A phobia is an irrational fear of something, leading to a compelling desire to avoid it. People with an illness phobia often go on to develop hypochondriasis, mistakenly believing they are ill.
Fear of catching disease is a sensible and healthy attitude. Consequently, prejudice against people who are sick is understandable. In the past, lepers have been banished to colonies (see St. Lazarus's Cross), victims of plague ostracised (see Black Death Cross), and carriers of HIV/AIDS looked down upon (see AIDS Cross). Although we have physical protection against such diseases, there is still a lingering prejudice against people who suffer from them. People with Hanson's disease (leprosy) were banned from travelling to the 2008 Olympics; in Europe it has been necessary to make HIV/AIDS discrimination a specific crime; and around the world, part of the reason some avoid sitting next to a person with a white stick on the bus is a subconscious fear we might catch the blindness ourselves.
Religion encourages illness phobia
And religion is partly to blame for such inbred fears. Sin, the Bible tells us, causes sickness. And like sickness, sin is contagious.
The Bible tells us that our sin can be passed to others1. We are all sinners2 and that includes blind people. Sin is contagious so avoiding sitting next to a blind person on the bus makes sense. (But not much sense!)
In fact if we extrapolate such 'logic', everybody should avoid everybody else and live like a hermit. But such isolation makes 'loving' somebody a bit difficult, and we are told to love our neighbours3.
Fortunately, like sickness, we can have protection from sin.
The Bible4 says how Jesus healed a man's sickness and then told him "sin no more", implying that sin had caused the sickness. Fearing God and shunning evil "will bring health to your body and nourishment to your bones"5.
Sin can rot the bones6. A broken bone can heal itself quite well, but avascular necrosis (bone rot) may require hip replacement surgery. Modern medicine ascribes bone rot to many things, such as hypertension, vasculitis, thrombosis, rheumatoid arthritis and several other ailments. Sin, per se, is notably absent from the list.
The Bible seems to be at odds with modern medical books, but this is because stories of physical sickness in the Bible are often used metaphorically for spiritual sickness. The Hebrew word for healing (rapha) can refer not just to physical but also to spiritual healing. And of course, Church leaders understand this. For hundreds of years, the Church has spent vast amounts of money and effort, not so much on 'faith healing', but in supporting hospitals around the world, dispensing modern medicine. (Incidentally, here's a pretty cool Healing Cross, if you're interested.)
The Church has often been the first to introduce advanced medical practices to developing countries and most religious charities focus of medical care. Churches also promote their religious message of spiritual salvation. However, they often forget to distinguish between physical and spiritual illness, and this helps perpetuate discrimination against people with sickness.
Sin causes physical sickness
Of course, immoral living can cause sickness. Sexual relations with multiple partners, use of narcotics, alcohol, smoking, and any of the other misuses of 'God's temple'7 are sinful and bad for one's health.
... and righteous living causes physical sickness
Sometimes those who take part in sports to improve their bodies, over-exert themselves and suffer broken bones, heart failure (or in my case, hernia). Are these ailments caused by sin?
So what causes sickness? Sin or righteous living?
Considering some of the Seven Deadly Sins, certainly Gluttony can lead to obesity and Anger can lead to hypertension. But what about Pride, Envy and Lust? Do they lead to cancer?
Gluttony can lead to obesity in the person eating too much, but a more serious consequence is the hunger suffered by those deprived of food by the glutton. Similarly, whilst anger can lead to hypertension, the recipient of that anger also suffers. The point is that whilst sin might lead to illness in some cases, there are much more serious consequences of sin than just illness. Focusing on illness is looking at the symptom, not the cause.
When a patient presents himself, a prudent doctor first ascertains the cause of the sickness. Then he works to eliminate that cause.
It is the same when we present ourselves to God for healing - He deals with the causes, not the symptoms.
Curing the phobia
As noted above, Jesus said, "Love thy neighbour as thyself". There are no exclusions in that instruction; both sick and healthy neighbours are to be loved. The sick should not be ignored, they should be helped, and not with the haughty pride which charity often assumes. Love as a brother would love, as if you were repaying a debt which nature makes due.
And the illness phobia illness we've been suffering is gone.