The late great Christopher Hitchens devoted a whole chapter of his book god Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything to the argument that organized religion is a dangerous hindrance to the practical application of necessary medical treatment. Examples he cited were Islamic religious figures in Nigeria spreading propaganda discouraging people against polio vaccinations, thus causing that country to lose its standing of being provisionally polio-free, numerous high-profile members of the Catholic clergy from all over the world denouncing the use of condoms, and that the doctrine of the Jehovah’s Witnesses forbids blood transfusions. Though I found this book to be tremendously enjoyable and reassuring, I found it to be slightly incomplete as there is no mention of the tragic case of Bob Marley, the influential and politically aware Jamaican singer, who probably would still be alive today had he found a way to temper his religious faith in the interest of self-preservation.
Born in Nine Mile, Saint Ann Parish, Jamaica 0n February 6, 1945, Robert Nesta Marley began his professional singing career in his teens, formed the group the Wailers shortly afterward, and throughout the 1960s cut ska and rocksteady records with such producers as Leslie Kong, Sir Coxsone Dodd and Lee Scratch Perry. Despite his Catholic upbringing, by the end of the 1960s, Marley would formally convert to the Rastafari movement, an African-based spiritual ideology in which the faithful worship Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia, who himself was known as Ras Teferi Makonnen during his tenure as Governor of Harar, regarding him as incarnation of God and referring to him as “Jah,” a diminutive of “Jahweh” found in Psalms 68:4-8, King James Version. The smoking of cannabis is also integral to the movement, as the observers treat it as a sacrament, often indulging during Bible study. By the 1970s, his devotion to the Rastafari movement would inform his lyrics, particularly the protest songs he composed in the name of justice, such as “War (No More Trouble)” and “Concrete Jungle,” as Haile Selassie I proclaimed that treating all men and women equally was a mandate from God.
However, adherents to the Rastafari movement are, to say the very least, iffy about such things as organ transplants, kidney dialysis, blood transfusions and amputations. In fact, their doctrine itself mandates that the body be kept intact, thus amputations, along with shaving and haircutting, are prohibited. Sadly, this dogma would prove fatally problematic for Marley, as in the summer of 1977, after a stubborn wound on his right big toe, which at one point precipitated the detachment of the nail, proved to be malignant melanoma. Citing a deep commitment to the Rastafari movement and notoriously distrusting of traditional medicine, Marley refused the amputation that would have saved his life and instead opted to have the cancerous nail and nail bed cut away, following this up with a skin graft to the area.
Though the surgery was deemed a success, the cancer came back with a vengeance not long afterward, spreading to his brain and other vital organs. Through the next few years, his health declined, and he died of his illness on May 11, 1981, leaving the world short of not only of one of its most influential and best-loved musical talents, but also one of its most vocal and devoted supporters of human rights. Though I do not claim to be an oncologist, I would bet any currency or commodity that had Marley suspended his religious beliefs just that once in the interest of self-preservation, more invasive cancerous tissue would be removed from his system more quickly by way of amputating his toe, thus sparing his life and enabling him to continue to produce his wonderful music and advocate for social justice.
Previously published May 1, 2014 at Latest.com