"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Is slavery "abhorrent" in Islam?

It's been a while since BBC's Thought for the Day has motivated me to blog about it, but a recent contribution (link above) by Sughra Ahmed, the current president of The Islamic Society of Britain was such a blatant example of scriptural cherry picking that I can’t let it pass without comment.
Muslim Slave Trader
The piece was ostensibly about modern slavery, a very real problem that Prime Minister Theresa May has recently highlighted as a priority for national attention by setting up a cabinet task-force, and Ahmed opens with this thought
” Slavery is a phenomenon I think of as something from long ago and a history I’m ashamed of.”
I waited for the admission that many religions, including Islam, had condoned slavery and that would be the source of her “shame”. But no…
“Slavery has also been a challenge for religious traditions and we know this through the example of prophets and religious texts. Prophet Muhammad, for example, put himself at risk when he freed those who were enslaved by people of the time. It was commonplace for powerful men to own slaves, in fact it was seen as a sign of wealth and stature in their communities. The story of Muhammad freeing the slave Bilal is the most famous and was a clear demonstration to those of the time, and those who read the story today, that slavery is abhorrent in Islam.”
“Slavery is abhorrent in Islam…”. Really? Lets test this glib assertion, based as it is on one cherry picked story about the African slave Bilal Ibn Rabah against several other Quranic verses and Hadiths.
Quran (33:50) - "O Prophet! We have made lawful to thee thy wives to whom thou hast paid their dowers; and those (slaves) whom thy right hand possesses out of the prisoners of war whom Allah has assigned to thee"
Bukhari (52:255) -Volume 4, Book 52, Number 255The Prophet said, "Three persons will get their reward twice. (One is) a person who has a slave girl and he educates her properly and teaches her good manners properly (without violence) and then manumits and marries her. Such a person will get a double reward. (Another is) a believer from the people of the scriptures who has been a true believer and then he believes in the Prophet (Muhammad). Such a person will get a double reward. (The third is) a slave who observes Allah's Rights and Obligations and is sincere to his master."
Bukhari Volume 3, Book 41, Number 598: Narrated Jabir: A man manumitted a slave and he had no other property than that, so the Prophet cancelled the manumission (and sold the slave for him). No'aim bin Al-Nahham bought the slave from him.
These and other examples can be found here .

The best you can say about Islam from a scriptural point of view is that it sees manumitting slaves as a nice thing to do that will likely get you brownie points with Allah (who,as we know, rewards good Muslim men with 72 perpetually virginal sex slaves in heaven) but it certainly doesn’t see it as a priority and by no means is slavery portrayed as “abhorrent”. Like the old testament a thousand years earlier the Quran accepts slavery as a normal part of the human condition and fundamentalists today are convinced they are justified in taking sex slaves from among their enemies.

It does no justice to the victims of modern slavery or any favour to Islam in the west to deny the reality of what scripture teaches. Both the Quran and the bible are flawed texts with little moral authority when read without eisegesis, cherry picking and fallacious appeal to historical context. In the same way they promote discrimination, misogyny and intolerance they condone slavery in clear unambiguous language and Sughra Ahmed’s broadcast seems more an exercise in propaganda for Islam than a genuine attempt to discuss the problem in the modern era.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Accommodating Religious Practice

The Joint Council for Qualifications, which represents UK exam boards has recently announced that heavily subscribed GCSE and A level exams will be held a week earlier this year to accommodate Muslim children who may be observing Ramadan and fasting during the main exam period.

This strikes me as a correct and humanistic thing to do primarily because the children and young people affected are at an age when personal, peer and parental pressure to conform will be very strong and their capacity to make well informed pragmatic choices about religion and religious practice may not be fully developed. The system should protect children from their own and their parent’s follies at this critical stage in their education so far as is practicable given fasting is a known and obvious risk factor for reduced performance in this growing minority.

This is not, to my way of thinking, about “creeping sharia” or religious privilege but about maximising the potential of a future generation of productive individuals. But…

…as a society we should be wary about giving the signal that religious practice, that’s any religious practice of any faith tradition, is an inevitable consequence of belonging to a religion. Religion and the practice of it is always a choice in a secular democracy and should not be unquestioningly pandered to in the same way we should accommodate race, gender or disability. Adult believers ought to be expected to accept the consequences of their decisions to impair their performance, career choices, health and opportunities by practicing their religion if that is the result.

It could be argued that as a formerly Christian country, British Christians are privileged in that national holidays are arranged around their festivals and this is true at least to the extent that the pagan and agricultural cycles they usurped still mark the rhythms of this country’s life. But it would make no difference to minority faiths if those holiday seasons were based on any arbitrary calendar that ignored their own traditions and just as Hindu or Muslim countries would not alter their calendars to accommodate Christians there is no reason for the UK to do so.

So, good on the exam boards for helping Muslim children maximise their potential with this small concession that will not adversely impact other children as long as they plan their revision to the timetable given (which they should be doing anyway). But let’s beware of making this a wider principle by privileging religious beliefs with a status they do not merit.

Related Post

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Religion as a Hypothesis

My friend Rob has a “niggle” with the quote from Greta Christina at the top of this blog which says
"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"
He doesn’t have a problem with the substantive intent of the quote, which is to point out that religion should not be privileged or protected from criticism, but disagrees with the specific premise that religion is a hypothesis. Like many philosophical debates a lot of this comes down to semantics. If Greta has said religion is a conjecture, an opinion or an idea about the world her intent would have still been clear and to the extent that hypothesis and even theory are used colloquially it seems to me to be largely uncontentious. However it is true that hypothesis has, within science at any rate, a specific meaning. The OED takes as its primary definition
A supposition or proposed explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation
and as such needs to be open to falsification. Also, it should be said that Greta does not say a hypothesis is all that makes up religion. In fact when asked her response was
"Sigh…I didn't say religions were ONLY a hypothesis. Yes, it has historical resonance, cultural importance, etc. The point is that the thing religions specifically center on -- namely, a belief in supernatural entities or forces with an effect on the natural world -- is a hypothesis. And yes, as such, this hypothesis should be able to be subjected to scrutiny and questioning just like any other, and should not be afforded any special respect or protection.”
So to what extent if any can religion be said to be a scientific hypothesis open to falsification and to what extent would religion retain relevance at all should any part of it be proved false? According to Rob religion cannot be falsified on its own terms.
”[…] I would say that religion is *not* an hypothesis (in the same way that *science* and philosophical naturalism are not hypotheses) as evidence cannot be adduced one way or the other. Furthermore, no one comes to religious belief by considering the so-called empirical claims of religion. All religions are self-contained metaphysical systems which resist in their own terms any falsification on empirical grounds.”
But do we have to accept religion on its own terms? True, if allowed to get away with their own apologetics religions immunise themselves against disproof. Christianity has had two thousand years of practice making God’s intent, ability and mode of operation in the world as inscrutable to investigation as possible and Islam built apophasis into itself from the outset but from an empirical point of view prayer (for example) either works at some statistical level of significance or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t we are entitled to conclude that either the deity it is aimed at doesn’t exist or at any rate does not perform as expected by the petitioner. Rob says
”In one of our FB exchanges you certainly said that issues like petitionary prayer and miracles are where religion intersects with the empirical and so provide us with the ability to evaluate religious claims. If prayer fails and there is no evidence for miracles then, if I understand you correctly, the whole edifice falls for all the assertions of religion are logically founded on the truth of the basic claims---like the claim that there is a supernatural being who is *causing* things to happen in the world.”
Here I think Rob is inferring too much. That we can say with a reasonable amount of certainty that miracles and prayer are un-evidenced is only to say that these particular claims of religion do not need to be taken seriously by non-believers. It does not prove that gods do not exist but may suggest the believer may be mistaken about the attitude of the particular god being petitioned. The hypothesis that gods can be swayed by prayer to intervene is falsified and that particular claim should rationally be rejected.
Whether the “whole edifice” of religion should fall based on this depends very much on the store individual believers put on particular claims. I agree that not everyone “comes to religious belief by considering the so-called empirical claims of religion” but some do surely. Does an adult converting either from a religion of birth or from previous agnosticism really ignore the supernatural premise behind their new belief? I doubt it.
For many believers religion is a heuristic device. Shorthand; for moral behaviour, cultural identity and normative values and for these people no amount of hypothesis testing is going to dent their faith, largely because from their point of view it’s irrelevant. But people do lose their religion after putting all their faith in unanswered prayer. They may still believe in a god: Just not one that cares about them.
If you spend a great deal of time, as both Rob and I do, thinking and reading about religion it is easy to become convinced that religious belief is typified by theologians who understand the sophistication and complexity it has evolved over the millennia but a short trawl through Christian blog sites, particularly those found in the US, should be enough to disabuse anyone of the notion that a significant number of the faithful aren’t literalists. This kind of belief is so specific and so rooted in empirically testable claims that to suggest it is not a hypothesis seems to me to be perverse. The six day creation, a global flood, the exodus from Egypt are all factual claims and have all been debunked by cosmology, geology and archaeology. None of that happened and the only way that this kind of belief can be maintained is by denying any agency to science at all which is what many do (while still using smartphones). If these people had to confront their cognitive dissonance by tackling their religion head on I doubt they would retreat into the “self-contained metaphysical system” of question begging that modern theology offers. They would have to abandon their religion wholesale which is why they rarely admit the scientific evidence.
So yes, religion is in part a hypothesis and can in part be falsified even if this depends on the particular truth claims of the specific religions and the extent to which these are held to be truths by individual believers. Religion and religious belief can transcend the empirical by substituting literalism for allegory and understanding ritual as culture not magic and to the extent that some have done this they are impervious to scientific enquiry, although how far they can do this and still be legitimately called a religion may be a discussion for another day.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

John Gray strawmans new atheism...again.

Philosopher and polemicist John Gray has a lengthy piece in the Guardian titled “What Scares The New Atheists” which in his usual straw manning style attempts to argue against his own cartoonish concept of secular humanism.
"The belief that the human species is a moral agent struggling to realise its inherent possibilities – the narrative of redemption that sustains secular humanists everywhere – is a hollowed-out version of a theistic myth. The idea that the human species is striving to achieve any purpose or goal – a universal state of freedom or justice, say – presupposes a pre-Darwinian, teleological way of thinking that has no place in science."
I am certain that Dawkins, arch new atheist and author of the selfish gene, is under no such illusion and neither am I. Humans are moral agents in the sense that we make judgments about good and evil, right and wrong, but we are not striving towards a pre-conceived or pre-ordained evolutionary goal. What humanists do say, in contrast with the monotheisms, is that humanity is not fallen and in need of salvation but rather as an evolved pro-social species we have the resources and disposition to collectively improve our own wellbeing.

Gray, like many New Atheist bashers, also misses the point about our beef with religion.
"Though not all human beings may attach great importance to them, every society contains practices that are recognisably religious. Why should religion be universal in this way? For atheist missionaries this is a decidedly awkward question. Invariably they claim to be followers of Darwin. Yet they never ask what evolutionary function this species-wide phenomenon serves. There is an irresolvable contradiction between viewing religion naturalistically – as a human adaptation to living in the world – and condemning it as a tissue of error and illusion. What if the upshot of scientific inquiry is that a need for illusion is built into in the human mind? If religions are natural for humans and give value to their lives, why spend your life trying to persuade others to give them up?"
Apart from the fact that both Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins have speculated endlessly about the evolutionary utility of religion and both concede it may have or have had survival value the target for criticism is rarely private faith. New Atheism was spawned for Sam Harris by 9/11 and for Dawkins by the rise of creationism in the U.S and it is the indulgence of religious thinking in the public and political sphere that is the objection. It is true that arguing for secularism and a scientifically informed public policy comes with collateral damage to the privately religious if they cannot live with the resulting cognitive dissonance but this is surely not a new experience for them and the determinedly faithful will continue to be faithful whatever.

A slightly more interesting observation that Gray makes is about the assumption of an inevitable triumph of liberalism
"The conviction that tyranny and persecution are aberrations in human affairs is at the heart of the liberal philosophy that prevails today. But this conviction is supported by faith more than evidence. Throughout history there have been large numbers who have been happy to relinquish their freedom as long as those they hate – gay people, Jews, immigrants and other minorities, for example – are deprived of freedom as well. Many have been ready to support tyranny and oppression. Billions of human beings have been hostile to liberal values, and there is no reason for thinking matters will be any different in future."
Here at least he is not wrong in his characterisation of humanist thought as most of us do believe that liberal values should prevail which is why we agitate for evidence based thinking and maintain that religious intolerance is irrational. Humanist’s belief that liberal values are worth promoting and arguing for is as integral to our philosophy as homophobia is to a Westboro Baptist and far from thinking success is inevitable we are more than aware of the conflict we face. Stephen Pinker gives some cause for optimism in his well-researched and quantified book The Better Angels of Our Nature in which he charts quite convincingly a general declining trend in conflict and intolerance over millennia of history but even he doesn’t make a teleological case for this continuing without concerted effort.
In fact Gray unintentionally makes the point himself.
"This is, in fact, the quintessential illusion of the ruling liberalism: the belief that all human beings are born freedom-loving and peaceful and become anything else only as a result of oppressive conditioning. But there is no hidden liberal struggling to escape from within the killers of the Islamic State and Boko Haram, any more than there was in the torturers who served the Pol Pot regime. To be sure, these are extreme cases. But in the larger sweep of history, faith-based violence and persecution, secular and religious, are hardly uncommon – and they have been widely supported. It is peaceful coexistence and the practice of toleration that are exceptional."
Ignoring the first sentence where once again he is attacking a construct of his own imagination the fact that totalitarian ideologies emerge both politically and religiously to supress liberalism is what the culture wars are all about. Of course some people will always think they know better how others should live their lives and nobody thinks they know this better than the religious.
The claim is also made that despite the efforts of secularists religiosity is, in many places, on the rise but I suspect this is cause and effect. As secularism, particularly in the west, has become accepted by liberal religion the faithful at the extremes have become marginalised and much of what we are seeing is a backlash. The fundamentalists are more vocal, more visible and sometimes more violent than previously because their worldview is no longer passively accepted even by the moderates of their own faith. Whether this is a tide that can be turned is debateable but for those of us who do not want to live in theocracies it is worth the attempt.
Yes, humanism has its origins in theism, or at any rate in post enlightenment deism, but that is not where it lives today. Humanism, which incidentally is not as synonymous with the new atheists as Gray would have it, is a secular scientifically literate philosophy with ethical principles founded in a deeply pragmatic utilitarianism. It is no longer concerned with human exceptionalism - we know our evolutionary place better than most – and in fact humanism actively fights attempts by the church to reclaim the term “Christian humanism” since it is contrary to the modern movement entirely. It is entirely possible I suppose that some future scientific discovery could make racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and misogyny intellectually justifiable, but frankly I doubt it. Science has no moral arc but facts, at least when viewed through the lens of utilitarianism, do have a liberal bias.

So to Gray’s parting shot
"More than anything else, our unbelievers seek relief from the panic that grips them when they realise their values are rejected by much of humankind. What today’s freethinkers want is freedom from doubt, and the prevailing version of atheism is well suited to give it to them."
One can only assume that he is unaware of the dangers that humanists, secularists and liberals are subjecting themselves to in theocracies around the world. They are being assassinated or arrested, flogged and executed merely for promoting the idea that all people should be treated equally against the prevailing religious dogmas. Even if we would like to think that a liberal view of moral progress is inevitable we know it isn’t. But it’s a rational goal for those who, like Gray himself, understand that “Considering the alternatives that are on offer, liberal societies are well worth defending” and surely, if they’re worth defending they are worth expanding.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Free speech in the balance

In a recent survey of 1000 British Muslims conducted on behalf of the BBC it was found that 80% of those asked found cartoon depictions of their Prophet Mohammed “deeply offensive”. Also a substantial minority (27%) thought that violent reprisals for such offense can be justified. A follow-up vox-pop on Radio 4’s Today program featured several Muslim voices from Bradford exclaiming they felt “extremely personally offended” by disrespect to their “beloved prophet” and if we take these statements at face value and allow that sentiment really does run so deep within British Islam we have got a real problem for liberal democracy in this country.
Difficult as it is for someone like me to empathise with personal distress over such abstract offenses as blasphemy and criticism of long dead self-styled “prophets” the fact that a substantial proportion of a growing minority feel that way is not to be ignored. These people are not just going to “get over themselves” any more than the clinically depressed can just “cheer up”. Reverence for Mohammed is integral to their upbringing and psychology and constantly reinforced within their ethnic and religious cultures; change, if any, will be generational and not to be expected short term. So is it up to us as a society to accommodate Muslim sensitivities and if so how can we do so without compromising freedom of expression?
It’s easy to forget that blasphemy was a crime in this country until 2008 and I for one have no desire to revert to any legal suppression of religious criticism. In any event such laws often come with unintended consequences and one person’s blasphemy is another’s sincerely held belief as the abuse of such laws in Pakistan against Christians there illustrates. Neither is it possible to legislate for offense generally as we are all occasionally offended by something.
In the normal way of things very few of us go out of our way to be deliberately offensive unless we feel we have good reason, one of which may be the imposition of another’s taboos in our own space. It is certainly not to be expected that a Christian, Jew, Hindu or atheist should respect Mohammed or any part of Islam that does not inform their own belief system. Islam and all it entails is an idea which in a free society we are entitled to reject and if within it we see inherent dangers we have an obligation, let alone the right, to be critical. When extremists insist that non-Muslims must not portray the prophet and back that injunction with threats of violence the only response is to do that very thing, which is why I fully supported “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” and while it’s unfortunate that as collateral damage a large number of Muslims who may abhor violence are offended I see very few alternatives to this tactic. I don’t think I am unnecessarily victim blaming to suggest that the way for mainstream Islam to avoid Charlie Hebdo style provocation is to rein in their own extremists.
Should we have the freedom to indiscriminately ridicule religion in the public square? Here the answer is categorically yes, but whether we should routinely do so, except as a response to a threat to that freedom I think is a question of taste and good manners. Where I do think such ridicule is perfectly acceptable is in the arts, literature and in our private spaces including our own social media accounts. In order for people to be offended in these places they must be actively seeking offense by choosing to read that blog or book and watch that play or TV show or go to that exhibition. It’s not an imposition or discrimination to say to Muslims that if they don’t like this or that speech they should ignore it. We all avoid exposing our minds to ideas we find offensive and I regularly block social media feeds that I find distasteful due to racism or sexism even though I don’t believe it’s a particularly good thing to exist solely in a bubble of our own beliefs.
It’s a feature of all religions that their adherents demand respect for their beliefs and given the power and opportunity insist that everyone abides by their rules. It took a long time to tame Christianity in this country and put it into its proper place, subservient to law and in the private sphere (mostly). Islam is going to have to learn to occupy those same social spaces and be prepared to be offended on occasion. The more Islam becomes part of the fabric of Britain it will be measured by its ability to withstand satirical criticism; that is the trade-off for living in a democracy. Muslims have the right to protest and voice their anger if they think real boundaries are being crossed because they enjoy the same right to speech as everyone else. They have every right to point out the offense, but no right not to be offended.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

One of our own?

When fanatics kill others in the name of their “beliefs” those beliefs are usually religious, sometimes political or territorial, sometimes all of the above and the one thing atheists have always been able to say about themselves is that nobody has ever killed in the name of atheism. This hasn’t stopped others trying to pin the crimes of Stalin Mau and Pol Pot on atheism but these charges are specious, a-historical and deny those dictator’s totalitarianism as sufficient motive. Which is why the horrific shooting of three young Muslims by self-avowed atheist Craig Hicks is causing such consternation and debate among the atheist community.
Deah Barakat, his wife Yusor Abu-Salha and her sister Razan Abu-Salha were gunned down last Tuesday in a condo about two miles from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill
There have also been questions over whether Hicks' anti-religious stance - which he freely shared on social media - had also been a factor in the murders.
On a Facebook page in his name, Hicks shared a number of anti-religion posts. A banner about 'anti-theism' is prominent on his page.
Hicks posted a photo from United Atheists of America on February 8, which has the title 'why radical Christians and radical Muslims are so opposed to each others' influence when they agree about so many ideological issues'.
His Facebook page would not have raised any red flags to atheists active on social media and I have expressed such sentiments myself and shared similar articles to provoke discussion or sometimes just to provoke. In fact I would say his online presence is much like any other activist atheist, with possibly a tad more anti-theist sentiment than those I engage with personally, so it’s not possible for any atheist who would hope to distance themselves from Hicks to make ”no true atheist” arguments.
There are however aspects of Hicks’ behaviour that are less than savoury; he was a multiple firearms owner who obsessed about the parking around his condo and was frequently threatening to neighbours who transgressed the rules.
Neighbors, as well as tow-truck driver and others, have said Hicks often complained about residents and visitors at Finley Forest parking in his reserved space. He called one tow truck company so often they stopped responding to his calls.
So far the local police are treating this as a killing over a parking dispute and if the victims had not been conspicuously Muslim that is probably where the speculation would have ended. But the execution like nature of this atrocity, three individuals murdered each with a bullet in the head, plus their race and religion makes it at least possible that this was a hate crime; the victim’s family certainly think so.
Yusor and Razan’s brother, Yusef Abu-Salha, also told RT last week that there had been a lot of tension between his sisters and Hicks.
“There were plenty of run-ins [with Hicks],” he said, “but the run-ins escalated when my sister moved in; she obviously wore the head scarf. I recall her telling me when she first went to visit the condo before she even moved in together, [Hicks] came and knocked on the door and told them they were making too much noise, and he brandished a gun at his waist.” “I consider that terror,” he added, “I consider that hate.”
Also there is no doubt that if Hicks had been Muslim and the victims white Christians the media would have been all over this as a hate crime or even terrorism; Islam would have been cited, links to ISIS or Al-Qaeda sought and security heightened. But, even in a country where atheists are routinely demonised, so far the only people really asking whether atheism is a factor here are atheists themselves.
That we are doing so is I think to our credit. Although there are hyper-sceptical voices claiming his atheism is no more relevant than his hair colour others are suggesting that as a movement we should focus on atheism’s moral dimension more
There’s nothing wrong with being against religion. But how could anyone absorb that part of our message and completely miss the part about how it makes our common humanity infinitely more precious? Many nonbelievers, including me, have written about how atheism makes life more valuable, not less. But are we not highlighting the moral dimension of atheism enough? Are we not doing enough to make it clear that we think and act as we do because we love the good? Have we not emphasized strongly enough that criticizing religion’s inhumanities is shallow and meaningless if we don’t hold ourselves to a better standard? Those are the questions that I think atheists should be asking ourselves in the wake of this horrific crime.
Craig Hicks
If atheism turns out to be Hick’s motivation this will be a rare and possibly unique event; Christians being far more likely to commit this sort of crime in the U.S . However that does not mean atheists can write him off as mentally ill (a discriminatory excuse in any case) or not one of us. Up until this event he looked from the outside to be fairly representative of a good number of atheists who mock religion without contemplating ethical alternatives, so if atheists in general and movement atheism in particular condemn yet disown him it will be as disingenuous as Muslims pretending ISIS are not Muslim.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

"Three Parent" IVF is not a moral issue

A recent vote in the house of commons means that Britain is one of the first countries in the world to legalise an IVF procedure that involves taking the nucleus of one egg and inserting it into the cytoplasm of another egg which has had its own nucleus removed while , crucially, retaining its mitochondria.
a mitochondrion
Mitochondria are organelles whose primary function is to supply energy to the cell and during reproduction they are passed down in the cytoplasm of the egg which means they always travel down the maternal line. Defects in the mitochondria can cause debilitating diseases and infant mortality and it is these conditions that the technique is designed to prevent by substituting healthy mitochondria prior to fertilisation. This will of course be a boon to couples at risk of passing on mitochondrial diseases to their offspring as it enables them to have a healthy child with nuclear DNA from both natural parents; up until now it has only been possible for such couples to conceive with a complete donor egg or a surrogate.
Offspring born of this technique are referred to as “three parent babies” which I think is unfortunate because for one thing it’s not strictly true from a genetic standpoint and for another I suspect it has contributed to some of the unnecessary moral panic that surrounds it.
Much of the objection to legalising this form of IVF has come (predictably) from the Church with both Catholics and Anglicans claiming scientific uncertainty as their rational but in fact the technique has been well tested and the people who actually understand the science are satisfied of its safety, with the usual caveats. Given the Vatican’s antipathy to any artificial fertilisation techniques I suspect their objections are entirely ideological and can therefore be ignored. For example Bishop John Keenan, the Bishop of Paisley, was among the Catholic leaders who condemned the technique claiming it “seeks to remove anyone affected by certain conditions from the human gene pool”. Of course what it actually does is remove the condition from the gene pool, the “anyone” in the above nonsense never existed except in the abstract.
Other objections seem more reasonable, for example the concern that the mitochondria continue into subsequent generations, but are grounded in a misunderstanding of mitochondria and their origins as the “powerhouse of the cell”. The “three parent” moniker is inappropriate because although the mitochondria contain DNA it is their DNA and does not contribute to human characteristics outside of the somatic effect of its function. The entire nuclear DNA in this technique, the stuff that can be considered to count, is derived from the natural parents and not from the donor of the egg. Ethically this is more akin to a transplant than genetic engineering.
Another point that has been missing from the public debate is that mitochondrial DNA is not really ‘human’ at all because these organelles are endosymbionts, remnants of previously free-living proteobacteria that either infected or were absorbed by other primitive cells over 1.5 Billion years ago. Over evolutionary time the mitochondria lost the genes necessary for autonomy and retained just enough for their own reproduction and metabolic function within their hosts. The gestalt of these two primitive cells formed the first truly eukaryotic cells that are the basis of all complex life.
I’m not convinced that any ethical Rubicon has been crossed by approving this technique. In fact, even if at some future date it is discovered that by some genetic tinkering in the nuclei of eggs destined for IVF we could eliminate cystic fibrosis or some other debilitating genetic condition we should do it. I do not subscribe to the sort of genetic essentialism that some, including rather bizarrely the church, seem to indulge in and although I’m prepared to accept that somewhere amongst all possible applications of human genetic engineering there will be some ethical red lines we’re nowhere close when it is used solely for the elimination of heritable diseases.