‘When it comes to perspectives on themes like development aid or the use of embryos, everyone is in a sense religious. There’s no such thing as a neutral position, also not among secular people,’ said Professor Henk Jochemsen, Professor by Special Appointment in Christian Philosophy, in his farewell lecture at Wageningen University & Research on 21 June.
In his farewell lecture ‘Radio Mast or Jammer (Zendmast of stoorzender) – the Role of Religion in Moral Issues’ Professor Jochemsen sketches an analysis of the role of religion in dealing with moral issues. Based on current events he wonders whether religion facilitates or hinders the process of communication concerning moral issues. In preparation for negotiations on restoring relations between North and South Korea, the South Korean government has stopped sending propaganda news reports and music to North Korea, as a sign of good will.
Radio Mast or Jammer
'A comparison with religion comes to mind,' says Professor Jochemsen. “Is religion a radio mast communicating understandable and meaningful messages, or does it act as a jammer that distorts understandable and meaningful communication, especially when dealing with moral issues?”
Within the wide range of perspectives on religion, says the Professor, authors like Paul Cliteur and Richard Dawkins argue that religion, or in any case monotheistic religions, only generate division, fanaticism and violence. 'Although most people are more moderate in their views, we see that, largely as a consequence of extremist acts of violence, leading intellectuals express negative views on the role of religion in moral issues, with an almost religious fervour,' summarises Professor Jochemsen.
Secularism as an ideology
In his career, Professor Jochemsen has studied ethical issues in the life sciences. 'This is a good time to look back on the role of religion in moral issues. I will not, however, defend religion in general or Christianity in particular against its detractors. What I will do is to explain that we need not be so tense about religion.'
'Religiosity is a part of what makes us human. Secularism also promotes a specific ideology as a manifestation of religiousness. Everyone has her or his own guiding principles, and everyone holds fundamental beliefs about certain issues. Sometimes these beliefs and principles are linked to a specific religion, and sometimes to a secular world view,' says Professor Jochemsen.
From a religious perspective that offers a frame of reference outside the field of technological developments, such developments can be subjected to fundamental questions, says Professor Jochemsen. “Take the idea of creating chimaeras (i.c. animals with human organs) to grow organs for human patients. In itself, it is driven by a noble goal, but it does raise questions. At what point do human health and survival become absolutes? Where does our instrumental approach to nature, animals, and even pre-natal human life end?'
'Do our technical interventions change our perspective on human mortality? And is there hope after death? Considering such questions may lead to the conclusion that it would be better to look for alternative treatments,” concludes Professor Jochemsen.
'With respect to development aid, there are questions such as: In our globalising world, are people far away not also our neighbours? Should we not be far more critical of a political and economic system that is partially responsible for perpetuating deep poverty, and as such conflicts with human dignity?'
Such questions may be asked and answered from a variety of religious and ideological perspectives, thinks Professor Jochemsen. 'There’s no reason to view input from certain religious perspectives as ‘biased’ by definition. We’re all biased!'