Posted by: Harold Knight | 08/25/2011

Why have we become so hyper-pseudo-religious? Don’t worry, there’s nothing here any deluded liberal wouldn’t say.

The Creature Redux

The Creature Redux

Terri Schiavo. She was an unfortunate pawn in the religious wars into which the United States has sunk deeper and deeper in the past couple of decades.  The poor woman died long before she was pronounced dead by doctors and courts—or, conversely, long before then-Governor Jeb Bush of Florida, Republicans in Congress (experts in medical “end of life” issues) and Fox News thought she should have been pronounced dead. (Note: the hyperlink to Wikipedia’s—yes, Wikipedia!—article about Terri Schiavo.  I don’t have time to rehash her case, but I realize some might not know the tragi-comic details of her death.)

Here’s my take on the matter. Jeb Bush and Congress used her end of life struggle to try to force their religious views onto the state of Florida and then push those views onto the entire nation. They became, in their own eyes, a theocracy in which they, and only they, knew and understood the will of God for everyone in America. Actually, I’d phrase that a bit differently. Jeb Bush and the Republicans in Congress tried to use the (conservative) evangelical religious beliefs of a certain segment of society—with which they professed in public to agree—to solidify their stranglehold on the political life of the country. Those religious views were couched in language referring to medical “playing God” by deciding when life ends.

When my mother was very close to the end of her life, she stopped eating. She had Alzheimer’s Disease and was living in a world that alternately terrified and angered her. Because we did not understand her condition, we tried to reason with her, love her, calm her, even cajole or shame her into being her old self.

Because I did not really understand what was happening, I put a great deal of trust in one speech therapist who told me that most of her work was “swallowing therapy.” I was amazed and excited that she—and only she—could get my mother to eat. I did not understand that was most likely not the blessing I thought it was. Mom was not eating for many reasons, most of which had to do with the natural preparation for her death (she was 92 at the time). Forcing her to eat was unkind (to say nothing of counter-productive).

Reading in preparation for my teaching this fall, I found an article titled “The Presence and Influence of Religion in American Bioethics.” The topic of my courses is “Writing about the Grotesque.” So which part of religion and bioethics might I find grotesque? Neither. Religion is fine for those who admire it, and bioethics is a subject with which we—in this age of cloning and cryonics (cryogenics) and genetic manipulation and other once-science-fiction procedures—need to grapple.

. . .  a shift presently appears to be taking place in the United Sates in religion’s . . . relationship to a gamut of institutions in American society. . . to science and medicine. We have been following these socio-religious developments with interest, especially in connection with the possible impact they may have on the ethos of U.S. bioethics. The extensive collection of . . . materials that we have amassed . . .  suggest that religion has become more explicit and public in various arenas of American life than it was during the period of the 1960s and 1970s when bioethics first took hold (1).

Transcendent and Clean

Transcendent and Clean

Quoting the article is certainly pointing out the obvious. Even the article’s conclusion that

In medical education and in academic medical centers—where disquietude with religion has often been palpable, and religion’s place in secular hospitals has been confined to the chapel or “meditation room”—religion, faith , and spirituality now have a more noticeable presence (2)

cannot be a surprise to anyone. And, let me hasten to add that I am not anti-religious—religion is a good thing as far as I know. Of course, my continuing and unresolved question of the meaning of “spirituality” gives my approval something of a strange edge.

I came to the consideration of bioethics honestly. I need to have some understanding of the questions bioethics raises in order to lead my students through discussions of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and Frankenstein. Both books raise the basic question of bioethics: what are the limits of scientific research, especially in relation to research on human subjects—even for the purpose of saving and prolonging human life through medical advances?

My personal experience with the question, as I have indicated, grew from the treatment of my mother for Alzheimer’s Disease.  What are the limits to which a family (or the courts, or Jeb Bush, or Congress) should go to keep alive a person whose body is either “brain dead” or whose body is in the natural process of dying?

I don’t know the answer to that question. I have quoted Donna Haraway in other posts.

The point is to make a difference in the world, to cast our lot for some ways of life and not others. To do that, one must be in the action, be finite and dirty, not transcendent and clean (3).

It’s the being “transcendent and clean” I’m thinking about today. The problem is we are in the middle of some post-post-post world of post-something or other that makes the questions of bioethics in Frankenstein (and even Henrietta Lacks) obsolete. We can create life (?) à la Dr. Frankenstein, and we can keep human life alive forever à la HeLa cells.

Here’s an impossible connection. What Jeb Bush would have told us is that God does not want us to play God and decide when Terri Schiavo’s life is over, especially if there is a glimmer of hope that she will recover. That idea is based in someone’s (surely not Jeb Bush’s) religious belief. A religious belief that those who hold it would say was conservative, even fundamental to the theology of the religion they espouse. “Pro-life.” Such beliefs are attempts to be “transcendent and clean.”

But it seems to me that belief is post-humanist. It falls right in with the possible extinction of human life as we know it. In with artificial intelligence and cloning, and all of the other medical marvels our medical science—ethically or not, as we must someday decide—is right now developing.

With the accumulation of research in genetic engineering, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and neural network interfacing, man will be able to overwhelm the frailty and deficiency inherent in the human condition and transform that which was weak into strength. The ability to repair, replace or enhance the various biological systems in the body allows one to overcome the limits of finitude (4).

Let’s keep Terri alive past the natural span of her damaged life in hopes of overcoming the limits of finitude. That seems to me like wanting to play God.

How’s that for a twist. Perhaps that’s what I wanted, deep down, when I thought forcing my mother to eat was somehow a good thing. To be transcendent and clean. To overcome the limits of finitude. And what Jeb Bush wanted.
(1) Messikomer, Carla M., Renee C. Fox, and Judith P. Swazey. “The Presence and Influence of Religion in American Bioethics.” Perspectives in Biology & Medicine 44.4 (2001): 485.
(2) Messikomer et. al. Op.cit.
(3) Haraway, Donna. Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium. Female Man_Meets_Oncomouse. New York and London: Routledge, 1997.
(4) Pauls, David. “Transhumanism: 2000 Years in the Making.” The Center for Bioethics and Culture Network.” transhumanism/ transhumanisms.  Web. 12.28.06. Accessed by Michael E. Zimmermann, January 8, 2008. Quoted in Zimmermann, Michael E. “The Singularity: A Crucial Phase in Divine Self-Actualization?” Cosmos and History: the Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy 4.1-2 (2008): 347-369.



  1. Now, Harold, if you really want to muddy these waters, look into “transhumanism,” the idea that at some point in the near future we will be able to “upload” our consciousness (our souls?) into a machine, a computer. What will that mean to bioethics?

    Will we be able to copy our consciousnesses freely? Back them up? If we have an unpleasant experience, will we restore from backup? If we experience something someone else would rather we did not, will they restore us from backup? What will be our guarantees of privacy or security? Will we be murdered by deleting our data? Without endocrine systems will we love? Without bodies, how will our ideas of community change?

    Is there more to being human than the finite state electronic patterns in the machine of the brain?



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