ecological Physicians is to learn and teach, not how to live forever, but how best to roll with the punches, accommodate to (or strengthen ourselves against) the dangers so that we can live what life we have in the best health we can manage. Not perhaps a very cheerful outlook, because we instinctively baulk at such a bleak picture, but read on.

Until the ‘60’s the western world was still religious, mainly Christian. It is only now that technology has largely insulated us from the natural world that we have come to think of ourselves as not needing G-d. Nevertheless we continue to see the world through the eyes of morality, good and bad, right and wrong, and because of that it’s hard to believe (even if true) that the Universe around us, and our own intricate bodies, operate by random chance and are directed only by the natural selection of the fittest.

I am reminded of a lecture I gave over 20 years ago to medical students at Manchester. I was talking about immunodeficiency states, and I observed in passing how in many of these conditions there are auto-immune or allergic phenomena aggravating the illness – almost as if, I remarked, the body is using what little immune capacity it has for self-destruction. That is of course eminently sensible from the Evolutionary point of view – eliminate the bad genes from the pool – but anathema for doctors. Medics in particular struggle with the idea of Evolution because we believe that the individual human life does have meaning and value, and is worth working for and struggling to preserve. That’s the only reason, I observed to the students, why they and I were all present in that lecture theatre, and why the taxpayers were willing to fund our efforts. It was one of those rare moments in a lecturer’s life when there was a perfect velvety silence in the audience, so rapt and taken were they with that contradiction. [Not, I should add, that struggling with Evolution necessarily makes doctors religious – quite the opposite in fact. But that might be due to another factor, namely our tendency to ascribe divine powers to ourselves instead!]

People are sometimes surprised to discover that I am a religious scientist – apparently a contradiction in terms. But there is actually no contradiction and there are still plenty of religious scientists. The very founders of modern science, Roger Bacon followed by Sir Isaac Newton, were both deeply religious men as was probably Charles Darwin, and all of them saw themselves (as do I) as studying G-d’s wonders in Nature as a route towards coming closer to Him. Thomas Huxley, the main 19th-century champion of Evolution (“Darwin’s bulldog”), debated Evolution with Bishop Wilberforce in 1880, during which debate the learned Bishop chose to employ scorn and satire as his debating tactics. Huxley is alleged to have remarked, as he rose to reply, “Now G-d hath delivered him into my hand!” (and he went on to win the debate). Like Huxley, I find no contradiction between the Bible and Evolution.

Religion, like Science, attempts to peer beneath the surface of the natural world, allowing us to glimpse its inner workings – and if the paradoxes thus glimpsed are revolutionary and counter-intuitive, rejoice, because they may nonetheless be true and because so ridiculous, eminently exploitable.

So to return to the theme with which we started, the toxic and hostile environment that we inhabit, it is easy to see how the ancient pagans reasoned. Correctly perceiving themselves to be largely powerless before the capricious and sometimes malign occurrences of floods, droughts, earthquakes, violence and plagues, and observing the numerous booby-traps attached to the bounties of nature (e.g. toxic foodstuffs!), they perceived the universe as inhabited by a pantheon of natural forces, each with its own selfish agenda and each either indifferent to the existence of mankind or actively hostile. Irascible, cruel and much given to capricious mayhem, these gods could apparently be sated by human suffering (since we see that natural catastrophes eventually pass). Reasonable, then, to attempt to appease them in advance by the acts of cruelty that these gods apparently enjoy – giving over some of our small children for human sacrifice and temple prostitution, in the hope that the gods would be satisfied with those and not demand them all.

Against that background it was (depending on your prejudice) either the genius or the madness of Abraham, the first monotheist* and possibly History’s greatest scientist, to delve more deeply beneath the surface of Nature and deduce the initially implausible hypothesis of a single enormous controlling intelligence. Having myself achieved religion the hard way, I would hazard a guess that he started by contemplating the startling coincidences, not just of his own life (I expect most of us can tell stories of those) but also the coincidences of Nature. How odd, for example, that the sun and moon should appear precisely the same size when viewed from Earth, in spite of their huge differences, and even odder that the moon should have a rotation speed that exactly matches its orbital time, so that we always see the same face. Perchance by design? Perhaps there is a Creator who, against appearances, not only controls the apparently haphazard workings of Nature but also has the welfare of each one of us at heart and intervenes in our lives, manipulating the “coincidences” to give us choices, rewards and punishments? And if the appropriate rewards and punishments are not achieved during life, there must be an afterlife where all can be explained and/or rectified. Abraham went around the Middle East telling people about his idea and the rest is history. It’s a plausible hypothesis, consistent within itself and with what we observe. Like the “facts” of science, it can never be entirely proven or entirely disproven and as in all areas (especially Medicine), we are usually forced to make these choices, the most serious of all choices, with insufficient information.


[1] Freed DLJ. The immunology of allergy. In Disease and the Environment, eds Rees AR, Purcell H, Wiley, 1982.

* Egyptologists debate whether or not the 18th dynasty Pharaoh Akhenaton antedated Abraham as the first monotheist, but either way Akhenaton’s sun-worship was a far cry from the religions we know nowadays.

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