The news from South Korea this week should be greeted by all rational beings as a cue to glug champagne and hug children. The beginning of therapeutic cloning is potentially as vast a human achievement as organ transplantation, the contraceptive pill and even penicillin. Today, victims of Parkinson's, diabetes and Alzheimer's can feel a shaft of hope.
The process pioneered by Korean scientists is not hard to understand: they have cloned the cells of 30 patients, creating a perfect genetic replica of the original. They have not done this to produce an army of Hitlers - the apocalyptic vision that the word "cloning" seems to provoke. No; they have done this so that the cells can be turned into replacement tissue to treat or cure their patients' diseases without being rejected by their immune systems. Eventually, this technology could make ravaged brains think again, or quaking bodies rest.
Yet yesterday, millions of people refused to celebrate. On the contrary: many damned the Korean scientists as "evil". Anybody who imagines that religious fundamentalist hatred of science and progress is confined to jihadists should look at the reaction of the world's "great" faiths. Evangelical Christians across the US have called this medical advance "satanic", "the work of child- murderers" and "monstrous". The Vatican has called for a total ban on the Korean doctors' work, describing therapeutic cloning as "exploitation of human beings, sought by certain scientific and industrial circles, and pushed forward by underlying economic interests."
The reason for these wildly polarised responses - joy versus despair, glee versus rage - is that the human cloning debate straddles a vast fault-line in our culture. On one side are the defenders of Judaeo-Christian ethics. On the other are those who are trying to move beyond them.
We are about to endure an ethical earthquake so huge that the philosopher Peter Singer has rightly compared it to the Copernican revolution of the 16th century. Copernicus' famous revelation - that the world revolved around the sun - fired the starting gun for the Enlightenment, and brought about a complete transformation in the way humanity saw itself.
The old idea that humanity was at centre of the universe collapsed into dust in the face of Copernican truths (after a vicious attempt by the unreconstructed Church to stay standing). Singer believes that the new medical truths created by cloning and reproduction will have a similar effect on the ethical structures we have long inhabited. We must build from the rubble a new ethical framework. The old, knackered building of Judaeo-Christian ethics has been restored and replastered too many times; it is time to start again at the foundations.
Christians from the Pope to Jerry Falwell start from such archaic premises that it is now impossible to find a middling compromise between them and the cutting edge of science. There is a fundamental disagreement about the most basic question of all: what human life is. Christians hate therapeutic cloning because it involves creating an embryo and then discarding it. For them, this is murder. From the second a sperm and egg meet, there is a complete human being with a God-given soul. An embryo is, they argue, as much a person as Steven Hawking, despite containing only around 100 cells and being almost invisible to the human eye. Burning an embryo after performing tests on it is as appalling as burning Hawking after performing tests on him. This is close to the famous Monty Python cry, "Every sperm is sacred".
Singer points out that recent scientific discoveries undermine - and are increasingly incompatible with - these religious claims. …