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Musings on Listening to Skloot Talk About “Immortal Life” on Fresh Air

Just finished listening to Rebecca Skloot talking about her book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, on Fresh Air this afternoon. You can now listen on the web (transcript not yet available).
Around 25:10, Skloot tells Terry Gross about an experience she had with a faith-healing ceremony with members of Henrietta Lacks’s family. Among other things, that was the point when Skloot realized that she had to write herself into her own book. It was also the turning point when Lacks’s daughter became more trusting of Skloot the journalist. I recommend that you listen to the whole interview, but especially that portion.
It raises some seriously interesting questions about the value of religious traditions and their meaning in a scientific community. The answer is far more complex than whether or not Skloot’s personal religious beliefs were changed by the experience (they weren’t – she was and remains non-religious). It’s that the experience happened at all – clearly it provided some sort of healing for Lacks’s daughter, and it did have a serious impact on Skloot. I would argue that the faith healing ceremony facilitated something that “science” wasn’t capable of doing, whether or not the participants – all or any of them – believe in God or a god.
And I’m speaking as someone who doesn’t believe in god.

  1. D. C. Sessions
    February 2, 2010 at 5:45 pm

    This sounds sort of like the religious ceremonies of the Navajo and Apache — they don’t so much expect a cure from disease as a reconciliation with and between their families, community, and way of life.
    That’s a role that religion has always played in humans, and it’s not obvious that we’re offering a good substitute. Super Bowl Sunday somehow doesn’t quite cut it.

  2. February 2, 2010 at 7:15 pm

    Ok, so science is usually associated with taking a skeptical attitude to everything, definitely including this ceremony and other religious faff (you know, with the culture war going on and everything, because you’ve got to be an uncomprising atheist and fight your corner against the creationists and all that!)
    But then, you point out that we do all this ceremonial gathering and chanting for Jesus and rain dancing and singing and placing your hands on because, well, it brings us together and makes us feel less alone and makes us happier, able to cope with the next day. And I wonder…
    How can I be a skeptic who scoffs at irrationality, but still gets those benefits, the ones that come from just doing some arbitrary thing that you believe will make you happier?

  3. D. C. Sessions
    February 2, 2010 at 7:33 pm

    How can I be a skeptic who scoffs at irrationality, but still gets those benefits, the ones that come from just doing some arbitrary thing that you believe will make you happier?

    Because science teaches us that we are irrational. Which is fine, after all — rationality is a tool, not a reason to keep breathing. Your irrational need for human companionship, physical contact, membership in a group, and ritual affirmation of that membership goes back to long before we were human.
    How you meet those needs doesn’t — but pretending that you don’t have them or starving yourself emotionally by ignoring them is, perversely, itself irrational.

  4. Theresa
    February 3, 2010 at 3:27 pm

    As an atheist, I reject the supernatural, not always the irrational.
    I reject the premises held by the organizers of a faith-healing ceremony, but I accept that it can have an effect.

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