Stem Cell Embryo Research: British MPs to Vote

Tomorrow and Tuesday British MPs are to vote on research on human embryonic stem cells. It’s an intensely controversial area. On the one hand, the scientists involved in the research argue that the use of such cells from human embryos will lead to significant advances in understanding numerous diseases, such as Alzheimers. According to the British edition of The Week, which covers the reports of the press for the previous week a month or so ago, the government’s bill to permit such experimentation had the support of 200 charities. The bill has the staunch backing of premier Gordon Brown himself, who in an article in one of the broadsheet newspapers today declared that it had his total backing and repeated the arguments that it would lead to disease.

Others, particularly members of the opposition with strong religious convictions, are not so sure. One of the issues being debated is the creation of human-animal hybrid embryos, in which DNA from the nucleus of human cells will be implanted into those of animals to create chimeras that will be 99.9 per cent human. The debate will also include the creation of ‘saviour siblings’, children deliberately created to be genetic or medical donors for older brothers or sisters suffering from disease, and the morality of creating children without fathers through artificial insemination. The veteran Conservative MP, Anne Widdecombe, who has very strong religious views, stated in an interview on the BBC Six O’clock news tonight that unlike adult and umbilical stem cell research, embryonic stem cell research had produced absolutely no results so far. However, as embryonic stem cell research is morally problematic, the scientists involved should show that it will produce the scientific advances they claim before such experimentation may be permitted. She is not alone. I’ve come across statements on some American Conservative newswebsites from businessmen running biotech companies, whose interests include stem cell research, that they are not involved with human embryonic stem cells not just because it conflicts with their Christian morals, but also for the entirely practical reason that such research so far has produced no results.

 Opponents of embryonic stem cell research, such as the Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, have argued that such research is immoral because it implicitly declares that some human beings have no intrinsic value and so may be treated or abused however society wishes. His comments were greeted with sneers from some particularly anti-religious members of the press, such as the Guardian’s and Observer’s journalist, Polly Toynbee. Toynbee dismissed Wright’s concerns as ‘religious’ and stated that it was irrational, because it gave DNA, a mere molecule, more rights than a human suffering from one of the diseases such research is supposed to cure. This is, however, to misunderstand Wright’s point. DNA is indeed a molecule, but through it scientists plan to create a human deliberately for the purposes of experimentation. The moral question is not about DNA – though they are one part of it – but about the status and creation of human, or partly human creatures for experimentation. And such grave concerns about the use and morality of genetic engineering is by no means confined to people of faith. In 1969 the biologists James Shapiro and Jonathan Beckwith isolated the first gene, belonging to bacteria allowing them to ingest milk sugars. The discovery made the first page of the New York Times, where it was hailed as the beginning of a new genetic age. Shapiro, however, was so horrified by the implications of his discovery that he announced his retirement from science and fled to Cuba to teach genetics. He quickly decided that he’d made the wrong career choice, however, and returned to America two years later, and has told journalists since that he would not repeat that episode. 1 Other scientists shared his concerns. In 1976 Irwin Chargaff, a biochemist at Columbia University, questioned the morality of genetic experimentation, writing ‘have we the right to counteract, irreversibly, the evolutionary wisdom of millions of years, in order to satisfy the ambition and curiosity of a few scientists?’ 2 This was followed by a letter to Science by Philip Siekevitz, a biologist at Rockefeller university, expressing serious concerns about genetic research and its potential dangers, and urging scientists to restrain their curiosity:

‘Are we really that much farther along on the path to comprehensive knowledge that we can forget the overwhelming pride with which Dr. Frankenstein made his monster and the Rabbi of Prague made his Golem? Those who would answer ‘Yes’ I would accuse of harboring that sin which the Greeks held to be one of the greatest, that of overweening pride. Like the physicists before us, we have entered the realm of the Faustian bargain, and it behooves all of us biologists to think very carefully about the conditions of these agreements before we plunge ahead into the darkness.’ 3

His fears are not unfounded. The technique of cloning an organism by replacing the nucleus of a different, host cell, with that of animal to be cloned and then implanting the resulting cell in the womb was first suggested in 1938 by Hans Spermann in Germany. Amongst those interested in his theory were members of the Nazi regime, who saw it as another method of creating the master race at the heart of Hitler’s eugenics and racial theories. Fortunately his ideas were impracticable because the technology of the time simply wasn’t advanced enough. 4 Following the creation of Dolly the Sheep by cloning, President Bill Clinton under advice from a specially convened Federal bioethics commission in May 1997 attempted to ban human nuclear transfer cloning. This was rejected by Congress, which did, however, pass his bill to remove federal funding from – but not ban – human cloning for research purposes. The British government legalised human cloning for scientific research in January 2001, stipulating that such embryos should be used solely for research and not implanted in a womb. However, there is a loophole in the legislation in that implantation is relatively simple procedure that could be done in an hour, and such a process could be done quite legally in any country that had not adopted the same legislation as Britain. 5 One of the serious issues that constantly recurs during debates on cloning is the deliberate creation of clones as spare parts for existing humans, as in the recent SF film, The Island, or the SF book, Mortal Gods. In these fictional works, however, the clones used as unwilling donors for existing humans are functioning adults, rather than embryos. Nevertheless, the moral problem in using embryos as a source of spare parts for transplant remains.

Amongst those who have written on the moral problems presented by current genetic research are doctors and scientists of Christian faith. Dr. Patrick Dixon, a Christian pastor and medical doctor, has stated his reasons for unease about the use of human foetal tissue in transplant surgery. While he has no objections to the use of material from a stillborn or miscarried child, as the unfortunate baby is already dead and so the process is similar to the use of transplanted organs from an adult, he makes it clear that he is ‘very unhappy’ about the use of foetal tissue because it is produced through deliberately induced abortions. At the moment, existing legislation means that there must be no relationship between the clinic performing the abortion and those conducting the research. He has stated, however, that he is slightly less uneasy about experiments on fertilised eggs and small balls of cells up to the first week of life, partly because of the need to be consistent. Some forms of birth control now used are not contraceptives but effectively work by aborting the very early fertilised embryo, and so would have to be declared illegal if conception is considered as the beginning of human life. For example, the coil works to prevent pregnancy not through preventing conception, but by preventing the fertilised cell from adhering to the walls of the womb, thus in a strict sense producing a possible abortion. 6 He states, however, that he does not consider it right to deliberately fertilise human eggs for the purpose of experimentation, as this appears to him to trivialise the nature of life itself. 7 His views are shared by many other doctors and medical professionals of Christian faith. In 1990 the Christian Medical Fellowship, which has a membership of about 4,500 British doctors, submitted an article outlining its concerns and suggested ethical guidelines for research to the British Medical Association’s working party on genetic engineering. This made a number of valuable recommendations, including the following:

On the subject of possible exploitation of people for research purpose, it stated that ‘Christians are concerned that the individual, particularly if weak or disadvantaged in any way, is protected. Those who might be benefited by advances in genetic research are vulnerable to being persuaded to be ‘guinea pigs’ and exploited either commenercially or by prestige-seeking research workers.

The child needs protection and the status of the embryo and foetus must also be considered. Counselling should be provided by well-informed sympathetic clinicians, particularly clinical geneticists rather than by those whose commitment is primarily to research.’ 8 

On the status of the pre-implantation embryo, the Fellowship stated that

‘members of the CMF vary in their views as to the status of the fertilised ovum and pre-implantation embryo. Many believe that from teh time of fertilisation the ‘image of God’ is present, thus making the embryo a unique person who should be recognised and treated in all respects as a neighbour. They would therefore find all the following techniques unacceptable.

Others believe that although at the early stages the pre-implantation embryo is indisputably human, it has not yet the attributes of the ‘image of God’ and so may be implanted or discarded.

Nevertheless, there must be atime at which such attributes and status are attained. All members agree that once they are attained, that individual is of infinite value. All agree too that the relationships between husband and wife, parent adn child are of central importance both for the well-being of the individual and for the whole of society. We believe that children are entrusted to their parents to be nurturned and brought to maturity as individuals in their own right.’ 9

Despite their differences of opinion on the status of pre-implantation embryos, the Fellowship condemned cloning and the creation of chimeras through the fusion of human and animal sex cells that proceed to bastocyst and beyond. The Fellowship declared that these techniques were ‘unacceptable since we believe that humans, made in the image of God, are distinct from the animals and should remain so. Each individual is unique and that distinctiveness is important both to that person and to society. It is true that identical twins occur naturally and that each is a person in his or her own right, but some twins do have difficulties establishing their own identity.’ 10 In the submission’s conclusion, the Fellowship stated that they believed that ‘doctors should acts as stewards, helping mankind to make the most of its potential and prepared to correct abnormalities, but not as dictators, manipulating all for selfish ends.

Inevitably there is a difference of opinion as to where these roles begin and end. Some feel that work on early embryos is unacceptably interfering adn that the risk of disaster outweighs the potential benefits. Others believe that cautious exploration is the right way forward. All Christian Medical Fellowship members agree that we are responsible now to our patients and their families, but ultimately responsible to our Creator for the decisions we make today.’ 11

The debate over the morality of human embryo research and relating fields such as cloning and genetic engineering is not simply one of religious faith in conflict with science, as those concerned with the ethical implications of such research include practising scientists and medical doctors, both religious and secular. Moreover, the ethical concerns expressed by religious non-scientists are entirely genuine problems, which need to be addressed. The great American bioethicist and Biblical commentator, Dr. Leon R. Kass, discussing cloning, declared that it provided ‘the occasion as well as the urgent necessity of deciding whether we shall be slaves of unregulated progres and ultimately its artifacts or whether we shall remain free human beings to guide our technique towards the enhancement of human dignity. 12 Kass himself has strong views against cloning following his reading of a column about it by Joshua Lederberg in the Washington Post in September 1967, which he viewed as showing a lack of understanding on its implications. As a result, he was invited by the Princeton University theologian Paul Ramsey to discuss it and related ethical issues, and so becoming more involved with theologians and philosophers. 13 As a biochemist, like the members of the Christian Medical Fellowship in Britain, Kass is certainly very well aware of the science supporting such research. Nevertheless, in his view the only serious answer to the immense moral problems posed by cloning and related issues may be the complete abandonment of such research, despite the opportunities it offers for scientific advance. Kass has quoted his colleague, Paul Ramsey, on this issue, stating

‘Raise the ethical questions with a serious and not a frivolous conscience. A man of frivolous conscience announces that there are ethical quandaries ahead that we must urgently consider before the future catches up with us. By this he often means that we need to devise a new ethics that will provide the rationalization for doing in the future what men are bound to do because of the new actions and interventions science will have made possible. In contrast, a man of serious conscience means to say in raising urgent ethical questions that there may be some things that men should never do. The good things that men do can be made complete only by the things that they refused to do.’ 14

My own view is that Anne Widdecombe is exactly right about human embryonic research, and particularly about the dubious morality of the creation of the human-animal hybrids to be used. As it appears that such stem cell research has produced few results, and because of the immense moral problems it presents, it should therefore be discontinued. Everyone wants cures to be found for disease, including, and perhaps particularly, such devasting illnesses as Alzheimers that gradually destroys the minds of its victims. However, some of these cures come at too high a cost morally, particularly when other areas of research, like adult and umbilical stem cells, offer much better prospects of results.  

Notes

1. G. Kolata, Clone: The Road to Dolly the Sheep and the Path Ahead (London, Penguin 1997), p. 91.

2. Kolata,  Clone, p. 95.

3. Kolate, Clone, p. 95.

4. H. Brennan, Death: The Great Mystery of Life (Bridgnorth, Eye Books 2005), pp. 120-1.

5. Brennan, Death, p. 128.

6. Dr. P. Dixon, The Genetic Revolution (Eastbourne, Kingsway Publications 1993), pp. 179-180.

7. Dixon, Genetic Revolution, p. 180.

8. ‘Christian Medical Fellowship Submission to British Medical Association on Genetic Engineering’, from Journal of the Christian Medical Fellowship, January 1990, pp. 18-22, in Dixon, Genetic Revolution, pp. 193-4.

9. ‘Christian Medical Fellowship Submission to British Medical Association on Genetic Engineering’, from Journal of the Christian Medical Fellowship, January 1990, pp. 18-22, in Dixon, Genetic Revolution, p. 195.

10. ‘Christian Medical Fellowship Submission to British Medical Association on Genetic Engineering’, from Journal of the Christian Medical Fellowship, January 1990, pp. 18-22, in Dixon, Genetic Revolution, p. 198.

11.’Christian Medical Fellowship Submission to British Medical Association on Genetic Engineering’, from Journal of the Christian Medical Fellowship, January 1990, pp. 18-22, in Dixon, Genetic Revolution, p. 199.

12. Kolata, Clone, p. 15.

13. Kolata, Clone, pp. 76-77.

14. Kolata, Clone, p. 15.

14 Responses to “Stem Cell Embryo Research: British MPs to Vote”

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  4. Wakefield Tolbert Says:

    INTERESTING article.

    And I had wondered if the same pitched battle over public funding of ESCs was taking place across the Pond. We Americans are told that for the most part in most places in the world and certainly in Europe, the issue is settled that ESC research is the WAY to go, the Light and the Truth, amen, for Human Progress in Science. Those who oppose this are knuckledragging Neanderthals from Jesusland in the American Deep South. Etc.

    Serendipity is a funny thing, BR. (And thanks for the other commentary on the AIDS issue).

    The same person whom I referenced on the issue of AIDS in Africa and the utter hypocrisy of some secularists over at various places like BlogCritics, a one Michael Fumento, also has had some rather pointed things to say about stem cell research and how, for example, there is (here in America) a virtual media blackout on the non-invasive advantages of ASC (the adult stem cells, which as you know can be taken from your own tissue without immunological rejection. I have posted some references to his work on this issue among a few select others of note. He points out also that unlike using ESCs in human or animal tissue, there is no immunological rejection from ASCs. The former issue and herald cry for ESCs is that being “pluripotent” they could be used to branch out and forge all manner of differentiated cells and so the line was this could lead to all manners of cures. The reality is that while pluripotent, researchers have had little success outside of the lab. On the bright side of things, ASCs once thought to be limited to “multipotency” and being only differentiated into a limited number of cellular potentialities and thus of less promise, have recently been shown to have some pluripotency in some types. Amniotic fluid cells and cord blood cells too, while not strictly the same thing as ASCs, are also non-ESC and seem to show promise of the much-bandied pluripotency. Numerous treatments and clinical trials with humans are now being tested for the last two.

    Additionally, ASCs “leapfrog”–so to speak–over the whole ethical debate to boot, are easier to work with, and their pundits (the few) have not had their hands out with advocacy groups regarding the “need” for Federal funding on the backs of the US taxpayers. Over 70 treatments are alleged for ASCs vs. the more commonly referenced embryonic version (ESCs), which have to date none to their credit. Fumento thinks (apparently) the main impetus behind this ill treatments of the easier to work with ASCs (and more productive) very much DOES have a least something to do with the abortion issue. Popular Catholic journalist Anna Quindlin made as much clear when she said in Newsweek a few years back that perhaps this whole issue of harvesting ESCs will soften or even deaden the overall opposition to abortion at least at earlier levels (for which she heartily approves, one suspects from her politics) due to the fact that like the early states of human development, certainly the blastocyst or pre-embryonic state of cell clumps has no real mind and even to her has no soul and only “communicates” via chemical signals–thus there is no “humanity” to destroy, etc. This is the thinking of MANY people I’ve run into regarding ESCs. What’s the big deal, eh? Nothing to see there but cell clumps, after all. So it goes. As with the issue of AIDS in Africa, the supporters deny hotly there is any political or philosophical angle to all this, all the while claiming as you mention that the only opposition to ESCs and free condoms for kids is Bible thumpers from fundamentalist tent camps.

    ALSO:

    Someone named “M.R.” is making the rounds lately:

    Following up on some similar discourse from earlier, I wanted your input on the following:

    SAYS MR:

    1)

    “Thousands of Egyptian documents deciphered in recent years leave no room for doubt: the exodus of masses of people, as described in the Bible, or anything remotely like it, just never happened. These documents, which cover in the finest detail every period and every part of Canaan during this epoch prove beyond any doubt that there was no “Conquest of Canaan” and no kingdom of David and Solomon. For a hundred years, Zionist archeologists have devoted tireless efforts to finding even a single piece of evidence to support the Biblical narrative, all to no avail.

    2)

    Why Atheism is not Immoral.
    “Although atheism is negative in character (“A” – no, “Theos” – god), it need not be destructive. When used to eradicate superstition and its detrimental effects, atheism is a benevolent, constructive approach. It clears the air, as it were, leaving the door open for positive principles and philosophies based, not on the supernatural, but on man’s ability to think and comprehend. Religion has had the disastrous effect of placing vitally important concepts, such as morality, happiness and love, in a supernatural realm inaccessible to man’s mind and knowledge.

    2.5)

    The difference between theists and atheists is that the atheists don’t set the theists on fire for refusing to agree with them. – M. R.

    3)

    Divorcing morality from Religion
    “Morality and religion have become so intertwined that many people cannot conceive of ethics divorced from god, even in principle – which leads to the assumption and misconception that the atheist is out to destroy values. Atheism, however, is not the destruction of morality; it is the destruction of supernatural morality. Likewise, atheism is not the destruction of happiness and love; it is the destruction of the idea that happiness and love can be achieved only in another world. ”

    I am an atheist, and I consider myself a very moral person, both because I have concluded of my own volition that a set of moral restrictions benefits society as a whole, and partly because unlike religious zealots, I do not get to “wash away my sins” with a bribe to the child molester in the funny robes. If I choose to do something wrong, I will live with that choice the rest of my life.
    Contrast that with the religious who regularly break their own moral laws, then buy absolution just in time to break the rules again next week. – M. R.

    4)

    On the last part, I would add something here I meant to get to much earlier but for time constraints:

    The idea bounces off something you said earlier that is the traditional reply to the Skeptic type who uses the famous Bertrand Russell dictum in that if God is good by definition and can be “no other”–then morality is just haphazard chance and means nothing any more than a gemstone being hard is hard by its “very nature” and thus can be “none other” than what it is. Russell argued this is Arbitrary Assignment–thus for him the atheist was more moral (as the chap above says) for being conscious about his own moral standing with society and his own social/personal code vs.,. the theist, for whom this is arbitrary and is akin to a parental “because I said SO!” Russell attempts a mind trap. He was famous for these kinds of equations. If you say God is moral–is there some HIGHER standard than God you have to go by and that HE would have to go by? But that would make Him un-Godlike. Or at least not omniscient. If not, however, then His Goodness is arbitrary and just akin to “it is.”

    Whence the origin of the Good that is neither subjective nor arbitrary assignment?

    See the problem. The answer for some time has been (as Ravi Zacharias has said), “you have to place morals ULTIMATELY SOMEWHERE, so you might as well place them with God by His nature rather than the subjective and shifting favors of society.” I understand of course the latter’s very real danger, but the question remains. IS this not still an arbitrary assignment? Thus the MORAL atheist is still the more moral for his decision and free will in all matters moral. Right? Where is the pitfall here? ( I know there must be one…heh hee)

    5)

    Might have asked this one before: Why are some biblical passages so obscure? Or lost in translation like the “love of money” being the root of all evil, etc. (when in fact this is far from the case, as it is the root of all MANNER of evil–obviously money is what you make of it and in the Garden it was NOT or COULD NOT have been the original sin, etc) . Other passages are even more nettlesome to the point now we have, say about 30,000 protestant denominations alone and and everything from animism and ancestor worship to various doctrines on marriage the world over even in Christendom. Others tell you you can’t have a beer with lobster (both verboten!) or by themselves due to Jewish dietary law made current. See the problem here? Why is a God so powerful so obscure? Why not just knock our pal Richard Dawkins on the noggin while he’s waiting at the train station one day and give him a revelation of Truth? He’s not taking advice from people he thinks are knuckle draggers and deep south country fried rednecks who go to First Church just off the access road!

  5. Beastrabban Says:

    Hi Wakefield, thanks for the great comments. Actually, it’s been through following the debate about Adult Stem Cells on American Christian sites and Conservative sites that I’ve found that science tends to support their research, rather than Embryonic Stem Cells, though this has also been covered in the British press. The opinion expressed in the British press, however, with the exception of the Daily Mail , seemed to me to be that research using embryonic stem cells was very much what was needed, with Gordon Brown himself writing in one of the papers to urge their use. He did not, however, attack or deride those who did not share his views.

    The attack on people of faith who were opposed to embryonic stem cell research came from journalists like Polly Toynbee and David Aronovitch. Aronovitch attacked the Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, with a comment that he didn’t teach history from his pulpit during Easter.

  6. Beastrabban Says:

    Regarding the demand by scientists and politicians that Embryonic Stem Cell research should be approved and supported, I don’t know how far it’s driven by a concern to protect abortion, though one Labour MP did claim that MPs concerned to lower the time limit for abortions had hijacked the government’s debate over embryo research and reproductive technology. It does show, however, an increasing tendency to view humans and their remains as simply matter, merely another resource to be exploited. And that has really totalitarian implications.

  7. Beastrabban Says:

    Now on to MR and his questions. Let’s take the first one:

    ‘“Thousands of Egyptian documents deciphered in recent years leave no room for doubt: the exodus of masses of people, as described in the Bible, or anything remotely like it, just never happened. These documents, which cover in the finest detail every period and every part of Canaan during this epoch prove beyond any doubt that there was no “Conquest of Canaan” and no kingdom of David and Solomon. For a hundred years, Zionist archeologists have devoted tireless efforts to finding even a single piece of evidence to support the Biblical narrative, all to no avail.’

    MR’s obviously approaching this from the perspective of the Biblical Minimalists, who deny that there was an Exodus or kingdom of David and Solomon. Now it’s true that Egyptian documents don’t mention the Exodus. However, this doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. As Kenneth Kitchen, the Professor Emeritus of Egyptology at Liverpool University and author of On the Infallibility of the Old Testament has pointed out, the Ancient Egyptians never recorded their defeats. Paul Johnson, in his book, The Egyptians points out that the Egyptians never mention their failed expeditions. There are hints, here and there, of Egyptian armies dying of thirst in expeditions to the desert, but they’re not fully recorded.

    Now the ancient Egyptians certainly possessed Semitic slaves. There’s a list of the slaves belonging to one ancient Egyptian aristocrat from the 18th century BC, which includes very Jewish names like Menahem. Furthermore, the Egyptologist James K. Hoffmeier has argued in his books Israel in Egypt and Israel at Sinai that the account of the Exodus in the Bible does present good evidence that the Jews were indeed in Egypt and then escaped to conquer Canaan. As for there being no similar mass exodus of peoples, that doesn’t appear to be the case. Other Egyptologists have noted that Egyptian documents record Semitic peoples resident in Egypt asking permission to leave so they can celebrate a ritual in the desert, just as Moses asks Pharoah, and that there is also documentation of a whole tribe of Edomites resident in Egypt departing.

    As for the lack of documentation, Kenneth Kitchen has also pointed out that there are periods in the history of the Ancient Near East where documentary and archaeological evidence is very, very scarce. I’ve got a feeling that the period of the 9th to 8th centuries BC is one where the written records of the contemporary empires like Egypt, Babylonia and the Hittites don’t actually say much about foreign events because they’re too occupied with their own internal affairs due to internal rebellion. As for no evidence for King David, a few years ago an inscription was discovered in Israel referring to the ‘House of David’, which has been accepted by many archaeologists as proof that the line of David did indeed exist. As for no evidence for the Conquest of Canaan, the archaeologists supporting the Biblical account, like Kitchen and Hoffmeier, point out that Joshua only destroyed three cities by burning, and so the mass destruction by fire that many archaeologists seem to believe would be evidence for the Conquest didn’t occur. Hoffmeier further points out in his book, The Archaeology of the Bible (Oxford, Lion 2008), that in 2003 Finkelstein, one of the Israeli archaeologists who has argued with his colleague Silberman, in The Bible Unearthed , that the Exodus probably never occurred and that Israel emerged from the indigenous Canaanites, a number of houses whose design suggested to him that they were built by tent-dwelling nomads settling down to permanent residence.

    Biblical Minimalism and the accuracy of that part of the Bible is a large topic. However, if you want more information, a good place to start is over at the awesome Tekton site. Look for the review of Israel Finkelstein’s and Silberman’s The Bible Unearthed . He’s also linked to a very, very good piece defending the accuracy of the Bible’s account of the Conquest at Christian ThinkTank .

  8. Wakefield Tolbert Says:

    Hi Beast–

    Yes– as Fumento pointed out a while back, this is just a guess, as the “A” word is not often connected even among the “kindred” spirits of the same TYPES of people who’d support both abortion and ESC research. However, for the most part it is worth a glance that they ARE generally the same.

    Anna Quindlin stands out as a liberal and Catholic “pro-choicer” who chimed in to say that this whole issue might “soften the blow” since as with her particular take on science (and as she claims of other sophisticates) ESCs are even lower on the totem pole heirarchy of value than a fetus and in the words of one researcher, “overvaluing the embryo or fetus UNDERVALUES” the true child or adult. Etc.
    But this is hard to pin down for certain. More likely as someone pointed out, this might be closer to a matter of one of those “Galileo vs. the Church” kinds of scenarios as perceived by the major media, and that while they were hundreds of years late on the first one, by golly the WON’T miss THIS round of church/science fights. As you of all people are aware this is mostly myth (the whole Galileo donnybrook) as pointed out by writers such as yourself and a wonderful little book called The Soul of Science. Ditto for Copernicus. But just as we’re told by schoolmarms to avoid the Cliffs Notes versions of Hamlet, so too we should avoid the same little distillations for all of history. But the educational system at least in America cannot abide that, and neither can the media. It is the Christians, however, who are accused of simplicity, arrogance, bigotry, selfishness, narrow-mindedness, and not seeing the finer shades of grey on a host of issues.

    ESCs is but one of them. PC mags like Nature, Science, and Sci-Am are not helpful in many cases. It seems science has fads as often as women’s shoe fashions.

  9. Beastrabban Says:

    Thanks, Wakefield. A lot of the current criticism of Christians who oppose embryo research seems to be based partly on the view that religion, and Christianity, somehow is opposed to science, and it does seem to be influenced by the generally accepted view of the trial of Galileo, no matter how unhistorical this is being shown to be. As for science magazines like Nature and ,i> Scientific American , there’s a strong element of philosophical Naturalism, rather than just the methodological Naturalism that Ruse considers is the essential component of scientific inquiry, and this philosophical Naturalism can be critiqued and attacked.

    Back to MR’s statements. Now let’s deal with his second argument.

    Why Atheism is not Immoral.
    “Although atheism is negative in character (”A” – no, “Theos” – god), it need not be destructive. When used to eradicate superstition and its detrimental effects, atheism is a benevolent, constructive approach. It clears the air, as it were, leaving the door open for positive principles and philosophies based, not on the supernatural, but on man’s ability to think and comprehend. Religion has had the disastrous effect of placing vitally important concepts, such as morality, happiness and love, in a supernatural realm inaccessible to man’s mind and knowledge.

    Firstly, some theist theologians, like Alister McGrath, who is a strong critic of atheism and particularly atheist apologists like Richard Dawkins, do consider that atheism is not entirely destructive when it acts as a vital corrective to malign or destructive forms of religion. However, the statement that Religion has had the disastrous effect of placing vitally important concepts, such as morality, happiness and love, in a supernatural realm inaccessible to man’s mind and knowledge. is wrong. Christian philosophers like John Locke, St. Anselm, and Thomas Aquinas did not argue that Christian morality was irrational. What they argued was that Christian morality, when examined, was found to be profoundly rational. However, they considered that the human mind on its own could not properly come to the knowledge of the objective morality required by God. St. Augustine pointed out that pagan philosophers could not agree with each other on the correct view of the world or morality. Centuries later John Locke made the same point in his The Reasonableness of Christianity . He pointed out that elements of Christian morality could be found in non-Christian philosophies all over the world, but these were immediately attacked and contradicted by other non-Christian philosophers citing reason. Thus, for St. Augustine and Locke, reason alone could not lead one to an understanding of the objective morality at the heart of the cosmos. So atheism is not necessarily immoral. I can think of a number of atheists who were very moral, far more so than many people of faith. However, it doesn’t provide a sure basis for morality and human reason, on its own, doesn’t automatically lead to a moral worldview. The totalitarianisms of the 20th century, which stressed their basis in human rationality, are a case in point.

  10. Beastrabban Says:

    Now for MR’s point 2.5:

    The difference between theists and atheists is that the atheists don’t set the theists on fire for refusing to agree with them.

    This is really just a soundbite based on historical perception, or misperception, rather than real history or the sociology of religion. Not all religions demand the execution of atheists. The pacifism of the Quakers and Amish is very well known, but you can find other examples, such as the Hindu doctrine of ahimsa that inspired Gandhi. I can’t think of a single mainstream Christian church which advocates the imposition of its doctrines by force, or the violent persecution of those who don’t share their doctrines.

    As for atheists, well, the atheist regimes in Communism certainly persecuted people of faith for refusing to agree with their doctrines. In the Soviet Union, those who preached the Gospel and attempted to bring up their children in their faith were imprisoned for ‘anti-Soviet propaganda’, had their houses destroyed and their children taken into care. So atheists certainly persecuted those theists who refused to agree to their doctrines.

  11. Beastrabban Says:

    Now let’s critique MR’s third point.

    Divorcing morality from Religion
    “Morality and religion have become so intertwined that many people cannot conceive of ethics divorced from god, even in principle – which leads to the assumption and misconception that the atheist is out to destroy values. Atheism, however, is not the destruction of morality; it is the destruction of supernatural morality. Likewise, atheism is not the destruction of happiness and love; it is the destruction of the idea that happiness and love can be achieved only in another world. ”

    I am an atheist, and I consider myself a very moral person, both because I have concluded of my own volition that a set of moral restrictions benefits society as a whole, and partly because unlike religious zealots, I do not get to “wash away my sins” with a bribe to the child molester in the funny robes. If I choose to do something wrong, I will live with that choice the rest of my life.
    Contrast that with the religious who regularly break their own moral laws, then buy absolution just in time to break the rules again next week.
    .

    There’s a lot wrong with the above statements. Let’s go through them one by one.

    “Morality and religion have become so intertwined that many people cannot conceive of ethics divorced from god, even in principle – which leads to the assumption and misconception that the atheist is out to destroy values. Atheism, however, is not the destruction of morality; it is the destruction of supernatural morality.

    This is true in that there are atheist philosophers who have attempted to create a system of morality bsed on reason and demonstrate the existence of objective moral values. However, there is the problem that without an objective grounding of morality in the existence and nature of God, the case for an objective morality is considerably weakened. Nietzsche, for example, strongly argued that atheism meant that there was no objective morality, and attacked attempts to create an atheist objective morality as a ‘shadow of God’ that oppressed humanity, just as he considered religious belief proper did.

    Likewise, atheism is not the destruction of happiness and love; it is the destruction of the idea that happiness and love can be achieved only in another world.

    Firstly, the Bible does not state that it’s impossible to be happy in this present life. Remember that for the Jews of the Old Testament the afterlife meant a shadowy, joyless existence in Sheol. As I understand it, Judaism stresses that this life is also good, and should be properly enjoyed. If you look at the provisions of the Mosaic Law, the commands are followed with the statement that they are to be obeyed so that ‘you may live long in the land that I, the Lord, shall give you.’ What Christianity and Judaism stress is that life can only properly be lived according to the moral conception of the world experienced through God’s revelation. It also stresses, as did much ancient philosophy, that the joys of the world are transitory, and there is also pain, grief and suffering. It’s a realistic view of the world, which stresses that lasting joy can only be found in God’s love and the reconstruction of the universe after the Resurrection. One can probably make the case that the current excessive hedonism in Western society, as expressed in the massive increase in binge drinking and promiscuity in Britain, is probably due to an overemphasis on this-worldly values. The stress that this world is all that exists does lead to a view of morality that stresses the need to enjoy every moment. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing in itself, but it can lead to excess and the unrealistic expectation that every moment must be filled with pleasure when the reality is often very different. You could also argue that the stress on this-worldly enjoyment is an attempt to avoid the existence of pain and suffering as intrinsic components of the world, and that the view of Christian Existentialists like Kierkegaard, that states that humanity comes to a true understanding of its own situation and the existence of God through an engagement with pain, suffering and guilt, is a far more realistic view of humanity’s place in the world.

    I am an atheist, and I consider myself a very moral person, both because I have concluded of my own volition that a set of moral restrictions benefits society as a whole. Firstly, the fact that a set of rules benefits society doesn’t mean that they’re objectively moral. It merely means they’re useful. There’s a difference between utility and morality, as demonstrated in the critiques of Utilitarianism. Secondly, the statement that he came to the conclusion that humanity needs moral injunctions independently merely states that he was able to work out for himself what to the person of faith is self-evident. St. Paul stated that humanity had an innate knowledge of God, but that this was suppressed in some, and that righteous pagans were ‘circumcised in their hearts’ through the action of the Holy Spirit. One could argue from this, as Abraham Kuiper did, that God’s grace operated generally to give non-Christians morality and the ability to function rationally in the world, while Christians, by God’s grace, were convinced of the saving work of our Lord. Thus one could still argue that however moral MR is in coming to his view of the benefits of objective morality, he is still dependent on God’s grace whether he is conscious of it or not.

    and partly because unlike religious zealots, I do not get to “wash away my sins” with a bribe to the child molester in the funny robes. If I choose to do something wrong, I will live with that choice the rest of my life.
    Contrast that with the religious who regularly break their own moral laws, then buy absolution just in time to break the rules again next week.

    Really, this is just an abusive charicature of Christian morality, based on a misperception of the work of the Church, and specifically the Roman Catholic Church, in forgiving sins. Firstly, while Christianity states that God forgives sins, it does not state that after receiving that forgiveness people are free to sin again. The moral code stresses that there has to be genuine contrition and repentance, a desire to reform one’s life and act more morally in the future. It does, however, recognise that whatever humans do, sin and immorality is part of human nature, hence the necessity for continuing to forgive sins and the period when people fall short of moral standards. Furthermore, in the Protestant tradition, there was an acute awareness of one’s moral failings particularly amongst Calvinists. As a true faith is demonstrated by good works, but it was only through faith that one was saved, many Protestants earnestly examined their consciences in order to develop fully that saving faith, and so were acutely conscious of their sinful nature, sometimes excessively so. Confessing one’s sins to God in Church, or, in Roman Catholicism, to the priest in private, who then administered absolution, did not give one the freedom to return to one’s immoral ways, as a genuine repentance and determination to do good was still required.

    As for the bit about the ‘child molester in the funny robes’, this is just abuse. Yeah, I’m aware of the scandals about child abuse in the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches. However, despite these scandals there are fewer child-abusers in the clergy than in other professions, and all the scandals demonstrated was not that Christian clergy were all child-molesters, but that child-molesters joined professions that brought them close to their prey, like clergy, but also like a number of other professions.

  12. Beastrabban Says:

    Now let’s examine MR’s point 4, that describing God as acting in accordance with moral values through his own nature is merely a form of accidental ascription, and so arbitrary, and so atheist is more moral than theist because he is conscious of his free will and moral status and does not automaticall follow God’s commands.

    In fact Christian and theist philosophers have discussed this problem, and produced a rebuttal. For example, Thomas V. Morris in his book, Our Idea of God: An Introduction to Philosophical Theology (Vancouver, Regent College Publishing 1991), points out that Mark Twain used the argument as a criticism of George Washington’s goodness.

    ‘George Washington could not tell a lie.
    I can tell a lie but I won’t’.’

    Morris makes the point that as a perfectly free being, God does not have duties in the way that created beings, such as humans, have. Philosophers draw a distinction between following a rule, and merely acting in accordance with a rule, but not attempting to obey it. Thus as a free being, the moral principles that are prescriptive or proscriptive for humans are merely descriptive for God. God’s goodness is analogous to what would be expected of a perfect, duty-bound moral agent.

    However, God is still morally good because He graciously performs acts of goodness that are not required by duties. For example, although after He made His promise with Moses to lead the Children of Israel out of Egypt, He was not free to break it, He was not obliged to make that promise to Moses in the first place. Because God does engage in freely performed acts of gracious goodness not demanded by duties, He is thus a free moral agent and so worthy of worship. Furthermore, because God independently wills the greatest amount of good, He is volitionally, and thus axiologically good, that is that He is the possesses the greatest amount of the broadest category of goodness as a whole.

    Morris also makes the point that God’s inability to commit evil does not diminish God’s moral status. ‘The attitude expressed here [Twain’s comment about George Washington] seems to be the one, or at least closely related to the on, generating this line of criticism: It is better to be trimphant in moral freedom than to be necessarily good, unable to do evil. But is this so? If the encessity comes from outside oneself, that is one thing. If the necessity is merely a reflection of onesnature, as in the case of God, that is very different.’ (p. 63).

    Morris then points out that the absence of an ability to commit evil does not mean that God is less than perfect according to perfect being theology. ‘All that perfect being theology requires is that God have the great possible array of compossible great-making properties, not that he have all great making properties. And if being necessarily good and having duties are both great-making properties, then they are obviously not compossible great-making properties – they cannot be had together. Thus, lacking one of them is not necessarily incompatible with being a greatest possible being.

    ‘And there is every reason to suppose that the property of having a hard-won moral goodness, or the property of having duties is the sort of property a perfect being can do without. Any such property is a good thing, but it may be a good for only a certain kind of being, the kind vulnerable to evil, the kind of being we humans are. And the property of having morally significant freedom – being abot to go wrong as well as right – can plausibly be thought to be not an excellence of the highest order, but rather an imperfection, in contrast with the divine standard. This jusdment is at least as plausible as a judgement to the contrary and is, I think, sufficient to show that the typical Anselmian conviction that God is necessarily good need not be thought to fall to this criticism. The exalted view of God it seems to be, it is. God’s goodness can be thought of as complete and as stable in the strongest possible sense.’ (p. 64).

    Thus God being intrinsically good of His own nature certainly does not mean that God is unworthy of praise and worship. Furthermore, one can also argue that the ascription of qualities like goodness to God is not arbitrary – it comes from a profound sense of what God must be like, if He is perfect, and has the moral qualities claimed and revealed in the Bible. Moreover, theologians and philosophers such as St. Augustine have suggested that abstract objects, like numbers, exist because they are created by the mind of God. Moral values could be said to exist in the same way, as intrinsic part of the divine nature with no independent existence. In which case their ascription to God is not arbitrary, but a logical development of the way in which God is understood to create not just the material world, but the immaterial principles supporting it.

  13. Beastrabban Says:

    Now let’s apply this analysis of God’s perfect nature to his argument that the atheist is somehow morally superior to the theist because he is rationally aware of the moral dimension and doesn’t simply do what God commands as the theist does.

    Now there are a number of misconceptions there. The first is that theists don’t reflect on the nature of morality or attempt to investigate it rationally. Now as I’ve said, theologians from St. Paul onwards stated that theistic morality was rational, and much theological literature is devoted to rationally examining the nature of morality. So theists are certainly not without rational moral awareness.

    Also, MR misunderstands the nature of faith. Greek word translated as ‘faith’ in the New Testament, pistis , means more literally ‘trust’, and some theologians stress that it is trust based on evidence. The Old Testament constantly reminds the reader of the good, salvefic works of the Lord as proof of His goodness and concern for Israel and the world, such as leading the Children of Israel out of Egypt. One is invited to trust the Lord, based on the fulfillment of His promises to His people in the past.

    Now I could also go further here, and state that God does not demand obedience, but offers the opportunity for communion with Him and the chance to participate in the very qualities that make God holy, albeit at an infinitely lesser level for humans. Adam and Eve weren’t created simply to do God’s work for him, as Utnapishtim was created by the gods in Babylonian mythology, but to have communion with Him. Again, in Leviticus several of the moral commands have the additional statement ‘You shall be holy, because I, the Lord, am holy’. In doing the will of God, humans partake of some of God’s qualities, such as mercy, as in the Lord’s command, ‘You shall be merciful, as your father is merciful.’ Thus there’s a process of sanctification involved, by which God’s worshippers aren’t just servants, but participants in some parts of God’s nature.

    Also, if one considers that goodness is acting in harmony with the will of God, then the atheist automatically acts in harmony with the will of God whenever He performs a good act, whether he intentionally wishes to act in accordance with the divine will or not. One could also argue that if most people simply act according to the morals of the time, without particularly reflecting on whether such contemporary morals are truly good, this means that most atheists also simply accept the dominant morality of their times. Thus atheists aren’t necessarily more morally reflective than theists.

    As creatures with free will, theists are also still able to reject God’s commands and turn to evil. However, they don’t because they trust in God’s goodness based on revelation and in the inward work of revelation.

    Thus, one can say that theists are superior to atheists as they are very much aware of their status as moral beings and the complexity of moral theories, but perform the will of God because God’s morals are both rational, they trust, given the evidence, that God is moral, and by doing God’s will they act not just as servants, but also as participants in God’s nature. They aren’t simply following commands and so acting obediently, but acting truly morally as well through the source of those commands in God’s perfect morality.

  14. Beastrabban Says:

    Now let’s start with MR’s question about why the Bible is so difficult to understand. The answer is that as God acts in history, so God and His prophets spoke and acted in ways that had particular meaning to the people of the time, meanings that have been obscured as history has progressed. Yet this use of metaphors and symbolism by God and His prophets specific to the times also supports the authenticity of the Biblical witness. For example, Christ used the specific rhetorical devices and metaphors of contemporary 1st century Judaism, although He altered them to support His own specific teaching and claims to divinity. Thus New Testament scholars conclude that the picture of Christ in the Bible is accurate and genuine, and not the product of Second century development, as was suggested in the 19th century by the Tubingen School.

    Now some of the ideas expressed in the Bible, although obscure to us now, would probably have been readily understood by the people who first heard the revelation. The case about the Jewish dietary laws is a case in points. According to the anthropologist Mary Douglas, non-Western, traditional cultures divide the world and its contents into very strict categories, and those objects or creatures that seem to transgress those categories are seen as unnatural or unclean. In this view, pigs are unclean, because they are like cattle in some ways, and sheep and goats in others. As creatures that don’t fall into either of those categories, either cattle or sheep and goats, they’re therefore unclean. Shellfish are unclean, because they’re like fish in that they live in water, but don’t have their scales or fins, and so aren’t really fish. Thus, lobster and other fish may not be eaten.

    This way of looking at the world is completely alien to modern Western society, but to the Old Testament Jews it would have made sense and been an accepted part of their worldview.

    Now as the revelations of the Bible were given in accordance with the needs and culture of the time, and so would have been more comprehensible to those who received them, there would also have been an obligation on the part of the audience receiving the revelations to preserve and explain properly those revelations. History progresses, and cultures change, but it is nevertheless expected and demanded that God’s Word is not just properly preserved, but explained. Humans are able to do this through the normal process of historical inquiry and writing commentaries, although some of the finer meanings may well be lost. Nevertheless, it’s something that they’re able to do and have done themselves, and so God can reasonably expect the meaning of His revelation to be preserved and taught despite the specific cultural contexts in which the revelations were made.

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