A few of my medical ethics students (not by any means the majority) object to my including such a large component of religious ethics in my teaching. Such an attitude is not surprising–it is another instance of religion’s increasing exclusion from public life and debate (Fr. Richard John Neuhaus‘ “naked public square,” but it is nevertheless disturbing. The founders of the great Hippocratic tradition of medicine (and ethics) were Pythagoreans, and their thought cannot be understood apart from Pythagorean mysticism. Roman Catholic scholars were producing texts in medical ethics as early as the seventeenth century, and taught medical ethics as a university course long before the contemporary bioethics revolution began in 1966. Roman Catholic concepts such as the principle of double effect and the ordinary-extraordinary care distinction have become a part of the ethical vocabulary in medicine.
In addition, Protestant scholars, such as Paul Ramsey and James Gustafson, have made important contributions to medical ethics. Jewish scholars, such as Hans Jonas and Leon Kass, have also contributed to the field, with Professor Kass serving as the chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics during the Bush administration. Muslim scholars are beginning to be published in both mainstream medical and in medical ethics journals. At a practical level, understanding diverse religions is important for any health care provider.
The terms of the debates over key bioethical issues such as abortion and euthanasia cannot be adequately understood without understanding the religious arguments involved in these debates. I am not denying the possibility of a consistent secular ethics; I am saying that, as a matter of fact, de-emphasizing the religious aspect of medical ethics is irresponsible, period, and would be more irresponsible for me from a scholarly/teaching point of view.
What is more disturbing than students’ attitudes, which may be as much due to lack of exposure to alternative views (especially for those students who are “rabidly secular”), is the increasing exclusion of religious points of view from medical ethical debates. This exclusion is not absolute; journals such as the Hastings Center Report occasionally publish articles from a religious perspective, as do some other journals in medical ethics, but this is becoming increasingly rare. The false Enlightenment assumption that religion is only a private, subjective matter is part of the problem. Such a view reveals utter ignorance of the function of religion in personal behavior and in society. As one of my teachers at UGA once said, “I would never be such a damned fool as to claim that religion is only a private matter.” He was a liberal Protestant and not a raging Fundamentalist, but he understood the function of religion to be inherently social. He also understood that religions make claims about reality, and such claims can be broadly tested against human experience in general, although there will always be an element of faith and of mystery in religion.
Increasingly, I find a small group of students who could be called “misotheists”–they hate God or at least the notion that any Creator exists. Since these are mostly science students, I would guess they were encouraged to believe such things by some of their science teachers, as well as by the strict methodological atheism of modern and contemporary science. Far too many science teachers make sweeping metaphysical claims regarding religion being a superstition and claim that such a view is “scientific.” Of course this is really the philosophy of “scientism,” the view that science can explain all reality and that any reality claims that go beyond a mythical “scientific method” are, by their very nature, not part of reality. Such a view needs to be justified by argumentation, but neither the scientists who accept scientism nor students are willing to present arguments–their hostility to religion is palpable. Other students (and atheists and agnostics in general) are angry ex-religious people who have rebelled against, perhaps, a harsh religious background (or maybe they just want to get laid and don’t want any religion to get in their way). Since misotheism is, like scientism, an emotionally-based position, there is no rational way to get most people who hold such views to think them through.
I admit I’m frustrated. It is becoming increasingly difficult to be a religious believer who teaches in a college or university. They follow the logic of the eighteenth century Enlightenment, adopting not only its positive side (toleration for different points of view) but also its negative side (the total secularization of the academy). Even in religious schools, the logic of the Enlightenment leads many faculty be be atheists or agnostics and to minimize the role of religion in public life. It is sad that this attitude has spread to future health care providers.