What Can Religion Offer Bioethics?

Article excerpt

The fact that we have to ask what religion can offer bioethics points to an enigma present within bioethics and in American society as a whole. As specialized professionals and as a people we make room for individuals with religious perspectives at the same time that we conduct our daily affairs as if those perspectives made little difference. Religion permeates American lives, but its actual contributions to our common life remain in doubt.

In comparison with well-entrenched disciplines in the modern university, bioethics is a young field where people from many backgrounds-including religious ones--can carve out niches. No entrance requirements exist to screen out people who wish to draw upon religious or theological perspectives. Moreover, many of the field's early shapers were theologians or people open to discourse about theology.

Yet the discipline of bioethics came of age just as secularism crested as a social movement (the 1960s) and was formed by people-including some theologians-who often found secular institutions and causes more promising than religious ones. The ethos of bioethics is now pronouncedly secular. That is due in part to its subject matter and social location. Its issues arise within and between medical, scientific, legal, economic, and political worlds--contexts where technical, professional, and secular ways of thinking and speaking are most in vogue. This secular tone is also attributable to the socialization patterns of most of those drawn to bioethics. By and large they are products of graduate and professional schools that nurture and reward secular habits of thought. Further, those who address bioethics issues are acutely aware of modern pluralism and seek a public discourse that transcends worlds of particular beliefs and commitments. They feel the pressure of new life-or-death problems that demand immediate response and are wary of debates that can bog down in the minutiae of insiders' conversations. Thus, despite openness to religious perspectives and a historic indebtedness to a distinguished generation of theological ethicists, it remains unclear just what religion can offer the young and complex field of bioethics. Is it possible to identify some potential contributions that religion might make to our current bioethical discourse?

An Honest Appraisal

It is best to begin cautiously and honestly. Some will fear-for biographical and historical reasons--that religion's main contributions to bioethics will be chaos, confusion, and hostility. These critics will point to the package of problems we call "pluralism." Religion and theology bring to public discourse particular truth claims, private languages, and special warrants that do not convince people who do not share heritages and basic assumptions about the world. Thus to invite religious traditions to contribute to public bioethics discourse seems like an invitation to conflict and entanglement in unresolvable debates. The spectre of lethal religious conflict haunts both our newspapers and our history books. What contributions could possibly be so important that we would risk letting this menacing genie out of the two-hundred-year-old bottle fashioned by the Enlightenment?

Such a view overlooks the fact that pluralism has more than a contentious downside-much more. If we consider the 218 denominations, the more than 200 seminaries, the many religion departments in U.S. colleges and universities, and the more than 340,000 local congregations that various statisticians monitor, [1] the breadth and pervasiveness of American religiosity becomes apparent. To attempt to deal with life and death decisions, with matters of health and suffering-the special interests of bioethics-as if this teeming religiousness did not exist is therefore to engage in a self-deception of monumental proportions. Their secular "everydayishness" notwithstanding, the majority of Americans express themselves religiously. They come to their moments of medical decisionmaking (both personal and political) with particular beliefs and commitments. …