Baltimore Sun

Confident Faith Doesn't Fear Science

Former Senior Fellow

Religious bioethicists lost a major battle when President Bush decided to permit federal funding of stem cell research using IVF (in-vitro fertilization) embryos. They lost not because of politics, but because of the brand of religion that gives them inspira-tion.

A confident religion puts the inner life and outer life of human beings in perspective. It knows that nothing science discovers in the outside world will ever change the reality of people's inner experience. Thus, most people live in fear or boredom, no matter how technically advanced a society is.

Even a genetically engineered baby is likely destined for a dull childhood in the suburbs, a painful adolescence and a restless adulthood spent staring out an office window. This is religion's promise, which is why people need religion to change their outlook.

When religion is confident, it focuses on the problems of the inner life, and offers only general guidelines regarding scientific research. Scientists may not murder. They must respect existing human life (a ban on human reproductive cloning would be consistent with this). Otherwise, religion is content to let science do its thing.

But there are times when religion grows confused about its mission, gets scared and cracks down hard on science. Religion forgets that science only affects people's outer lives, not their inner experience.

In the 17th century, religious leaders feared that Galileo's discoveries might undermine the doctrine of the soul, and so they punished him. They wrongly saw science as a competitor.

The same thing is happening today among conservatives who fear genome research, stem cell research and some forms of cloning. They fear that science is undermining the sacred nature of human existence, and eroding our self-conception as free, thoughtful human beings.

This fear is misplaced. Religion has nothing to fear from science. But when religion loses its sense of purpose, the morality it sanctions degenerates into crude theory. And because every change wrought by scientific advancement signifies a possible deviation from theory, conservatives see evil intention in it.

Conservatives, for example, fear that genetic research will dehumanize procreation and turn it into manufacture. This fear is misplaced.

Manufactured items have a fairly predictable future. Life, on the contrary, is a permanent question, no matter how much science goes into its creation.

Science can neither predetermine what unfolds in the depths of the human consciousness nor guarantee a person's future.

Religion has undergone such a subtle twist of meaning in the minds of conservative bioethicists that the conservatives are barely aware of the change, and they stagnate in the deception without even noticing.

Conservatives, for example, rightly condemn scientists who mix human egg and sperm solely for research purposes. Such scientists mock the act of conception, which symbolizes the coupling of man and woman in the larger universe, and which is tied up with the essentials of human relationships.

But therapeutic cloning involves the insertion of a skin cell nucleus into a donor egg. It is a microscopic event that lacks any connection to the universe of human feeling. It is a counterfeit of the act of conception.

For conservatives to raise therapeutic cloning to the level of conception is like saying that a coin is good because it resembles real money.

Because conservatives equate cell nuclei and DNA with the inner life of human beings, they wrongly conclude that religion and science are fighting for the same turf. And because science has a better understanding of cell nuclei and DNA than religion, con-servatives develop an inordinate fear of science. They become like undisciplined soldiers who attack at the slightest provocation.

Ironically, conservatives are as needlessly afraid of science as science is unjustifiably proud.

By probing deeper and deeper into subcellular phe-nomena, some scientists think they will discover the laws of life. Nothing merits this confidence, and the scientists are as blind as ever about what moves human beings, yet conservatives are spooked nonetheless. They fear that science is closing in on the secret of life, and that all the scientists need is a bigger microscope.

Society needs a robust conservative bioethics to oppose dangerous currents in secular bioethics. But the idea that genetic research and the manipulation of cells will begin a long chain of human degrada-tion, and that the religious conception of life - divine and unshakeable - has to be protected from a few laboratory scientists, makes conservative bioethics seem stubborn, weak and afraid.

This is why the conservatives lost.