How religious culture influences science

Cultural Insights — By on December 7, 2007 at 7:32 am

John Tierney wrote a fascinating article recently for the NY Times about the role that culture and religion play in determining scientific beliefs and practices. The story focuses specifically on biotechnology, and about the different approaches taken by Asian and Western cultures on issues like stem-cell research and genetic engineering.

While critics on the right and the left fret about the morality of stem-cell research and genetic engineering, prominent Western scientists have been going to Asia … (which) offers researchers new labs, fewer restrictions and a different view of divinity and the afterlife…

“Asian religions worry less than Western religions that biotechnology is about ‘playing God,’” says Cynthia Fox, the author of “Cell of Cells,” a book about the global race among stem-cell researchers. “Therapeutic cloning in particular jibes well with the Buddhist and Hindu ideas of reincarnation.”

You can see this East-West divide in maps drawn up by Lee M. Silver, a molecular biologist at Princeton. Dr. Silver, who analyzes clashes of spirituality and science in his book “Challenging Nature,” has been charting biotechnology policies around the world and trying to make spiritual sense of who’s afraid of what.

Dr. Silver’s interesting work has led him to divide spiritual and scientific believers into three geographic groups:

The first, traditional Christians, predominate in the Western Hemisphere and some European countries. The second, which he calls post-Christians, are concentrated in other European countries and parts of North America, especially along the coasts. The third group are followers of Eastern religions.

“Most people in Hindu and Buddhist countries,” Dr. Silver says, “have a root tradition in which there is no single creator God. Instead, there may be no gods or many gods, and there is no master plan for the universe. Instead, spirits are eternal and individual virtue — karma — determines what happens to your spirit in your next life. With some exceptions, this view generally allows the acceptance of both embryo research to support life and genetically modified crops.”

By contrast, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, God is the master creator who gives out new souls to each individual human being and gives humans “dominion” over soul-less plants and animals. To traditional Christians who consider an embryo to be a human being with a soul, it is wrong for scientists to use cloning to create human embryos or to destroy embryos in the course of research.

But there is no such taboo against humans’ applying cloning and genetic engineering to “lower” animals and plants. As a result, Dr. Silver says, cloned animals and genetically modified crops have not become a source of major controversy for traditional Christians. Post-Christians are more worried about the flora and fauna.

“Many Europeans, as well as leftists in America,” Dr. Silver says, “have rejected the traditional Christian God and replaced it with a post-Christian goddess of Mother Nature and a modified Christian eschatology. It isn’t a coherent belief system. It might or might not incorporate New Age thinking. But deep down, there’s a view that humans shouldn’t be tampering with the natural world.”

Hence the opposition to genetically modified food. Because post-Christians do not necessarily share the biblical view of an omnipotent deity with the sole power to create souls, Dr. Silver says, they are less worried about scientists “playing God” in the laboratory with embryos.

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