Secular Europe, Religious America: Religion, Politics, and the Transatlantic Divide


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Session Three

Professor Dr. Manfred Marquardt

In his presentation, Professor Marquardt discussed the connection between stem cell research and the different religious and political opinions that can currently be found in different countries on this subject. In some respects, Europe and the United States share the same moral dilemma.

Science is held in the highest regard in Europe. The Enlightenment brought not only a new image of man, but with its essential focus on rational thought, it also brought a new perspective, a (natural) science–based perspective and ideology. In Europe sapere aude applies to all fields of human endeavor today, but especially to science. Scientists are the admired symbols of each country; they are highly respected members of society. The age of Enlightenment is responsible for all of this.

Academic and scientific freedom is written large in our democratically oriented societies. Yet, we need to remember that no science exists in a vacuum. Questions of ethics such as: "Are we allowed to do everything that we are capable of doing?” and "How far may research go?“ are asked frequently today. Hardly any other topic in this field has caused more controversial discussion than stem cell research. For years it has been hoped that stem cell research will provide cures for heretofore incurable illnesses such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, since stem cells, as unspecified cells which can/could reproduce the cells necessary for curing one of these diseases, contain unexplored possibilities. For a proper understanding of the following statements and the ethical/religious problems regarding stem cell research we need to differentiate between stem cell research on adult cells and stem cell research on embryos. For stem cell research on adults, stem cells are taken from the tissue of adults and are researched without the adult suffering any harm. Embryonic stem cell research follows a different method, whereby embryos of a certain stage of development are cloned and are then destroyed in order to extract the stem cells.

This is where the religious/ethical aspect comes into play. Every religious tradition advocates preserving all life (all life having been created and willed by God). Human dignity is inviolable and sacrosanct and applies to all life. Accordingly, the major question for the area of stem cell research is as follows: How are the cloned embryos on which stem cell research is being conducted in some countries to be classified? Are they already human organisms or mere clusters of cells? You find proponents of both positions both on the scientific and also the religious side.

The specific positions with respect to embryonic stem cell research are almost as many and varied as there are participants in these discussions. A compromise between the various national regulations and the various religious opinions and statements appears to be very remote.

The Christian churches are highly critical of embryonic stem cell research, but it has continued to be part of the dialogue. Judaism tends more toward the position of allowing embryonic stem cell research under rather strict conditions. Islam so far has not provided an official opinion. Quite recently the Vatican issued a document denouncing the cloning of embryos, but stem cell research on adults is approved. Even these brief insights illustrate how charged this topic of stem cell research is and how strongly it shakes the foundations of ethical, religious, and scientific beliefs and hopes.

Professor Robert Pollack

For an appropriate dialogue about science it is necessary to hear and allow both religious and also secular positions regarding science.

Man has always searched for meaning and sense in his life, the question of meaning is, therefore one of the oldest questions of man. It is necessary to see the sense of living, but also the meaning of death and dying, and to discover a meaning beyond all mortality so that life does not seem without meaning or futile.

"Intelligent Design"—a religiously inspired critique of evolutionary theory currently propounded by religious conservatives in the United States—appears to be one of the many possible answers to the question of meaning. What are we to think of this answer?

Darwinism and evolution challenge man in a very special way since they show him as somehow unimportant in the immense process of evolution; man is no more than a further stage of evolution, the strongest species that is currently surviving (survival of the fittest). However, as the process of evolution shows, this can change within a short period (short in terms of the age of the universe). As we know today, even a minimal change in DNA is sufficient to cause such an evolution. And all of this is not under our control. Man is only another dependent cog in the machinery of evolution, which is being controlled in a manner not transparent to him.

In contrast, intelligent design gives man a certain meaning in the universe as the creation of an intelligent designer who had a concept for his design, his creation. Man, as he is, is part of a higher plan, in a certain sense he is planned and intended. His being thus gains meaning and a certain dignity; it is not just a mere fact. This might be one (perhaps the only) advantage of intelligent design.

It needs to be remembered, however, that the position of intelligent design, which in its radical form claims that evolution and Darwinism are "mere" theory, is not tenable on the basis of the current state of science. From a purely rational and scientific point of view there is no doubt about evolution, even if there are still some unresearched areas and gaps in our knowledge. Evolution is no theory or hypothesis—a pretty lethal statement as regards the question about the meaning of human life. But in order to “save” his meaning and importance in this world, man has the capacity to reject completely or in part such scientific findings for the short or even the longer term, since the need for meaning and the connection to the environment and especially to other human beings is much greater than the need for pure scientific facts. This is what a free will allows human beings to do. Intelligent Design, if we look at it sensibly and not as an either/or to evolution represents another (not completely incredible, even if unscientific) possibility to close the obviously existing gaps in our knowledge regarding evolution; this is how far one can go with Intelligent Design while man regains some of his dignity and his meaning within the creation. But this is the maximum we might be able to concede to Intelligent Design in its moderate form.

The world makes man face new challenges on a daily basis, many of them negative and painful, such as, the natural disasters we have observed and suffered especially during the last year. This is something man can not change; but what can be changed, not only to find meaning but also to alleviate the suffering and pain of such events is the only possible way of dealing with pain and suffering. By answering it with love, warmth, and friendship and interpersonal support (which might have a religious basis but need not be based in religion).

What is important when we are dealing with a human being is what one makes of one’s life, and not how one thinks it has evolved or has been granted. The ultimate possibility to provide meaning and to overcome suffering and difficulties rests in man and in his strength to love.

Professor Kent Greenawalt

The controversy about the theory of evolution and Intelligent Design has remained very topical in the United States, unlike Europe, as can be seen from the events in Dover, Pennsylvania, and in the entire renewal of the debate, which has been covered extensively by American newspapers since mid–August. In an Arkansas case (Epperson v. Arkansas), the Supreme Court decided that it was not permitted to teach biblical creationism in lieu of evolution in high schools. About twenty years later, the Supreme Court decided in a Louisiana case, that it was not permissible to teach "creation science" in addition to evolution. Creation Science is the predecessor of what today is known as Intelligent Design, which claims that the designer of this world created and formed the best that could be achieved under the existing circumstances. This world, then, is no project of evolution or chance but represents the plan of a designer. For many Americans, evolution and Darwin represent a threat to their religious faith. "Genesis Creationism," for example, represent an ideology completely in accordance with the creation as reported in Genesis, according to which all species were created at the same time, and the world is only a few thousand years old.

Intelligent design, on a moderate interpretation, shows the limits of science and of evolution (if you suppose an intelligent designer as the reason for evolution and for the still unresearched gaps in evolution), and allows us to close some of these gaps; but it is not a scientific method nor theory and, in its moderate version (though in American public life rarely presented in such moderation) it does not want to be understood as such.

The current case in Dover, Pennsylvania, revived this debate, which had seemed settled for a time after Louisiana. In Dover, the school board required that ninth grade teachers in biology class read a statement to their students with the following content:

Darwinism is still a theory and not fact and above all, it is full of gaps. Intelligent Design is an alternative explanation for the world and completely different and separate from Darwinism.

At closer inspection it becomes apparent that these statements are not neutral or scientific but are inspired by religion and thus want to institutionalize religious opinion. This is a major violation of the first amendment of the US Constitution, which specifically speaks against any establishment or institutionalization or monopoly of religion.

So can it be concluded that the United States is hostile toward science (as it was argued in a newspaper article on October 28, 2005)? The relationship of science and religion, especially regarding the interpretation of the evolution and origin of the world, is far from settled, be it from the scientific or the religious point of view. This is one of the great differences between America and Europe.

Luncheon Session

Dr. Mohammed Fadel

Dr. Fadel spoke about the situation of Muslims in America with attention to politics and public affairs. American Muslims are not unsympathetic to the moral issues raised by the Religious Right. But, as a result of the attacks of 9/11, the Religious Right has alienated Muslims. The right portrays tolerance as a left wing position. Yet Muslims are not at home on the left, because the left is largely secular. Where then can Muslims fit in?

Muslims cannot take comfort in the conservative attempt to reinvest the public square with religion. Religion, meaning Christianity, in the US has historically been anti-Islam. Post-9/11 expressions of anti-Muslim bigotry, often emanating from conservative Protestants, make Muslims feel ill at ease. American Muslims have come to perceive religion in the public square as a threat. They therefore, despite their own moral and religious traditionalism, make common cause with the secular left on establishment clause issues, insisting on strong separation of religion and state.

Things might be more promising on the free exercise side. American Muslims could be strong advocates of religious liberty under the free exercise clause of the Constitution. However, because of the unsettled state of free exercise jurisprudence—the court having dismantled some of the traditional protections for religious liberty—minority religions are now at risk. You have to rely on the political branch for your rights and this is precisely the place where popular prejudice against Islam can exist. American Muslims must articulate a vision of religious liberty from the left, because that is where protection for pluralism is strongest.

American Muslims, despite their moral and religious traditionalism, place greater value on ensuring their equal citizenship under the law than on moral issues in American politics.

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