In a recent issue of Stanford Medicine, there is a cartoon with two individuals on different sides of a precipice: one is a scientist in a white lab coat, holding a test tube; the other is a preacher with a Bible, looking up to the heavens. The picture suggests that the embryonic stem cell debate is a clash between religion and science, an irreconcilable conflict between two different conceptions of reality. And indeed, many scientists, religious believers, and policymakers see it this way. Certainly many advocates for embryonic stem cell research see President Bush and his ilk as religious zealots, and see themselves as a thousand persecuted Galileos. And many religious believers worry about “man playing God,” and about scientists usurping the divine order.
But framing the embryo question as a clash between religion and science glosses over many important complexities. It is far too easy to presume that religious opposition to embryo research is not rational, but just sectarian piety. And it is far too easy to presume that the public case for embryo research is the most rational case, grounded in the best scientific evidence.
But matters, of course, are not so simple. Religious opponents of embryo research make their moral argument by appealing rationally to the facts of modern embryology. And rational scientists make their moral case by appealing emotionally to the hardships of loved ones suffering from dreaded diseases. To understand the embryo research debate and the larger human ideals at stake within it, we need to explore more precisely what it means to be “rational.” We need to explore the nature of human reason and the limits of human reason. And we need to confront the fact that reason alone cannot fully explain why things happen the way they do, or why we should believe in the first principles—like human equality—that we hold so dear.