Sunday, 26 January 2020

Flagella Dei

Welcome to your new lodger

Parasites are unsettling, nay unnerving. There is a bewildering variety of organisms that live by exploiting other organisms to their host’s detriment. Tis a great life being an endo-parasite all tucked up cosy and warm in your host – until the anthelmintic drugs arrive. Anyway, to be a true parasite the organism needs to be totally dependent on the host organism, or organisms. I say organisms because many parasites exploit several host species during different stages of their life cycle.
Many years ago I was engaged in research involving the snail vector harbouring the worm responsible for the parasitic disease, schistosomiasis, also known as bilharzia. This lovely God endorsed condition is estimated to blight about 225 million people resulting in 100,000s of deaths worldwide. Eggs from the adult worm find their way into lakes and static water in regions where this disease is endemic (Africa, SE Asia). There the egg hatches forming the larval stage. The free-swimming parasite eventually becomes incorporated into an aquatic fresh-water snail. Within the snail the parasite undergoes further development before being released into the aquatic medium as a free-swimming entity; mayhap doing the parasite stroke. On contact with human skin, the organism bores into flesh. Once inside the primary host, the worm migrates to the liver’s hepatic portal vein. Here it hunkers down with its brethren and matures. And, as is the nature of things, male and female worms fall in love and as lovers, they embrace and travel as if on honeymoon to the gut and bladder. There, the eggs from their romantic endevours are excreted into the host’s faeces and urine and eventually arrive in the village water supply. The newly hatched larvae seek out a new dormitory in an unsuspecting snail, and thus the great circle of life begins anew (how quaint). There have been many expensive/expansive programmes throughout the years designed to treat infected individuals and eradicate or at least control the snail population. Although to date, the disease is still a major cause of morbidity and mortality in the affected/infected regions. If only the locals would refrain from urinating and defaecating in the water from which they drink and bathe. In fact, the simplest, and most cost-effective control, involves education. If villagers could/would halt from using their precious waterways as a toilet, then the parasite's life-cycle would be interrupted/disrupted saving many millions of dollars in expensive and largely useless schemes. It seems a sensible suggestion, don't ya think? Sadly cultural cycles are more difficult to break than the parasitical (is this a real word?) kind.
My personal parasite story: twenty years ago, I had a thorough medical. One of the procedures involved an examination of my ocular acuity. And so, it transpired that I was diagnosed with a vivid/livid scar on my choroid. At some stage, as a toddler, I was allowed to wallow in dirt infested with a parasite deposited in cat faeces. Children are naturally curious about environmental issues and to show I was a young champion of environmental causes I stuffed some dirt into my gaping maw, unbeknownst to my never vigilant parents. The rest was smeared in a cosmetic splurge upon a child contemplating how to burn down the garden shed: from little acorns, mighty oaks shall grow. Therefore I acquired a parasitic load which destroyed a good proportion of the vision in my left eye.
Let me introduce you to an endearing parasitic critter, called Onchocerca Volvulus. This parasite, a resident of West Africa, is passed on by the native, black fly. After a human is bitten by an infected fly the parasite migrates to the skin where it develops into the adult worm. Thereafter it releases myriads of microfilaria. The worms themselves can cause severe skin problems in the infected individual resulting in widespread skin damage. But it is the microfilaria which migrates freely throughout the victim's eye that can result in permanent blindness in children and adults. This parasite can only fully develop in a human host. This rather unpalatable fact introduces the vexed and contentious, leastways for theists: the 'Problem of Evil'.
Parasites pose a real moral dilemma for theists who believe in the conventional God of Christianity. How can an all-loving, all-powerful and all-knowing deity provide stewardship for parasites, let alone create them? Even the most well-adapted parasite causes some harm; tis in the definition. In my opinion, these inconvenient facts have not been adequately addressed or resolved by theists in spite of the verbal contortions and semantic contrivances performed by those devoted to absolve their beloved deity of any wrongdoing. Indeed, a whole branch of theology has grown up to tackle the ‘Problem of Evil’, called theodicy. If you would like to see my personal take on theodicy, you can view it here. To my mind, it is impossible to square the Christian concept of God with the evil done by parasitic organisms. Of course, you could argue that God is limited in capabilities allowing a ‘good God’ to be compatible with evil due to impotence. This has never been a popular view with theists as it implies a limitation of God’s power and a fall from perfection. Although some Christians, historically and currently, find this an acceptable solution to the problem of evil, it has never been a mainstream viewpoint for rather obvious reasons. Therefore, if you accept a God, as conventionality envisaged, you have to face the rather unsettling and concerning conclusion that the existence of parasites is part of God’s grand scheme. This introduces a paradox and a contradiction: adherents to Christian dogma must accept that God can do no evil but are faced with the inconvenient reality that God has created creatures whose sole purpose, or so it appears, is to inflict pain and misery on God’s beloved creation. Some Christians appear happy with the explanation that God’s plan and its implementation are beyond the feeble intellect of man. To anyone with an ounce of intellectual integrity, this is not a particularly satisfying solution to a rather intractable problem. Therefore, to remain a good Christian it is necessary to accept a ‘double standard’ of innate morality. Personally, I find this stance morally repugnant, repellant and indefensible by anyone with a modicum of intellectual rectitude: god has been rightly indited, found wanting and condemned accordingly- discuss.

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