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Date: 28 November 2006 Time: 1.00 pm

Tuesday 28th November 1-2pm Furness C26

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Religion and rationality in the public debate on biomedicine

Bjørn K. Myskja

Debates on biomedical issues demonstrate the significance of religious views in modern secular democracies. Although many argue on a strictly secular basis against research on stem cells derived from embryos created by therapeutic cloning or for restrictive policies on the use of pre-natal diagnosis, it is evident that some influential debate participants and politicians are influenced by their religious world views in these issues. The strict regulation of stem cell research in the USA is often regarded as motivated by a religious conception of human life and the restrictive elements in the Norwegian Biotechnology Act was also said to be the result of religious influence. Although few of the participants refer explicitly to religion in their arguments, and voice a Kantian or a secular virtue ethical approach, their opponents may be justified in suspecting that this is a mere disguise for a different agenda: political regulation of biomedicine based on a religious world view. The questions are: should arguments based on religion be heard in the debate, and should religious debate participants reveal their world views when they present secular arguments?

A crucial feature of modern democracies is the fact of pluralism, making our kind of society "post-metaphysical", according to Jürgen Habermas. In such a society, the legitimate basis for political regulation must be views that everybody can have access to, effectively ruling out religious arguments.

According to Habermas, political participation of the citizens is the foundation of deliberative democracy, and laws and regulations must be based on a rationally grounded discourse open to every citizen. This presupposes mutual respect of equality and freedom, and is often taken to mean that arguments based on world views not shared by everybody, such as religious beliefs, must be "translated" to secular, political arguments to be considered rational. In his recent work, Habermas counters this understanding, claiming that we cannot at the present time know whether we prevent valuable truths and insights by rejecting arguments informed by religious world views. Instead, both religious and secular citizens should go through self- reflective learning processes that enable us to partake in discussions where also religious views are heard. This openness to religious arguments in public debate does not imply that the political decisions can be based on religious arguments. Here the demand of legitimacy means that everybody must have equal access to the basic views.

The presentation explores the significance of Habermas' view on the legitimacy of religiously based arguments for debates on the regulation of biomedical research. It will be argued that including religious views in these debates is not only legitimate, but even required in order to avoid a myopic utilitarian scientist approach to these decisive ethical and political issues. We should attempt to translate significant arguments in order to make them part of the political decision process. People who have translated their religious standpoint into acceptable secular arguments have no duty to reveal their world view. Arguments should speak for themselves.


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Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
Lancaster University
Lancaster LA1 4YD
United Kingdom

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