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Commentary on: The person, the soul and genetic engineering
  1. J H Brooke
  1. Correspondence to:
 J H Brooke
 Harris Manchester College, Oxford, OX1 3TD, UK; john.brooketheology.oxford.ac.uk

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The far reaching effects of the genetic revolution on our lives as a whole make it difficult to separate the secular and sacred issues involved

In accepting this opportunity to comment on Dr Polkinghorne’s Templeton Prize lecture, I recognise that there is a significant division between those who would see religious beliefs as irrelevant in the ethical debates concerning new biotechnologies and those who, with Dr Polkinghorne, are willing to look to the major faith traditions for insight into the nature of human identity and selfhood. In secular discourse, the intrusion of religious language has long been resisted on many grounds: that sound ethical principles do not need transcendent ratification; that those who presume a privileged moral discernment derived from their religion frequently fail to appreciate the complexity of genetic and medical science; and that internecine disputes within faith communities and historically rooted incommensurabilities between them seriously compromise any prospect of consensus. This problem is tacitly acknowledged by Dr Polkinghorne himself when he notes that his willingness to accept the 14 day threshold before which certain forms of experimentation on embryos are deemed permissible would not be congenial to Roman Catholic officialdom, for whom the destruction of one life cannot be condoned even if it were to make possible the creation of another.

Dialogue traversing a secular/sacred divide can be thwarted for other reasons. Those sympathetic to religious voices may concede that claims for privileged discernment are unhelpful but still insist that secular ethicists too readily fail to appreciate that religious beliefs can be constructive in strengthening motivation and in deepening commitment on ethical issues. Theologians who have served on ethics committees have sometimes expressed a sense of frustration accompanying their attempts to explain that they are starting from a different point, and working from different presuppositions, than those who …

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