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A Failure of Morality

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During a week in which news was dominated by the kleptomania of Governor Blagojevich, the world was stirring with other momentous events that garnered little attention individually, and none as a confluence of related stories. But that connectedness between seemingly disparate news items is where our interest should be directed. What would appear to be many narratives is really just one, viewed from different angles, all with a common cause: the failure of religious morality. Let's review the news of the day first as distinct events.

• The Vatican issued sweeping new bioethics rules, describing stem cell research as immoral.

• The Bureau of Land Management sought to lease 400,000 acres of pristine wilderness for oil and gas exploration, much of the land immediately adjacent to Arches and Canyonlands national parks and Dinosaur National Monument.

• Bush successfully rushed through revised endangered species regulations that sets aside input from federal scientists and ignores the consequences of climate change when evaluating the impact of dams, power plants, logging, and other major federal projects on threatened species.

• A bipartisan Senate report has asserted that former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other senior officials in the Bush administration are responsible for torturing prisoners in Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay.

Now let us start from the top. The Vatican's bioethics proclamation is not a harmless theoretical exercise, but a real-world disaster for millions of people. Stem cell research holds promise for curing terrible diseases like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, spinal cord injury, Rheumatoid arthritis, and cancer. But the people suffering from these ailments will be denied. Morality derived from Christianity places a greater value on a microscopic dot of cells smaller than the period at the end of this sentence over the life of a wounded soldier in a wheelchair or a young woman suffering the agonizing effects of arthritis. The Vatican's views are immoral.

The Pope's immoral approach to stem cell research is derived from the deeply flawed idea that life begins at conception. True, a fertilized egg has the potential to become human, if it successfully implants in the uterus, is not rejected by the mother's immune system, has no fatal chromosomal abnormalities and the mother herself does not die before giving birth. But an unfertilized egg also has the potential to become human, every bit as much as a fetus, every bit as dependent on a series of contingent events: it simply needs to be fertilized first, just one more step toward the threshold of life. Likewise, each individual sperm has the potential to become human: it just needs to fertilize an egg. Germ cells and the immediate result of their union all have the potential to become human, and all must be treated equally. An egg, sperm and one-cell embryo are distinguished morally only arbitrarily. Conferring special rights to a fertilized egg is not justified biologically, and is nothing but the result of religious morality being imposed on society to advance a narrow agenda. If life begins at conception (a false premise), then that would mean absurdly that a woman is committing murder every time she ovulates and a man is committing millions of murders with each ejaculation.

Just as religion has corrupted biomedical research, so has it endangered the environment. Bush's slash and burn approach to endangered species, tropical forests, climate change, oil drilling and pollution are fully consistent with the fundamental teachings from Judaism and Christianity. We are told up front in the bible, in the first book, first chapter (Genesis 1:1) that god made the world for man's benefit and use. We are to "rule over" the air, land and sea and dominate all of earth's creatures. Genesis 2:15 goes on to tell us that god put man in the Garden of Eden to cultivate and "keep it." The Catechism of the Catholic Church #356 informs us that only mankind is able to know and love god, and through that relationship we derive our dignity. That means, quite clearly, that no other living creature has dignity, according to these teachings. We would understandably find difficult the idea of respecting other forms of life and the environment in which they live if we are taught that such life has no dignity. Those piously spouting on about the "sanctity" of life mean only human life, and only some human life. Those on death row do not count.

This explicit religious mandate to exploit natural resources remains clear and unambiguous in spite of heroic efforts to harmonize religion and environmental sciences. The argument used by those seeking reconciliation between religion and environmental protection point to the integrity of all creation, or reverence for all things created by god, insisting that religion and concern for the environment are not only compatible, but have been so all along. Those are welcomed sentiments. As is frequently the case, the bible contains contradictory passages about the natural world, reasonably allowing for such an interpretation. But the harsh facts of human history belie this benign revisionist interpretation of the meaning of "subdue" and "rule over." The preponderance of unambiguous passages in the bible giving mankind dominion over nature's bounty argue against any idea that religion is environmentalism in disguise.

Bush exploits our lands and pollutes our air and drills offshore because he believes he has a god-given right to resource extraction. That is immoral.

That same arrogance, and belief in god's sanction, gave Bush confidence to invade Iraq. Why read a National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq before invading the country if god has already nodded his approval? That same confidence in god's support allowed Bush and his gang of Neocons to torture people after the invasion failed. You can never be wrong if god is on your side, so nothing is too extreme to rescue success. Moral qualms are unnecessary and unwarranted when every action is in the name of god. All actions, no matter how heinous, can be rationalized in the cause of a just war. A war, we must remember, waged by a nation that evangelicals wish to be Christian against a Muslim country with nothing but disdain for infidels. But we will pretend the war is about oil, or democracy, or WMDs or Middle East stability or saving the Iraqi's from Saddam or whatever the week's excuse may be. But in no case will we call this a religious war or a Crusade because that might put religion and the morality of killing in the name of god in a bad light.

Bush has given us war, threatened our planet, soiled our national treasures and stymied biomedical research. All of these degradations arise from a single source. Each is a chapter in the book of chronicles detailing the multiple failures of religious morality. The Vatican's interference with secular life and Bush's method of governing on the basis of evangelical Christian principles are simply the most recent exemplars of how such failures have corrupted human behavior.