Of what use is theology in ethical debates?

I ask this question in all seriousness as it is relevant to current discussions surrounding the ethics of nanotechnology.

An EU-funded project is organising a number of summer schools next year on the subject of nano-ethics, with a view to developing new tools for e-learning. Coordinated by Ineke Malsch, a Dutch consultant specialising in technology assessment, the schools will “bring together natural scientists, social scientists as well as philosophers and theologists to discuss the new issues in the field as they arise.”

I plan to report on the initiative for Nanomaterials News, and recently interviewed Malsch to get quotes for a short news article. Out of personal interest I asked the consultant if theologians will have anything useful to contribute to the discussions that will not be provided by philosophers with expertise in ethics.

Malsch replied with some interesting points about nanotech and converging technologies for human enhancement, known as post- or trans-humanism. Given that there are widely different views on which norms and values should apply, Malsch feels that theological as well as philosophical expertise is an important source of arguments in the debate.

Now I’m not saying that theologians shouldn’t be invited to contribute, but feel that their input should be as moral philosophers rather than representatives of religious organisations.

Giving religions a formal role in ethical debates inevitably creates difficulties. For one thing the reliance of theologians on normative statements that can be neither verified nor refuted clashes with the methodologies of scientists and philosophers. And given that in many areas of the world religion has little if any relevance in people’s lives, one has to be careful about giving religions a voice out of proportion to the small numbers of citizens they represent.

And which theologians should be involved? Christians only? I guess not. Then what about the established monotheist religions? If so, how could one justify such a restriction? To be fair one must also include pagans, but then the Abrahamists as a block might object very strongly to supping with witches.

And what of the fundamental differences of approach to questions of ethics between, say, Christians and Moslems? In the end this comes down to the near impossibility of meaningful dialogue between religious believers without them compromising their core beliefs.

I personally have no problem with intellectual discourse that involves theologians, as long as they play by rules acceptable to those for whom the supernatural plays no part in their lives.

Malsch agrees that there is a distinction to be made between academic theologians and representatives of religious organisations, and says that both are already involved in debates on ethics in science. Take the example of embryonic stem cell research and use. The reality is that within Europe there are major differences in approach, and this shows how much residual influence the Christian church has on official policy, even without a formal role in the state.

The question is: should scientists, ethicists and policymakers continue to involve theologians in their debates and expose their intellectual poverty, or simply ignore religion altogether? It is not an easy question for this atheist to answer.