Why should religion get a free ride?

Chris Dillow notes that Gordon Brown is privileging religion:

What is a conscience? This is the question Brown opened when he said that “exercising your conscience will mean for Labour Party members a free vote” on parts of the embryology bill.

But, as Janine asks, why should conscience only permit a free vote here? To take just one example, many Labour MPs consciences might – or should – stop them wanting to put people in jail for 42 days without charge. But there’s little hope of a free vote on the Counter Terrorism bill.

What Brown means by “conscience”, then, is “religious belief.” Which raises the question: why should religious beliefs have a special status in politics that allows MPs free votes when they don’t get them on other grounds?

Why should religion be privileged above other belief systems? Dillow says it shouldn’t be. I go further than that: religious beliefs should be accorded less respect, less status, than for example secular liberal beliefs.

There are about 6 billion people in the world, and about 100 million of them die every year. Most of these people die of diseases, many (or all) of which could be curable over time with medical research. So medical research saves lives, and being against medical research — which opponents of the embryology bill are — kills people. Hitler only killed 50 million or so; these people want 100 million potentially preventable deaths to happen every year.

Most of the religious people who oppose the embryology bill are I suppose in their private lives good and decent people; certainly the vast majority don’t personally go round killing people. Which leads me to the conclusion that although good people do good things, and bad people do bad things, it takes religion to make good people do bad things.

This entry was posted in biology, Britain, Christianity, politics, religion, science, the Singularity and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Why should religion get a free ride?

  1. Tim Worstall says:

    “So medical research saves lives, and being against medical research — which opponents of the embryology bill are — kills people.”

    No, not quite. The argument is that a unique DNA combination is a human being, with the same rights as any other such.

    No, you don’t have to agree with that statement, but I do wish you would understand it.

    “Hitler only killed 50 million or so;”

    Some of whom were killed in medical experiments aimed at saving the lives of others.

    It all, inevitably, comes down to the definition of who is a human being, with rights, and who is not. Hitler was clearly on the wrong side of this: Poles, Slavs, Jews, Gypsies, Gayers, were not human.

    But there are those who insist that unique combinations of DNA are indeed human: if you disagree, disprove that idea, don’t insist that they are objectively pro-death.

  2. cabalamat says:

    Tim: “The argument is that a unique DNA combination is a human being, with the same rights as any other such.”

    I believe that that is an incorrect rendition of the religious argument against the embryology bill.

    You’re perhaps familiar with the idea that many humans are chimeras? Unless I am very much mistaken, no religion argues that a human who is a chimera is in fact two or more different people.

    “But there are those who insist that unique combinations of DNA are indeed human”

    Well, human DNA is clearly human (assuming it’s a long enough fragment that it is unique to that species). And each of my cells is a human cell. But something that is genetically human is not the same thing as a human being. To give an example: every time I shit, cells from my intestines are embedded on the surface of the shit as it passes through my body. They are human cells. They are not a human being, and as far as I’m aware no-one (and no religion) suggests they be treated as one.

    Similarly a culture of human cells on a slide that you can only see through a magnifying glass — that’s human cells too, but it doesn’t make any sense to me to call it a human being, a person with rights, any more than the cells on my shit.

    “don’t insist that they are objectively pro-death”

    When someone does something (or attempts to) that’s quite obviously going to cause enormous numbers of deaths to happen, then I think “objectively pro-death” is a reasonable description (although it’s not the one I used).

  3. dogeatery says:

    If you think it’s bad in the UK, here in USA it’s considered highly respectable by many to make political decisions based on religious principles, No telling what would happen if a senator invoked a different ethical system, say, Kant’s categorical imperative.

  4. pKay says:

    Hmmmmm 1000 years for a 60 year old now seems a bit of a stretch to me (based on the biochemistry lecturers I had involving “telomers” and such..)

    But yes you are right, Medical research saves lives…. Everyone should be supporting medical research and it’s a shame that this mentality is hindering further research efforts (through lobbying and all that stuff)

    Cheers!
    pKay.

  5. cabalamat says:

    Dogeatery: “No telling what would happen if a senator invoked a different ethical system, say, Kant’s categorical imperative.”

    I expect most people would go “uh? what’s that?”

  6. Paul C says:

    I’ve just been reading Haidt’s research into moral foundations, and I think that your last paragraph illuminates one of his key hypotheses.

    Most of the religious people who oppose the embryology bill are I suppose in their private lives good and decent people; certainly the vast majority don’t personally go round killing people.

    You should consider that they are in fact as morally engaged with you, just that they draw on different foundations for making their moral judgements. On top of that, you have religio-philosophical distinctions which are not really amenable to the sort of argument that Calabamat presents (trust me, I’ve been through that dance many times in online discussions).

    I don’t think that your argument that religion should be less privileged than secular beliefs stands up; there are plenty of non-religious beliefs that have led to many, many unnecessary deaths. The danger of asserting that some beliefs are worth less than others is that, at some point, somebody will start telling you that your beliefs are worth less than theirs.

  7. cabalamat says:

    Paul C: “You should consider that they are in fact as morally engaged with you, just that they draw on different foundations for making their moral judgements.”

    If someone’s foundation is that there’s a big parent-figure in the sky who’s going to punish us if we don’t do what he wants, then I would ask, what eveidence is there that the big sky father exists? and if he does exist, what evidence is that that he doesn’t want us to do X?

    On top of that, you have religio-philosophical distinctions which are not really amenable to the sort of argument that Calabamat presents (trust me, I’ve been through that dance many times in online discussions).

    I’m not sure who you are addressing in the 2nd person here; me or someone else.

    I don’t think that your argument that religion should be less privileged than secular beliefs stands up; there are plenty of non-religious beliefs that have led to many, many unnecessary deaths.

    That’s true, and it’s an argument against those beliefs, but not against secular beliefs in general.

    There’s a concept of “evidence-based medicine“. Maybe we should have a concept of “evidence based belief systems” — and all non evidence based systems condemned as mere wish-fulfillment superstition.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s