Comment: We musn't take our religion too seriously, must we?

Click to follow
A GROUP of American scientists announced last week that they were on the verge of creating life itself. If their work goes to plan, in a little while they would be splicing artificially synthesised DNA together to make a simple bacterium.

It may not be quite the creation of every living creature that "moves after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind", but it's still a bit of a shock to realise that the time of the "Frankencell", as its critics have put it, has come upon us.

Understandably anxious about the adverse publicity such a step might attract, the scientists in question approached a set of professional moralists all the way back in January, and asked them to pronounce in advance on the ethical problems that their action might entail.

Therefore, the issue of Science magazine that contains the announcement by the scientists, also carries the report of the moralists, who call themselves the Ethics of Genomics Group.

You can see the enormity of the task that the ethicists were facing. Particularly, was this all going to be rather problematic for God? Once His unique selling-point was challenged, what would His reaction be? The group felt that He should have His divine say.

They, therefore, drew upon "a broad spectrum of religious voices", and invited a Catholic priest, a Jewish rabbi and a Protestant preacher to join them. However, to their disappointment, these representatives of God had little to add to the debate on Frankencell.

"Surprisingly," the authors said, "there has been little inclination within major Western religious communities to devise a definition of life or to describe the essence of life."

In turning to the clergy for their answers, the Ethics of Genomics Group was following an accepted pattern for such inquiries.

Although the historical record of religious leaders' reactions to scientific advances has not always been wholly impressive, it now seems to be almost obligatory for scientific advances to be accompanied by a little priestly colloquy.

The Today programme invited a clergyman, the Right Rev Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford, to pronounce on the Frankencell last week; and the Ethics Committee of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority in Britain is chaired by a man of God, the Bishop of Rochester, Dr Michael Nazir- Ali.

Scientists may be pretty confident in playing around with nature, but they clearly feel that they must be seen to be consulting the heavenly authorities as they do so.

However, although the clergy may feel quite important when called upon to add their voices to these scientific debates, their influence over the lives of people in the West is constantly waning. An intriguing new poll - the Gallup International Millennium Survey - was published at the weekend. It showed that only one in ten people in Britain went to church even for special holy days.

A quarter of all those surveyed said that God was "not at all important to their lives". In many countries this figure was lower, but in many others it was significantly higher. More than half of all Czechs, Swedes and Norwegians have no relationship with God.

So although many people in the West may call themselves religious, few are looking to the established churches for moral judgement. Most people seem to prefer their religion as an unthreatening ambience of spirituality. They may like a few carols and mangers to add pathos to the Christmas lights. They may enjoy seeing elements of religion used to give ballast to entertainment, as in the Satanic plot for the new Schwarzenegger blockbuster, End of Days.

They may see religion as the repository for some beautiful images that can be used to give a grand aura to various artworks. The current exhibition in the Tate Liverpool that shows Diana as a Madonna shows how nebulous many religious images have become; cut adrift from their moral framework, they can be used to give a little uplift without too much soul-searching.

This sort of religion lite - religion that is used for comfort rather than dogma - often seems to be the only kind of religion on view in the West. It looks as though it will reach its apotheosis in the Faith Zone of the Millennium Dome, where all major religions have been pacified by a bit of space, no doubt after assurances from feng shui specialists that the Christians and Muslims won't fight so long as there are a few plants between them.

I could hardly credit the news given out over the weekend, that, although there will be no crucifix in the Dome for fear of giving offence to non- Christians, there will be a giant sculpture of a slot machine called "It Pays to Pray", which will randomly select and display a prayer in return for 20 pence.

But is this idea really so different from the behaviour of the genetic scientists? I doubt whether they really wanted a judgement from the religious leaders whom they invited to join the discussion.

If these scientists had been threatened with hellfire for playing God, would they have closed down their institute? Or are they just aware that it "pays to pray", and that a little show of devoutness never did anyone any harm?