Mountains Beyond Mountains

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Cost-Efficiency vs. the Value of Life Theme Icon
Saintliness Theme Icon
America, Imperialism, and the First World Theme Icon
Science, Magic, and Religion Theme Icon
Nonprofits, Politics, and Compromise Theme Icon
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Science, Magic, and Religion Theme Icon

In the course of his education and traveling, Paul Farmer comes into contact with a large number of belief systems: religious traditions, scientific theories, and magical rituals (such as the Voodoo ceremonies in Haiti). While these belief systems seem entirely distinct, they’re all major influences on Farmer’s career. Moreover, Tracy Kidder uses his book to explore the close similarities between them.

In Farmer’s life, religion and science are virtually inseparable. From an early age, he was educated in the tenets of Catholicism. While he never seriously embraced the concept of a divinity or an afterlife, Farmer did celebrate the usefulness of religion. By celebrating Catholicism—specifically, “liberation theology”—Farmer gave himself a career path. Liberation theology stresses the importance of solving the concrete, material problems on Earth, rather than waiting for God to remedy these problems in Heaven. Farmer embraces this idea in his medical practice, where solving patients’ immediate problems is his key—indeed, his only—guideline. In effect, there would be no purpose in Farmer’s practicing medicine around the world if he didn’t have a strong moral reason for doing so: there would be no “how” without a “why.” It’s remarkable, Kidder notes, that Farmer—who claims to have little patience for belief in a traditional God—can devote his life to a form of Catholic doctrine like liberation theology. Farmer lives out the tenets of Catholicism, and yet doesn’t believe in its premises at all.

Paradoxically, Farmer’s conflicted relationship with science and religion make him the ideal doctor in Haiti, where science, religion, and magic have a similarly complicated relationship. Inspired by his own views of Catholicism, Farmer recognizes that the Haitians believe in Western science and their rich Voodoo tradition. Before Farmer, American doctors in Haiti largely assumed that drug treatments were useless, since the Haitians believed in Voodoo, not Western science. It was Farmer who popularized the view that Voodoo isn’t a binary: it’s perfectly possible to celebrate a Voodoo ritual while also believing in the value of Western medicine. By assuming that Haitian Voodoo precludes any belief in science, Farmer’s predecessors are essentially accusing the Haitians of believing in a “lesser religion” and privileging their own Christian or Jewish religious identities. Farmer encourages doctors to aim for a more nuanced understanding of Haitian beliefs, and as a result, he is highly successfully in treating his Haitian patients.

In the end, Kidder and Farmer suggest that science, magic, and religion aren’t particularly different, nor are they mutually exclusive. The notion that Voodoo is merely an irrational form of magic, while Catholicism is a proper religion, betrays American doctors’ racial bias. In contrast, Farmer maintains that it’s possible to believe in both science and the supernatural: Farmer’s own life is proof.

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Science, Magic, and Religion Quotes in Mountains Beyond Mountains

Below you will find the important quotes in Mountains Beyond Mountains related to the theme of Science, Magic, and Religion.
Chapter 4 Quotes

And then of course it dawned on him that he knew plenty of Americans—he was one himself—who held apparently contradictory beliefs, such as faith in both medicine and prayer. He felt, he said, as though he hung in the air before his patient, “suspended by her sympathy and bemusement.”

Related Characters: Doctor Paul Farmer (speaker), Tracy Kidder (speaker)
Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Dr. Farmer travels to Haiti, where he researches the Haitians' beliefs concerning religion and science. Farmer discovers that many Haitians believe in Voodoo, a complex set of religious rituals. In the past, American doctors have concluded that the Haitian belief in Voodoo trumps any American efforts to introduce medicine in the country—and so they felt that there was no point in giving the Haitians pills if they don't believe that pills can cure disease. Farmer's insight is that a belief in religion doesn't preclude the belief in science and medicine. Indeed, plenty of Americans—including some of the American doctors who decided to stop shipping medicine to Haiti—believe in both Christianity and antibiotics simultaneously.

Farmer's insight here illustrates a disturbing form of racism. Americans, in Farmer's view, are looking for an excuse to dehumanize and deny help to Haitians. In their search for an excuse, they construct a shallow and condescending portrait of the typical Haitian—a narrow-minded individual who's incapable of believing in science and religion simultaneously. The implication of this portrait is that Haitians are less intellectually advanced than Americans (no one would ever question an American's ability to believe in God and science at once). In short, Farmer's predecessors' actions illustrate the condescension of many Western charity organizations, and the unfortunate eagerness of the people in power to deny their help to those in need.


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Chapter 8 Quotes

He was already attracted to liberation theology. “A powerful rebuke to the hiding away of poverty,” he called it. “A rebuke that transcends scholarly analysis.” In Haiti, the essence of the doctrine came alive for him. Almost all the peasants he was meeting shared a belief that seemed like a distillation of liberation theology: “Everybody else hates us,” they’d tell him, “but God loves the poor more. And our cause is just.”

Related Characters: Doctor Paul Farmer (speaker), Tracy Kidder (speaker)
Page Number: 78
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Farmer gives an eloquent explanation of liberation theology, the strain of Catholicism that defines his approach to charity work in Haiti. In many conventional interpretations of Christianity, poverty should be ignored altogether, because it's unimportant in the "grand scheme of things" (no point worrying about your paycheck on Earth when you're going to Heaven for eternity, anyway). Farmer disputes this interpretation, arguing that it's vitally important to focus on improving life on Earth, here and now. To allow the people of Haiti to live in poverty is, in essence, to support suffering and misery—an obvious violation of the spirit of Christianity. Armed with liberation theology, Farmer devotes huge amounts of his time to working with the poorest Haitians, recognizing that their need for medical attention is great.

A doctor who knew nothing about local beliefs might end up at war with Voodoo priests, but a doctor-anthropologist who understood those beliefs could find ways to make Voodoo houngans his allies. A doctor who didn’t understand local culture would probably mistake many patients’ complaints for bizarre superstitions.

Related Characters: Tracy Kidder (speaker)
Page Number: 83
Explanation and Analysis:

In addition to his training as a doctor, Farmer is also a kind of anthropologist, who has focused on the Voodoo customs of Haiti for many years. Farmer recognizes that many of the patients he visits in Haiti suffer from bizarre-sounding symptoms that, to many American doctors, sound like mere superstitions, reflecting the ubiquity of Voodoo in the country. As Farmer sees it, however, it's the job of a good doctor to take the Haitians' belief in Voodoo seriously. Farmer recognizes that some of the Haitians' complaints are legitimate, even if they're wrapped in the language of Voodoo. An untrained American doctor could easily ignore a legitimate medical problem, assuming that it was imagined.

In general, Farmer's thoughts suggest that the duty of a good doctor is to understand the culture of his patients, since the study of the human body is an important part of any culture. More importantly, Farmer suggests that American racism—the glib dismissal of Voodoo as primitive or superstitious, for example—is getting in the way of proper patient care.

Chapter 15 Quotes

The motion of his mind toward root causes had always excited him. He loved the challenge of diagnosis and all its accoutrements—the stains on the microscopic slides, the beautiful morphologies of the creatures under the lens. But what he called “the eureka moment” had a bad aftertaste this time. Later he would tell me, “God, I’d hate to ever feel triumphant about something so rotten.”

Related Characters: Doctor Paul Farmer (speaker), Tracy Kidder (speaker)
Page Number: 140
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Farmer sheds some light on his own psychology: what motivates him to devote his entire life to medicine? And what goes through his mind when he works with a patient?

As Farmer explains, he feels a special thrill when he diagnoses a patient with a serious viral disease. But this thrill immediately causes Farmer guilt and shame—how could he possibly feel happy about a virus that causes human beings so much misery?

In general, the passage suggests that Farmer doesn't really think of his work as a doctor as pleasurable at all—what little pleasure he does feel on the job vanishes almost immediately, as Farmer takes in the gravity of the situation. Instead of practicing medicine for his own gratification, Farmer does it out of a more abstract sense of duty: his faith in liberation theology encourages him to devote himself to other people, whether he enjoys it or not, and he can never fully savor his more abstract, aesthetic appreciation of diagnoses without also considering the real-world, human cost of his work.

Chapter 20 Quotes

Farmer was forty now, and he had the credentials to operate in the way Hiatt envisioned, on a purely executive level. In academic circles his reputation had grown. He was about to become a tenured Harvard professor. He was near the head of the line for the big prizes in medical anthropology; some of his peers were now saying that he’d “redefined” the field.

Related Characters: Tracy Kidder (speaker), Doctor Paul Farmer , Howard Hiatt
Page Number: 182
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Kidder makes it clear that Farmer could retire or step into a cozy academic position—if he wanted to. Farmer has spent decades caring for patients, reorganizing the nonprofit world, and advising the next generation of charity workers. He has, in short, accomplished more in 20 years than most people could accomplish in a lifetime.

But in spite of his success as a humanitarian doctor, Farmer refuses to slow down the pace of his life. He continues to travel constantly in order to help as many patients and advise as many nonprofits as possible. Farmer's health and contentment are never a factor, and even when he's deliriously tired, he continues to work. By this point in Kidder's book, Farmer's drive is expected (if still not totally comprehensible)—if Farmer were seriously thinking about retiring at the age of 40, there's no way he would have been so productive in the previous 20 years.

Chapter 21 Quotes

He distrusted all ideologies, including his own, at least a little. “It’s an ology, after all,” he had written to me about liberation theology. “And all ologies fail us at some point. At a point, I suspect, not very far from where the Haitian poor live out their dangerous lives.” Where might it fail? He told me, “If one pushes this ology to its logical conclusion, then God is to be found in the struggle against injustice.

Related Characters: Doctor Paul Farmer (speaker), Tracy Kidder (speaker)
Page Number: 195
Explanation and Analysis:

Farmer takes a moment to clarify his thoughts on politics and philosophy. Although he's passionate about his belief in liberation theology—the Catholic belief in the importance of solving the concrete, real-world problems of human beings—Farmer acknowledges that any system of beliefs is always flawed in some way. In other words, he concludes, there's no system of thought that can tell us what to do in all cases—there will always come a point, particularly in an impoverished place like Haiti, where humans have to use their instincts to decide on the "right" thing to do.

Farmer's observations about the failure of "ologies" are important, because they help clarify why he's so devoted to helping the sick through individual consultations. In part, Farmer refuses to settle into a comfortable administrative position (chair of a major nonprofit, president of a medical society, etc.) because he doesn't want "ology" to guide his decision-making processes. By meeting with the sick one-on-one, Farmer reminds himself that no abstract belief system can fully solve humans' problems—only hard work and a strong sense of duty can make the world healthier.