On the Separation of Church and State

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Excerpted from Why Mankind Has Needed Religion Whereas Bees Have Not, by Sir Peter Lachmann (Grosvenor House Publishing, 2019). Reprinted with permission from the author.

Church and State

With the coming of the Enlightenment and with the growth of the secular state, and increasingly the separation of Church and State in a number of advanced Western countries, the relationship between Church and State has become more complex. In many areas of behaviour one relies on secular laws to determine what is not allowed. However, the ethical paradigm on which eventually the laws are based has not changed that much and does still reflect the religious prescriptions that have been in place for a very long time. This can, of course, be seen to produce a considerable problem because of the difficulty of changing the prescription to meet changed circumstances. The obvious situation that occurs relates to the increase of numbers. The prescription in most existing religions attaches the greatest importance to increasing population numbers and to protecting the right to breed. This is not, of course, entirely unfettered but nevertheless is regarded as a fundamental human right. However, we now live in a world where it is widely agreed that human over-population is extremely damaging to the resources of the planet and that any further growth in human numbers is likely to have highly disadvantageous effects on many other species, and indeed on humans themselves. It has nevertheless proved extremely difficult to move towards the new ethical prescription which attaches more importance to restricting the population than to expanding numbers.

Surprisingly, with the growth of electronic means of communication (though possibly not due to this fact) another very disturbing trend has come to light since the end of the Second World War. This is an articulate and highly assertive movement that rejects the Enlightenment altogether and looks back towards a vision of a golden, wholly imaginary, past in which religion provided ethical certainty and science and technology did not interfere with deeply held views of how things were to be. This anti-rational movement is quite widespread and concentrates on a whole variety of topics, moving all the way from interference with reproductive techniques to genetic modification of plants for food use, to alternative medicine, to vaccines, to organic food, etc. The argument often advanced by such groups is that they reject activities which they do not regard as natural. This is, however, not a satisfactory approach since a definition of what is to be regarded as natural is not usually advanced. At the most fundamental end, they would probably regard as natural only those activities that are entirely without human agency. However, since this would involve not wearing clothes and not eating cooked food, one can be confident that even the most fundamentalist of the anti-Enlightenment group are not prepared to take it anything like that far. If one tries to get some definition of what may be considered natural and unnatural from religious teaching, that is also quite difficult. Religions are more likely to express opinions on what they regard as being against nature rather than unnatural. The current furore in the Anglican Church about homosexuality is a good example. A substantial proportion of the Anglican Church regard homosexuality as against nature, but it is certainly not unnatural in the sense defined above, since homosexuality is found in species other than humans. It is possible, I suppose, to look for a definition from patent law, which distinguishes between discoveries which are not patentable and inventions which are. This again is based on the fact that an invention must involve some original and novel human contribution. Again, however, it is difficult to imagine many people who would be prepared not to make use of anything that has ever been granted a patent. This would deprive one of all the conveniences of modern life and most medical care. One really has to admit that there is no objective definition of what is natural or unnatural and what is actually in use are declamatory definitions, i.e. this is unnatural because I say it is unnatural. That, of course, is essentially extremely unhelpful since peoples’ views on this will be extremely variable.

Excerpted from Why Mankind Has Needed Religion Whereas Bees Have Not by Sir Peter Lachmann. Copyright © Sir Peter Lachmann, 2019. All rights reserved.

Sir Peter Lachmann is a British immunologist, specialising in the study of the complement system. He has held a chair at Cambridge University and served as President of the Royal College of Pathologists, Vice President and Biological Secretary of the Royal Society, and Founder President of the UK’s Academy of Medical Sciences. He was knighted for service to medical science in 2002.

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