Dr. Robert Buckman, chair of the Advisory Board, and Ana Lita, Director of the IHEU-Appignani Center for Bioethics, participated in the DPI/NGO conference at the United Nations entitled “Our Challenge: Voices for Peace, Partnerships and Renewal” on September 9th, 2005.
Dr. Robert Buckman is the President of the Humanist Association of Canada. He presented the paper: “Belief, Behavior and Biology.” Ana Lita’s presentation focused on the ethical question of genital mutilation – a practice common throughout Africa and parts of the Middle East.
Dr. Buckman considers that the human species is very good at collaborating (in tribes, communities & nations). Unfortunately we are also good at behaving aggressively (due to the evolution of the brain’s limbic system). Worse still, we are effective social collaborators and easily form ‘sides’ (“them-and-us-ing”), a mechanism easily triggered by belief systems, and escalated by emotional and hormonal responses. De-escalation strategies require first recognition of the process, then acknowledgement of the emotional content of the conflict.
Every religion enshrines a code of ethics and behavior, prescribing some actions, proscribing others, and it is held as a fundamental truth that those commandments, dictates and prohibitions have been handed down by, or have been blessed by, that religion’s God (or gods or divine beings). Despite this, and the universal exhortations not to kill, even a cursory glance at humankind’s history shows that acts of widespread cruelty and killing, including wars, murders and genocides, have frequently been inspired by faith, and are carried out in the name of God. Neuroscience research now shows that the perception of a God (or a Sensed Presence) is actually the product of one particular area of the brain (the right temporal lobe). Furthermore, this area has rich connections with the centers that regulate aggression (the amygdales) and studies show that aggression is easily provoked by sensations created in the right temporal lobe. Furthermore, approximately 7% of the general population states that they would kill a person if they genuinely believed that their God told them to do so. The links between our behavior and our beliefs – particularly in regards to the faith-based systems of bioethics on issues such as particularly concerning abortion and euthanasia – were discussed in this presentation, as was the possibility that we may be able to ‘be good without God’.
Dr. Robert Buckman lives in Toronto, Canada, where he is a medical oncologist at the Princess Margaret Hospital, and a full Professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Toronto and adjunct Professor at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, specializing in breast cancer and also in teaching communication skills in oncology to physicians and nurses. He has written fourteen books including How To Break Bad News, a medical textbook for physicians and healthcare professionals, What You Really Need To Know About Cancer, a comprehensive guide for patients and their families, Not Dead Yet, an autobiography and Can We Be Good Without God? Biology, Behavior and the Need to Believe, which was a national best-seller.
Ana Lita said that in some cultures genital mutilation, the removal of part or all of a woman’s genitalia is considered a rite of passage to adulthood and a form of purification with a strong religious connotation. While cultural relativists are tempted to accept the practice as a culture-specific rite, human rights campaigners condemn it as a serious breach of the rights of women to self-determination. The situation is clearly alarming, since genital mutilation often results in infertility or death, not to mention excruciating physical pain and suffering. Genital mutilation aggravates the already dismal picture of deprived regions dominated by disease, poverty, gender inequality, and injustice.
Read more about the conference proceedings in the PDF files below.