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
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.