Monday, March 24, 2008


This morning I was on BBC Radio Scotland's news programme at an unearthly hour (for a Public Holiday!), discussing why the style, assumptions and content of Church's heavy lobbying on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill leaves a bad taste in the mouth, even if you thinking an open vote and proceeding with caution are needed. I found myself in broad agreement on this with the president of the National Secular Society, who I was glad to hear did think the religious voices should be heard on such issues, even though he rightly objected to the Catholic Church throwing it's heavy institutional weight around. I have published a number of articles around this theme. There will be one on OpenDemocracy's OurKingdom (picking up the nature and trickiness of ethical debate, in particular) later today. I have done a piece angled towards the religion-and-politics dimension for LiberalConspiracy. More needs to be said about the theological issues concerning the life sciences, which I will probably pursue on Ekklesia, time permitting. Earlier today this appeared on CIF:

Cardinal vices and virtues Simon Barrow Guardian Comment-is-Free, Mar 24 08, 10:30am: Humility not hectoring is the religious virtue needed to tackle the sensitive and complex issues of embryo research.

"Without doubt the biosciences, including molecular and cellular research, embryology and reproductive technologies, pose the deepest possible questions about what it means to be human, how responsibly to use the power that is coming into our hands, where we fit in the web of the natural world, and how to receive the gift of life.

Equally, there will be different estimates and different approaches to these questions, not just between the "religious" and the "non-religious", but within and across those (rather crudely drawn) constituencies, too. [...] Of course there can be arrogance and hubris, but there is also challenge and debate - as with the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), whose 18 members encompass a wide range of expertise - including the thoughtful contributions of Lord Richard Harries of Pentregarth, a theologian and former Anglican Bishop of Oxford, who has has backed the government's bill calling for the regulation of scientific research in [the area] ... All of which casts the kind of intervention kick-started by Cardinal Keith O'Brien in a curious light..." Continued in full.

Some of the avowedly non-religious responses on the thread give an indication of the extent to which emotivism and irrationalism are not just religious problems: the judgement of Richard Harries without the faintest interest in the evidence of what he has said, how he has said it, and what his processes of reasoning entail, for example. Of course people who simply pigeonhole and throw insults, from whatever quarter, will do so whatever is said by those they have already decided are mad, bad or stupid; and thankfully, people who behave like that are a minority in the populace (albeit a vocal and influential one buttressed by the tabloidization of debate). But it does illustrate the need to up the discourse stakes massively, and that can only really happen when people meet as human beings and reflect on what is being said, not what they assume others think or want them to think (so that "we" are right). This just isn't the way politics or the media works right now, so you have to try and go against the flow of effluent.

The ethos of speech underlies any other attempt to be ethical, or indeed the refusal even to countenance an ethics coming from a tradition of thought other than our own.

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