Chuck Colson has weighed in on the “proper role of science,” in response to President Obama’s inaugural science plug. Colson’s column is a perfect example of theological panic, the condition that besets a certain portion of the devout when they contemplate the fact that not everyone believes in God.
Anticipating that President Obama will lift the ban on federally-subsidized embryonic stem cell research, Colson posits only two reasons why anyone would back such research: either he is “driven by greed” or he is “driven by a dangerous worldview called scientism.”
Though Colson purports to distinguish scientism from science (and makes claims regarding the former that no one has ever advanced, such as: “Scientism assumes that science is the controlling reality about life, so anything that can be validated scientifically ought to be done”), ultimately, what seems to most upset him is a worldview lacking a divine creator, or what he calls “scientific naturalism, a philosophy that the natural world is all that exists.” Scientific naturalism denies “the reality of those things central to our humanity: a sense of right and wrong, of purpose, of beauty, of God.”
Colson may be right about the last item on his list, but it is nothing more than hysterical ignorance to claim that without belief in God, humans can have no “sense of right and wrong, of purpose, or beauty.” I have never met a non-believer who has no sense of the difference between right and wrong. If someone is not killing his parents only because he believes that God prohibits it, but that it would otherwise be OK, his religiously-based moral compass does not have much to recommend it. Parents teach children to treat other human beings with respect based on humans’ innate ethical intuitions (which a parent reinforces with a strong dose of brute, unappealable authority). These intuitions can, but need not, be given an explicitly religious cast.
As for a sense of purpose and beauty, to say that these come only from a belief in God seems to me to be nothing more than an admission of one’s own poverty of life force. Is there not purpose enough in trying to do good work? Or in maintaining an orderly household, caring for your family, or trying to figure out some small portion of how the world works and changes? If Colson needs to consult his Bible before falling down on his knees in gratitude for the splendors and lethal beauties of the classical music repertoire—or the American songbook, the delicate, syncopated poise of Fred Astaire, Brazilian Samba, or any other glorious human expression—he is deaf and blind to human grandeur and pathos. Science does not deny that beauty exists. A religious worldview that sees God as the precondition for an appreciation of beauty puts beauty on a far more tenuous basis.
Colson trots out a parade of horrible that he claims emanate from scientific naturalism: “moral horrors like the killing of humans at the earliest stage of life on the spurious grounds that doing so might cure other people’s diseases. Or cloning. Or medical experiments on humans, as the Nazis conducted.” But the scientists who want to pursue embryonic stem cell research do not advocate killing human beings; they do not regard a 5-day-old embryo as a full human being. They are motivated by precisely those values that Colson would undoubtedly rank as uniquely Christian: a desire to alleviate suffering and improve the human condition (as well as by the sheer love of discovery and knowledge). Presumably, Colson would acknowledge those motivations in a researcher who is working on adult stem cell lines; but if a scientist works on embryonic stem cell lines, he is suddenly stripped of all such drives and becomes only a pawn of greed or “scientism.” This is not to say that the use of embryonic stem cells is not morally complicated, but Colson refuses to acknowledge that any opposing point of view to his own contains any possible validity.
Nazi medical experiments grew out of an entire ideology of nationalist world domination, of which an unconventional pagan religiosity was only a small part. The rest of the West’s medical ethics have evolved over time, as the revulsion felt towards the Tuskegee syphilis experimentation shows. It was not an increase in Christian zeal that pushed our medical ethics beyond Tuskegee, but rather the constant expansion of the Enlightenment concept of rights. Too many “moral horrors” have been conducted by God-believers, often with official sanction, such as the possession, trade, and brutal punishment of slaves, torture on the rack, burning at the stake, massacring of opposing sects and infidels, and abuse of children and animals, to hold that what distinguishes humane from inhumane behavior is a belief in God. To be sure, the challenges of maintaining civil order should never be taken for granted. But a simplistic invocation of religiosity as the solution to cruelty or selfishness is not persuasive.