International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Handbook of Bioethics and Religion

edited by David E. Guinn

Introductory Essay by V. V. Raman

The roots of traditional ethics are in religious systems. Modern science has gradually intruded into every sphere where religions used to have the final say, from cosmology and anthropogenesis to morality and attitudes toward nature. Science not only usurped religion’s role in the explanatory context but it has also been reducing religion’s presence in the public arena. Moreover, science led to the formulation of bioethics, a system largely based on biology which considers all life, including human, as an earth-generated complex phenomenon. Given all this, questions have arisen as to religion’s part in ethical matters.

Handbook of Bioethics and Religion is a collection of contributions from scholars in various Western traditions. It explores bioethics from a variety of angles. The book opens with a historical account from one who participated in the birth of bioethics. The next two chapters discuss theology and the insistence on individual liberties and rights, and their justification only in neutral, secular, and rational terms. Chapter 3 takes up the debate on who has the authority to speak on behalf of which religion on bioethical issues. Here we are reminded that “The ‘death of God; theology in liberal Protestantism, and situation ethics would both ‘eliminate any exclusively Christian conditions or terms’ from what has been called ‘the new morality’” [68]. Chapter 4 addresses difficult questions relating to embryonic stem cell research. It is emphasized that “religious bodies and speakers do not all base their conclusions about the morality of embryonic stem cell research on the same sorts of grounds” [132].

Chapter 12, on the major principles of health care in Islam, clarifies many points in that religion’s framework with which the average reader may not be familiar or about which he/she may have a partial or distorted impression. The Buddhist Reflection on the Japanese Organ Transplant Law (Chapter 13) is also interesting, except that this is confined to a very specific issue in bioethics. It is good that there is at least one essay presenting an Islamic perspective and one from the perspective of a Buddhist. There are no Hindu or Jain voices on these matters, which is rather strange in a book with this title published in 2006. Perhaps the explanation is that the book was meant primarily for readers in the Western world.

Part VI begins with an interesting critique of current modes of studying religion, spirituality, and health based on surveys of  “American Jewish-elderly’s self-definition of Jewish identity” [335], which should be of interest largely, if not only, to Jewish-American readers. In a  discussion on the importance of religion and spirituality towards  life’s end, Chapter 16 raises questions like what patients want from caregivers, and how to address the patient’s religious and spiritual needs.

Part VII includes considerations of how race, religion, and AIDS get entangled in bioethics. This includes some practical pointers like:  “The time has come to help African American churches address AIDS through federal programs that encourage testing and monitor heath habits…” [380].  Aside from these, there are discussions on other topics, such as the ethics of ambiguity and the delivery of controversial services.

This is more a reference book than a guidebook, more valuable to the scholar than to the practitioner.