Religious Cooptation

By religious cooptation, I refer to the possibility that religious doctrines be inadvertently and uncritically incorporated into what is supposed to be secular public discourse. Consider the Vatican’s recent missive on the implications of human dignity, entitled Instruction Dignitas Personae on Certain Bioethical Questions.19 Much of value can be garnered from this document, but not surprisingly the document is rife with distinctly Catholic doctrine unrelated to the idea of dignity. The danger is that this doctrine gets mixed up with the discussion of dignity, thus borrowing the latter concept’s prestige and rhetorical force to support policies that from a secular standpoint turn out to be inimical to human dignity. For example, the document’s opening statement, to the effect that “[t]he dignity of a person must be recognized in every human being from conception to natural death,”20 runs together the affirmation of human dignity with a controversial ontological doctrine, namely that the human person begins at conception. In a similar vein, the document prohibits, again in terms of a concern for human dignity, any fertility techniques seen as violating the distinctly religious doctrine that marital sex is the only permissible form of procreation. The present caveat is reinforced by another recent document: a report entitled Human Dignity and Bioethics, issued by the President’s Council on Bioethics.21 This document is the main target of Stephen Pinker’s attack on dignity that I mentioned at the outset.22 Though the report is hardly the last word on the concept of dignity and a poor reason to berate the value of dignity as such, the similarity in tone as well as in substance of the Council’s report to the Vatican’s missive is indeed disconcerting.23

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