Childress: Religion has important role in bioethics debate

Nov. 8, 2001, 8:14 p.m.

This conference will be Webcast; for viewing information, click here .

Religious views about what it means to be human have an important role in public policy decisions about bioethical issues, ethicist James Childress told a conference of scientific, religious and ethical scholars Thursday.

Childress, professor of ethics at the University of Virginia, delivered the opening address of a conference titled "What Does It Mean To Be Human? Religion and Bioethics."

"Rather than excluding religious views, we should consider them on their own terms and see what we might learn from them," said Childress, who illustrated his arguments with his experiences serving on the National Bioethics Advisory Commission under President Clinton.

That commission, chaired by former Princeton President Harold T. Shapiro, solicited religious viewpoints in considering policy regarding human cloning and embryonic stem cells, said Childress. "(Religious views) are subject to and should be subjected to close public scrutiny just as any other reasons are," he said. "Just as we should not exclude religious views from public debate, we should also not give them any special advantage."

The conference, sponsored by the Center for the Study of Religion , continues Friday with three sessions starting at 8:30 a.m. in McCosh 50. Thursday's session was chaired by Princeton President Shirley M. Tilghman. Friday's will be chaired by former President Shapiro. For a full conference schedule and additional details, click here .

Each session features a talk by a distinguished visiting speaker followed by a response from a Princeton faculty member. In Thursday's session, the respondent was ethicist Peter Singer. Singer agreed with Childress that it may often be important to include ideas from religion in public debate, but argued that doing so may sometimes require examining the underlying assumptions of the religion. If the religious position does not make sense to consider outside the context of that religion and if it depends, for example, on the existence of God, then the assumption may need to be proven before receiving weight in a public ethical debate, he said.

"We would want to have evidence," he said. "The same is true of any religious claim. If someone claims that any scripture is given authority because it was divinely inspired, we need to have evidence that there is a divinity, that that divinity indeed inspired this particular scripture and that this scripture is being properly interpreted." He acknowledged that, in his view, such claims cannot be proved.

Welcoming participants to the conference, Robert Wuthnow, director of the Center for the Study of Religion, noted that the question of what it means to be human has been debated through the ages.

"Indeed one might say that the very capacity to ask this question is a distinguishing feature of what it means to be human," Wuthnow said.

"In our time science, especially, compels us to address it anew," he said, noting the many opportunities for public good that come from scientific research. "Invariably, these possibilities raise deep ethical, moral and policy questions that sometimes demand attention at the highest levels of national leadership." Universities, though not the final source of answers, are uniquely suited to address the questions, he said.

Contact: Marilyn Marks (609) 258-3601