Dog days for God

Its been a rough summer, taking the blame for senseless limits on stem cell research and killings on both sides in the Middle East.

Published August 22, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

This has not been a good season for God. From the blowing up of innocents in a Jerusalem pizzeria to the limiting of stem cell research in the United States, the moral authority of the deity has been invoked to support actions that are at best contradictory and at worst murderous.

It is the norm among politicians and pundits alike to treat religion as an unmitigated blessing and to dismiss its most simplistic and even destructive outcroppings as the zealous perversion of the true faith.

In unstable societies, there is an expanded capacity of traditional religion to go dangerously wrong. But even in stable societies, such as our own, what should be rational scientific and medical debates on subjects like stem cell research are bombarded by religious sloganeering. We, of course, resist any comparison with religious extremism abroad. In the Middle East, where no fewer than three conceptions of the one true God are in play, it's all too easy to brand the followers of the Koran's interpretation as the nutty villains.

Obviously, most Muslims do not justify terrorism, and one easily can find leading practitioners of the religion to roundly condemn such tactics, although it is disheartening when moderate Muslims such as Yasser Arafat exploit religious hatred.

Fairness also dictates that we acknowledge that the Mideast's other major religions have had a turn at their disciples' descent into madness. There are Jews today who justify the killing of Palestinians, including children, by saying they are merely abiding by the instructions of the Old, and the only, Testament of God. One such believer took the life of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, branding the courageous peacemaker an infidel.

Christians also cannot claim moral superiority in the religious violence count, and one need not go back to the Crusades for comparable examples of barbarism vindicated by Scripture. More recent reference to the endless "troubles" in Northern Ireland, where Catholics and Protestants define their religious identity by inflicting mayhem, will suffice.

Then there are those Christians in our own country who in the name of God killed doctors in order, they claim, to protect life. The charge of "murderer" is spit at pregnant women who believe they should have the say in the decision to create life.

On a nonviolent level, there is the mischief of those who play at religion for more transparent political ends, such as our president, who cut off funding for international birth control education as punishment for groups, such as Planned Parenthood, that disagree with him on abortion.

President Bush recently acted again on his religious convictions. One can assume he once again asked himself, "What would Jesus do?" in deciding the issue of embryonic stem cell research, to the satisfaction of key Christian rightists, the consternation of scientists and the acclaim of political pundits and pollsters.

Such is the convenience of the president's religious conscience that research on 60 stem cell lines already drawn from embryos destroyed is just dandy, but using more of the thousands of fertilized eggs that will be discarded anyway is wrong.

This stance dismisses the lives of people with dreadful illnesses, possibly to be saved by an unfettered research program, as already expendable. Or at least until after the next presidential election, when, Bush's advisors suggest, public pressure for scientific progress and the absence of a need to placate Christian right voters might compel Bush to broaden his ethical horizons.

How odd that the authorities in Britain, with a much more established history of inspiration by Jesus, have decided that no such limit of cell lines is required, freeing their scientists to press ahead to do what others cite as God's work in finding treatments for those with debilitating illnesses.

The maturing of Christianity in England, the seat of many past horrors in the name of Jesus, gives hope that the insights of religion can come to be used as a gentle, informing source of wisdom. No one can doubt that much that is decent in the human experience is owed to the restraint of contemplation within a received religious framework.

That just the opposite may occur -- that religion has an enduring capacity to stoke the most primitive and destructive parts of our nature -- is also obvious. The pretense that religion is inevitably an ennobling experience stands in absurd denial of a harsh reality reported in daily headlines. A dangerous pretense, but one that politicians find all too useful.

By Robert Scheer

Robert Scheer is a syndicated columnist.

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