In this timely blog entry, Robert George and Patrick Lee respond to a new book about science, religion and politics. In Challenging Nature, Lee Silver contends that the view that embryos are humans is inherently theological in nature, and thus does not belong in the public square. According to George and Lee, Silver:
insists that our views about the humanity and dignity of the human embryo are grounded in religious beliefs. He accuses us of concocting a scientific sounding case against embryo-destructive research in an effort to impose our religious beliefs on others while evading the constitutional prohibition of laws respecting an establishment of religion
Silver says that the claim that human embryos are human beings at an early stage of development is “hidden theology.”
George and Lee then analyze this claim by splitting it into two possible assertions. First, they say, Silver could be saying they hold their view of embryonic status as a theological view and are hiding that fact behind scientific sounding arguments. George and Lee appropriately dismiss that argument as ridiculously ad hominum. In the second place, Silver could be saying their argument depends on a theological premise whether they admit it or not.
The rest of the article is a phenomenal critique of this second argument by Silver and a great position paper for the full human status of embryos. What I want to comment on is the prevalence of Silver’s conclusion in our political culture.
It is assumed in a growing number of circles that religious points of view have no place in political dialogue. The form this is currently taking is actually quite frightening. As Silver’s position serves to show us, if you believe a human being is a human being, you are a closet religious fundamentalist and do not deserve the status of public thinker.
And it is not just the debate about embryonic status. Take abortion, or the Intelligent Design argument. Because the conclusions of many are in line with orthodox Christian theology, those conclusions ought not to be considered. It’s a classic “guilty by association” point of view. This argument (as the blog above shows) and the consequences of this view are absurd.
The argument is a kind of conspiracy theory on one level. It goes like: if you hold a belief that overlaps a belief consistent with Christianity, you are not being honest about your theological fundamentalism and you need to be “outed” as someone who should not be listened to (no matter your actual argument or evidence). Another way of putting it: it is impossible to come to conclusions consistent with Christianity and not be a dishonest fundamentalist.
The consequence is the strangling of serious ethical dialogue. According to Silver’s argument, the argument of the judge who presided over the Dover ID case, and the positions of many in the public eye, there are views that simply do not belong in the public square. And that is, as presented above, a deeply myopic and naïve view to hold. If scientists and public figures like Silver cannot seriously interact with a view contrary to their own, deal with the premises, come up with counter arguments or revise their own arguments, then they are probably susceptible to the charge of being intellectually dishonest.
Another problem at the root of this problem is another gigantic issue—the pervasive and pre-reflective religious relativism in our culture. Religious views are personal and not applicable to the real world; scientific views (as held by naturalists) are the only allowable views in public dialogue.
But that is a whole other set of thoughts.
Rabbit Trail: I am growing in my conviction in a theory of mine. Because Christians and theists have been perceived as the riffraff of public intellectuals for so long, they have had the time and incentive to develop better and better arguments for their points of view. Intellectuals like Silver and the Dover judge have grown intellectually sluggish with their supposed academic dominance over that “medieval” point of view. As a result, it will not be long before most of the serious and great thinkers in our culture will be theists of one stripe or another. I guess Darwin was right…