There are sources of irrationality other than religious faith, of course, but none of them are celebrated for their role in shaping public policy. Supreme Court justices are not in the habit of praising our nation or its reliance upon astrology, or for its wealth of UFO sightings, or for exemplifying the various reasoning biases that psychologists have found to be more or less endemic to our species. Only mainstream religious dogmatism receives the unqualified support of government. And yet, religious faith obscures uncertainty where uncertainty manifestly exists, allowing the unknown, the implausible, and the patently false to achieve primacy over facts.
Consider the present debate over research on human embryonic stem cells. The problem with this research, from the religious point of view is simple: it entails the destruction of human embryos. The embryos in question will have been cultures in vitro (not removed from a woman’s body) and permitted to grow for three to five days. AT this stage of development, an embryo is called a blastocyst and consists of about 150 cells arranged in a microscopic sphere. Interior to the blastocyst is a small group of about 30 embryonic stem cells. These cells have two properties that make them of such abiding interest to scientists: as stem cells, they can remain in an unspecialized state, reproducing themselves through cell division for long periods of time (a population of such cells living in culture is known as a cell line); stem cells are also pluripotent, which means they have the potential to become any specialized cell in the human body – neurons of the brain and spinal chord, insulin-producing cells of the pancreas, muscle cells of the heart, and so forth.
Here is what we know. We know that much can be learned from research on embryonic stem cells. In particular, such research nay give us further insight into the processes of cell division and cell differentiation. This would almost certainly shed new light on those medical conditions, like cancer and birth defects, that seem to be merely a matter of processes gone awry. We also know that research on embryonic cells requires the destruction of human embryos at the 150-cell stage. There is not the slightest reason to believe, however, that such embryos have the capacity to sense pain, to suffer, or to experience the loss of life in any way at all. What is indisputable is that there are millions of human beings who do have these capacities, and who currently suffer from traumatic injuries to the brain and spinal chord. Millions more suffer from Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. Millions more suffer from stroke and heart disease, from burns, from diabetes, from rheumatoid arthritis, from Purkinje cell degeneration, from Duchenne muscular dystrophy, and from vision and hearing loss. We know that embryonic stem cells promise to be a renewable source of tissues and organs that might alleviate such suffering in the not to distant future.
Enter faith: we now find ourselves living in a world in which college-educated politicians hurl impediments in the way of such research because they are concerned about the fate of single cells. Their concern is not merely that a collection of 150 cells may suffer its destruction. Rather, they believe that even a human zygote (a fertilized egg) should be accorded all the protections of a fully developed human being. Such a cell, after al, has the potential to become a full developed human being.. But given our recent advances in the biology of cloning, as much can be said of almost every cell in the human body. By the measure of a cell’s potential whenever the president scratches his nose he is now engaged in a diabolical culling of souls.
Out of deference to some rather poorly specified tenets of Christine doctrine (after all, nothing in the Bible suggests that killing human embryos, or even human fetuses, is the equivalent of killing a human being), the U.S. House of Representatives voted effectively to ban embryonic stem-cell research on February 27, 2003.
No rational approach to ethics would have led us to such an impasse. Our present policy on human stem cells has been shaped by beliefs that are divorced from every reasonable intuition we might form about the possible experience of living systems. In neurological terms, we surely visit more suffering upon this earth by killing a fly than by killing a human blastocyst, to say nothing of a human zygote (flies, after all, have 100,000 cells in their brains alone). Of course, the point at which we fully acquire our humanity, and or capacity to suffer, remains an open question. But anyone who would dogmatically insist that these traits must arise coincident with the moment of conception has nothing to contribute, apart from his ignorance, to this debate. Those opposed to therapeutic stem-cell research on religious grounds constitute the biological and ethical
Equivalent of a flat-earth society. Our discourse on the subject should reflect this. In this area of public policy alone, the accommodations that we have made to faith will do nothing but enshrine a perfect immensity of human suffering for decades to come.