Herb Taken For Kidney Disease Causes…. Kidney Disease

April 15th, 2012
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What happens when you blindly take traditional, alternative and otherwise unproven preparations for medical conditions? Prepare for the distinct possibility of irony.

There’s a way of knowing whether a given compound has therapeutic properties and whether it’s safe in general – scientifically controlled clinical studies. Alternative remedies, which include many traditional and regional preparations were not the result of scientific study. A few have been subjected to scientific scrutiny and proven to be worthwhile. When this happens, they stop being “alternative medicine” and become simply “medicine.”

For all the rest, it’s just hit or miss, and more often than not, it’s miss. Guided by old traditions, anecdotes and old wives tales, the actual effect on the body could be just about anything.

Such would seem to be the case with birthwort. Birthwort is a family of plants which have been regarded as medicinally beneficial for centuries, despite complete lack of evidence for this. The exact reason for the belief is unclear, although it might have to do with the fact that some of the compounds in the plant do have antimicrobial properties and thus could be useful as an antiseptic, if only topically. Another reason for the belief that it has useful medical properties is the so-called doctrine of signatures – a discredited belief that herbs are useful in treating a part of the body which they resemble. Birthwort is noted for having a shape that is similar to the human uterus. For this reason, it was believed to be useful for reproductive and genital health and for fertility.

It also has been used for various kidney problems, including kidney stones and urinary tract problems. Again, the reasoning for this is not entirely clear. It may be an extension of the belief that it is helpful for health issues involving the genitals or it could just be that it gained a reputation for being something that people with kidney problems swore by. Whatever the case, it was not science-based. That said, it was accepted for many years.

Like many “alternative” remedies, it remained on shelves, largely unquestioned until people started getting sick and dying enough to catch someone’s attention. This happened in 1991 when a clinic in Brussels, Belgium started offering the herb as part of a weight loss regime. Although it was known for some time that the plant contained potent toxins, it was not until a large number of women in Brussels began to show up at doctors with acute kidney failure that it became evident that the plant was more dangerous than anyone had suspected.

Upon further investigation it turns out that the long trusted, yet untested herb is in fact, a potent carcinogen and that use of the quantities common in traditional preparations can cause kidney damage, amongst other things.

Via USA Today:

Kidney stones. Snakebites. Head wounds. To the ancients, a weed called birthwort was a wonder drug that treated them all, and more.

Medical detectives, however, are finding that the ancient remedy likely has caused centuries of kidney failure and cancer, as well as being the culprit in a widespread syndrome of kidney disease in some parts of the world.

“The big clue was the plant itself,” says pharmacologist Arthur Grollman of Stony Brook (N.Y.) University. “Once it was appreciated that it contained a potent kidney toxin and human carcinogen, we could get to the bottom of things.”

Grollman and colleagues have unraveled a genetic signature left behind by birthwort in cases of cancers and kidney failure, as reported in the March journal ofKidney International. And in upcoming work, they report signs that use of the drug in Chinese medicines may be responsible for Taiwan’s sky-high rate of kidney disease.

Modern medicine became alarmed by birthwort in 1991, when dozens of young women from a “slimming” clinic in Brussels, Belgium, appeared in doctor’s offices with kidney failure. The case triggered warnings and a 2000 New England Journal of Medicine report noting that about 5% of 1,800 women given the Chinese herb, Aristolochia fangchi (another birthwort species), in a weight-loss treatment at the clinic had developed kidney failure. That triggered a Food and Drug Administration warning about the herb that mentioned 16 weight-loss products then on store shelves, and also offered a clue that only some people suffered from a genetic susceptibility to the herb causing kidney failure, Grollman says.

But it wasn’t until a 2007 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper that Grollman and his colleagues showed the Balkan and Belgian cases were caused by the same toxin, finding mutations in the genes of Croatian patients that exactly matched those of mice poisoned with aristolochic acid. The mutations were pinpoint changes in a well-known tumor-suppressing gene called p53. The finding “was a breakthrough,” says kidney expert Marc De Broe of Belgium’s University of Antwerp, in a commentary in Kidney International. DeBroe added, “this magic plant turned out to contain a powerful nephrotoxic (kidney-poisoning) substance with an ability to induce urothelial (urinary tract) cancer.”

But the damage from birthwort poisoning may well go beyond clusters of unexplained kidney failure, Grollman suggests. In an upcoming study, he and his colleagues looked at Taiwan, the “Land of Dialysis” in some news reports, where the herb is widely used in traditional medicine. A 2006 survey in The Lancet suggested that nearly 12% of Taiwan’s population suffers chronic kidney disease. Health service statistics there also show that about 1 in 3 patients are prescribed Aristolochia as part of traditional medical treatments delivered at doctor’s offices. And Taiwanese kidney failure patients in the upcoming study widely show the same pinpoint changes in the p53 gene seen in patients in the Balkans and Belgium, Grollman says.

This is a potent example of a basic fact about traditional remedies: The fact that something has been “used for centuries” or that it is common in rural China or that it is natural means absolutely nothing in terms of safety or effectiveness. We can’t know if something is safe or effective unless it is actually subjected to a battery of scientific tests. The fact that something has been considered a valid remedy for a given condition does not mean it works on that condition or even that the claim is based on anecdotal evidence – it could be something as bunk as the fact that the plant looks like a body part.

If you choose to take a traditional or alternative remedy, keep in mind that it may well make your condition worse, or it might do nothing. While it’s possible that it could also have therapeutic benefit, if it has not been subjected to scientific tests and evaluation we just don’t know. It’s a stab in the dark. You may as well go outside, pick up the first random plant you find on the ground and eat it.


This entry was posted on Sunday, April 15th, 2012 at 6:40 pm and is filed under Bad Science, Quackery. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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32 Responses to “Herb Taken For Kidney Disease Causes…. Kidney Disease”

  1. 1
    DV82XL Says:

    Like astrology’s contributions to astronomy, the the contributions made by herbalists to modern pharmacology is over. Yes, the old healers did know a few things that were developed by trial and error, but anything that was really useful has by in large been identified, the active specifics refined out, and has been made available to the public in a safe effective form.

    The really pathetic thing is that these old herbalists WERE the scientists of their day before scientific medicine was developed and I bet if those people were alive now they would be embracing modern practices. Because the fact is it’s the people working in labs that are their real decedents and inheritors, not the idiots in the in the natural healing movement. I suspect the latter would be held in high contempt.


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  2. 2
    Q Says:

    I had not heard of the doctrine of signatures but it strikes me as the height of absurdity. Basically it equates to saying that a plant that looks something like a foot must be good for foot disease, one that looks something like a liver must be good for liver disease etc, as I understand it and even to the point where a long vine line plant is considered good for snake bite becuase it looks like a snake.

    That is not just absurd it’s stupid. How anyone could subscribe to the use of a plant that was used because of that attribute is beyond me.


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  3. 3
    Dave From Indiana Says:

    “largely unquestioned until people started getting sick and dying enough to catch someone’s attention This happened in 1991 when a clinic in Brussels, Belgium started offering the herb as part of a weight loss regime. “

    Presumably it had caused a lot of people to get sick before that and just was undetected.

    Just not until a group of otherwise healthy individuals suddenly all got it in large doses in a single location that it sparked any interest. If given to people who already had kidney problems or if it were diffused into a large population or something then nobody would have noticed anything.

    If it is still common in Taiwan and Taiwan is one of the kidney failure capitals of the world then that’s just scary.


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  4. 4
    ebohlman Says:

    Q: You have to remember that the human brain is a pattern-matching engine that’s optimized (in the vernacular sense) for sensitivity at the expense of specificity. The guy who heard leaves rustling in the wind and acted as if it were a prowling tiger is more likely to be one of your ancestors than the guy who heard a prowling tiger and acted as if it were rustling leaves. We’re a lot better at mentally connecting the dots than we are at determining whether or not there is a real connection.

    The doctrine of signatures is actually a pretty mundane example of sympathetic magic, the notion that a superficial resemblance of form between two entities can be used to infer a deep connection between them. A rather spectacular example: kids are often strongly averse to runny egg white (apparently it’s actually somewhat emetic in kids, much more so than in adults). Some psychotherapists (a group that seems to attract magical thinkers), however, have a much more sinister interpretation: runny egg white has a consistency somewhat resembling semen, so a kid who doesn’t like runny egg white must have been forced to perform fellatio on an adult male (of course, they’d claim that such an experience would be so traumatic that the child would have repressed the memory of it and thus would be “in denial” about it). If you refuse to accept such a conclusion on belief alone, you will be accused of being a pedophile yourself.

    The doctrine of signatures becomes severely destructive and grossly immoral when it’s used (as it often is) to “justify” the hunting and killing of endangered species in order to obtain body parts for use in “alternative” “remedies” (if you were to guess that many of those “remedies” were of the “male enhancement” type, you’d be correct).


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  5. 5
    Anon Says:

            Q said:

    I had not heard of the doctrine of signatures but it strikes me as the height of absurdity. Basically it equates to saying that a plant that looks something like a foot must be good for foot disease, one that looks something like a liver must be good for liver disease etc, as I understand it and even to the point where a long vine line plant is considered good for snake bite becuase it looks like a snake.

    That is not just absurd it’s stupid.

    How anyone could subscribe to the use of a plant that was used because of that attribute is beyond me.

    That’s probably because you’re not a vitalist.


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  6. 6
    Sigivald Says:

    Herb Taken For Kidney Disease Causes…. Kidney Disease

    Holy homeopathy, batman!


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  7. 7
    Julian Says:

    Like causes like :p


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  8. 8
    drbuzz0 Says:

            Sigivald said:

    Herb Taken For Kidney Disease Causes…. Kidney Disease

    Holy homeopathy, batman!

    yeah… well they left out the rather important part of diluting it to non-existance


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  9. 9
    Gwyndolyn O'Shaughnessy Says:

            Q said:

    I had not heard of the doctrine of signatures but it strikes me as the height of absurdity. Basically it equates to saying that a plant that looks something like a foot must be good for foot disease, one that looks something like a liver must be good for liver disease etc, as I understand it and even to the point where a long vine line plant is considered good for snake bite because it looks like a snake.

    erm … ever heard of liverwort? Yup. They’re still called that.

    It’s also interesting that you mention snakes. According to the Garden of Eden myth, God made the world and everything in it for the benefit of humans. Therefore, God would make connections obvious enough that we could pick up hints: lungwort, liverwort, bladderwort … Medieval alchemist-scientist-physickers used the logic of the times. People died if you treated them. They died if you didn’t. Sometimes they lived despite or because of your best efforts — but you couldn’t tell.

    The sad part is that people still believe in the doctrine of signatures and other absurdities (cough, homeopathy, cough).


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  10. 10
    Anon Says:

            Gwyndolyn O’Shaughnessy said:

    It’s also interesting that you mention snakes. According to the Garden of Eden myth, God made the world and everything in it for the benefit of humans. Therefore, God would make connections obvious enough that we could pick up hints: lungwort, liverwort, bladderwort …

    Not sure what Hebrew mythology has to do with Chinese traditional quackery.


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  11. 11
    Mr. Reindeer Says:

    Browsing through “herbals” in a bookstore a while back, I noticed that a lot of these herbs would be listed as “emetics” or “purgatives.” That just means they cause nausea or diarrhea. You could walk out into the woods or meadow and randomly select any weed, and odds are that eating it would make you vomit or (if sufficiently digested) lose control of your bowels. That’s just how a digestive system reacts to problematic inputs. Herbalists really stretch to find an up side in this nonsense.


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  12. 12
    Bob Wilson Says:

    Geez, that’s bad but the numbers affected are miniscule compared to nostrums pushed by the medical establishment.

    Just to jog your memory here are a couple (there are many more but if people are interested I would be happy to remind you in a later post).

    A drug taken by millions for arthritis turns out to cause heart problems (Celebrex and other atypical non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs). As a bonus, it causes gastro-intestinal bleeding and ulceration just like other NSAIDs in a large fraction of people who take it regularly for more than a year (like people with arthritis).

    A drug (hormone replacement therapy) taken to reduce post-menopausal bone loss and other problems by hundreds of millions of women turns out to increase the risk of heart disease, strokes and breast cancer while offering only mild protection against osteoporosis.


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  13. 13
    Anon Says:

    Yet scientific medicine tends to take such drugs off the market if they are found to do more harm than good (or at the very least reduce the use of them).

    Do the quacks stopped using things when they are found to be completely useless and harmful? If they do why haven’t they stopped using birthwort?


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  14. 14
    DV82XL Says:

    Yes some pharmaceutics have side-effects. You will note however that these are usually will known and are taken into consideration when prescribed. The possible side-effects and counter indications are always listed in the advertisements in exhaustive detail, something I have yet to see for any ‘alternative’ preparation.


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  15. 15
    Bob Wilson Says:

    Yes, these cases have been publicized and steps have been taken to stop using them. But mainstream medicine touts its rigorous testing of medicines and treatments before they are used. How is it that these got through? Could it be that drug companies, MDs, and other financially interested parties have corrupted the system? John Ioannidis, MD, director of the Stanford Prevention Research Center thinks so. He has made a career of uncovering payments and kickbacks from drug and device companies to the supposedly objective researchers evaluating the efficacy of new medicines and treatments. If you are curious, google his name. So much for “science based medicine.”

    And mainstream medicine ignores him as much as possible. As an example, read about Ioannidis’ study of the lack of efficacy of inserting stents into clogged coronary arteries. Yet heart surgeons and device companies continue to make $billions and cause untold damage to patients through side effects from the surgery.

    This is not an isolated case. In tonight’s evening news there is a study that the widely used PSA test for prostate cancer causes major damage to patients through unneeded surgery with possible major side effects like strokes and heart attacks not to mention impotence and incontinence.

    At least with alternative medicine people know that they have to research the treatment and decide for themselves if it is worthwhile. The mainstream medicine facade lulls people’s good sense. We should be highly skeptical of all treatments and medicines.

    Yet this website and its denizens seem to think that alternative medicine is a major danger to peoples’ health. In terms of the number of people affected and the costs to them and to society at large mainstream medicine is far more damaging.


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  16. 16
    DV82XL Says:

            Bob Wilson said:

    In terms of the number of people affected and the costs to them and to society at large mainstream medicine is far more damaging.

    One of the other things that the denizens of this website think is that any sweeping assertions of that sort should be backed up with data and references or it will be seen as rubbish.

    Modern medicine while practiced as an art is founded on science. The human body is an exceptionally complex organism and its workings and failings are not as yet completely understood consequently it is unreasonable to expect physicians to achieve the same level of success as those that work on simpler systems, like a locksmith for example.

    This lack of guaranteed outcomes however does not mean science based medicine is failing. It simply means that it is still being developed. Any viable treatment modality, be it administered by a physician, or by some other qualified professional to have its foundations in science and will be shown effective by double blind testing. Anything else is dismissible as quackery.

    Claiming that alternative medicine is superior because it relies on the capacity of a non-expert to make a decision on the validity of a treatment (possibly under duress) is simply lubricious, and without any logical justification.


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  17. 17
    Bob Wilson Says:

    “It simply means that it is still being developed.”

    So we should overlook simple little “glitches” that harm millions of people while costing them billions?

    “Claiming that alternative medicine is superior because it relies on the capacity of a non-expert”

    Why is is that the so-called science defenders always end up appealing to authority? The essence of science is that data rules and some expert’s opinion is worthless if it conflicts with it. The British Royal Society’s motto is “Take the word of no man” but modern science supporters seem to have other ideas.

    How about appealing to this authority before criticizing alternative medicine?
    “Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.”
    Matthew 7:5


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  18. 18
    Anon Says:

            Bob Wilson said:

    So we should overlook simple little “glitches” that harm millions of people while costing them billions?

    No, instead we need to keep things in perspective and realise that without scientific medicine we’d have much shorter lives than what we have.

    Of course we’ll try our best to fix any problems which come up, but using quackery is much worse than the problems we get out of real medicine (which also has a tendency of actually correcting its problems, when it’s discovered that yet another quack remedy is harmful the quacks tend to just ignore it and keep killing their patients).

            Bob Wilson said:

    How about appealing to this authority before criticizing alternative medicine?
    “Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.”
    Matthew 7:5

    Because we don’t recognise some fiction written in the bronze age as being an authority.


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  19. 19
    DV82XL Says:

    Apparently I am dealing with a simpleton.

    Modern medicine, because it is science based, keeps detailed records of both its successes and its failures. In this way it can go forward by not repeating its mistakes, and making sure that information about treatments get disseminated as widely as possible. Alternative medicine seems to depend on anecdotal evidence passed at random. Without hard data, honestly gathered and openly available how can a real comparison be made?

    In fact any time that alternative medicine has been subject to any rigor it has failed miserably, in fact that seems to be its defining property as in the past when a traditional practice was shown to have any value it became…standard medicine.

    Depending on real data and statistical analysis is not a fallacious appealing to authority, I would suggest that you learn what that term means before using it, nor should you think you can get away with taking what others write here out of context and get away with it. Stating that depending on one’s own judgment when one has no background in the subject at hand is not a reliable method of coming to a valid decision is not appealing to authority, it is a simple statement of common sense.

    And if you are looking for Biblical opinion on the matter, consider the following:

    “Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool, but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered.” – Proverbs 28:26

    “The simpleton believes everything, but the prudent gives thought to his steps.” – Proverbs 14:15

    “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.” – Proverbs 18:2


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  20. 20
    Bob Wilson Says:

    “Apparently I am dealing with a simpleton.”

    This is getting tedious. i have cited multiple specific instances where mainstream medicine has failed miserably and all I get from you is pious platitudes that it is good. Why? Well just because it says so.

    “Modern medicine, because it is science based, keeps detailed records of both its successes and its failures.”
    Look up Ioannidis’ papers for multiple examples of fraud in clinical tests of medicines and devices.

    Enough of this fooling around with the cargo cult science mentalities on this website. I will lead you with this:
    “In all labor there is profit, But mere talk leads only to poverty.”
    Proverbs 14:23


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  21. 21
    DV82XL Says:

    You are an idiot. Are you seriously asserting that alternative medicine is superior because it routinely fails double-blind testing? Also you don’t even know what a platitude is, and the passage you quote pertains more to the failings of alternative medicine than science based approaches.

    Evidence based science whether it is in medicine or in any other domain is honest enough to show both its failure and its successes while rubbish like alternative medicine, religion and other frauds hide behind the ignorance of their followers.

    Frankly I hope that you die from being treated by some quack and thus remove your defective genes from the pool.


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  22. 22
    Shafe Says:

            DV82XL said:

    “Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool, but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered.” – Proverbs 28:26

    “The simpleton believes everything, but the prudent gives thought to his steps.” – Proverbs 14:15

    “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.” – Proverbs 18:2

            Bob Wilson said:

    “In all labor there is profit, But mere talk leads only to poverty.”
    Proverbs 14:23

    Cast out the rest of the Bible if you must, but Proverbs is pure gold.


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  23. 23
    Anon Says:

    Proverbs is pretty good by buybull standards (even if its writer committed forgery by claiming it was the sayings of Soloman) but still has quite a few bad things in it (so can’t be said to be pure gold).

    This summary provides a pretty decent list: http://skepticsannotatedbible.com/pr/intro.html


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  24. 24
    Shafe Says:

            Anon said:

    so can’t be said to be pure gold

    18 carat then? I won’t judge the Hebrew scribes too harshly for taking liberties when they put to pen their lengthy oral traditions. Having a written Bible was central to their exceedingly rare accomplishment of maintaining a cultural identity during exile.

    Taking with grains of salt the claims of authorship (e.g. Moses writing the Torah), I still find myself delighted at the amount of practical wisdom to be found, especially in Proverbs and to some extent Ecclesiastes. Much of the down-to-earth advice regarding finances, work ethic, personal priorities, etc. rings very true so many centuries later. If one can make use of the Kama Sutra and Yoga, sans spirituality, for physical benefit, then one can surely appreciate the “wisdoms” of the Hebrew Bible without being bound by religious dogma.

    I find it unfortunate that much of the atheist and spiritual-but-not-religious population tends to throw out the baby with the bathwater. And now I’ve brought the thread waaayyyy off topic.


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  25. 25
    Anon Says:

    Of course what little good is in the buybull can also be obtained from other sources (and if you did get rid of the bad parts of the buybull you’d have a very small book, pretty much just Ecclesiastes, much of Proverbs and a few verses here and there).


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  26. 26
    Shafe Says:

            Anon said:

    Of course what little good is in the buybull can also be obtained from other sources

    Yes, well, there’s lots of good non-religious music, so we can do without Bach. And there are many good portraits, so we can put all those icon paintings in the closet. And what’s up with stained glass windows? You can’t even see through them. Better to replace them with clear ones.

    I can’t be a part of that sort of cynical hand waving. While I’m no scholar, I like having a look at what was important enough to write down in ancient times, when writing anything down was a real pain in the ass. Whether it’s the wisdom books of the Bible, or the Rubayyat, or Shakespeare, it is grounding to know that some human failings and truths are constant throughout the millennia. There are things you just can’t get from a Tony Robbins book.


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  27. 27
    DV82XL Says:

            Anon said:

    Of course what little good is in the buybull can also be obtained from other sources

    The books of so called ‘wisdom literature’ in the old testament are largely sourced from Sumerian, Babylonian, and Egyptian philosophic traditions. Their value is in that they represent the foundations of abstract considerations of moral and ethical issues, divorced slightly from prophetic and legal Hebraism. While a deity is always a factor in this type of writing, it is primarily seen more as a force of nature rather than as an entity.


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  28. 28
    Anon Says:

    Oh yes, a bit of nice music, some nice paintings and a few stained glass windows justify all those killed or tortured in the name of religion.


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  29. 29
    Shafe Says:

            Anon said:

    Oh yes, a bit of nice music, some nice paintings and a few stained glass windows justify all those killed or tortured in the name of religion.

    Not quite sure if that’s a ham-handed redirection or just a thoroughly missed point, but congratulations, you really took the wind out of my sails.


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  30. 30
    Bob Wilson Says:

    “Frankly I hope that you die from being treated by some quack and thus remove your defective genes from the pool.”

    Well, tutt-tutt. Being a Christian, I will not wish for you the much more probable death from a mainstream medical mistake. Unfortunately, you are at high danger because of your blissful faith in their efficacy. After all, by their own admission, they kill over 100,000 people per year due to mistreatment in their hospitals. And that does not include all the deaths from unneeded surgery, over and incorrectly prescribed medicines, misdiagnoses, etc from the medical brotherhood outside hospitals.

    But, not to worry. Given your obvious asinine disposition, you probably have taken yourself out of the gene pool long ago.


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  31. 31
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  32. 32
    Joe Says:

    Wow that was unusual. I just wrote an extremely long comment but after I clicked submit my
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