In this article I shall show how Deism provides a rational and practical approach to disability and how all the revealed religions, (and others), have hindered and continue to hinder a rational and practical approach to disability. First though we need to define what is meant by a disability to separate the concept from that of sickness. I am taking the definition as encapsulated within the legal framework of most Western countries that have anti-disability discrimination laws in place and the definition is this:
...."a disabled person is someone who has a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his or her ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities."
With this definition being in place it can be seen that the concept of disability can also cover some cases of long term sickness e.g. in the UK this can include terminal cancer. Long term is usually a legally defined time which varies from country to country. (In the UK it is 12 months).
There are two ways that a person can become disabled and these are:
(a) They can be impaired from birth or
(b) They can become impaired in later life as a result of injury, sickness, surgery or any combination of all three.
These distinctions are important because the way a disability is caused also changes how the person with that disability has been treated by various religions both historically and geographically. Specifically in the past and in the present this distinction results in how much "blame" is attached to the disabled person for their disability. When I use blame in this sense I am not using it in the modern secular common sense view of the word i.e. we might say if someone drove a car drunk and then had an accident that they were in someway to blame. No, I am using it in the pejorative sense that in the past and present religions consider the extent to which the disabled person is morally responsible for their disability even if they took no obvious part in its causation. As morally reprehensible as this view is to most modern compassionate people it is still a view that is widely held by many religions.
I shall now investigate the general ways that religions have looked at "explanations" for disability before the discoveries of modern science. And what is really sad about these "explanations" is that many people still hold them despite all the true explanations that have been established by evidence based Science which of course itself is based 100% on Nature.
There are generally four ways that the causation of disability has been, and is, "explained" by religions and they are these:
(a) Disability is caused by people's sins or those of their foreparents. This "explanation" tends to be predominant in those religions that believe people only live one life i.e. Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Many churches in Christianity continued to believe this even though Jesus appeared to refute this idea which was rooted in Judaism.
At John 9:3 after being asked if a mans blindness had been caused by his sins or the sins of his parents Jesus answers, "Neither has this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him." This would seem to indicate that a person's disabilities were not caused by previous sin. However Jesus then indicates that the opposite is true when he says to another man he cured at John 5:14 ...."Later Jesus found him at the temple and said to him, "See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you."
Therefore what this would seem to indicate was that the case of the blind man was an individual case so that ..."the works of God should be made manifest in him", but in the general sense disability was the result of sin.
So there we have it. In Christianity disability, (which we now know is caused by natural causes in the case of disease, or in the case of injury, the body responding naturally to the injury), is the result of sin. In the individual case of the blind man Jesus cured it was to show God's glory. What sort of God would deliberately make a man blind so his glory could be shown to the world? In my view only an extremely egotistical and sadistic one. (Isn't it much more edifying to recognize and appreciate the thought provoking laws of physics and designs in Nature which allow for such taken for granted gifts as normal vision, hearing, speech, etc.?)
What sort of religion would tell a poor disabled child that the disability was their fault because of sin? A cruel one I would say.
This view is an extension in Christianity of the orthodox Judaic view of the link between sin and disability which is expressed as follows:
"The general view of the Old Testament writers is that God brings disability as punishment for transgressions for sin or as an expression of God's wrath for people's disobedience. It is seen as a curse and as a result of unbelief and ignorance" (Jewish Encyclopedia, 1920; The Talmud of Jerusalem, 1956; and Encyclopedia Judaica, 1972).
The link between the sins of disabled individuals, (and/or their parents), is not accepted by liberal Jews or Christians but even they explain disability as arising from sin generically. Even for those churches who say that people are not to blame individually for their disability they still say in the generic sense that all illness, disability and sickness is caused by sin, the original "Adamic" sin, (when Adam and Eve ate of the tree of knowledge of good and evil):
"So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. 7 The eyes of both were opened..."
However there still remains the question as to why people so randomly bear these conditions. Why should one child be born with a disability and not another. The Christians I have debated with concerning this point of view usually say it is down to "luck". So "luck" prevails in the world of their omnipotent God? If so, he defies the meaning of the word and is not worthy of being named as such.
(b) Some Christian churches believe that disabilities are caused by the disabled person being possessed by the devil or demons. The only way they can be "cured" is by having the devil or demons "exorcised". This exorcism can sometimes be very violent causing further injury or even death to the unfortunate victim. Read about the murder of an epileptic girl caused by this reasoning.
(c ) Staying with the theme of sin causing disability we now look to the "law" of "karma". Disability believed to be caused by the "law" of "karma" which means that disabilities, both those a person can be born with and those acquired by other circumstances later in life, are caused by sins done by the individual in a previous life. This view is held by religions that believe people live more that one life. Of course this is an even more insidious view in some ways than that of the being punished for the sins of one present life because the "sins" of previous lives, which cannot be proven to exist anyway, can never be known. That is because in the religions that subscribe to the view that people are reborn into different bodies in different lifetimes, (known as reincarnation), there is a belief that the memories of previous lifetimes are wiped out when a person is reborn: therefore you cannot even know for which sins you are being punished by your disability! How unfair!
It is very unfortunate that this view is often also held in the west by so-called "New Agers". These are paradoxically the very people who have benefited the most from the advances of medical science and they fall back on a medieval superstition to explain their good health, i.e. they had "good" karma!
(d) Now let's get to supposedly "good" ways religions interpret why people are born with disabilities or become disabled. Apparently, according to one view, we are "special" people because we came to Earth to supposedly learn a lesson for ourselves, to teach a lesson to other people, or both.
The Catholic church holds that the disabled are special because they along with other vulnerable people are deserving of "preferential love" Pope Benedict XVI has taught that "love for widows and orphans, prisoners, and the sick and needy of every kind, is as essential as the ministry of the sacraments and preaching of the Gospel". This preferential option for the poor and vulnerable includes all who are marginalized in our nation and beyond-unborn children, persons with disabilities, the elderly and terminally ill, and victims of injustice and oppression."
The "lessons" that we apparently are meant to teach to others is to help them to develop their compassion. The "lessons" that we are meant to teach ourselves is to become stronger and also, according to Islam, to withstand the "test" Allah sent specifically to the disabled. Islam also says that the disabled are to be compensated for their disabilities and get special rewards in the hereafter, (Paradise).
".....Irshad Baquie, executive director of the Islamic Foundation, says that if a person cannot walk, see or hear, God will compensate by giving them greater intuition or the ability to think more deeply than a non-disabled person......In Islam, a sickness or handicap is regarded as a test," he says, "and the patience of those who were tested will not be wasted with Allah, who has prepared for the one who had patience innumerable rewards." Most "revealed" religions place many obstacles in the paths of the disabled.
This view is also held by some "New Agers" in that since they believe we are all here on Earth to learn "lessons" disabled people have very special "lessons" both to learn and teach. Some also believe that we even "attracted" our disabilities because we are so good that we want to suffer so we can teach others compassion! Some Buddhists also believe in a similar point of view and call such people who themselves did not need to come back to Earth to learn any more lessons but came back anyway, sometimes as disabled people, to teach compassion, Boddhisatvas.
So that is how the religions handle disability. What about Deism and its response.
Well Deism would hold that people are born with disabilities because of genetics and/or the body acting in a dysfunctional way but in accordance with understandable scientific principles. Or, in many cases, scientific laws that are not yet fully understood, (because if they were understood presumably the disability could either be prevented or cured,) but that will through research eventually be understood. The same would hold true of disabilities that have been acquired in later life either through disease, injury, surgery or any combination of all three. And in all cases the way of going forward would be through scientific and medical research that produces cures that are tested and evidence based.
Of course this requires more resources, time, patience, emotional control and intellectual rigour than praying, "faith healing", or "exorcising" demons. It also means accepting that there is no real reason as to why some people were born disabled or came to be disabled. Bad things happen to good people and to bad people, and those, like most of us, in the middle of those two extremes. No-one is to blame if they were born with the wrong genes or a body that didn't work, or if they got injured in an accident that wasn't their fault, (in the every day accepted sense of the word). There is no metaphysical meaning in it. Bad things happen because we live in a universe where things happen. Some of them we will consider bad.
It appears to be hard wired in the human brain for people to need to make sense of things. To think that beyond the every day understanding that a person can be in the wrong place at the wrong time, or be born in a disabled body, that there must be a reason, a meaning behind it all. It is difficult and almost counter intuitive to say that this may not be the case. The simple fact is that at this stage in our human development we do not know, and as far as Deism is concerned no-one has had any "revelations" from God concerning the matter. Deism says that if any ultimate answers do come they will come eventually, if at all, through studying Science and Nature, which are not to open to interpretation or "revelation". They are the facts of God's existence and unalterable laws.
Of course the above does not mean that we cannot take what happened to us and make meaning from it. I think it is an immensely preferable and positive position to adopt. For example, I know disabled people who are terminally ill who have put themselves forward as human guinea pigs to test, under very ethical conditions, proposed new medicines. They did this because they wanted to make meaning out of what happened to them.
I think that to make meaning out of what has happened to you could possibly be considered a Deist position. It would not be everyone's position but it is mine and the way I came to think that is by using my God given Reason. I cannot control what happened to me to put me in a wheelchair but if I can use the spare time it gave me to promote Deism, I will.
Deism regards disabled people simply as that - people with disabilities. It does not regard disabled people as either evil victims, (religious views a - c), or as special martyrs, (religious view d). Just people with the gifts of life and God given Reason, (to a greater or lesser degree depending upon the type of disability), as other people, and personally I prefer that. I want to be treated as just a person; neither a sinner not a saint! Disabled people just want to be accepted as members of the human race and in no way special or set apart from it and that is the way I have found Deism and Deists treat me!