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Jewish World Review August 21, 2001 / 2 Elul, 5761

Bill Tammeus

Bill Tammeus
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In complex world, we lack tools to carve out understanding -- AS A CULTURE, we are both scientifically and theologically untutored -- nearly, in fact, illiterate. And we may pay a huge price for our sometimes-willful ignorance.

We are confronted with warp-speed scientific developments -- from stem-cell research to reproductive human cloning, from speed-of-light information technology to enigmatic string theory. They carry with them complex and profound ethical and theological questions that go to the very heart of what it means to be human.

But our scientific ignorance means we have difficulty grasping how researchers are changing our world.

Despite a recent crash course on stem cells, we don't know a gamete from DNA. We stare as blankly at the term nanotechnology as we would an Urdu word for turnips. We can't begin to explain what it means that space is curved or time is relative. The subtleties of biotechnology -- to say nothing of the field's more general concepts -- are as foreign to most of us as the intricacies of cooking with Szechuan peppers. We don't know our asteroids from our black holes.

Our simultaneous theological ignorance means we are unable to articulate what we believe about ultimate questions and eternal meanings.

The central and crucial questions about why there's evil in the world silence us -- or, worse, cause us to spout gobbledygook. We cannot clearly enumerate ethical objections to human reproductive cloning beyond saying that something about it doesn't feel right. We fail to grasp the critical difference between childlike and childish faith. The result is that our talk about spiritual matters rarely progresses beyond what a lively sixth-grader is likely to offer.

Meanwhile, Congress debates reproductive and therapeutic human cloning as well as stem-cell research, maverick researchers announce plans to clone humans, quantum physicists describe mysterious subatomic worlds and astronomers puzzle over what they see at the far edges of the observable universe. And all this news buffets us like grains of sand in a desert storm, remaining as incomprehensible to us as the untranslated Dead Sea Scrolls.

Whose fault is this? Why have we left ourselves so vulnerable to bad decisions, to arrogant scientists, to theological charlatans?

Well, of course, in the end it's our own fault. We need not go through life so thoroughly defenseless when it comes to so many major developments of our era. There are sources of information and help, though you won't find them by watching "Who Wants to be a Millionaire."

And yet the distressing truth is that we are getting precious little help from the institutions that should be offering us the tools to grasp what's going on and to think clearly about what to say and do about it.

Our schools, for instance, too often fail our children and, thus, our society. Test result after test result shows that we tolerate abysmal ignorance in our offspring. But beyond that, science is moving too quickly for even the best and most dedicated schools to keep pace. To compensate, we must find more effective ways to offer adults continuing education in what is happening in the world around them.

One avenue for that -- the media -- too often have shirked their responsibilities. Newspapers, for instance, assign dozens of journalists to write about all aspects of sports but only one or two people to cover the whole of religion and science. It's irresponsible and crazy. And yet it happens not only at my own paper but also at otherwise-excellent papers across the country. And TV and radio -- with a few exceptions -- are even worse.

In the area of theology and ethics, our religious institutions far too often offer little or no sustained education to people in the pews. Simplistic concepts that may have helped us explain G-d and good and evil to our toddlers is somehow assumed to be good enough for us adults when we're faced with such agonizing issues as whether a 100-cell blastocyst, or frozen embryo, is in any meaningful or eternal sense a human being.

We are like confused children wandering unprotected into a terrifying landscape of danger and liability. What's worse, we seem not even to know we're at risk.

When science continues to push one envelope after another, we simply must equip ourselves to make wise and humane choices -- or we will live with the horrific consequences.

Comment on JWR contributor Bill Tammeus' column by clicking here.

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Reprinted by permission, The Kansas City Star, Copyright 2001. All rights reserved