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Does religion deserve a place in secular medicine?

By Brian D. Earp

The latest issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics is out, and in it, Professor Nigel Biggar—an Oxford theologian—argues that “religion” should have a place in secular medicine (click here for a link to the article).

Some people will feel a shiver go down their spines—and not only the non-religious. After all, different religions require different things, and sometimes they come to opposite conclusions. So whose religion, exactly, does Professor Biggar have in mind, and what kind of “place” is he trying to make a case for?

When one thinks of stories like the 2012 death of a woman in Ireland due to septicemia after being denied an abortion (“This is a Catholic country,” she was reportedly told by medical staff), one is reminded of the ways in which some people’s religious beliefs can have profound (even fatal) consequences for others who may not share those same beliefs. As Mother Jones reported in 2013:

A growing number of patients are finding their health care options governed by [religious] guidelines as Catholic hospitals, long major players in the health care market, have been on a merger streak, acquiring everything from local hospital systems to medical practices, nursing homes, and health insurance plans.

In the U.S. context, at least, Catholic hospitals are required to follow health care directives handed down by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops—a group described as “celibate older men who have become increasingly conservative over the past few decades” by the author of the Mother Jones piece.

What are the implications? What does this mean—in other words—for individuals who, say, reject Catholic doctrine on principle, but don’t have feasible alternatives for personal healthcare as a result of the “merger streak” described above? Stephanie Mencimer lays out some of the concrete effects: (1) abortion services disappear, (2) doctors may be prohibited from prescribing birth control (and hospital pharmacies won’t sell it), (3) emergency contraception may be denied to rape victims, (4) tubal ligations and vasectomies are prohibited, (5) patients’ requests to be removed from feedings tubes or life support — as expressed in living wills — may be ignored, (6) hospitals are permitted to discriminate against gays and lesbians, whether they are employees or patients … and so on.

So there seems to be some cause for concern. At least, there is if you don’t agree with the moral worldview of the “celibate older men” we’ve been talking about. But when you actually read the article by Professor Biggar—with apologies to non-subscribers, as it is behind a paywall—you may find yourself detecting a certain hint of a bait-and-switch. This is because (or so I’ll suggest) the word “religion” in the title of Professor Biggar’s piece ends up meaning something not so very different from “philosophy”—which is a lot less controversial.

Here is some evidence for my view:

First, Biggar begins by ruling out the “irrational” parts of religion (since he doesn’t see irrationality as being uniquely the province of religions, and he thinks we should stay away from it whatever its source, so long as our goal is to make a convincing argument), as well as all appeals to authority, “whether to that of the Bible or of the Pope or of the Qur’an” (p. 230).

Then, he goes on to suggest that religious people cannot just force their views on others, but instead must attempt to “persuade” them using, well, all the ordinary tools of philosophical debate. So, to illustrate, he says that:

If I, a religious believer, am going to succeed in persuading you, an agnostic or atheist or different kind of religious believer, of my moral view [about abortion, as he discusses in this passage], then I will have to show you that your view has weaknesses or problems, that these cannot be adequately repaired in your terms, but that they can be repaired in mine. (p. 230)

Ok … but so what? How is that different from just doing philosophy? You can imagine a slight adjustment to the phrasing:

If I, a utilitarian, am going to succeed in persuading you, a Kantian, or Rawlsian, or different kind of moral philosopher, of my moral view, then I will have to show you that your view has weaknesses or problems, that these cannot be adequately repaired in your terms, but that they can be repaired in mine.

You get the idea: other moral frameworks could be slotted right in. The point is, we all have certain meta-ethical commitments (whether explicit or implicit)—religious or otherwise—and we all have to try to convince those we disagree with that our meta-ethical commitments make more sense than theirs do, or do a better job of explaining a shared moral intuition, or whatever. That’s just “doing philosophy.”

So what does religion, specifically, have to do with Biggar’s argument? His answer is this:

Religion has the following to do with it. As a Christian monotheist, I esteem the lives of human individuals very highly: all individuals are equally the creatures of one divine Father, and each has a special vocation in their time and place. As a consequence, even if I believe that it can be morally right for one individual to take another’s life, I think that killing is a morally and socially hazardous business and that it should never be done casually and without cogent reason. (p. 230)

I’m not sure that answers the question. After all, any number of non-religious philosophies or moral worldviews could end up reaching the (kind of obvious) conclusion that “killing … should never be done casually and without cogent reason” without having to avail themselves of such peculiar premises as there being “divine Fathers” (of which we are all “equally the creatures,” whatever that means), or the like.

In other words, if P entails Q, and Q is true (here, “Q” means: we shouldn’t kill people willy nilly without good reason), we have little reason to think that P (Christianity?) is true, too – simply on account of the fact that A, B, C, and D (and all the rest of the alphabet for that matter) could just as well entail Q, and one of those might be the one that’s correct. Biggar actually concedes this point a little later on.

Accordingly, it is about as persuasive to say “As a Christian monotheist” before delivering a moral argument as it is to say “As a Marxist” (or whatever else you please): what matters is whether your premises are reasonable, and whether your conclusions follow from your premises. Whether your premises are reasonable is, yes, the million-dollar question—and to convince me, you’ll have to do some meta-ethics. But that doesn’t have anything to do specifically with religion.

As you might expect, Biggar does have some additional arguments up his sleeve, and his paper goes on for a while longer. Nevertheless, I still didn’t get the sense that “religion” means anything different from “philosophy” by the end of it—but perhaps you’ll have a different impression. In fact, I’m reminded of Sam Harris’s recent attempt to argue that “science can determine human values,” where by “science” he apparently means “moral philosophy plus facts” (as I argue in this forthcoming paper).

When you grab your reader’s attention by saying “religion” (in Biggar’s case) or “science” (in Harris’s case) — and all you really mean is “moral philosophy,” your reader could be forgiven for feeling a little bit misled.

Further reading

Biggar, N. (2015). Why religion deserves a place in secular medicine. Journal of Medical Ethics, 41: 229-233. Available at

Earp, B. D. (in press). Science cannot determine human values. Think: A Journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, in press. Available at

Mencimer, S. (2013). Do bishops run your hospital? Mother Jones. Available at

Quinn, B. (2012, November 13). Scandal in Ireland as woman dies in Galway ‘after being denied abortion.’ The Guardian. Available at


* Note that this entry is cross-posted at the Journal of Medical Ethics Blog.


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2 Comment on this post

  1. Hi Brian,

    I think you’re right that Biggar misses the mark somewhat in the article. Reading through it, at first I thought he was going to offer a challenge to the Rawlsian framework (the ‘pace Habermas and Rawls’ comment on p. 229 and accompanying critical footnote). Rawls famously proposed that we must offer publically acceptable reasons in our deliberations (over the basic structure of society, but some like Habermas extend it to particular debates as well). Publically acceptable reasons exclude a variety of ‘comprehensive doctrines’, including religion and utilitarianism: reasons must be given that are acceptable regardless of our thoroughgoing substantive precommitments. That’s not to say we all must be atheists – theism (or utilitarianism or whatnot) can motivate our commitments to particular arguments. However, the arguments must stand on their own without essential reference to those precommitments.

    But in the end, Biggar offers an account that is perfectly consonant with Rawls. His arguments against abortion and euthanasia are, while motivated by Christian values, themselves grounded on mutually-acceptable reasons (e.g., the wrongness of killing, pernicious social side-effects). And he seems to acknowledge this consonance – on p. 232, he cites Rawls approvingly in seeking a broadly-appealing form of liberalism, one that can be acceptable to atheists, Christians, Muslims etc. alike.

    This leads me to wonder, who really is Biggar’s opponent? His citations are not terribly illuminating on this. Maybe it’s those who are inclined to dismiss the publically acceptable arguments of theists, on the basis that their ultimate motivation is mistaken religious beliefs. But then he really should have looked at those arguments more carefully. For instance, some are inclined to dismiss certain arguments against euthanasia or abortion as ‘smuggling in’ religious commitments. That dismissal would be illegitimate if it adverts to the mere fact that the interlocutor has religious commitments that motivate the argument without being essential to it. But the dismissal would, on the Rawlsian picture, be legitimate if the arguments can *only* be made sense of and be found compelling under a religious framework.

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