Stem Cells and the Myth of Religious Neutrality

An article by Nicholas Wade, published in The New York Times on April 27, perpetuates the fallacious notion that religious belief is inherently antagonistic to scientific progress. It also sustains the popularly held opinion—unfortunately, even among some Christians—that those who profess adherence to a particular religion are irrationally biased while the members of the scientific community are objective, dealing only with hard facts and free from unscientific pre-commitments.

The article reports that the National Academy of Science proposed a list of ethical guidelines for performing embryonic stem cell research (hereafter ESCR). They believed this was necessary in the absence of leadership from the federal government. The following excerpt displays the "good, objective, science/bad, irrational, religion" dichotomy:

Scientists have high hopes that research with those all-purpose cells, which develop into all the various tissues of the adult body, will lead to treatments for a wide variety of diseases by enabling them to grow new organs to replace damaged ones.

But because of religious objections—human embryos shortly after fertilization are destroyed to derive the cells—Congress has long restricted federal financing of such research; President Bush has allowed it to proceed, but only with designated cells. As a result, the government has not played its usual role of promoting novel research and devising regulations accepted by all players.

It would be more accurate to say that many scientists are optimistic about ESCR's potential and are eager to proceed. Wade gives the impression that there is a consensus among researchers concerning the promise and ethics of this research. But this simply isn't true. The Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics, for example, consists of numerous researchers and physicians who question both its potential benefits and its ethical permissibility.

The following quote from Dr. David Baltimore, president of the California Institute of Technology, is further evidence of an assumed antagonism between scientific progress and religion:


This shows how far this country has gone toward being controlled by religious precepts rather than scientific opportunity . . . It is a terrible omen for our being able to maintain our position as the country that leads in biomedical technology.

Dr. Baltimore's comments also represent the widespread insistence that religious convictions have no place in the shaping of public life. As long as religious beliefs are privatized, giving individuals a sense of purpose and meaning, they can be tolerated. But the moment religion claims to be a source of knowledge about the nature of things and how things ought to be, it has overstepped its boundaries. Religious conviction is like a puppy being housebroken. It's cute and tolerable when it stays on the paper but all hell breaks loose if it steps over the edge onto the linoleum.

I suspect Dr. Baltimore and his cohorts would vehemently deny that their conclusions concerning the ethics of ESCR are products of their own religious beliefs but I think that's the case and I'll tell you why.

Earlier this month, a post at the blog Prosthesis prompted me to reread portions of a book whose argument I find persuasive. The book is Roy Clouser's The Myth of Religious Neutrality: An Essay on the Hidden Role of Religious Belief in Theories. Clouser maintains that all theorizing, whether scientific or philosophical, rests on presuppositions that are essentially religious. According to Clouser:

This means that theories about math and physics, sociology and economics, art and ethics, politics and law can never be religiously neutral. They are all regulated by some religious belief. The effects of religious beliefs therefore extend far beyond providing the hope for life after death or influencing moral values and judgments. By controlling theory making, they produce important differences in the interpretation or issues that range over the whole of life.

What makes belief religious? Clouser addresses this question in his first chapter. He rejects popularly held ideas that in order to count as religious a belief system must include an explicit ethical code or inspire worship. The ancient Epicureans, for example, acknowledged the existence of gods but did not believe they cared about human affairs. Japanese Shintoism is a more contemporary counterexample.

Clouser also denies that religion is characterized by belief in a Supreme Being, noting that Hinduism's concept of the divine (Brahman-Atman) is not considered a being but rather "the being-ness" or "being-itself," which is in all individual beings and which makes them possible.

What is common to all religion is belief in the divine, where "the divine is whatever does not depend on anything else for its existence, so all that is not divine depends for its existence on the divine." According to this definition, matter would be "the divine" in a materialistic philosophy, not because it is regarded as deity but because it that which is considered by materialists as that upon which all else is dependent and in terms of which all else can be explained. This is why I have presented elsewhere the affirmation of materialist philosophy in the form of a religious creed. If Clouser is right, then it's really silly to talk about whether religious belief has any place in shaping public life. The more appropriate question becomes whose religious belief will be applied.

Even if one rejects Clouser's thoughts concerning what constitutes religious belief, the fact remains that all theorizing rests on presuppositions or ultimate commitments concerning the nature of reality, knowledge, and ethics. The assumptions made in one of these areas has consequences for the other two. For example, if one presupposes a materialistic universe, it follows that there are no ethical absolutes and thus some form of ethical relativism will be appealed to. Nor will revelation be considered a valid source of knowledge since there is no supernatural personality from which revelation could come.

Proponents of ESCR would have us believe that theirs is the objective, religiously-neutral, and compassionate stance. I wonder. Is it not at all possible that they have been blinded, and that not by science?

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on Plummer's blog, The Christian Mind.