This article belongs to Great American Dumb Ideas column.

In the beginning

Most of the silly ideas I write about did not begin in the United States of America. It's just that this country is a hotbed in which dumb ideas can rage out of control and cause great social damage. A majority of Americans, unfortunately, are undereducated, especially in science. They are often driven by fear and greed, and in this respect we reflect our current leaders who are, it is widely acknowledged, both money manipulators and draft-dodging cowards. We are a people driven by fear and greed. One of the most troublesome ideas in this country, based on the fear of death, is the notion that there is something sacred, holy, and supernatural about human life.

The mindless sanctity of life dogma is repeated over and over until it becomes part of our unquestioned belief system.

Life of any sort, of course, is a scientific marvel, a complexity that deserves universal respect, even reverence. The more one learns about life and its evolution, the greater the respect one has for all forms of life. Even the simplest of organisms is hugely complex. But respect and awe are not the same as awarding a sacred or holy status to living things.
According to one biblical authority ( Christians and others may believe all human life is sacred because:

  • God is the giver of life. The Bible (Ecclesiastes chapter 3 verses 1-3) says "There is a time for everything. A time to be born and a time to die ..." Christians believe God gives and takes away life, and that humans should not do this.

  • Christians believe God created human life and it should be preserved. Nothing is more important.

  • Every life has a purpose. God meant for each of us to be born (Psalm chapter 139 verses 13-16). All life is important and shouldn't be wasted.

  • Murder is forbidden in the 10 Commandments (Exodus chapter 20 verse 13). It is not acceptable to kill someone else, and taking your own life is not considered a good thing.

  • These ideas are seductively easy to believe, but all of this is a matter of faith, a belief system in the absence of scientific data or proof. Such beliefs are only a modification of ancient animism or vital force ideas that were used to define life. One is free to believe whatever one finds appealing; unfortunately, this often gets translated into political action. Not long ago, President Bush proclaimed:

    "NOW, THEREFORE, I, GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and laws of the United States do hereby proclaim Sunday, January 22, 2006, as National Sanctity of Human Life Day. I call upon all Americans to recognize this day with appropriate ceremonies and to reaffirm our commitment to respecting and defending the life and dignity of every human being."

    The so-called sanctity of human life is a religious opinion, a belief completely lacking in any supporting evidence. And so, of course, our Constitution contains no presidential authority to proclaim a religious day of any sort. The present administration seems to think that the Constitution is theirs to play with at their convenience, and this is certainly not the first violation of our separation of church and state, a condition called for in the Constitution.

    The appeal

    President Bush was, of course, appealing to his anti-abortionist hillbilly religious voters. Obviously, he has little concern for the lives he took with Shock and Awe and in his continuing invasion of Iraq. Nor would he mind blowing away a few hundred thousand Iranians in his crusade for an oil-friendly government in Iran. When he was governor of Texas, Bush seemed to think the death penalty was perfectly compatible with his religion, and he was merciless in his devotion to ending the lives of murderers.

    The price

    The price we pay for believing foolish ideas is enormous. The Sanctity of Life argument is exploited in political battles over abortion, cloning, stem cells, physician assisted suicide, genetics, medical decisions, and end of life questions.

    Hillbilly religion, which should champion free will, takes choice out of a woman's hands and forces her to give birth to an unwanted or perhaps severely handicapped child.

    The present administration is at war with any science that does not advance its political objectives, so it forbids research on human stem cells taken from stored human fetuses about to be discarded in any case.

    Chronically ill and aged patients are forced to endure to the very end, when some would prefer death with dignity and physician assisted suicide.

    The list of problems caused by dogmatic religious ideas goes on.

    Making money on it

    I can't pretend to understand why religious organizations want to interfere with our decisions in critical areas of life planning. I suspect it is not from noble motives. Part of the problem must be what is called the authoritarian personality: a strong leader in a church can influence undecided followers. The church needs a constant supply of new members, so the more children there are among poor families the more potential members. Why did the Catholic Church fight so hard and spend so much money to try to defeat the Oregon Death with Dignity law?

    Probably because old and dying people often turn to the church for comfort and are more likely to leave money to the church. Perhaps because nursing care for the elderly is a source of income. Perhaps it is sheer ego: the authoritarian belief that I know better than you and you should accept my view of the world, and if you don't you must be punished.

    Is there a better idea?

    Yes, there is a better idea, and it's called democracy. Let the people vote on these critical issues as the citizens of Oregon did twice to enact physician assisted suicide for the terminally ill.

    Australian Philosopher Peter Singer has written extensively about ethical problems created by dogmatic authoritarian views. On the sanctity of life, he wrote: "During the next 35 years, the traditional view of the sanctity of human life will collapse under pressure from scientific, technological, and demographic developments. By 2040, it may be that only a rump of hard-core, know-nothing religious fundamentalists will defend the view that every human life, from conception to death, is sacrosanct."

    So, who are you going to give your money to? Someone who says part of you is sacred, or someone who says you are just a bag an animated chemicals with free choice that will eventually whither away and die to nothingness? Faced with such a hard question, it is little wonder that most people find comfort in religious beliefs. But, comfort is about all you get.

    Either all life at any biological level is sacred or it is not. Either way, calling it sacred explains nothing, changes nothing, means nothing and only detracts from our understanding both of life itself and of social problems. However marvelous and complex life may be, it is a complex biological phenomenon, nothing more and nothing less.