Thursday, January 4, 2007

Taking Theology Seriously [SK] the title of an excellent piece by Frank Beckwith in the Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy. It's extremely helpful in understanding the metaphysics involved in debates over embryonic stem cell research (ESCR).

Frank argues that both positions--pro-life and pro-ESCR--are attempting to answer the exact same question: What makes humans valuable in the first place? Science cannot answer that question, only metaphysics can. So why is only the pro-life position disqualified from the public square (for its alleged ties to the metaphysics of religion) while the pro-ESCR view gets a free pass?

Frank begins by quoting Ron Reagan (son of the late President, Ronald Wilson Reagan) from the latter's speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention. Commenting on those who oppose ESCR, the younger Reagan said:

"Now, there are those who would stand in the way of this remarkable future, who would deny the federal funding so crucial to basic research. They argue that interference with the development of even the earliest stage embryo, even one that will never be [sic]implanted in a womb and will never develop into an actual fetus, is tantamount to murder....[M]any are well-intentioned and sincere. Their belief is just that, an article of faith, and they are entitled to it. But it does not follow that the theology of a few should be allowed to forestall the health and well-being of the many."

Reagan goes on to say that early embryos "are not, in and of themselves, human beings" because they "have no fingers and toes, no brain or spinal cord. They have no thoughts, no fears. They feel no pain."

To which Frank replies:

"Ironically, by classifying early embryos as morally outside the circle of legal protection, Ron Reagan enters an area of theological exploration on a question of philosophical anthropology. He chooses to answer a question of scholarly interest to theologians and philosophers ('What is man?') in order to justify a particular act (the killing of embryos). He refers to the position of his adversaries as 'an article of faith,' even though he chooses to answer the same exact question ('What is man?') his adversaries answer."

As I've said before, the claim that an embryo has value is indeed a claim with theological underpinnings, but it's no more a religious claim than saying a 10-year old has value. At the same time, pro-life advocates do not rely on theology alone: They do, after all, offer reasoned arguments in support of their position, arguments that can be understood by skeptics like Reagan. Indeed, classical Christianity (See, for example, Thomas Aquinas) has never taught that "faith" and "reason" are two separate spheres. To the contrary, most thinking Christians insist matters of faith should never be contrary to reason. So why the fuss from ESCR advocates?

Frank gets right to the heart of the dispute:

"In my opinion, it is only because the younger Reagan and his allies do not consider theological beliefs as belonging to a knowledge tradition that they can dismiss, a priori, theologically informed policy proposals as de facto espistemically inferior to so-called secular ones, even when secular ones answer precisely the same questions as do the so-called 'article of faith.' The younger Reagan and his allies offer no reasons for the epistemological apartheid, since they know that convincing their peers that a view is or may be "religious" relieves them of their epistemic duty to rationally assess that view as a serious contender to the deliverance of so-called secular reason."

In short, for many secularists, religion does not count as real knowledge. But what's their argument for that?

Update: an observant reader (see comments below) points out that Ron Reagan is not a Jr. since his middle name differs from that of his father. My mistake, and the correction has been made above. Thanks!


  1. Minor picking of just one nit: "Junior" has a different middle name than Senior's (Wilson), so it's not technically Ron Reagan, Jr.

  2. Just to be clear, Ron ("Junior") Reagan's middle name is Prescott, and Ronald (President of the United States) Reagan's was Wilson.

  3. Thanks Charles. Since I has heard Ron Reagan Jr so often in the news media, I had no idea that he wasn't really a junior.

    This does matter a bit to me because I am the third generation Richard Poupard - the middle names of my father and grandfather are different. Thus I was never called junior.

    Seems like Ronnie "jr." was willing to use his father's name to advance his notoriety, although he neglected to take his philosophy along for the ride.

  4. Which is why I refuse to call him Ron "Junior" (I share the same first and last name with MY father as well -- different middle names too ; )


All comments are moderated. We reject all comments containing obscenity. We reserve the right to reject any and all comments that are considered inappropriate or off-topic without explanation.