Russell and Duenes

Hippocrates, Secular Reasoning, and the Sanctity of Human Life

with 2 comments

My friend and colleague, Jennifer Lahl, has written a thoughtful piece in The Human Life Review entitled: “Thank God Hippocrates was Pagan.” I love Jennifer and I love and support the work she does. I would hope to support her work more practically in the future. I’m in lock step with her goals and aspirations that she pursues through her Center for Bioethics and Culture. Yet I wanted to add a caveat, as a friend within the camp, to her overall thesis in the above piece.

Her thesis is that, “[w]hile religious arguments are good and necessary even in the public square, secular arguments from reason are equally as important for effectively engaging in the marketplace of ideas in a pluralistic society. If we deny secular reasoning, then we deny thousands of years of the rich Hippocratic tradition in medicine. For in fact Hippocrates and his colleagues were pagan. Dust off the oath and read it.” Jennifer goes on the summarize the Hippocratic Oath, and then concludes, rightly, that “Hippocrates and his contemporaries understood the idea of the sanctity of human life and the dignity of human persons, or as Wesley J. Smith writes, the idea or ideal of human exceptionalism.” Jennifer contends, again rightly, that the virtues that Hippocrates stood for are virtues “that are known and understood by those in the secular world as well as those in the major religions. While tucked away from many people’s minds, the sensibilities of the oath are still very much with us. Yes, they are eroding, but they can easily be resurrected and put into practice when we make our arguments in the public square. This is something I often do in my work, and it has been quite effective in making the case for the sanctity of human life.” To all of this I give a hearty “Amen,” and I really do, I’m not just saying this as a pretext before getting on to my caveats.

Jennifer then discusses Physician Assisted Suicide, acknowledging the importance of religious arguments, but saying that the arguments “from a strictly religious point of view often fall on deaf ears and have not proven effective. ‘God is the author of life, the creator of and the decider of our days.’ ‘Suffering is instructive in producing character and virtue as in the life of Job.’ These are true claims by those who share an orthodox Judeo-Christian view, but are often meaningless arguments in the public square.” Again, I don’t dispute that arguments from Judeo-Christian authorities and sources do indeed often fall on deaf ears. Whether they are “meaningless in the public square” is, however, something I’d need to be more convinced of. Perhaps arguments based on a biblical epistemology have not been well-made in the public square. And perhaps Christian institutions have lost their nerve in making arguments based on biblical epistemology, assuming that no one is listening, and thus, not only have such institutions abandoned arguments based on biblical epistemology, but Christians may have largely abandoned creating institutions committed to making arguments from biblical epistemology in the public square.

Jennifer provides an example of a secular argument she uses against Physician Assisted Suicide. She writes: “Without drumming up absurd stories, it is not difficult to come up with cases of extreme suffering without terminal illness. So if this practice is about Oregonians voluntarily choosing to end their lives, why is it restricted only to those suffering from terminal illness? Who is the state of Oregon to push its restrictions on my personal autonomy and right to die?” But there’s an assumption here, namely, that Oregonians will continue to hold inconsistent beliefs and agree that we should restrict the “right to die” to those who are terminally ill. But what if Oregonians instead decide that they will be more consistent in their secular beliefs, and start advocating for laws that allow anyone, anywhere, for whatever reason, or no reason at all, to have access to Physician Assisted Suicide? And what if our culture starts to get more consistent in its secular beliefs, and begins to feel that doctors and physicians have no greater purpose than to give us, as radical individual autonomists, precisely what we want, when we want? This does not seem an implausible outcome to me. Indeed it seems to me more plausible than the notion that Oregonians will, over time, continue to agree that assisted suicide should only be legal for the terminally ill. When we agree to make arguments that concede to secularists their own epistemological assumptions, should we be surprised if, over time, they start to live out the logical implications of their beliefs more consistently than they do now?

Jennifer concludes: “While appeals to a faith tradition can be powerful and life-changing, we need a multitude of strategies to persuade and convince the larger culture that all human life is of equal intrinsic worth and that we need to enact policies which protect and serve human life. Secular documents like the Hippocratic Oath and even the more modern Universal Declaration on Human Rights acknowledge the dignity and rights of human beings and are useful and instructive to accomplish those ends.” Again, I heartily agree with Jennifer’s primary point that we need “a multitude of strategies to persuade and convince the larger culture that all human life is of equal intrinsic worth and that we need to enact policies which protect and serve human life.” What I don’t think we can do is say that arguments based on biblical epistemology are futile in the public square, and I don’t think we ought to argue for the dignity and worth of human life, and for policies that support human dignity, by ceding to the secularists their working assumptions.

What I think we need to do, and I believe Jennifer would agree with me here, is also make arguments against the secularist assumptions themselves. We need to ask: By what warrant did Hippocrates hold the views he did? Upon what foundation? Out of thin air? Based on secularist epistemology and assumptions? I don’t believe he did. We want to call people back to Hippocrates, but when they ask us, “Why should we any longer side with Hippocrates?” we are going to say…what? Your secularism teaches that you should? Hippocrates was right…because he was?

We must make the secularist arguments, as Jennifer says, and we must also ask secularists: Upon what basis do Oregonians now think that only those enduring great suffering should be allowed to have doctors end their lives? Why do Oregonians not go the whole way and allow for all people and doctors, as autonomous individuals, to kill as they please? We need to keep asking the secularists, even the ones who agree with us: By what warrant? Upon what basis? On what grounds do you hold the moral beliefs that you do? At the end of the day, we need to point out that secularists are “borrowing Christian capital” in order to even make the arguments they make, and that without the biblical truth that humans are created in the image of God with dignity and worth, a truth they do not acknowledge, the secularists have no clothes.



Written by Michael Duenes

August 4, 2012 at 3:11 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Great thoughts, Michael. I think your point about the need to make biblically based arguments in the public square regardless of whether or not they are headed is true. And your larger exhortation to reveal by questioning presuppositions that “secularist have no clothes” is especially needed in the marriage debates in the country. I am particularly aware of a need for this after moving to Minnesota where a marriage amendment is on the ballot. While I have a hard time agreeing with the legislation, I am even more dismayed by that the arguments made by both sides are like ships passing in the night. Advocates of God’s design for marriage need to question the assumptions undergirding the secularist’s arguments for same-sex marriage.


    August 16, 2012 at 10:54 am

    • Howarding, you are certainly correct. I think, however, that the Christian church is where a lot of confusion reigns about the marriage issue. We don’t make the proper, winsome arguments because we’re not taught a) that such arguments are important to make, and b) how to make them biblically and lovingly. Our pastors tell us what the Bible says about marriage, but not whether the Bible has anything to say about the public policy of marriage. I think we too have bought into the notion that it doesn’t matter, as long we we are following what God wants. I couldn’t disagree with this more.


      russell and duenes

      August 16, 2012 at 3:50 pm

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