Thursday, December 03, 2009

Atheist bioethicists?

As most readers of this blog will know, I am an atheist. I am also a bioethicist (everyone needs a job, so don't hold that one against me), and a journal editor. I came across a semi-interesting blog entry where someone was critical of Russell Blackford and myself for 'coming out' as atheists in our book 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists. The gist of the blog entry (written, I hope I'm not getting the minutiae wrong, by a woman who once was a Reverend of sorts and quit her Reverend day job because she realised that the admission of women to Reverend jobs is mistaken) was that it's a bad idea for bioethicists to admit to being non-religious. The reason given was that this would give bioethics a bad name in the USA where people don't like non-religious folks and where many have become suspicious of non-God based bioethicists anyway. My good mate, the creationist Discovery Institutes propaganda chief on bioethics, Wesley J Smith could probably take some credit for this, assuming the empirical claims made are correct to begin with. Of course, our ex-Reverend has no evidence for her claim one way or another. She may or may not be right about US Americans' attitudes to bioethicists. It's probably fair to assume that among conservative religious people like herself that view might be somewhat more prevalent. You know, the types of people who refer to married gay couples as 'family' in inverted commas, who really really really hate hate crimes legislation, and who tend to subscribe to the view that abortion is akin to the Holocaust in Nazi Germany.

The question though is not unreasonable to ask: Should bioethicists who happen to be non-religious try to hide that view in order to avoid putting off creationists? Or even just putting off people who are vaguely religious? You can also turn that question around and ask whether bioethicists who happen to be religious should try to hide that view in order to placate non-religious people who can't handle any more 'God' business? So, if they submit an article to the journal that I edit, should they hide their views in order to make what they conclude palatable to me?

In Bioethics (one of the journals that I edit), kindly and rightly identified as a leading journal in said critical blog entry, we had articles by openly religious people arguing their case. Even stuff on a thomistic understanding of personhood (ie what someone who believes St Thomas Aquinas is a brilliant guy makes of modern notions of personhood in the context of that thinker's theology). Basically, as a journal editor you try to ensure that you're fair to content submitted to your journal. Surely that wouldn't be achieved by sending a piece that's situated in the context of Catholic moral theology to the atheist Russell Blackford for review. But that's about as far as it goes.

It's unclear though, why I as editor of the journal should not be entitled to hold my own views on the God question and why I should not be permitted to publish those views. Strategic views about the status of bioethics among evangelic Christians in the USA notwithstanding, the objective of any paper surely should be to make the strongest possible argument for one's case. Ideally you'd try to persuade both those who come from an ideological basis similar to yours, as well as those who com an entirely different angle of your views.

So, to sum up: Journal editors are entitled to hold strong views on matters affecting their field. They must not permit those views to prejudice fair process for submitted content that is in conflict with their strongly held opinions. Concerns about how that goes down with a particularly partisan section of the wider public are irrelevant.


  1. Hi Udo,
    You have actually uncovered a bit of internet plagiarism, as I wrote the entry which was (no doubt inadvertently) reproduced on that blog. The orginal entry is here:
    I appreciate your quite sensible response and you might like to post a comment there.
    Michael Cook
    Editor, BioEdge

  2. Thanks for correcting the authorship matter, Michael. You are probably a tad bit too kind to the blog owner, but hey. Enjoy the Australian summer :).


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Sokal on steroids: Why hoax papers submitted successfully to academic journals proves nothing (ok, little)

A trio of authors has, during a 12 months period, submitted - by their own account - 20 manuscripts to academic journals they broadly identi...