Centre for Religion and the Biosciences, University of Chester

Professor Celia Deane-Drummond

Funding was provided to establish the centre, which stimulates research and public discussion in areas relating to religion and the biosciences, including medicine. The focus on biosciences allows areas that are not normally considered by the existing research centres to be explored more thoroughly, in particular the ethical issues associated with new developments in biological research, including both medical and environmental issues.

The mission of the centre includes:

  • Promoting research and publication in the area of religion and the biosciences;
  • Providing a venue for exchange and dialogue with other existing centres in the UK in related fields;
  • Promoting research colloquia on particular themes involving researchers participating from a number of different organizations;
  • Raising public awareness of issues in religion and science, in particular the biosciences.

The Centre has also developed an MA programme in Science and Religion, successfully validated in 2003.

The Centre has been highly active in a range of activities, including: a yearly series of public lectures with the help of additional funding from Metanexus Institute local society initiative programme; round-table discussion groups which fostered academic debate in small groups; a research colloquium in Human Genetics in 2002; a one-day conference on Biotechnology and Nature in 2004; a further colloquium on Medical Ethics in June 2005; a one-day conference on Animal Welfare in September 2006. Small discussion groups have featured the following themes: ecotheology, biomedical ethics and evolution and complexity. The public lecture series have focused on Globalisation and Ecology (2003/4), Human Genetics (2004/5), Animal Welfare (2005/6) and the Future of Life (2006/7).

The Centre has continued its work of advancing the dialogue and interaction between religion and the biosciences. Its three-fold mission of public service, education and research has continued apace. Public lectures have continued to attract a growing local audience and there have been growing links with the Chester Theological Association, which was established in the summer of 2004. One lecture given by Professor Maureen Junker Kenny from Trinity College, Dublin, was held jointly with the Centre.

University College Chester became the University of Chester in August 2005. The work of the Centre for Religion and the Biosciences helped to pave the road to this success. The funding awarded from the Christendom Trust has been essential in order to enable the centre to offer public lectures, establish a growing place in the local community as a resource for both lay and academic audiences, provide support for the conference on Biotechnology and Nature in 2004 (papers from which have been published in the journal Ecotheology in 2006) and facilitate the publication of key academic books in the field, including:

  • C. Deane-Drummond and B. Szerszynski (eds), Re-Ordering Nature: Theology, Society and the New Genetics (London: T & T Clark/Continuum, 2003). (Also presented as a lecture for the Christendom Trust conference in January 2002, see below, ‘Genetically Modified Theology’.)
  • C. Deane-Drummond (ed.), Brave New World: Theology, Ethics and the Human Genome (London: Continuum, 2003)
  • C. Deane-Drummond, The Ethics of Nature (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004)
  • C. Deane-Drummond, Genetics and Christian Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006)
  • C. Deane-Drummond and Peter Scott (eds), Future Perfect? God, Medicine and Human Identity (Continuum, 2006)
  • C. Deane-Drummond, Wonder and Wisdom: Conversations in Science, Spirituality and Theology (Darton, Longman and Todd, 2006)
  • C. Deane-Drummond (ed.), Teilhard de Chardin on People and Planet (Equinox, 2006)

The support from the Christendom Trust has been fully acknowledged in all these publications.

Further details and inquiries about the MA programme or research opportunities can be obtained from Professor Celia Deane-Drummond at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., University of Chester, Parkgate Road, Chester, CH1 4BJ. Tel: 01244 375444

Genetically Modified Theology:- The Religious Dimensions of Public Concerns about Agricultural Biotechnology

Celia Deane-Drummond, Robin Grove-White and Bronislaw Szerszynski

Introduction

THE latest massive controversies about genetically modified (GM) crops and foods in the UK and mainland Europe have underlined the novelty and complexity of the human issues raised by advances in biotechnology. Not only have the controversies found governments like our own unprepared for the unprecedented surges in public hostility towards this emerging technology, but they have also suggested the extent to which dominant �expert� opinion, which has overwhelmingly favoured reliance on �scientific� safety assessments of GM products on an individual case-by-case basis, may have been missing the point.

But what is the point? How are recent events to be understood? In this article, we want to argue that the current public anxiety about the genetic engineering of plants and animals has been radically misunderstood in a number of ways. Firstly, when viewed in their own terms, public reactions can be seen as reasonable and sensitive, rather than irrational and �emotional�. Secondly, they are better understood as responses at the level of ontology and theology rather than simply as concerns about physical risk and health. Thirdly, whilst people are concerned about the technologies themselves, their deepest unease seems to be in relation to the spirit in which these technologies are being developed and encouraged � the motives that animate this development, the level of seriousness and respect with which it is proceeding, and the assumptions about human beings and their place in the world that seem to underlie it.

The urgency of the need to develop a richer understanding of the dynamics of human responses to biotechnology cannot be doubted � the more so because, hitherto, such dimensions have been given only residual attention in countries like the UK. Genetic modification is a profoundly important technological process, for which huge scientific, political and economic expectations have been generated. As fruits of the immense advances in molecular biology over the past three decades, such developments are claimed to have deep potential implications for future human welfare and development around the globe. Yet this potential will be nugatory if it is rejected by the human beings who are its supposed future beneficiaries. And the possibility of such rejection has been made credible for the first time by the continuing events in Europe.

From the early 1970s, there has been recognition of the moral and ethical challenges posed by advances in biotechnology. Countries like Britain have developed a patchwork of advisory committees (Advisory Commission on Releases into the Environment (ACRE), Advisory Commission on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP) and so on, reflecting the agreed �precautionary� approach prescribed in European Union member states. More recently, there have been a succession of reports and reviews by bodies such as the Royal Society, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. Overwhelmingly, such studies have focused on particular products and processes, either narrowly on questions of risk and safety, or more broadly on their moral acceptability. The core problem tends to be pictured as being how to arrive at adequate moral, ethical (or even theological) evaluations (which are seen, by implication, as soft, if socially very important, issues of judgement) of matters of scientific fact (which, by contrast, are purported to reflect hard and objectively specifiable ontological reality).

In the present context, one immediately awkward implication of this approach is that it tends to give implicit support to an understanding of �the public� which is in itself demeaning � and indeed thoroughly question-begging. If the task of moral, ethical and theological reflection becomes seen as being the provision of a distinctive form of �expert� appraisal of developments in the physical-biological domain, then �ordinary people� who react against such developments in ways which appear to be at odds with approaches emanating from such expertise will tend to be pictured, by implication, as by contrast less than �expert� � their reactions untutored, �emotional�, or even, in the worst case, �irrational�. Indeed, much �informed� comment on recent events, in news media and by politicians, has had this flavour. When the GM controversy erupted in Britain in early 1999, commentators from all sides of the argument � politicians, leader-writers, and scientific institutions alike � sought to distinguish between supposedly �rational� (i.e. scientifically or politically justified) concerns about GM developments, and those which are simply �hysterical� or �media induced�.

Our own approach has a different starting point. To understand the human dynamics now in play, there appears to us an urgent need to focus in a far more sensitive and discriminating fashion on the quality and texture of the actual reactions of �ordinary people� themselves in relation to such matters. From a Christian perspective, this means focusing with empathic sensitivity � with what Simone Weil calls attention � on the integrity of what particular people are saying, singly and in groups, about their own reactions, both to the new GM issues, and to the ways in which such technological artefacts are now being handled by governments and regulatory bodies. Respectful examination and interpretation of such reactions, we suggest, may offer insights into the deeper human significance of biotechnology�s current travails.

It happens that research by the authors and their associates provides a body of raw material for such a task. In particular, the 1997 study at the Centre for the Study of Environmental Change, Uncertain World: Genetically Modified Organisms, Food and Public Attitudes in Britain, offers insight into the finer grain of a range of relevant public responses. The material in question was generated through focus group discussions involving people from a spectrum of social classes and life stages, as part of an attempt in late 1996 and early 1997, well in advance of the recent upsets, to gain insight into then-latent concerns and anxieties about GM prospects and developments.

A key finding from Uncertain World was the glaring gap between the often unspecific and inchoate character of �lay� public concerns about biotechnology (�Where is this leading?�; �Won�t it lead to unanticipated problems, as has tended to happen with novel technologies on the past?�; �Who on earth can we trust in this post-BSE world?�; �What crucial, and by definition unspecifiable, unknowns are yet to be identified?�), and the hard-edged, one-issue-at-a-time, reductionist scientific assessments of the official political oversight bodies (Ministerial Advisory Committees, Scientific Advisers, EU Expert Scientific Panels, and so on). The sense of such a gap � and the understandable if largely unarticulated unease it engenders, even in individuals untutored in the nuances of constitutional political accountability � was all the more striking for the fact that at that stage (i.e. in early 1997) there was no acknowledgement whatsoever by the powers-that-be that any such mismatch existed. The authors of Uncertain World concluded that the political legitimacy of the prevailing regulatory arrangements was probably highly brittle � a conclusion which appears now to have been vindicated by the turbulent GM events of 1999, and the associated bewilderment of the responsible regulatory bodies.

A corollary was that more useful analytical insights for interpreting the Uncertain World focus group discussions were found to be available more in the domains of the sociology of knowledge � particularly, recent insights concerning the social dynamics of contending conceptions of �scientific uncertainty� and �public risk perceptions� � than in more mainstream moral and ethical commentaries. In other words, the concepts and vocabularies of �risk society� and from recent social scientific understanding of human responses to contemporary cultural change, turned out to help constitute more accurate �predictions� of public responses that did the officially dominant tools of analysis. There are now signs, in the wake of the current brouhaha, that such insights are beginning to have an impact on public policy reflection.

Nevertheless, the Uncertain World focus-group materials pointed to a host of further questions of a normative kind, not addressed in the study itself. It is these that provide a useful starting point for the present article. For example: In articulating their concerns about biotechnology developments (the same concerns left unaddressed within the official regulatory frameworks), what implicit picture of the human-nature relationship were people tacitly assuming? What tacit �cosmology�, or even �ontology�, is being predicated? What accommodations with �uncertainty� were being assumed as normal, from which GM developments were intuited to be a departure? Were people really hostile to human-induced changes to the �natural� world, or could the anxieties being expressed on this score be palliated if there was greater confidence in their overall political supervision? What normative model of the very notion of �rationality� is appropriate when issues concerning human intervention in the very processes of life itself are at issue?

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