March 2009

There is a popular view held by many atheists that in the absence of positive evidence for God’s existence, we ought to accept atheism as true by default.  This view is called the presumption of atheism.  I have written a full treatment against it on my website (“Not so Fast: There is no Presumption of Atheism“), but I thought it was fitting to share a great quote from philosopher William Lane Craig on the subject:

I hear all the time that atheism wins by default – in other words, if there aren’t any good arguments for God, then atheism automatically wins. So many of these fellows don’t offer any arguments for atheism; instead, they just try to shoot down the arguments for theism and say they win by default.  In reality, however, the failure of arguments for God wouldn’t do anything to establish that God does not exist. The claim that there is no God is a positive claim to knowledge and therefore requires justification. The failure of arguments for God would leave us, at best, with agnosticism, not atheism.[1]

Nobody can say it so succinctly, and so powerfully as Craig!

[1]William Lane Craig, during an interview with Lee Strobel, “Bill Craig on the New Atheism,” available from; Internet; accessed 18 March 2009.

It’s not uncommon to hear social liberals bemoan the fact that conservative Christians vote according to a Christian worldview, particularly on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.  We are told that voting according to one’s religious convictions is an imposition of that religion on the American public, and this is a violation of the 1st amendment.  While I believe such a claim is based on a misunderstanding of the meaning and intent of the 1st amendment, I will save that discussion for another day.  For my purposes here, I will only focus on the notion that voting according to one’s religious worldview is an imposition of religion.

I think we ought to distinguish between religious and moral convictions.  Religious convictions are those that are specific to a particular religion; i.e. theological convictions.  For example, my conviction that Jesus Christ is God incarnate is a religious conviction.  Moral convictions, however, are not the same as religious convictions.  While most religions have a moral component, morality is not religion- or theology-specific.  All humans have a moral sense, whether they subscribe to religious belief or not.  It will not do, then, to claim that opposition to same-sex marriage, abortion, etc., are rooted in religious convictions, thus rendering them unconstitutional (as though they are an imposition of religion in violation of the 1st amendment).

While one’s moral point of view may be consistent with the moral code embedded in their religious tradition, it does not mean their moral point of view is necessarily dependent on their religion.  It could be dependent on their moral intuitions, wholly apart from their religious beliefs.  As such, there is no reason to think one’s moral objection to some proposed law is necessarily a religious objection.

Social liberals fail to recognize that everyone who objects to a law does so for a moral reason.  Those who oppose laws establishing marriage as between a man and woman only, for example, do so because they think it wrongly discriminates against homosexuals.  No one is morally neutral.  All of us vote according to our moral convictions, whether they are rooted in our religious tradition or not.  In principle, then, liberals cannot fault conservatives for favoring or opposing certain legislation on moral grounds.  All who are involved in the process of making law do so on moral grounds.  The question is not whether one’s moral point of view will influence their politics, or whether one’s moral point of view will be imposed on those who disagree, but rather the question is whose moral point of view will be imposed.

Even if our moral objection against some law is rooted wholly in our religious beliefs, what of it?  Wouldn’t we expect people’s moral point of view to be influenced by their religious beliefs?  Of course!  Christians’ moral point of view should not be barred from the public square simply because we subscribe to the Christian religious tradition.  This would be nothing less than religious bigotry, and that is what the 1st amendment sought to avoid.  All men should have a voice in this republic, regardless of their moral or religious point of view.

According to a recent report, teen pregnancy is on the rise again for the second year in a row, and 40% of all children born in this country are now born out of wedlock.  Not good signs of social strength.

In my previous post I discussed President Obama’s recent Executive Order to expand the number of embryonic stem cell lines eligible for federal funding.  It turns out that’s not all the president did.  Part of the Executive Order entailed revoking President Bush’s Executive Order 13435 (issued June 20, 2007), which made it a priority to fund research into alternative methods of obtaining pluripotent stem cells-methods that do not involve the destruction of embryos.  That policy was largely responsible for the iPS breakthrough that revolutionized the field of stem cell research.

Why would Obama revoke that Executive Order?  The most promising areas of stem cell research have been those that do not involve the destruction of embryos (adult stem cells, cord stem cells, iPS).  Why would he pull funding for the most promising areas of stem cell research, and direct those funds into the least promising area of research: ESCR?

This is ironic in light of Obama’s own stated support for “groundbreaking work to convert ordinary human cells into ones that resemble embryonic stem cells.”  It is also baffling given his own admission that to-date, ESCR has not produced therapeutic benefits.  Contrast this to research using alternative sources of stem cells, which have yielded more than 70 treatments.  It doesn’t make any sense to put all of one’s eggs in a basket that is both medically unproductive and ethically suspect, when there are other baskets that are both medically productive and ethical.  It seems Obama is being driven by an ideology that is more concerned with promoting research involving the destruction of human embryos, than he is with funding research that is yielding actual therapeutic benefits for sick Americans.  So much for putting science ahead of ideology.  If he was interested in science, he would put his money on ethical alternatives to ESCR such as iPS.

On Monday March 9, President Obama fulfilled a campaign promise by issuing an Executive Order to expand the federal funding of embryonic stem cell research (ESCR).  While the move was expected, it is baffling given the fact that recent advances in the stem cell research field have made ESCR technologically passé.  Just over a year ago scientists were able to come up with a morally benign method of obtaining the biological equivalent of ESCs, called Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (iPS).  iPS cells have the advantage over ESCs in that they do not require the destruction of human embryos or cloning to obtain them, the process of creating them is simple and less expensive, they do not face the problem of somatic rejection when used therapeutically, and they promise a limitless supply of pluripotent stem cells (stem cells that can become any of the body’s 220 cells) for scientific research.  Given the recent technological advances in pluripotent stem cell research, deciding to invest additional money in ESCR makes as much sense as deciding to invest money to make better cassette tapes.  Obama’s Executive Order is out-of-date, and unnecessary.

On the positive side, Obama did not try to hype the potential of embryonic stem cells as have many other politicians.  He candidly admitted that “at this moment, the full promise of stem cell research remains unknown, and it should not be overstated.  But scientists believe these tiny cells may have the potential to help us understand, and possibly cure, some of our most devastating diseases and conditions. … [I]f we pursue this research, maybe one day – maybe not in our lifetime, or even in our children’s lifetime – but maybe one day, others like him [Christopher Reeve] might [be cured via embryonic stem cell therapies].”

On the negative side, however, I find Obama’s reasoning to be malformed.  According to Obama,

[I]n recent years, when it comes to stem cell research, rather than furthering discovery, our government has forced what I believe is a false choice between sound science and moral values. In this case, I believe the two are not inconsistent. As a person of faith, I believe we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering.

The dichotomy between science and morality is not a false one.  The two can conflict at times.  We can debate whether the two conflict in the case of embryonic stem cell research, but it will not do to just declare by fiat that there is no conflict.

Interestingly enough, Obama goes on to speak of his own religious moral values, and how they have affected his decision to expand the funding of ESCR.  What I would like to know is why it’s ok for Obama to make policy based on his religious values, but it was wrong for Bush to do the same?  This is a double-standard.  The fact of the matter is that in principle, there is nothing wrong with drawing on one’s religiously-informed moral values to make public policy.  Policies are based on moral considerations, and our understanding of what’s right and wrong is most often informed by our religious convictions.  In this case, however, we have two men with conflicting moral values.  Bush valued all human life – including embryonic life – whereas Obama only values post-natal life.  Bush valued all human life equally, and thus believed it would be immoral to kill one life to save another.  Obama doesn’t value all life equally, and thus thinks it a moral imperative to kill one life to save another.  Each man has a different ideology, and thus a different policy.  So enough with the talk about Bush choosing “ideology over science.”  He chose morality over science.  Obama, on the other hand, is choosing science over morality (although I’m sure he doesn’t see it that way).