Scott Postma

A blog about the Great Books, the Craft of Writing, and Human Flourishing.

Rules of Engagement

In mid-19th-century Europe, puerperal fever (a.k.a., childbed fever) snatched the souls of one-third of women giving birth.

No one knew why or how to stop it.

Birthing in the Alley

In Austria, Vienna General Hospital had two obstetrical clinics that provided free health care to underprivileged women in exchange for their participation in training medical students in obstetrics.

The first clinic was staffed with students studying general medicine. The second was staffed with students studying midwifery. From 1841-1846 the first clinic had a mortality rate three times that of the second.

The knowledge of these statistics were so widespread, many women, upon learning they had been assigned to the first clinic, opted to give birth in the alley behind the hospital instead of going inside.

Surprisingly, the mortality rate of the women giving birth outside the clinic was much closer to that of the second clinic than that of the first. This shocked—and eventually consumed—the chief doctor in residence, Ignaz Semmelweis.


Bent on determining the cause of childbed fever, Semmelweis went to work studying every difference between the two clinics.

Although he never discovered the cause of the deadly fever, in 1847 he determined the cure.

When interns washed in a chlorinated lime solution before attending a birth, it reduced the mortality rate to between 1%-2%. This was a miraculous accomplishment for the time and drew massive attention to his work.

Unfortunately, not all of it was positive.

Even though his method dramatically reduced the mortality rate, doctors were offended at the idea of being asked to wash their hands. They felt it implied inadequacy in their personal hygiene.

Furthermore, his theory was contrary to the established medical science of the day, and because he could not establish his findings with empirical evidence, he was scorned by the medical community, quite literally, to death.

Despite significantly lowering mortality rates, doctors refused to wash their hands before delivering babies because there wasn’t empirical evidence to support Semmelweis’s theory disinfectant was the cure for childbed fever, they were offended by the suggestion their hands weren’t sanitary, and ultimately, his theory was contrary to conventional belief.

Rejected by his colleagues, Semmelweis fought bitterly to get the medical community to adopt his practice of disinfecting before surgery. He despaired over the unnecessary deaths of women.

But the more he fought, the more the medical community ridiculed him. And the more they ridiculed him, the more emotionally volatile he became.

Semmelweis became obsessed with getting his findings implemented and resorted to slinging pejoratives and launching attacks ad hominem hoping someone would pay attention. The cycle continued until he was committed to an asylum and beaten to death by the guards in 1865.


Semmelweis was vindicated posthumously by the research of Louis Pasteur, Joseph Lister, and Robert Heinrich Herman Koch, each of whom played a significant role in the discovery of germs and the cure for spreading them—washing with a disinfectant.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t around to see it.

When Egos Soar

Semmelweis’ story reminds us when swords cross and sparks fly, egos are sure to soar. The egotist cannot accept that another could own a view different than his own. Further, he cannot accept that his own view may require an overhaul when new information becomes available.

But his is not the only example of what happens when we let our egos get the best of us in the battle of beliefs.

Remember Galileo?

Pope Urban VIII tried him by inquisition and he died on house arrest after he propagated heliocentricism (the sun is at the center of the universe) when geocentricism (the earth is at the center of the universe) was the church’s established worldview.

How about Cain in the Bible?

When his preference to worship God his own way was challenged by Abel’s obedience to God’s salvific supply, he decided a good bash to the brain case with a club or a boulder (or something like that) would do Abel just fine.

Of course, I could continue if time and space permitted. But on to the point.

We live in a world of diverse ideas and beliefs, a conundrum of values and philosophies.

As Aristotle noted, humans are “political animals,” meaning we live in community with other humans and have ideas and beliefs about how those relationships should be conducted.

Sometimes our ideas or beliefs are vital, like in the case of Semmelweis; other times they are menial. This means in some instances the implementation of an idea or it’s opposite can treat of life and death; and other times, the treatment of our ideas are only matters of convenience or benefit.

Whatever their significance, our ability to implement policies that support and propagate our beliefs and ideas is fundamental to our quality of life, whether real or perceived. As such, worldview wars are inevitable.

One of the great things about living in America is the promise of freedom to discuss and argue our beliefs and ideas without the legal threat of persecution or abuse—at least for now.

That’s not to say we should argue without passion or intensity in promoting or defending our beliefs; the opposite is true. But there should be a few rules of engagement.

Rules of Engagement

Stand for The Freedom of Ideas

I’m convinced atheists, Muslims, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses believe wrongly. I think homosexual marriage is contrary to healthy, natural marriage. I am sure legalizing marijuana in any state is a huge mistake.

But in spite of all my opinions, all of my biblically-based beliefs, and all of my reasonable suppositions, I support the right of every people group to believe what they do without fear of persecution or abuse.

No homosexual or religious aberrant should fear bodily injury or any other form of persecution for their beliefs (like this girl did in Egypt). Christians should be contented to a large degree knowing one day the Supreme Judge will set all things right.

In the mean time, like it or not, the only honest thing to do is stand for people’s freedom of belief—even if they are wrong.

Your Enemy May Be Evil, But Your Opponent is Human

From my worldview, I know I have a spiritual enemy (Ephesians 6:12) and that ultimately, the battle over worldviews takes place in the spiritual realm.

But my opponents on earth are human. And it behooves us all to remember all of us humans are flawed.

We make mistakes in judgment and get emotional sometimes. And at the end of the day, we all want a hot shower, a good meal, a warm bed, and some quality time with the people we love.

Treat others the way you would want to be treated (I think that’s a Bible verse, maybe cf. Matthew 7:12).

Know the Difference Between Concern and Control

(Hat tip to Drew May who introduced me to this terminology.)

Some things concern us but are outside our control. Some things concern us and are not. Know the difference and act appropriately.

For example, someone may adopt a worldview that concerns me–via unreasonable means of logic, which further concerns me. But I can only control what I believe, how I arrive at my beliefs, and how I respond to those with whom I disagree.

I cannot control how someone else cultivates their worldview. And I certainly cannot force them to adopt mine.

Be Patient

It’s interesting how history keeps showing us how much we don’t learn from history. And no matter how much it shows us, we still keep failing to learn from history.

If there is one thing history has taught us, though, the standing opinions of the day are often wrong. In other words, there is always more evidence coming that adjusts our understanding.

No matter how much we learn, there is still more to learn. And the more we learn the more we realize how much we don’t know about the universe and everything in it.

It’s okay to be patient and reserve judgment on some things because more information is on the way. Which leads to the next rule of engagement.

Be Intellectually Honest

There is nothing in truth to be afraid of–unless it’s a fear of bruising our ego.

Truth is truth, whether we understand it, know it, or like it. It just is what it is. So embrace it. And be intellectually honest about the facts.

To do that, we also have to accept there is a strong tendency to interpret data through the lens of our presuppositions, making complete objectivity nearly impossible. But we should still try.

Know Which Hills To Die On

We can only speculate on all the reasons why things developed the way they did between Semmelweis and his colleagues, but certainly there was a better way to persuade than vitriolic attacks on each other.

Perhaps he would have been more effective at saving lives than butchering his reputation while forfeiting his own.

You can’t die on every hill and be around to see the victory. It’s necessary to evaluate which hills you need to take to win the war and die on those hills. Let the rest go.

Fight for Your Worldview

If you are convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt your worldview is essential to the health and prosperity of the human race, then fight your guts out—to the death if necessary.

As the coach used to say, leave it all on the field; don’t take anything home with you.

But fight for the issue, and not against people. There is a difference.

Semmelweis stopped fighting for his belief as soon as he start battling wits with people. Having established your battle is just, stand firm and quit you like men!

This list is far from exhaustive, so what other rules of engagement would you suggest?

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About Scott Postma

Scott is a writer and teacher living in North Idaho. He loves teaching the Great Books, writing and blogging, and collecting more books than he'll ever read in a lifetime. You can subscribe to the tribe and follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.

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