Anti-Religious Bias in Medical Ethics

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English: Medicine

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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.

Academics and Closed-Mindedness

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There is a thin line between open-mindedness and giving up reason, but closed-mindedness is always a threat to reason. College and university education should be the ideal place where open-minded but rational professors help students to think. This implies that professors love truth above professional success, fame, and other temptations. There are many professors who do place truth above finite goods–thank God for their presence in the academy. From my experience, other professors are locked into their world views and refuse to think outside the box, placing acceptance by their colleagues above seeking the truth.

One area in which such narrowness is found is politics. The vast majority of humanities professors are liberal Democrats; some are Marxists. Although some of these professors are “true liberals,” allowing students to express contrary opinions, others are intolerant of difference. Those who oppose liberals position on entitlement programs, for example, are labeled as “racist” by these professors, who obviously have no idea what the term “racist” really means. The situation is worse concerning moral issues: opposition to abortion can get a student labeled as a “pro-life nutcase.” Opposing practicing homosexuality automatically gets a student labeled as a bigot, and the student may be punished. Some faculty members have been fired for even bringing up arguments opposing homosexuality, although one such case was overturned by a court and the professor was rehired. Professors who count themselves as “trendy” are really the most conformist people of all. They are more predictable than religious Fundamentalists, and emotionally they have the same mindset.

Speaking of religion, there is a bias among many academics against traditional religious beliefs. Academics may have no problem with a watered-down liberal Protestantism or liberal Roman Catholicism, but may detest traditional Christian beliefs and morality. And even though Muslims hold traditional moral values, the academic left is not as critical of them because they are non-Christians. Religion is considered to be a crutch, an opiate (to use Karl Marx’s term), an excuse for persecuting the poor,  a denial of reality, and an enemy to society in general. What religious expression there is is relegated to the private realm–woe be to the faculty member who mentions his Christianity in class, and the same often applies to students, especially to traditional Evangelicals and to traditional Roman Catholics.

Some professors are guilty of other kinds of prejudice. Psi phenomena, such as telepathy, clairvoyance, and psychokinesis are well-documented to the point that parapsychologists mainly do process studies to show how psi works rather than proving that psi exists. Yet many professors dismiss a student or colleague who accepts the reality of psi as a “new-aged nut.” “I don’t know what happened to him, but somewhere along the line he went nuts.” Such conclusions are reached without an open and honest examination of the evidence for and against psi phenomena. The sciences have been the most closed-minded disciplines concerning psi. And although there was a period in the 1970s in which the humanities were more open to psi, today the situation has reverted to the same kinds of prejudice found in the sciences. Papers that accept the existence of psi  are usually only accepted by psi journals and at psi conferences, although recently there have been a few exceptions among psychology journals. Opinions contrary to the establishment are silenced by lack of publication, a death-knell to any instructor seeking tenure.

A third area in which there is closed-mindedness in academia is medical ethics. It is more and more difficult to find an article in a mainstream bioethics journal from a traditional moral perspective. One major exception is the UK-based Journal of Medical Ethics which has published articles from many different points of view, including morally conservative ones. Looking over issues of the Hastings Center Report, the premier bioethics journal in the United States, the articles in the 1070s reflected far more balance between traditionalists and nontraditionalists in ethics than the articles today. There was a greater role for theological ethicists, such as the late Paul Ramsey, to have their say. On the issue of health care allocation, The New England Journal of Medicine has served more as an apologetics journal for Mr. Obama’s health care program rather than a journal that presents a balanced point of view. From the point of view of the university professor, it is easier to get articles published in mainstream journals if one is in favor of abortion rights, embryonic stem cell research, physician assisted suicide, and even, as Jonathan Hardwig, in favor of a “duty to die,” including a duty to commit suicide if one’s illness is financially and emotionally harming one’s family. Would a pro-life professor have any chance to become department head at a major state university? I doubt it. Traditionalists are forced to take jobs at the few Roman Catholic institutions that affirm traditional morality or at an Evangelical Protestant school, and even the latter are moving to the left on moral issues. I am not opposed to a moral liberal, a religious liberal, and/or a political liberal being in academia. But there are other positions out there that need to be heard so that students have a more balanced perspective. Maybe one day the legacy of the 1960s closed-minded radicals who ruined much of academia may change–the sooner the better.