Direct Continuation of: Cl, Bubonic Plagues, and Bibles, Part I
Follow up to: TheraminTrees’s Atheism, Part IV: Imperfection
Awhile ago, I was busy finding my way out of the multi-layered maze of Cl and I’s long-time-ago debate on the existence of needless suffering. While the debate itself flopped, it resulted in a lot of further chatter between us, and we still continue to argue about the Problem of Evil.
Free from the encumbrance of time and word limits, I now have some time to get back to where we left off in addressing Cl’s rebuttal. In this rebuttal, Cl challenged my Problem of Evil based on the Bubonic Plague, which I counter-responded to in Cl, Bubonic Plagues, and Bibles, Part I. Cl also provided a theodicy that argued God’s reason for allowing suffering was that we brought it upon ourselves in the Fall, an argument I responded to in “TheraminTrees’s Atheism, Part IV: Imperfection”. There, he counter-responded in the comments, and our discussion should continue there shortly.
So we had the Bubonic Plague thread, which is finished as far as I can tell. Then we have the thread about The Fall, which merits future discussion in comments. However, there remains three other unfinished threads: (1) Cl’s argument that Cl’s argument that the Bible has remarkable guidelines for cleanliness that are so far ahead of its time that we’re forced to conclude that the Bible was divinely inspired, (2) Cl’s reformulated theodicy that Heaven represents a higher good, and (3) Cl’s references to the Problem of Evil as making God into some sort of “Cosmic Coddler”.
This essay will continue on with answering (1). Here, I will address the argument that Cl claims “leaves me no rational alternative but to abandon atheism and acknowledge the God of the Bible”. This argument goes as follows:
“The importance of hygiene was recognised only in the nineteenth century; until then it was common that the streets were filthy, with live animals of all sorts around and human parasites abounding.” 
Take heed, foolish humans! We were warned not to become “defiled” by rats or other animals designated as “unclean”  and warned not to eat anything they touched.  God commanded us to bury dung outside city limits,  to avoid contact with bodily discharges because they are “unclean,”  to cleanse anything a person with bodily discharge touches,  to evacuate and seal up any house with “greenish or reddish” mildew,  and if the mildew persists after seven days, to “scrape the walls” inside the house,  remove any contaminated stones  and dump them outside city limits. 
Among other things, Wikipedia lists, “decay or decomposure of the skin while the person is still alive, high fever, and extreme fatigue” as symptoms of bubonic plague,  and God specifically warned that failure to obey would result in—wait for it—wasting diseases and fever that would drain away our life. 
Moral evil is any evil act, event or state of affairs that is directly attributable to the actions of a moral agent. The Black Death ravished Europe because moral agents sinned by disobeying God’s Holy Word and allowing filthiness, vermin and parasites to defile them. God warned us. We didn’t need to suffer the bubonic plague to get to Heaven, we only needed to listen to God’s Word.
[...] My list is just the tip of the iceberg, and already we have something akin to modern hygiene and germ theory, delivered 3,000 years before Pasteur was so much as a twinkle in his father’s eye—by people atheists often denigrate as ignorant goat-herders. Another source notes,
“Jews who obeyed these godly instructions during the time of the black plague were not affected in the same way as others.” 
Might that be because God provided clear, comprehensive hygienic commands in the Torah? I agree with Peter that a “god” who makes people suffer pointlessly is worthy of condemnation, cruel, malevolent, and fundamentally opposed to love and compassion,  but as my arguments have undeniably demonstrated, God did exactly what Peter asked for, and much more. Wouldn’t it be a tragedy to forfeit eternal life for an argument so weak it commits one to doubting God’s existence simply because they stubbed their toe?
Or, in short: the Bible contains amazing knowledge of sanitation more than two millennia ahead of its time, and such amazing knowledge is only possible if God really wrote the Bible, therefore Christianity is true.
However, this conclusion does not follow because this knowledge of sanitation is actually normal for its time and was well-known by other contemporary cultures that did not have access to the Bible. Furthermore, the Bible also regularly demonstrates a lack of medical knowledge that does nothing to point to an omniscient God, but rather leaves us wondering what’s going on.
Cl cited six pieces of remarkable sanitation knowledge found in the Bible: (1) rats are dirty and to be avoided, (2) dung is to be buried outside the city limits, (3) bodily discharges are to be avoided, (4) to cleanse that which comes in contact with bodily discharges, (5) to remove mildew from houses, and (6) to quarantine to prevent disease. However, all this knowledge was already known to many other ancient civilizations living in the same time period.
Let’s look at each claim individually. (And sorry this took so long, Cl, the research took a lot more time than I expected.)
#1: Rats Carry Disease
The Greeks finally got a move on with he Greek philosopher and early scientist Hippocrates, who started the miasma theory of disease — the theory that disease was caused by “bad air”. Theodore H. Tulchinsky’s book The New Public Health mentions how Hippocrates used this theory and cited animal carcasses as a potential source of disease and advocated that cities get rid of them.
John Pichtel’s well-referenced book Waste Management Practices: Municipal, Hazardous, and Industrial, mentions that it wasn’t until around 90 AD when Romans fully understood the specific connection between rats and disease and Emperor Domitian ordered a thorough removal of rats (p22).
This is equal to or better than that mentioned in Leviticus, cited by Cl. Sure, rats were designated as unclean, but so were eagles, storks, ravens, owls, clams, oysters, lobsters, and crab (Leviticus 11:7-19).
It’s easy to make the Bible look like it contains knowledge of specifically disease-carrying animals when you count only the hits and discard the misses. Furthermore, the concept of “unclean” has very little to do directly with disease-carrying, making it unclear that the authors of the Bible even understood the connection between rats and disease.
While Cl does mention disease as cited from Leviticus 26:16, he neglects to mention that this reference is separated from a reference to rats by over 13 verses, includes disease as one punishment among many laid out by God for generically breaking his rules, and these rules ban many activities that don’t have anything to do with disease, yet promise disease as a punishment for breaking them anyway. (And it probably goes without mention that plagues are rather disproportionate punishments for crimes as harmful as trimming your beard.)
Additionally, many of these punishments didn’t even come to pass — when the Europeans violated God’s commands to avoid rats, the only answer was a plague (which interestingly did not destroy the sight like Leviticus said it would), not other punishments like droughts, animal disobedience, famine, forced cannibalism, etc.
#2: Bury Dung Outside City Limits
Cl makes it sound like the Isrealites were the first people to bury refuse outside city limits, and other societies didn’t catch on until well after the Middle Ages, but this is completely false. Pichtel mentions that as early as 9000 BC waste dumps were established away from the main settlement, and beginning in 3000 BC with the Minoan Civilization, waste begun to be buried.
By 2100 BC, both the Minoans and the Egyptians were using sewer systems to automatically bring waste away from homes and into rivers. And in Athens in 500 BC, it was a city law that everyone had to collect their waste and dump it at least two kilometers beyond city limits.
Valerie A. Curtis’s article Dirt, Disgust and Disease: A Natural History of Hygiene (JSTOR PDF) finds that this history of outside dumping is widespread throughout history, and even is present among ant colony behavior. Tulchinsky also references Hippocrates call to clean streets of trash, lest people get infected by disease.
Cl is correct in citing that the streets of the European Middle Ages were covered in trash, even if he cites from the same Wikipedia that he elsewhere decries as only “for lazy agendists” and “essentially biased rubbish on many issues”. However, the reason the Middle Ages did so poorly in santitation can be mostly blamed on the regress of sanitation knowledge found in the Dark Ages. Hygiene was actually much better in the times of Rome.
Pitchell cites Athens as being sweeped of trash daily and Rome as having massive sewer systems drain streets of trash with periodic water flow. While many cities throughout history did seem to ignore this basic sanitation principle, they were ignoring the advice of far more historical authorities than just the Old Testament.
#3-4: Bodily Discharges are Unclean, Cleanse Things With Water
Bodily discharges is a religious impurity in not just the Old Testament, but also a religious impurity of the 200 BC Hindu Laws of Manu (also see Curtis’s article). Bodily discharges were also taken by Hippocrates to be a sign that the body was healing itself from some sort of disease — while incorrect, it demonstrates the connection. That being said, there’s little health risk posed by contact with bodily discharges anyway, except in specific circumstances. Obviously you shouldn’t share needles, or be coughed upon, but it matters little whether you are around a menstruating woman.
Cleanliness to avoid these problems, however, was well recognized throughout many ancient cultures. In Rome, cleanliness was highly valued, and baths were taken daily, even by the poor. Water in these public baths was also changed several times a day (PDF) to keep it clean.
Both the Greeks and Romans frequently washed their hands, and Moustafa Gadalla writes in The Ancient Egyptian Culture Revealed that Ancient Egyptians bathed frequently and washed their hands multiple times a day, especially around meals, and that these traditions were even preformed by Egyptians of modest wealth.
#5-6: Mildew and Quarantine
The Bible mentions finding a house with mildew, and making sure to quarantine the house for seven days if the mildew couldn’t be scraped. While the Romans were certainly concerned with mildew on their food, even going as far as making a ritual dedicated to controlling the spread of Mildew, ancient efforts to stop mildew seemed ineffective, mostly focused on sprinkling things on vines.
Yet, according to P. B. Adamson’s article “Storing Food in the Ancient Near East” (JSTOR PDF), trial and error resulted in Egyptian food being stored adequately protected from mildew.
Furthermore, Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians didn’t seem to understand the harm to human health, though Hippocrates did understand their was a danger to damp areas (see Curtis article).
However, the practice of quarantine was fairly well known throughout history, especially as applied to sick people, which the Bible does not mention. For example, a Sumerian physician was recorded giving strict orders that no one should visit the house of a sick person, because her disease was sabtu, or “catching” — and this was back before 2000 BC. Greek scholars Thucydides and Hippocrates are also said to have recommended people avoid the contagious (PDF).
The Amazing Bible and Its Amazing Contemporaries
Hippocrates, living in the 400s BC, understood that disease had natural causes to be explained independently than a punishment from God, such as environment, diet, and habits of living.
Hippocrates went on to make many advancements in medicine, such as understanding obesity to be a disease rather than a sign of wealth (PDF), using alcohol to treat wounds (PDF), understanding epilepsy as a hereditary disease of the brain rather than the influence of demons (Ibid.), and developed rudimentary treatments for many diseases — all things the Bible neglects to mention.
Ian Dawson’s Greek And Roman Medicine cites Roman Marcus Varro (110 – 27 BC) as saying “precautions must be taken in the neighbourhood of swamps because certain tiny creatures, which cannot be seen by the eyes, breed there. These float through the air and enter the body through the mouth and nose and there cause serious diseases.” This sounds eerily close to germ theory; much closer than anywhere the Bible got.
This isn’t to say that the Greeks and Romans had it all right, or were even that remarkable themselves. It’s important to not focus on the achievements of Rome and Greece and see them as some out-of-time super-society — these nations definitely made their share of laughable mistakes. For example, Hippocrates made many elementary medical errors, and mistreated many patients. But they made several great predictions in medicine, akin to the eery success of the Greek atomists, who suggested back in 500 BC that the world was made out of tiny particles.
I don’t even think that the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians were significantly better at medicine than the Israelites at the time of Leviticus. What I do think, and believe to have shown, is there simply is no medical knowledge in the Bible that isn’t matched by medical knowledge somewhere else in antiquity. And when you have the same book suggesting that epilepsy is cured by driving out demons, you have to acknowledge that the Bible has misses as well as hits, and the hits aren’t as remarkable as they first seem. Whatever the Isrealites were doing sanitation and waste disposal-wise, other cultures were doing it to, despite not having the alleged help of the Abrahamic God.
It’s simple to think of what the Bible could have said. The Bible could have easily contained information about the spread of disease via invisible pathogens, and instructed people to cover their mouths when they cough. The Bible could have included information for penicillin and other antibiotics, instructed people to stay away from mosquitos, instructed people to cook meat and boil water before consuming them, made it clear how diseases can spread from person to person in a contagious manner, etc.
These are the kind of obvious suggestions that would have made the Bible a clear medical authority. Yet the Bible doesn’t contain them. That certainly is no definitive disproof of the idea that the Bible is the word of God, but it certainly is a large missed opportunity.
Anyways, it’s enough to say that Cl’s proof is busted. Looks like I did have a rational alternative after all — The Bible’s medical knowledge is nowhere near remarkable as Cl made it sound, and this alleged super-overwhelmingly super-compelling super-argument turned out to really just incomplete research. Instead the Bible is just another piece of its own time period, albeit with a few crazy malevolent things.
In future essays I will address Cl’s other theodicies within the Problem of Evil.
Followed up in: Heaven, Coddling Gods, and Other Theodicies
Cl Responded to this Essay at: DBT 01 – Peter on the Bible and Germ Theory
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