The Radical Center
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The Radical Center

Playing God: Somebody Should

Theologian Steve de Gruchy is upset because the South African government has put together a panel of “experts” on biotechnology which doesn’t include theologians — such as himself. He dismisses the scientific credentials of those involved and whines: “Experts in what, I ask? Yes, they may have expertise in zoology and biotechnology, but they aren’t necessarily experts on social policies, ethics or religion.”

Fair enough, but why should a theologian have input on science? Let’s be honest here. A theologian is free to believe anything, pretend anything, claim anything and assert, all the while, that he is speaking for some deity. What proof do we have the “Creator of the Universe” is speaking through this theologian? None, except the word of the theologian, he can say absolutely anything he wants and pretend he is speaking for morality because he’s speaking for God.

Now, if they want to believe what they preach that is certainly their right. But, they have no claim to appear on government panels of experts simply because they allege an ability to determine the wishes of the Almighty.

De Gruchy says theologians must be represented because biotechnology is “playing God.” Of course the same is said about virtually everything. After all, if God runs the universe, as they claim, then anything man does is “playing God” and thus open to the meddling of theologians. Two years at seminary myself was enough to convince me theologians pretend to speak for God and do nothing more than elevate their own opinions to the status of a Divine Mandate.

When our ancestors allowed theologians to determine public policy the world was a dark and miserable place; certainly the record of theologians is a very bad one indeed.

When Benjamin Franklin flew his kite to study electricity he was condemned by theologians for doing so. The lightening rod was the result of his experiments. But theologian, Rev. Thomas Prince said earthquakes were caused due to the erection of “iron points invented by the sagacious Mr. Franklin.” He concluded “in Boston are more erected than anywhere else in New England, and Boston seems to be more dreadfully shaken. Oh! there is no getting out of the mighty hand of God.”

President John Adams wrote disapprovingly of one spokesman for God who attacked the idea of controlling lightning. Adams wrote: “He talked of presuming upon God, as Peter attempted to walk upon the water, and of attempting to control the artillery of heaven.” For decades the churches of New England refused to play God and would not erect lightening rods.

Of course, churches were disproportionately destroyed as a result. Eventually even they quietly succumbed and no more was heard about man intruding on God’s domain.

Inoculation and vaccinations were equally attacked by theologians and their arguments did not differ from those espoused by Rev. de Gruchy.

Boston, firmly controlled by theologians, even passed a law forbidding Dr. Zabdiel Boylston from using inoculations. After all, small pox was clearly God’s judgment on man and any inoculation was “an encroachment on the prerogatives of Jehovah whose right it is to wound and smite.”

Famed church fathers Tertullian and Augustine opposed anatomy as butchery. Theologians argued the practice would interfere with the resurrection of the dead. The same argument was used to attack surgery. In fact, medicine was so despised that Medieval Europe had a saying: “Where there are three physicians there are two atheists.”

In spite of the fact that “playing God” has always been condemned, man’s nature still inspires him onwards to experiment and to learn. Today we live in world that is a far, far better place because of these experiments. Today we eat corn that was, in fact, a result of early man’s experiments in biotechnology: Native Americans cross bred two prairie grasses to create an entirely new species. They created something “unnatural” in that experiment. By the time the Pilgrims landed they had no idea that corn they ate on Thanksgiving was contrary to God’s original plan; to them it was natural.

Even our modern potato was unknown to primitive man. Centuries of selective breeding removed undesired genes and replaced them with desired ones. Primitive biotechniques were used in the fermentation of alcohol and the manufacture of cheese. The efficiency of the techniques may have been improved but the basic principles predate our discovery of DNA, genes and cloning.

Yes, biotechnology is “playing God.” But, what in man’s history isn’t? Genesis says woman is cursed by God to give birth in pain. Does this prevent even the staunchest believer from using pain killers? Today we laugh at the statement: “If God wanted man to fly he would have given him wings.” Orvil and Wilbur Wright were playing God.

When man walked on the moon he was playing God. When he performs heart surgery he is playing God. Each premature baby placed in an incubator and kept alive through “artificial” means lives because some researcher, some doctor, played God. When third world peasants flee to higher ground because a meteorologist has warned them of an impending hurricane and the resulting flood, thousands of lives are spared because someone played God.

When man does not play God the world is a mean and brutal place. It is a world where old age is the mid 20s. It is a world where most infants die before reaching maturity. It is a world where the diabetic suffers pain, finding release only in an early death. It is a world where disease and famine are rampant. It is a world where there is no warmth in the winter and no light after sunset. It is a world where each flash of lightning so terrifies men, women and children they cringe in fear in the recesses of some darkened cave. It may be natural. It might be in accordance with God’s will. But it is cruel and monstrous.

When we look back at history one thing is clear: one good scientist does more good than a thousand theologians. The next time you hear someone bleating out that science is “playing God” just ask yourself: What is the alternative?

This is a reprint of a column written by James Peron in 2001.


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James Peron

James Peron is the president of the Moorfield Storey Institute, was the founding editor of Esteem a LGBT publication in South Africa under apartheid.