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Religious Opposition to Cloning

 Journal of Evolution and Technology  -  Vol. 13 - October 2003


William Sims Bainbridge, Ph.D.



Religion is among the most powerful factors shaping attitudes toward human reproductive cloning. This article explores this influence with both quantitative and qualitative data from a major online questionnaire study, Survey2001, that was sponsored by the National Geographic Society and the National Science Foundation. The interpretations offered in this article are based in the New Paradigm theory of religion, that stresses the capacity of religion to resist the secularizing influence of science. The controversy over cloning in part illustrates the possibility of heated future conflict between religion and science. The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the journal's editors, nor of the two organizations that sponsored Survey2001.


Religion is among the more powerful factors that shape attitudes toward human cloning. This is an interesting empirical fact that deserves sociological scrutiny in its own right, both to document the extent of this influence statistically and to explore its intellectual roots either in theology or in the cultural environments surrounding particular religions (Campbell, 1997). But it is also relevant to major theoretical developments in contemporary social science of religion. This article will introduce data from a major survey carried out on the World Wide Web, with the proviso that more elaborate statistical analysis should be carried out in the future. To a great extent, the data speak for themselves. But this article also offers a theoretical interpretation, rooted in the New Paradigm of the sociology of religion.

Stephen Warner (1993) coined the term New Paradigm to refer to a fresh perception that religion remains an influential force in human society, despite the secularization brought about by scientific progress, bureaucratic rationalization, and economic growth. The core work of the New Paradigm is probably a series of theoretical and empirical studies carried out principally by Rodney Stark, Roger Finke, Laurence Iannaccone, and myself (Stark and Bainbridge, 1979, 1980a, 1980b, 1985, 1987, 1996; Iannaccone, 1994; Finke and Stark, 1992; Bainbridge, 1997, 2002b; 2003; Stark and Finke, 2000). The fundamental theoretical proposition is that religion compensates human beings psychologically and socially for the inevitable deprivations of human life including poverty, alienation, and mortality. Whereas educated people generally imagine that the so-called mainstream or mainline denominations are the best examples of religions, the New Paradigm considers them to be secularized half-creeds that mix a lukewarm faith in the supernatural with acceptance of many secular values. Instead, aggressive religious movements are considered to be the living heart of religion, whether fundamentalist in nature or more innovative. It is its focus on the dynamics of secularization that causes the New Paradigm to reject the popular notion that respectable, conventional churches are the most important manifestations of religion.

Many twentieth-century intellectuals, such as psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1927) and anthropologist Anthony F. C. Wallace (1966), imagined that secularization was an unstoppable process that would eventually lead to the extinction of faith, except perhaps in cultural backwaters or among neurotics. But much empirical evidence about the enduring strength of religion weighs against this view. The New Paradigm argues that secularization is a self-limiting process. The most respectable denominations, those most closely tied to secular institutions like leading universities, will gradually lose faith. In so doing, they will lose membership as well, as people drop out of religion altogether or convert to more intense religious movements. In many secularizing denominations, schisms will erupt through which fundamentalist or evangelical sects break away to found more devout churches. A slow life cycle of denominations exists in which sects (as Methodism originally was) lose their sectarian intensity and give birth to a new generation of radical sects (like the Holiness movement that broke out of Methodism), which in turn will secularize and produce new sects. Secularization also stimulates innovation and the formation of cults, that themselves become susceptible to both secularization and sectarianism.

However, as science moves forward, the challenge to religion increases. This article focuses on the struggle to establish norms for technologically-assisted human reproduction, but the arena of competition between religion and science is much broader. Notably, science is beginning to come within sight of a universal theory of nature, as exemplified by the Converging Technologies Movement (Roco and Bainbridge, 2003), which emphasizes the unity of nature at the nanoscale and the complex but intelligible processes of evolution that have constructed life and intelligence from the nanoscale without benefit of divine intervention. Like any theoretical perspective, the New Paradigm may prove to have flaws, and it will be interesting to see how it fares in a large number of varied research studies over the coming years. For the present article, however, it provides an interpretive context for the data that links this study to the cutting edge of work in early twenty-first century social science of religion.

The movement to ban human reproductive cloning appears to draw strength from traditional religious beliefs, and one way to conceptualize this hostility is in terms of evolutionary competition (Bainbridge, 1985; 1997). Four decades ago, the influential sociologist Talcott Parsons (1964) argued that religion was an evolutionary universal, found in all societies and necessary for the emergence of civilization. However, even if this were true, religion might be destined for extinction as humanity ascended to a higher stage of development. Just as humans lack the gills, scales, and tail possessed by their remote ancestors, they might do without faith at some time in the future (Dennett, 1995).

Historically, and perhaps at present as well, religion has probably performed beneficial functions for humanity. The rise of modern nations was apparently aided by centralizing religious ideologies that legitimated the state and suppressed local folk cultures (Larner, 1984). Social scientists have suggested that religion might benefit humanity by reducing emotional stress (Stark and Bainbridge, 1987), by limiting deviant behavior such as crime and suicide (Stark and Bainbridge, 1996), by improving physical health (Idler and Kasl, 1992; Hummer et al., 1998; 1999), and by sustaining a high birth rate (Keyfitz, 1987; Stark, 1996; Bainbridge, 2002a). This last claim is especially controversial because many people assume the world faces a dangerous problem of overpopulation, but fertility is collapsing in most secularized advanced industrial nations far below the level needed to sustain the population over the long term (Wattenberg, 1987; CIA, 2001).

Thus, religion has evolutionary implications, because at least some varieties of it encourage fertility, thereby outbreeding competing cultural alternatives. This is where cloning enters the debate, because technological means of reproduction directly challenge religion's demographic advantage. In trying to defeat cloning, religion may be fighting for its life against a whole host of secular reproductive technologies.

One model of the current human condition is that we stand on the boundary between two vastly different ages. In the earlier epoch, the hopes of religion sustained people's optimism and emotional vitality during lives that were inescapably nasty, brutish, and short. In the new epoch, life is transformed by cloning and other developments coming out of biotechnology, nanotechnology, information technology and cognitive science (Roco and Bainbridge, 2002), so religion would be merely an impediment to progress.

The trouble is that the old era may not wish to give way to the new. In particular, priests and churches may not willingly relinquish the status they have enjoyed for many centuries. If Homo sapiens becomes stuck between two separately viable but mutually exclusive ways of life, the result would be disastrous.

Large majorities in many opinion polls oppose cloning, but it is widely reported that opposition is greatest among religious people. For example, an ABC poll carried out in 2001 asked a random national sample of American adults whether human cloning should be legal (Sussman, 2001). Fully 95 percent of evangelical Protestants wanted it to be illegal, compared with 91 percent of Catholics, 83 percent of non-evangelical Protestants, and 77 percent of non-religious respondents.

Other polls agreed. The Pew Research Center (2002) found that 88 percent of white evangelical Protestants oppose "cloning experimentation," compared with 79 percent of "mainline" Protestants, 75 percent of Catholics, and 56 percent of "secular" respondents. A Gallup poll (Saad, 2002) asked whether respondents approved or disapproved of "cloning of human embryos for use in medical research." Fully 72 percent of those who attend church weekly disapproved, compared with 66 percent of those who attend nearly weekly and only 50 percent of those who attend church less often.

To explore this issue further, I placed a number of religion items and three questions about cloning in Survey2001, a web-based questionnaire supported by the National Geographic Society and the National Science Foundation, which was developed and administered by a team headed by sociologist James Witte at Clemson University (cf. Witte et al., 2000). Two of the questions were "Likert" items (Bainbridge, 1989: 93) asking how much the respondent agreed or disagreed with these statements: "Research on human cloning should be encouraged, because it will greatly benefit science and medicine." "There should be a law against cloning human beings." The third cloning-related item presented the two statements again and offered a space where the respondent could write his or her views on their topic freely. This approach combines both quantitative and qualitative methodologies in a manner that is especially effective in pilot studies designed to open up a new area of social-scientific research.

Statistical Results

The two agree-disagree cloning items were part of a module of thirty items related to science and pseudoscience, and a total of 3,909 adult respondents answered all thirty. Table 1 shows how many gave each possible response to the two cloning items. Of course, these respondents were not a random sample, so we cannot extrapolate the exact patterns to the population at large. Because they were recruited through National Geographic and the academic networks of the social scientists who created Survey2001, the respondents are probably more aware of issues related to science and technology than the average person. Because the survey was administered online, they were probably richer and better educated than the average (Department of Commerce, 1999). However, research has found that such online surveys can do a good job of charting the relationships between variables, even if they cannot specify the exact value of each variable in the general population (Bainbridge, 2002c; cf. Best et al., 2001). A brief quantitative exploration of the data can both clarify hypotheses about the dynamics of religious opposition to cloning, and prepare us to understand better the qualitative material discussed later in this essay.

Table 1:
Two Cloning Items in an Online Questionnaire
Attitude Encourage
Cloning Research
Law Against
Respondents Percent Respondents Percent
Strongly agree 308 7.9% 1113 28.5%
Agree 932 23.8% 933 23.9%
Do not know 915 23.4% 824 21.1%
Disagree 905 23.2% 662 16.9%
Strongly disagree 849 21.7% 377 9.6%
TOTAL 3,909 100.0% 3,909 100.0%

Table 1 reveals that only 31.7 percent feel that research on human cloning should be encouraged, and fully 52.3 percent want human cloning banned by law. This group of respondents may be more knowledgeable about the topic and possibly more favorable toward science than the average, but still they reveal the widespread opposition to cloning that has been found in random sample polls. On the other hand, responses are fairly well dispersed over the five response categories from strongly agree to strongly disagree. With nearly four thousand respondents, a large absolute number gave each possible response. Thus, the data can be especially good for correlational research because large numbers can stabilize the statistical estimates.

Statistical correlations are often conceptualized like linear regression, as a method for drawing a straight line through a dispersion of points in two-dimensional space, where each dimension represents one of the two variables. Conceptually, one rotates the line around the point representing the two means, until the sum of the squared distances from the points to the line is a minimum. At that point, the angle (slope) of the line on the graph provides the regression or correlation coefficient (Bainbridge, 1992).

A random sample does this with a small selection of the points that could be graphed if one had data from the entire population, selecting them by chance. A non-random sample may or may not approximate a random sample, depending upon the degree to which the selection process was connected to the particular variables of interest. So long as the respondents are not extremely unusual, however, statistical analysis is likely to estimate about the same line on the graph - not rotated very much - even if the points selected are somewhat to the left or right of the mean. Once initial research using a cost-effective online survey has estimated the correlations, then it is time to decide whether it is worth expending the great cost of a random national sample in order to improve those estimates. Indeed, it may be foolhardy to rush right into a million dollar representative sample survey before less expensive methods have determined which hypotheses and variables are actually important.

In the case of the two cloning variables, the obvious first step in the analysis is to see how they correlate with a few other variables in the same set. Are attitudes about cloning connected to pro-technology and anti-technology sentiments in general? Is cloning such a radical idea to many people that they associate it not with science but with pseudoscience? Table 2 shows the correlations (Pearson's r) with nine other variables in the set, three in each category.

Table 2:
Correlations with Technology and Pseudoscience Attitudes
Other Science-Related Opinions Correlation (r) with:
Funding for the space program should be increased. 0.29* -0.21*
Human beings will benefit greatly from nanotechnology, which works at the molecular level atom by atom to build new structures, materials, and machines. 0.37* -0.26*
Development of nuclear power should continue, because the benefits strongly outweigh the harmful results. 0.24* -0.17*
Space exploration should be delayed until we have solved more of our problems on Earth. -0.26* 0.21*
Our most powerful 21st-century technologies -- robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology -- are threatening to make humans an endangered species. -0.29* 0.22*
All nuclear power plants should be shut down or converted to safer fuels. -0.23* 0.17*
There is much truth in astrology -- the theory that the stars, the planets, and our birthdays have a lot to do with our destiny in life. -0.12* 0.09*
Some people really experience telepathy, communication between minds without using the traditional five senses. -0.12* 0.08*
Some scientific instruments (e.g., e-meters, psionic machines, and aura cameras) can measure the human spirit. -0.06* 0.02 
*Statistically significant beyond the .001 level.

Correlation coefficients can range from -1.00 through 0.00 to +1.00. A positive correlation means that as one variable increases, the other tends to increase as well. A negative correlation means that as one variable increases the other tends to decrease. The two cloning variables correlate negatively, -0.60, which reflects the fact that someone who agrees with one of them will strongly tend to disagree with the other. The coefficients in Table 2 reveal that support for cloning research is solidly connected to pro-technology attitudes, and opposition to cloning is connected to anti-technology attitudes. While not surprising, this finding reminds us that religion may not be the only factor shaping attitudes toward cloning, and it confirms that our dataset is producing reasonable results.

Interestingly, we do not see a positive correlation between support for cloning and belief in pseudoscience. Indeed, we see small but statistically significant negative correlations. Two of the three pseudoscience attitudes have tiny (but again statistically significant and therefore real) positive correlations with a desire to ban cloning. Thus, on balance across the varying perspectives of 3,909 people, cloning is perceived as a part of conventional technological progress. If anything, people attracted to pseudoscience are repelled by cloning, even slightly beyond the level of opposition held by the majority.

Religion Variables

With this preparation, we can look at the impact of religion on attitudes toward cloning. The ABC, Pew, and Gallup polls contrasted different denominations, but lacked sufficient numbers of non-religious respondents to make fine distinctions among them, such as that between Agnostics and Atheists. Table 3 shows the percent agreeing with each of the two cloning items in four distinct religious traditions (Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Buddhist) and three subcategories of non-religious respondents. The Survey2001 question asked, "What is your religious preference?" Any respondent who said his or her religion was "None" or "Don't know" was given another question: "Individuals who do not have a religious preference, or who do not know how to describe it, often categorize themselves in other ways. How would you describe yourself?" The respondent was asked to choose one of four responses: Non-religious, Agnostic, Atheist, and None of these.

Table 3:
Cloning Attitudes by Denomination (percent agree)
Respondents Encourage
Cloning Research
Law Against
Protestant 1,116 27.6% 58.8%
Catholic 650 25.4% 59.5%
Jewish 105 39.0% 44.8%
Buddhist 88 23.9% 55.7%
Non-religious 412 40.0% 43.9%
Agnostic 317 41.0% 41.3%
Atheist 243 49.8% 36.2%

Atheists are far more favorable toward cloning than any of the religious groups, and noticeably more favorable even than agnostics and the non-religious. Indeed, Atheists are the only group in which more respondents encourage cloning research than want a law against human cloning. A person's denominational membership or religious preference is an informative measure of religiousness (Stark and Glock, 1968), but it is good to compare this measure of group affiliation with measures about the individual's own religious behavior and self-conception.

Perhaps the most potent single variable in social science survey research on religion is the respondent's frequency of church attendance. Religion is a social phenomenon, and by associating with believers, a person becomes socialized to the norms and beliefs of a particular religious tradition (Bainbridge, 1997; Stark and Bainbridge, 1985; 1987). Therefore, Survey2001 included this extensively used question: "How often do you attend religious services?" The responses were: "Never, Less than once a year, About once or twice a year, Several times a year, About once a month, 2-3 times a month, Nearly every week , Every week, Several times a week, and Don't know."

Table 4:
Church Attendance and Cloning Attitudes (percent agree)
Frequency of Attendance
at Religious Services
Respondents Encourage
Cloning Research
Law Against
Never 1,056 37.7% 45.7%
Less than once a year 751 39.0% 45.9%
About once or twice a year 546 36.4% 50.4%
Several times a year 479 26.3% 54.5%
About once a month 174 27.6% 55.1%
2-3 times a month 173 30.1% 56.6%
Nearly every week 236 19.5% 61.4%
Every week 302 16.6% 67.9%
Several times a week 135 11.1% 78.5%

We know that religion cannot explain all of the variations in attitudes toward human cloning, and future research must employ numerous datasets and sophisticated statistical methods to measure the contributions of different variables and the interactions among them. But Table 4 shows a very strong religious effect. Among respondents who never attend church, support for cloning research is almost three and a half times as great as among those who attend most frequently, 37.7 percent compared with only 11.1 percent. The fraction supporting research declines by 26.6 percentage points from the most secular to most religious group. Agreement with a legal ban on cloning is higher is all categories, but rises from 45.7 percent to 78.5 percent, a gap of fully 32.8 percentage points attributable to religion.

Because we have such a large number of respondents, it is worth looking to see if there are marked jumps across church attendance categories, while keeping in mind the fact that a certain amount of random variation is bound to add noise to the results. With the item about research, there seem to be three distinct categories of religiousness. Notice the jumps of 10 percentage points between the third and fourth and sixth and seventh categories. Secular people, those who attend church no more than once or twice a year, support research at the level of above 35 percent. On the rare occasions they go to church, it may be for a wedding or funeral, rather than personal worship. Highly religious people, who attend church at least nearly every week, support research at a level of below 20 percent. Those between these two categories, who might be described as moderately religious, support research at a level of around 26 to 30 percent. The disjunctions are not as obvious for the item about banning cloning.

It is worth thinking for a moment about the differences between the two cloning items. One is not merely the mirror of the other. On the basis of what people can read in the contemporary mass media, many people may reasonably feel that current technology is not yet capable of cloning humans without a very high risk of producing deformed children who would suffer, die young, and be a burden upon society while they lived their painful lives (National Bioethics Advisory Commission, 1997). Scientific research and technological development that explore the possibilities - including cloning mere human organs for medical uses without producing babies - could be supported during a period when the cloning of full human individuals was banned. The extremely low support for research among highly religious people indicates that they do not care about such subtleties, and they categorically oppose human cloning regardless of its technical quality.

The other religion item we will use here has also been extensively used in the past, but focuses on the respondent's self-image rather than upon his or her church-going behavior: "How would you describe yourself? Extremely religious, Very religious, Somewhat religious, Neither religious nor non-religious, Somewhat non-religious, Very non-religious, Extremely non-religious?" Table 5 shows the pattern of responses, which again powerfully connects religion with opposition to cloning.

Table 5:
Subjective Religiosity and Cloning Attitudes (percent agree)
How Religious is
the Respondent?
Respondents Encourage
Cloning Research
Law Against
Extremely non-religious 333 51.4% 38.1%
Very non-religious 392 43.4% 40.1%
Somewhat non-religious 318 37.4% 46.5%
Neither religious nor non-religious 834 32.3% 50.7%
Somewhat religious 1,173 29.2% 53.3%
Very religious 531 15.4% 69.9%
Extremely religious 107 15.9% 69.2%

This question does a somewhat better job of distinguishing degrees of non-religiousness than did the item about church attendance which placed 1,056 respondents in the "never" category. We see a category in which a majority agree that research on cloning should be encouraged, the 333 respondents who consider themselves extremely non-religious. To determine whether an even more irreligious core exists within this group, we can consider the 257 people who said they were extremely non-religious and absolutely never attend religious services. In this secular group, 51.0% agree that research should be encouraged, and just 37.4 percent believe there should be a law against cloning, comparable to the figures for Atheists in Table 3.

Having documented the significance of religion is shaping the cloning attitudes of respondents to Survey2001, we can examine responses to the open-ended item. Survey2001 was administered online by a sophisticated computer system, and it was set so that people responding to the science items would be divided at random into four groups, each to receive three open-ended items from a set of twelve. Thus, something approaching 1,000 English-language respondents were offered the chance to answer the third cloning item, and 749 of them took the opportunity to do so.

Literalistic Religion

One way to conceptualize religious faith is to take what believers say literally. A person who believes in God, according to this view, considers God to be real in the sense that a chair is concretely real. Although in some way transcending the material plane, God has personality, will, and desire, in the minds of such people. He can speak to a human being or forcefully intervene in a person's life. Being God, he is tremendously important to all aspects of life, so all of a literal believer's other beliefs must harmonize with the central tenets of his or her faith.

People whose religion is like this are called "literalists." For example, those who consider the stories of miracles in the Bible to be historically factual are called "biblical literalists." Atheists sometimes have difficulty recognizing that many other people really do believe in the concrete, factual existence of God.

Fully 32 of the 749 Survey2001 respondents said that cloning was "playing God," and many others expressed similar ideas. For people who believe in a literal God, changing the factors shaping life and death usurps the divine prerogative. Here are some of the ways respondents expressed this idea:

"Creating human life is God's job, and His alone"

"Human cloning is going too far and trying to take God's place in our creation."

"Only God has the power to create a living creature, and for man to 'create' life is blasphemous."

"As a Christian, I feel that cloning is morally wrong. The only person who should grant a life is God."

"Creating human life is GOD's job, and His alone!!!!!!!!!!!!"

"We are not the creator, only the creation."

"God is the Creator of all life. Period."

"If you believe in God you believe that you were created by him, and it is wrong for us to engineer a human being."

"The breath of life is given to us by God - not by scientists splicing genes in a lab."

"The Bible tells us that 'it is he who made us and we are his' (Psalm 100), and I do not believe we have been given any permission to compete or override God's act of creation."

A classic sociological definition of religion says that it concerns a sacred realm where humanity may not trespass and where supernatural beings rule (Durkheim, 1915). As one respondent wrote, "Cloning is messing with the sanctity, the magic that is life." Another said "It goes against everything holy." To another, cloning is an atheistic denial of religious faith: "Human cloning is man trying to take on the role of God and is an attempt to deny that God exists (despite the wonderful evidence of creation)." Thus, many people may believe human cloning is fundamentally sacrilegious simply because it profanes what should be sacred.

In another religious view, cloning is wrong because it directly challenges the authority of the Lord: "Cloning humans is Science presuming to have rights that belong only to our Creator." "It is not up to humans to clone themselves, it is up to the Lord, who made what he wanted to make." "As a Christian, I do not believe that God intends for humans to create other humans."

Several respondents saw this as a power struggle: "Scientists shouldn't receive government funding to satisfy their own god-complexes." "Humans should never become more powerful than God." "Our Lord has made it very clear that only He can create human life. He is very upset with scientists' efforts with regard to stem cell research and cloning." "The punishment should be harsh, so that no scientist on a power trip would try it." "Humans were created by God and should be left at that. The scientists that are experimenting are on a power trip and should leave well enough alone. God will have His day with them."

An almighty god should have little to fear from mere mortals, even if they are clever scientists. But other humans are more vulnerable, a few religious respondents believe, and may need divine protection: "These scientists show a lack of respect for the individual dignity of human beings." The scientists need not be wicked but merely ignorant: "Cloning amounts to playing God, with no clear understanding of the long-term implications."

For many respondents, God is the unifying principle of nature's beneficence: "I believe that God created human beings, and it is for Him and Him alone to create life. When man dabbles in the realm of the Divine, he threatens the entire balance of life as we know it. We are like children playing in a tide pool, thinking that because we have lingered there, we understand the complexities of the vastness of the entire ocean. Danger lurks in the depths, and it threatens our very humanity."

For others, God is the supreme wisdom, whose will is the source of natural law: "Man should not be creating life. Leave it to God, he knows how we should be made. Man is not able to control himself well enough to avoid the temptation to do something wrong with his technology." "I believe that God and only God should be the one to determine how humans are formed. It was meant from the beginning of time that a woman would give birth to a child whose genetic makeup would be determined from the sperm and egg."

Some respondents connect cloning with abortion, an issue having powerful negative connotations for religious conservatives (Benin, 1985; Jelen, 1988; Woodrum and Davison, 1992). They condemn what they see as the distorted sense of value underlying both. One felt that "...cloning of human beings seems a frivolous waste of money. Stop killing our children before they are born if you want to increase the population." Another agreed: "I see no real value in creating a spare parts source to prolong human life. We are busily destroying life every day in the name of 'Pro Choice.' If we subscribe to killing a million unborn babies each year, how can we justify cloning even one human?" To the extent that many firm believers associate cloning with other religiously charged issues, it may be nearly impossible to convince them to change their minds about it.

On the other hand, many religious people have non-religious values as well: "As a science teacher, I am trained to be open-minded about research. As a strongly religious person, I have problems with the concept of creating life, since God is the ultimate creator." "Many religious people are against cloning on the basis that it could upset their beliefs, and I am cautious myself, but I believe that my faith would be unchanged by new discoveries and occurrences. Personally, I have a degree in religion but a strong desire to advance scientifically."

For many people, however, religion is merely one compartment of life, separate from the others, and even for literal believers God can become a mere metaphor outside the narrowly defined sacred zone.

Figurative Religion

Not all self-consciously religious people believe in the literal existence of God. For many, God is a metaphor, albeit a precious one that should not be deflated by acknowledging its figurative quality. Sociologist Emile Durkheim (1915) elevated this observation to the status of scientific theory, arguing that when people worshiped God they were really worshiping human society. That is, God is the poetic personification of human love, duty, and collective endurance. The afterlife is not an actual supernatural realm, in this view, but the continuity of human society which preserves a measure of the good that any deceased person may have contributed to it during life.

Metaphors are not rigorous or rational, and figurative religious belief is not a coherent system of tenets. Indeed, to a significant extent the mind of every human being is an incoherent assembly of memories and judgments that are often logically contradictory, even though religious literalists try to escape this chaotic mental state by means of their faith. Thus, the God metaphor may mean different things at different times, and a person may often be confused about whether to apply it to a given situation or to use a different metaphor.

For example, several respondents said that cloning was contrary to nature: "For all I have to say is NO ONE SHOULD PLAY GOD!!!!! Nature intended us to be as we are, by birth to our parents." Others wrote: "I think that God created us and we should respect that and leave nature alone." "It is time we stop playing God and just let life take its natural order." "This is where the religious part of me comes into play. I don't believe that we should attack what's natural in this way. Nature has a strong way of correcting things like this and it might have major long term side effects to the planet as a whole." "To clone a human is completely against the laws off nature. To learn and understand how nature works is a great thing. To attempt to imitate it is a terrible, frightening thing. People (and all other species) exist because they are (in some way or another) conceived naturally. To toy with the natural world has had dangerous repercussions time and time again. This would be the ultimate 'toying,' which I feel would lead to the ultimate repercussion." "Research on human cloning should not be encouraged. It makes man a mere machine than a special creation."

One respondent exclaimed, "Leave such matters to GOD and don't monkey with nature!" Others argued that human cloning "goes against nature" or would be "against the laws of nature," "messing with nature," "upsetting the balance of nature," "against every law of nature that exists," or even "against the natural elements in nature."

To many people, Nature is a metaphor for purity, but it is also a maternal personification of nurturance, as in the expression Mother Nature: "By cloning people, we will eventually take away what is pure and natural in ourselves and all that will be left is a test tube full of stuff that is not really human. If we are to make this world better, we should be focusing on natural resources, that have worked for millions of years to restore and repair the earth. We should use but not abuse these resources as a base for developments in medicine and science rather than making something that is not real."

One respondent proclaimed, "Cloning should be limited to medical reasons only, and only allowed to continue so far. Anything else will disrupt the natural process of nature: birth and death." However, one could argue that all forms of health-related technology do this, from antibiotics to herbal medicine, because all involve human action intended to disrupt the natural course of events. One respondent felt this wasn't such a bad idea: "Due to medicine a lot of babes live now that would have died just years ago. To be able to have healthier babes in the future, I'm for it. Some people say we're playing God. Well, he has made enough mistakes himself; maybe he needs a little help."

Logically, people who think they will benefit are more likely to favor cloning even if they are religious. Several respondents cited their own medical conditions: "Cloning elements for some things, like stem cells, should be allowed for the medical benefits, which could help me with my lungs, would be good." "I have personal genetic diseases that would benefit [from] this type of research." "There is a deadly gene that runs in my family and maybe it's possible that children born with it will eventually be cured from stem cells." "Research on human cloning may provide information that helps with hereditary or 'wasting' diseases. My family has a history of genetic disease, and we assume that cloning research could increase our understanding of Huntington's Disease." "As a half-sibling to four individuals suffering from muscular dystrophy, I strongly support research on human cloning from embryos... or from adult people's non-reproductive cells."

One religious respondent could not locate the boundary of sacred territory: "I do not feel that it is right for humans to play the role of God. Only he decides what should be alive or dead. Although cloning organs so that they can be used to replace malfunctioning organs is a different story. Although if we go there then we are cheating death, or did God make us able to figure that out so we could live longer? Vaccinations are in a way impeding the plan of death, because the people who get the disease would have died unless we came up with a vaccination. It is all very confusing to me, and I wish that life could be simpler."

One non-religious way to simplify things would be to say that God and Nature are both metaphors for evolution. In the propitious environment of the Earth, natural selection from variations caused by random genetic mutation led to the emergence of an intelligent species that employs language (including metaphors) to think about reality. There is room for a vigorous debate about whether intelligence is a tragic flaw, in the classic Greek sense of a quality that confers both honor and doom upon the possessor. Perhaps many of those who oppose cloning are comfortable in their lives and worry that any revolutionary technology might upset the delicate balance they feel their lives depend upon - whether they conceptualize it as the balance of nature or the benign will of God. This is a reasonable concern.

However, over the long term at least, the beloved balance of nature cannot be depended upon. The overwhelming majority of animal species that have existed on the Earth are extinct. To give one chilling example, it is estimated that 96 percent of all species went extinct in a relatively brief period at the end of the Permian period. Famously, the dinosaurs (two whole orders of species) went extinct along with many other life forms at the end of the Cretaceous, possibly because of a chance encounter with an asteroid (Alvarez, et al., 1980). On the much shorter term of centuries, there is a real danger that humanity will become extinct demographically through insufficient fertility, and extinction much sooner than that remains possible through nuclear or biological warfare.

Genetic Diversity

It is well known that conservative Christians reject the theory of evolution (Stark and Bainbridge, 1985). However, for many believers who associate the concept of God with that of Nature, evolution can have sacred connotations. These quasi-religious conceptualizations of evolution are near cultural neighbors of strictly secular views that may likewise discourage cloning. That is, many people prefer natural selection to artificial selection, and some of them express this preference in religious terms.

One respondent connected the ideas in this way: "The majority of the people on this planet are of the belief that a true god has given us the gift of life. I believe the traditional way of passing on our genes works very well, by far the majority of births on this planet are working the way nature intended. Nature has always been selective in who and what survives and should be allowed to continue as such."

Another asserted, "By playing with cloning I think that people are playing 'God' and are also playing with evolution, which I think should be left alone." Others argued cloning "is not part of the natural cycle of human selection," violates the principle of "natural selection," "would be against natural selection" and would have the effect of "reducing biological diversity." It would mean "Removing the Darwinian, survival of the fittest theory which naturally improves the species." "God created each of us as a unique individual, so we have no right to attempt otherwise." "Let natural selection guide our course and keep life interesting."

One tried to formulate the ideas as a scientific theory: "People will never have the wisdom to manipulate their own genomes. By gradually reducing the randomness of reproduction to select for superficial physical characteristics, we are running a grave risk of becoming less viable. Only the random interplay of nature and genes can guarantee any sort of long term survival."

The argument that cloning must be forbidden because it reduces genetic diversity may have quasi-religious roots for some respondents, but formally it appears to be a scientific theory related to evolution. However, like many plausible theories, it is probably wrong, so long as the fraction of all births that result from cloning is below some rather high threshold.

Natural selection itself reduces genetic diversity, yet is essential to evolution. Whenever some parents have more children than the average, and others have fewer, the gene pool loses diversity, even as the species advances in its adaptation. Ultimately, diversity is replenished by mutation. Perhaps the development of scientific medicine and the trend toward smaller families have reduced the intensity of natural selection among humans over the past century. If so, allowing some individuals to reproduce by cloning would restore lost selectivity, and could therefore be considered pro-nature rather than anti-nature.

These ideas would have to be tested rigorously, but they are at least plausible. One kind of fundamental test has already been carried out by computer scientists who work with genetic algorithms or similar forms of evolutionary computing. In this approach, a population of many somewhat different strings of instructions (comparable to genetic codes) go through a series of reproduction and selection cycles. Each string might represent a potential solution to a problem, and the number of offspring it has will depend on how good a solution it is. After many generations, excellent solutions will evolve, and poor ones will become extinct.

The reproduction in genetic algorithms can be asexual, producing several identical copies of the parent string, or sexual in which genetic crossover combines the codes of two parents. Cloning is simply a form of asexual reproduction, like that performed by many microorganisms. Sexuality combines genes from different lineages, and asexuality allows especially well adapted codes to persist. Many genetic algorithm studies have found that evolution progresses most rapidly with a combination of sexual and asexual reproduction (Miller, 2000; Koza et al., 2003), perhaps in nearly equal measures.

This suggests that human evolution would progress best if roughly half of all births were the result of cloning. Mathematically, this has the effect of doubling the number of sexually-produced children engendered by the people who were cloned, by giving each of them effectively two lifetimes in which to reproduce.

Perhaps people ten thousand years ago debated whether God intended them to domesticate animals and plants (Childe, 1951) through artificial selection. But once people had crossed that threshold, they may have felt free to take the thousands of small steps that led to modern agriculture.

Many ancient legends, notably the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, imagine a time when humanity lived comfortably with nature, ending with an abrupt estrangement that required labor and technology to make a living (Levi-Strauss, 1970). Tool-making probably emerged over millions of years, and the birth of agriculture took thousands, but the legends have a certain poetic truth. The religious question then becomes whether with cloning (and genetic engineering more broadly) we face a second temptation to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, that may lead to a further estrangement from God. When theologians debate this point, they would do well to remember that the Bible itself endorses artificial selection in Genesis 30-31, where Jacob breeds sheep and goats for desirable characteristics.

The Immortal Soul

One traditional function of religion has been to provide a set of metaphors through which people could think about their own psychological processes. The ancient Egyptians imagined the psyche was a collection of separable parts - the ba, ka, and half a dozen others - each with a distinctive character. When the Greeks wanted to discuss inner conflicts they could talk about gods competing to dominate a person (Rabkin, 1970). The Christian notion of an immortal, righteous soul offers hope in return for moral behavior. Since medical doctors first noticed that disease or brain damage could rob a person's mental faculties, science has eroded the plausibility of the soul, but the concept remains popular (Ray, 1871).

One respondent asked, "Where does the 'soul' or 'spirit' of a human being fit into the cloning process?" Others brooded: "We don't know enough about our souls and the psychology behind it." "I am very wary of the idea of cloning an entire human because of the whole question about the human spirit/soul." "Since we will never be able to clone the soul, why even try humans?"

The assumption that clones would lack souls seems to be widespread: "I don't believe that a person made by man can have a soul." "We are God's creation, and while man may be able to create the heartbeat and physical body, the spirit and soul can only come from God." "Life - the spirit/soul - comes from God when a sperm and an egg combine to create a human. I can't resolve this with cloning where you lack one of these elements."

This worry is not limited to Christians, but may also afflict people in the broad tradition of Hinduism and Buddhism: "Each being, whether human or non-human, is born with a spirit. This spirit may or may not be a reincarnation of a previous spirit. Cloning will prostitute the natural evolution of spirits and life." "I haven't resolved how the soul can exist in a cloned human. Would that soul have karma? A soulless human is too terrible to contemplate. If it did have a soul, how could it liberate itself from suffering"

Many people, who may not be especially religious themselves, defer to the religious sensitivities of others: "People's reservations due to religious or spiritual beliefs need to be respected." "We as a society have no cohesive agreement as to what makes each human special, whether there is a soul or other life force, and cloning of humans would be too socially disruptive to those with strong viewpoints." From this viewpoint, a religious majority, or even just a passionate minority, would have the right to prohibit others from following a very different set of beliefs. This is an extreme version of the tyranny of the majority - one soul, one vote - and those who do not believe in souls are disenfranchised.

For many believers, the crucial quality of a soul is its immortality. In a sense, religion is the death business, and it cannot tolerate any technology that would take away its market: "I do not believe that cloning should be opened up to any egotistical rich individual who thinks that cloning is the next best thing to immortality." "Rich people want to buy immortality" "Do we want the 1,000 most powerful and rich people to live forever?" Religion compensates people psychologically for the losses they suffer and the rewards they never gain. Hope for eternal life is one of these supernatural compensators (Stark and Bainbridge, 1985; 1987), but another is compensatory social status (Pope, 1942). Thus the idea that rich people could buy immortality through cloning is doubly galling to people whose religion is rooted in socio-economic deprivations.

Criticism of Religion

A few respondents, who were either irreligious or ambivalent about faith, blamed religion for wrongful opposition to cloning: "Only the religious right (fundamentalists) have spoken out against this new technology. Their belief system is no longer relevant." "The cultural resistance to this technology is really very strange. While many claim religious reasons for objecting to such research, it's difficult to demand legal action based on superstition and ethnocentric interpretations of ancient folktales!" "Cloning should continue even though some claim it's immoral, as it is organized religion that is holding science back just like it has throughout human history." "Human cloning offers great promise of developing stem cell therapy for many ills and should not be prohibited by religious bigots." "We should not be limited by religious groups claiming to speak for all on this topic. Let science explore these new areas."

At times the criticism of religion can become self-congratulatory: "Being Atheist has given me a broader perspective on cloning and the abilities of science, where religion, which can be vague and frail, leaves others doubting." Yet religious opposition to cloning may indeed be rooted in ignorance or hypocrisy: "This is very much a case of ignorance and prejudice on the part of influential politicians and religious zealots who have little or no knowledge of these sophisticated techniques and the inherent difficulties contained in development of viable clones to make reasonable and rational legislative decisions on this matter." "If a technique can be developed to ultimately save lives, then save lives. We've drafted our young men to go off to war to die for the greater good countless times, what's so different morally about cloning a human or stem cell research? It's hypocritical, and at least in the U.S.A., it's politicians ramming their Christian-based beliefs down everyone else's throats. I find it ironic that a country that supports the death penalty is adamantly against cloning."

One respondent argued, "Religion should never play a role in science." However, another drew upon the psychology of science to argue the opposite: "Our world's religious and spiritual leaders, as well as others, should have a significant say in the outcome of this science. I say this because science is not secular, nor is it essentially objective. Subjectivity is a key component of scientific endeavors whether scientists wish to admit it or not."


Social scientific research is not an easy business. Like all science, it requires careful work, constant checking of preliminary findings, and a healthy skepticism about one's own accomplishments. The findings of this report help us understand religious opposition to cloning a little better, and the quotes from respondents can readily be transformed into new questionnaire items to assist future research studies that explore the topic more deeply. Future research projects may wish to explore variations in attitudes related to distinctions like the following:


  • Cloning animals and plants versus cloning people
  • Cloning to produce a few tissues or an organ versus a whole person
  • General genetic engineering and stem cell research versus cloning
  • Wider reproductive issues including abortion versus cloning
  • Research related to cloning versus full cloning of organisms
  • Attitudes versus actions, such as feeling cloning is wrong versus prohibiting it

At some time in the future, cloning may be a relatively reliable human reproductive technology, and a well-accepted industry for producing biological products including human organs for transplantation. But at the present time, the technology is very poorly worked out, and methods that have been somewhat successful with other animals appear to be unsuited for human beings. Thus, it is quite reasonable to predict that human reproductive cloning will face a difficult period of technical development, in which the danger of deformed, short-lived, and suffering clones would be increased by impatience. Thus, there is good reason for thoughtful people to advocate caution, and some of them may employ religious figurative language to express their well-grounded concerns.

However, dogmatic religious opposition is not rooted in technical or humanitarian concerns, but in a view of existence that is incompatible with scientific progress. There is no peaceful way to overcome such opposition, short of converting believers away from their strongly-held, literalistic faith. We must therefore anticipate a long period of overt conflict between secular advocates and religious opponents of cloning. If the opponents succeed in establishing strict anti-cloning laws world-wide, then the conflict may become especially harsh with the real (and unfortunate) possibility of violence. Those who believe that human reproductive cloning violates God's laws are unlikely to show tolerance for scientists who defy the supposedly sacred prohibition.


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