Anti-Religious Bias in Medical Ethics


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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.

Why the Hostility to Tim Tebow?


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Denver lost to New England yesterday, which is no surprise given that the Patriots are an excellent team. Yet when I read sports stories about the game, they focus on “a lack of Tim Tebow‘s heroics” as if a quarterback known for leading fourth quarter comebacks will be able to lead one every game. Even Joe Montana, who was one of the best quarterbacks ever, who (to my disappointment!) led the 49ers over the Bengals in the Super Bowl by a last minute drive, did not always succeed in a fourth quarter comeback. I do not remember the press complaining then. Why is there so much hostility, among members of the press and among some NFL players, to Tim Tebow?

Religion, specifically Tim Tebow’s open Evangelical Protestant faith, is the source of most of the hostility. Although many NFL players are public about their Christian faith, to American secular society Tebow seems, to the generally secularist media and to those NFL players who are either secularist or outside the Christian tradition, to take his faith too far. I have mentioned more than once on this blog the late Father Richard John Neuhaus‘s reference to the “naked public square” in which religion, specifically Christianity, is eliminated from American public discourse and relegated to a private realm. No scholar of religion in his right mind believes that religion is a private matter, since a religion scholar realizes the public implications of being religious. Only a fool can ignore thousands of years of history and his own common sense and say that “religion is just a private matter.” Even John Locke (1632-1704), the epitome of a Classical Liberal thinker, did not go that far.

Today those who relegate religion to the private sphere are usually hostile to religion in general. Ironically, they are not as hostile to Buddhism, Hinduism, or Islam as they are to traditional Christianity, perhaps because of the strong influence of Christianity after the Second Great Awakening at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries, on American culture. This strong influence continued until around the mid-1960s and then slowly began to wane, especially among the intellectual classes and among other opinion leaders. Sportscasters in the past tended to be a bit more traditional than most other journalists, at least from my reading, but that is no longer the case.

Tim Tebow has violated the fundamental rule of secularists–he not only discusses his Christian faith openly, but he does it often. He may well connect his abilities to God–there is nothing wrong with that–if God created everything, all abilities are gifts, whether the gifts be carpentry skills, medical skills, teaching skills, or football skills. If Mr. Tebow said he has special favor from God for being religious, and therefore his team wins because of God, that would be going too far–but as far as I have heard he has not said those things. Too much has been read into his statements by the media and by some NFL players. Mr. Tebow has every right to express his Christian faith, just as other players have a right to express whatever their faith (or lack of faith) may be. To condemn Mr. Tebow for being so open about his Christianity is a form of unjust discrimination against expressions of Christian faith. It is wrong, and members of the media need to control their snide remarks concerning Mr. Tebow’s faith–or at least admit that they are editorial comments. I doubt that a Muslim, a Hindu, or an Orthodox Jew would get the same treatment from the media, even if a football player who adhered to these religions was open about his faith. I may be wrong on this point and am open to correction. From my impression, as American society continues to go the European route of secularization (as evidenced by a sharp drop in weekly church attendance in the last ten years), secularists are going all out to try to shame Christians to stop them, or at least slow them, from expressing their faith in public. It is sad that such hostility has now extended to sports journalism and to some of the players in the NFL.


O’Donnell is Right on Church and State


Cover of "The Naked Public Square: Religi...

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So Christine O’Donnell denies that separation of church and state is in the Constitution, and a law school audience gasps at her “gaffe.” Besides being another confirmation of my negative opinion of the legal profession, this is a good opportunity for going over the First Amendment’s “Establishment Clause” on religion. Just what does the clause say?

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

I don’t see the words “separation of church and state.” Enough Supreme Court justices, from Hugo Black onward, imagined that those words were there, and through their vivid imaginations they ruled that the First Amendment meant “separation of church and state.” For those who follow in the footsteps of Justice John Marshall and support the tyranny of the federal court system, this is the end of the matter. Those individuals with more critical minds will ask whether the original intent of the Founders was to separate church and state. Now the deist Thomas Jefferson referred to “a wall of separation between church and state,” but that is not in the constitution. What the First Amendment does is forbid an established church such as the established churches still found in some European countries. It also allows freedom of religious expression. There is no justification in the Constitution for what the later Father Richard John Neuhaus called “the naked public square,” that is, the public realm stripped of all religion. Atheists and secularists, who often time are more haters of God than nonbelievers in God, have erotic dreams about removing religion totally from the public square, as if their position is truly a “neutral” position. Their position is not neutral; rather it is positively secularist and anti-religious in orientation. This was not the intent of the Founding Fathers. Many of them were deists, true, but they still believed that a religious populace was a necessary check on rabid individualism that could lead to moral chaos.

O’Donnell’s critics will say “The Constitution means what the Courts say it means.” I cannot argue with people who support judicial tyranny. And for postmodernists who deny that there is any meaning to any text other than what the reader says the text means, I have no rational arguments to use against people who are fundamentally irrational.  Although I’m not the biggest fan of Rush Limbaugh, there is one statement he says that makes lots of sense: “Words mean things.” Words are not arbitrary in meaning, and that includes the words of the Constitution. The fact that judges have read into its words things that are not there does not change the fact that the Constitution has an original meaning. And that meaning does not include “separation of church and state.”