A Religious Tone,  Abortion

A Religious Tone

A Roman Catholic mental health worker is suing the British National Health Service for unfair dismissal. Apparently Margaret Forrester handed a colleague a booklet highlighting the trauma experienced by women who had had abortions. She was summoned to a meeting, challenged about her views and moved to another role. (read the full story here). I was struck by the following comment:

“She was told during the disciplinary proceedings that part of the problem with the booklet was that it was “religious in tone”, according to Mrs Forrester’s legal papers.”

I wonder just what tone should the booklet have taken? Is there really any way to engage in this debate without it being from a perspective that is inherently religious? Classing oneself as “non-religious” does no good since that too is a set of fundamental commitments about the world, a story about how the world came about, about what is and is not valuable. If “religious” is really way of saying fundamental commitments rather than merely the inclusion of God in those commitments, then no one is somehow neutral on the matter. Hating God is as much a religious commitment as loving him; denying God exists is as religious as knowing him personally.

Perhaps what they mean is something like “belief in something unseen.” God cannot be verified so he is out of bounds and so is anything that comes with a whiff of God-talk. But there are many “things” that are unseen and no one says they cannot be included in an argument. What about laws of logic, thoughts, feelings and the  like? No one can see them either, but an argument without them would be ridiculous. It is no good saying that there is no evidence; there is plenty of evidence. The problem is that the evidence for God is only conclusive to the Christian. The problem is not evidence, but the person looking at the evidence. There are many perfectly rational people working in healthcare who believe in God. I would even suggest that, for Christians working in healthcare, being a Christian is, in large part, why they are in healthcare. For them, it is what makes healthcare rational. A person is a creation of God who was made with a purpose, who has inherent worth and should be treated with dignity and cared for. Indeed Christians believe (or should do) that this is what makes all healthcare rational since even the doctors who hate God are made by God and are treating people equally endowed with the image of their creator.

Perhaps having a religious tone is unacceptable because it is immoral or irrational or even insane. Perhaps to base one’s medical ethics on one’s religious commitments is just barking mad. If what the Christian believes is irrational at its core then rather than outlaw the tone of Margaret Forrester it would be better to outlaw Margaret Forrester herself – anyone who believes in God is mad and is not qualified to be working in medicine. This may one day be the only way to avoid any religious tone in speaking about abortion, but not yet. Christians are still allowed to speak, and should do so in a tone that reflects what they actually believe.

What should strike us about the debate over abortion is that there is really no common ground in the argument. Perhaps it is not accurate to say this about everyone, but a great majority of people who have an opinion do so without the faintest idea how the arguments from the other side can make any sense at all. I for one cannot understand how it is possible to think it is okay to kill an unborn child just because the baby is a girl or is going to be an inconvenience. There appears, to me, to be no grounds at all on which it is morally justifiable to offer abortion on demand.

The point is that this sentiment is shared by my opponent – he too cannot understand how I could be so unreasonable.

If we think of a “religious tone” as a tone in which a set of fundamental commitments about what is real, how we know, and how we should live is displayed in some way, then there is no one–Margaret Forrester or the NHS–who will not have such a tone in anything they say on the matter. Is the sanctity of human life a religious issue in that sense? How can it fail to be? Consequently, to deny someone a religious tone is to ignore one’s own religious tone. To deny one’s own pre-commitments is plain naive. But, one might object, how on earth, if what I have said is right, are we to know which set of commitments are right. That would require a god, who made everything and knows everything and is right about everything he thinks, to tell us. Ah, that would be a very good solution wouldn’t it?

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.