Should the FDA Regulate Religions?

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is the government agency responsible for regulating food, dietary supplements, drugs, cosmetics, medical devices, biologics and blood products in the United States. Perhaps religion should be added to the FDA mission. Seriously, don't you think warning labels are as consequential concerning the dangers of religious promises and the consequences of fundamentalist addiction, as are the contents of cigarette packages? Tobacco kills, sure enough, but not nearly as efficiently or dramatically as weapons of mass destruction, some of which are now or soon will be in the hands of religious fanatics (e.g., in the nations of Iran, Israel, Pakistan and, eventually perhaps, non-state terrorist groups. In his 2008 film "Religulous," Bill Maher offered this observation: "Because of its power (religion) to divert man to destructive courses, the world could actually come to an end. The plain fact is, religion must die for mankind to live. The hour is getting very late to be able to indulge in having key decisions made by religious people."

Is this too harsh or, from my own perspective, optimistic? In my view, expecting religion "to die" within this or even another century seems unrealistic. Many philosophers and prominent leaders forecast the end of religion during the Enlightenment era in Europe and even in 19th century America. Alas, this bright side expectation was not to be. So, let's focus less on hopes for the death of religion and work instead for a little supervision, especially in this country, where secularism is under assault by aggressive Christianity.

What's there not to like about a little regulation of religion? Everyone is and would be free to worship whomever he/she pleases as desired, provided doing so does not inhibit or hazard the rights of others, believers and on-believers alike. Regulation of religious practices, if necessary due to suspected violations of the rights of others, would protect those rights.

I think people underestimate the mischief that religions excite from some enthusiasts. Just the other day, the Wall Street Journal contained an interesting piece by Mitch Horowitz entitled, "When Spirituality Kills: How should society regulate New Age gurus or Christian Scientists?" (See Wall Street Journal, July 8, 2011.) The article described the harmful practices of self-help, New Age sweat lodge guru James Ray. In 2009, Ray's followers paid a small fortune to be subjected to 36hours in a hut with no food and water, roasting in an Arizona sweat ceremony designed by the guru as "spiritually therapeutic." Health and safety issues were neglected, and no watchdog agency had authority to watch over and protect the Ray faithful. The only protection the Ray faithful had was their own common sense, and obviously the 56 participants were in serious arrears in this regard else they would not have been or at least remained there for so long. Three devotees died. The WSJ report cited other similar instances of religious lunacy and associated fatalities, including cases of Christian Science "mental healings" gone bad.

After reading the column, my first response was, "Why limit regulation to New Age gurus and Christian Scientists? How many New Age gurus or Christian Scientists were among the unlicensed pilots run amuck on 9/11? The WSJ piece made no mention of the Crusades, the Inquisition or other persecutions, holy wars and horrors of unregulated theocracies. Nor was attention given to ways that toxic superstitions threaten secular societies, particularly our own.

In his best-seller Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Daniel Dennett identified many other ways that religion threatens the rights of secularists when seeking to control everyone's moral behavior by imposing their dogmas. Examples include "denying access to contraception while outlawing termination of pregnancy, criminalizing sexual acts between consenting adults, banning stem cell research, refusing the terminally ill access to assisted death, preventing inoculation of young girls against cervical cancer, and degrading science education with religious doctrine."

Regulation is required, it seems to me, not only against organizations that kill but also those that restrict freedoms and diminish the quality of life for all, not only their fervent supporters.



Donald B. Ardell is the Well Infidel. He favors evidence over faith, reason over revelation and meaning and purpose over spirituality. His enthusiasm for reason, exuberance and liberty are reflected in his books (14), newsletter (582 editions of a weekly report) and many speeches.. Write Don at