Polly Toynbee of the Guardian has leveled one of the most serious (and irresponsible) charges against the Catholic Church: that She’s to blame for millions of dead Africans. In a 2005 article for the Guardian, she wrote:
How dare Tony Blair genuflect on our behalf before the corpse of a man whose edicts killed millions? […] With its ban on condoms the church has caused the death of millions of Catholics and others in areas dominated by Catholic missionaries, in Africa and right across the world. In countries where 50% are infected, millions of very young Aids orphans are today’s immediate victims of the curia.
This is a common meme. Arch-atheist Richard Dawkins used this same argument to argue that the Catholic Church was in the running for the major institution that “most deserves the title of greatest force for evil in the world.” So let’s tackle this argument head-on: Is the Catholic stance against contraception responsible for the AIDS-related deaths of millions of Africans?
Well, why not see what the data says? After all, these are the same atheists who routinely crow about being interested in real knowledge and reason, rather than faith. So let’s put their faith to the test. If the Catholic Church’s teachings against condoms are causing millions of Africans to contract AIDS, we should expect to see heavily-Catholic countries with far higher AIDS rates than their non-Catholic counterparts. So I decided to compare the rates by region and by country.
Fortunately for me, the contributors at Wikipedia already extracted and organized almost all of the data I needed. Using the CIA World Factbook data on religion and AIDS, they’ve organized three helpful lists:
- Christianity by Country
- Catholics by Country
- List of countries by HIV/AIDS adult prevalence rate, comparing HIV/AIDS infection rates for individuals aged 15-49.
So here’s what I’ve done. I’ve broken sub-Saharan Africa into four geographic regions, and plotted the percentage of non-Christians (in green) non-Catholics (purple), and then the HIV/AIDS infection rate per 1000 individuals aged 15-49 (orange). If Toynbee and Dawkins are right, what we should see is the AIDS rate skyrocketing among the most Catholic countries. That is, as the purple lines go down, the orange line should go dramatically up.
Sub-Saharan Africa is broadly divided into four regions: West Africa, Central Africa, East Africa, and Southern Africa. Of these four, the least Catholic region, Southern, is also the region with (by far) the worst AIDS infection:
But that’s easy enough to write off. There are plenty of epidemiological reasons why a disease would be more prevalent in one region than another quite unrelated to religious belief. So let’s look at each region, broken down by country. I broke Sub-Saharan Africa down as follows:
- Central Africa: Burundi, Cameroon, Central Africa Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire), Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Republic of the Congo, and Nigeria. (Wikipedia’s regional break-down doesn’t include Nigeria, Cameroon, or Gabon as Central Africa, so I’ve included that graph as well.)
- East Africa: Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Rwanda, Somalia, Tanzania, and Uganda.
- West Africa: Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Togo.
- Southern Africa: Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
For a variety of reasons, I’ve excluded the island countries. They’re too geographically isolated to be of much help one way or another, and most of them were tiny, with low populations.
Using the full list of countries I cited above, it looks like this (click on the graph to see it full size):
Wikipedia defines Central Africa more narrowly, excluding Nigeria, Cameroon, and Gabon. Their list would look like this:
In either case, we’ve got the same result. Take the average infection rate in the three least-Catholic countries (those on the left side of the graph), compare it with the average infection rate in the three most-Catholic countries, and you’ll see that it’s far higher… regardless of which graph you use. This certainly debunks Toynbee and Dawkin’s central thesis. But it might do even more than that, positively suggesting that widespread Catholic presence actually curbs a nation’s AIDS infection rate.
Looking at the entire region of Eastern Africa produces this graph:
Once again, the three most-Catholic countries have lower AIDS rates than the three least-Catholic. This is particularly interesting since two of the three least-Catholic countries, Kenya and Uganda, have large Protestant populations — who oppose pre- and extra-marital sex, but are generally fine with condoms. This is at least a clue that the Catholic opposition to contraception may actually play a positive role.
Here, we arrive at the least Catholic region, and the region most devastated by AIDS:
There’s not much of a trend regarding AIDS at all here. It’s high all over. If you were to list the AIDS rate of just the three most- and least-Catholic countries in the region, the least-Catholic countries would occupy three of the top four spots. So once again, Catholicism doesn’t seem to be leading to any more AIDS deaths here, either.
The real issue here is geography. The further south you go in the region, the worse the AIDS epidemic is. And as it happens, while South Africa is largely Protestant, the tiny nations of Swaziland and Lesotho have large Catholic populations:
If you were to exclude those two countries, it would produce a pretty dramatic effect:
Ignore South Africa (second from the left) in the graph above, and you’ve got a pretty good picture of what the AIDS rate looks like in the northern half of the region. It produces the same familiar trend. Each of the three least-Catholic countries have higher AIDS rates than each of the three most-Catholic.
Finally, we get to the only region in which the most-Catholic countries had a higher average AIDS rate than the least-Catholic countries, West Africa:
So Togo, a country in which about one in four people are Catholic, has one of the region’s highest AIDS rates: roughly equal to that of Washington, D.C. But it turns out, it’s not for lack of condoms:
According to government statistics, six percent of Togo’s five million people are HIV positive, putting the country just behind Cote d’Ivoire with 10 percent and Liberia with an estimated eight percent.
But one bright spot is condom use. Packets of six can be found by the bedside in many a hotel room and according to Togo’s national AIDS programme, there are now some 11 million condoms being sold a year compared to just seven million in 2002. […]
Today you can buy a PSI condom for 25 CFA (5 US cents), whereas unsubsidised equivalent products retail for 290 CFA (53 US cents) – more than 10 times the price.
So it’s a country selling and giving away millions of condoms, with a population of only five million people. Perhaps more condoms isn’t the solution to the problem. If you’re wondering, the actual sources of the AIDS crisis in Togo can be fairly traced to the country’s civil war, lack of infrastructure, devastating poverty, and widespread prostitution… not the Catholic Church.
Go back to Toynbee’s claim:
With its ban on condoms the church has caused the death of millions of Catholics and others in areas dominated by Catholic missionaries, in Africa and right across the world. In countries where 50% are infected, millions of very young Aids orphans are today’s immediate victims of the curia.
It’s pure bunk. Not only is there absolutely no evidence of millions of people contracting AIDS in Catholic-dominated areas, the opposite appears to be true. If anything, Catholic teaching, forbidding sex-on-demand seems to be saving countless lives. And of course, Toynbee’s claim that Catholics are to blame for the AIDS orphans in “countries where 50% are infected” is equally (and demonstrably false). There are no countries with 50% infection rate.
It’s no wonder that folks like Edward C. Green have agreed with Pope Benedict XVI that the massive influx of contraception into Africa was only making the AIDS epidemic worse. Unlike the Catholic Church, the false security provided by condoms (which do fail) does cost countless lives. And unlike Dawkins and Toynbee, Green can actually back his claims up with statistics. But then, what does he know? He’s only the head of the AIDS Prevention Clinic at Harvard University.
It’s grimly ironic that the atheists in question have such a dogmatic aversion to looking at actual empirical data. And worse yet that their Pavlovian “condoms = good” blind them to any alternative solutions, which actually might save lives. But while Dawkins and Toynbee sit on the sidelines and (falsely) accuse the Catholic Church of killing millions of Africans with AIDS, She’ll keep on actually saving innumerable lives:
One of the most startling ironies of AIDS in Africa is that despite the Catholic church’s ban on the key element of comprehensive HIV/AIDS prevention strategies, the Catholic church is a major provider of AIDS care and services on the continent and in other parts of the world. Approximately 12% of all AIDS care worldwide is provided by Catholic church organizations, while 13% is provided by Catholic nongovernmental organizations, meaning that Catholic church-related organizations are providing some 25% of the AIDS care worldwide-making it the largest institution in the world providing direct AIDS care.
And that’s not from some Catholic website, but from the absurdly pro-contraception Condoms4Life. So if you want to know the real impact that Catholic teaching has on AIDS in Africa, look no further.
- The regional lines could have been drawn differently, since it’s hard to say precisely where something like “central Africa” begins.
- The CIA World Factbook and other sources often disagreed quite remarkably over both the AIDS rate and the Catholic population of specific countries.
- For both Ethiopia and Eritrea, I included the Orthodox as Catholics, since the Orthodox limit or forbid the use of condoms. Granted, that’s true of some Muslims as well, but I addressed that point above.
- The simple fact that a country has a lot of self-proclaimed Catholics doesn’t actually prove that the people follow Catholic teachings: I know that.But it’s as good a rubric of any that I could think of.
- There’s always a risk of user error — so if you see some number I mistyped, let me know!