Playing God

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The phrase, playing God, appears to be one a theologian might use. But in contemporary parlance it has taken on secular significance. It refers to the powers that science, engineering, and technology confer on human beings to understand and to control the natural world.

Celebration and Criticism

The playing God metaphor has been used in both celebratory and critical contexts. In celebration, H. G. Wells's novel Men Like Gods (1923) describes an advanced human civilization in which people lead the life of demigods, very free, strongly individualized ... a practical communism." Indeed the communist movement sometimes described itself as realizing previously thwarted divinelike possibilities in human nature. Inventor R. Buckminster Fuller proclaimed the advent of No More Second-Hand God (1963) through science and technology. The psychologist Erich Fromm, in his book You Shall Be as Gods (1966), argued the need to assume responsibilities for many new powers that were once attributed to supernatural entities. And the alternative culture Whole Earth Catalog (1968) declared on its cover, "We are gods and might as well get used to it."

Among the followers of Ayn Rand, playing god has been declared a virtue. Science fiction writers sometimes describe themselves as playing god. And for Kevin Kelly (1999), nerd theology involves repeatedly playing god, as in a learning game.

More commonly, however, playing God has served as a metaphor for criticizing the human exercise of excessive scientific and technological powers. Early Romantic writers implicitly criticized human aspirations to play God insofar as they mourned the loss of a sense of the sacred in the wake of scientific and technological progress. In the contexts of both celebration and criticism, there are, nevertheless, three overlapping meanings that can be discerned.

Three Meanings

The first meaning is associated with basic scientific research wherein human beings learn God's awesome secrets. Some research elicits a sense of awe and wonder over the complexity and majesty of the natural world that the human mind can apprehend. Science is like a light shining down into the previously dark and secretive caverns of natural mystery, revealing what had been hidden. The revelatory power of science leads human beings to believe they are gaining godlike powers. Few would argue against continuing the investigation because learning for learning's sake remains the morality of scientific knowledge.

The second meaning of playing God arises primarily within the field of medicine where doctors seem to have gained the power over life and death. In a medical emergency, the patient feels helpless, totally dependent upon the scientific training and personal skills of the attending physicians. Doctors, and the scientific training they received in medical school, stand between the patient and death. Similarly large-scale research programs dedicated to finding cures for cancer or HIV/AIDS provide society with hope in the face of helplessness. Here playing God takes on a redemptive or salvational component. The genre of jokes about doctors who think of themselves as gods reflects the wider anxiety over powerlessness plus human dependence upon doctors and their skills.

Two assumptions are at work in the medical meaning of playing God. First is the assumption that decisions regarding life and death are the prerogative of God. The second follows from the first: When a human being has the power of life and death, society places that person in a godlike role. This elicits a second anxiety; namely, worry that the person in the godlike role will succumb to the temptation of pride, or hubris. The concept of hubris articulates the more inchoate fear that human beings will presume too much, overreach themselves, violate some divinely appointed limit, and reap destruction. Anxiety over hubris marks the overlapping transition from the second to the third meaning of the phrase playing God.

To alter life and influence human evolution is the third meaning of playing God. Here science and technology team up so that understanding leads to control. Control over nature places human beings where only God belongs, and humans are challenged by the choice between good and evil. In atomic physics, the discovery of how a nuclear chain reaction works led to both nuclear medicine and weapons of mass destruction with the attendant threat of self-extinction. Taming nature by pesticide use in order to increase food production threatens the life-sustaining potency of the planet. The Human Genome Project has enhanced understanding of DNA, confronting society with unavoidable decisions: The choices made to alter or avoid altering the human genetic code may affect the evolutionary future of the human race and perhaps even human nature itself. If DNA is the essence of a human being, then people take the ability to change their very nature into their own hands when they modify it. To alter what has evolved borders on creating a new human nature; this is a reminder of humankind's godlike powers and the awesome responsibility imposed by those powers. The human race of tomorrow will be the result of scientific and technological decisions made in the present. The scientific community becomes a microcosm of the entire human community. The fear is that if scientists give into the temptation of hubris, evil will result.

The God in Question

A close look shows that the God of playing God is not the God of the Bible but divinized nature. Nature has absorbed the qualities of sacredness; science and technology risk profaning the sacred.

Contemporary fear of playing God connotes the ancient Greek myth of Prometheus. While creating the world, the sky-god Zeus was in a cranky mood. The Olympian decided to withhold fire from Earth's inhabitants, leaving the nascent human race to live in relentless cold and darkness. The Titan Prometheus, whose name means to think ahead, saw the value of fire to warm homes. He anticipated how fire could separate humanity from the beasts by making it possible to forge tools. Prometheus craftily snuck into the heavens where the gods dwelt and where the sun was kept. He lit his torch from the fires of the sun and carried the heavenly gift back to earth.

The gods were outraged that their stronghold had been penetrated and robbed. Zeus was particularly angry over Prometheus's impertinence and exacted a merciless punishment on the rebel. Zeus chained Prometheus to a rock where an eagle could feast on the Titan's liver all day long. The head of the pantheon cursed the future-oriented Prometheus: "Forever shall the intolerable present grind you down." The moral of the story is this: Pride or hubris that leads humans to overestimate themselves and enter the realm of the sacred will precipitate vengeful destruction. The Bible provides a variant: "Pride goes before destruction" (Prov. 16:18).

In early-twenty-first-century culture, dominated by Western science, Zeus no longer plays the role of the sacred. Nature does. Nature strikes back in the Frankenstein legend and the more contemporary, geneticized version of it described in Michael Crichton's novel Jurassic Park (1990) and the films adapted from it. The theme has become common: A mad scientist exploits a new discovery and crosses the line between life and death; nature strikes back with consequent chaos and destruction.

Theological articulations of caution in the face of human pride mirror the wider culture. In a 1980 task force report, Human Life and the New Genetics, the Council of Churches of Christ issued a warning: "Human beings have an ability to do Godlike things: to exercise creativity, to direct and redirect processes of nature. But the warnings also imply that these powers may be used rashly, that it may be better for people to remember that they are creatures and not gods." A United Methodist Church Genetic Science Task Force Report to the 1992 General Conference stated similarly, "The image of God, in which humanity is created, confers both power and responsibility to use power as God does: neither by coercion nor tyranny, but by love. Failure to accept limits by rejecting or ignoring accountability to God and interdependency with the whole of creation is the essence of sin" (United Methodist Church 2000, Internet site). In sum, humans can sin through science by failing to recognize limits and, thereby, violate the sacred.

Although the proscription against playing God can be applied to many fields of science, it is found most often in the field of genetics because DNA has garnered cultural reverence. The human genome has become tacitly identified with the essence of what is human. A person's individuality, identity, and dignity are associated with his or her DNA. Therefore if humans have the hubris to intervene in the human genome, they risk violating something sacred. This tacit belief is called the gene myth as well as the strong genetic principle or genetic essentialism. This myth is an interpretive framework that includes the assumed sacredness of the human genome and the fear of Promethean pride.

Theological anthropology questions the gene myth, doubting the equation of DNA with human essence or human personhood. In 2002 the National Council of Churches of Singapore issued A Christian Response to the Life Sciences that stated, among other things, "It is a fallacy of genetic determinism to equate the genetic makeup of a person with the person" (National Council of Churches 2002, p. 81). Such anthropology combats the gene myth and opens the door to ethical approval of cautious genetic engineering.

Contemplating careful employment of genetic technology to alter human DNA leads to concern over the distinction between therapy and enhancement. At first glance, therapy seems ethically warranted, whereas enhancement seems Promethean and dangerous. Gene therapy is the directed genetic change of human somatic cells to treat a genetic disease or defect in a living person. With 4,000 to 6,000 human diseases traceable to genetic predispositions—cystic fibrosis, Huntington's disease, Alzheimer's, and many cancers among them—the prospects of gene-based therapies are raising hopes for dramatic medical advances. Few if any cite ethical reasons to prohibit somatic cell therapy via gene manipulation.

Human genetic enhancement is the use of genetic knowledge and technology to do more than heal disease. Enhancement seeks to bring about improvements in the capacities of living persons, in embryos, or in future generations. Enhancement might be accomplished in one of two ways, either through genetic selection during screening or through directed genetic change. Genetic selection may take place at the gamete stage, or more commonly by means of embryo selection during preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) following in vitro fertilization (IVF). Genetic changes could be introduced into early embryos, thereby influencing a living individual, or by altering the germ line, thereby influencing future generations.

Modest forms of enhancement are becoming possible. For example, introduction of the gene IGF-1 (insulin growth factor) into muscle cells results in increased muscle strength as well as health. Such procedure is quite valuable as a therapy; yet, it lends itself to enhancement as well. For those who daydream of so-called designer babies, the list of traits to be enhanced would likely include increased height or intelligence as well as preferred eye or hair color. Concerns raised by both secular and religious ethicists focus on economic justice—that is, wealthy families are more likely to take advantage of genetic enhancement services leading to a gap between the genrich and the genpoor.

Serious concerns have been raised over germ line intervention for purposes of both therapy and enhancement. Germ line intervention is gene selection or gene change in the gametes, which in turn would influence the genomes of future generations. Because the mutant form of the gene that predisposes for cystic fibrosis has been located on chromosome 4, researchers can devise a plan to select out that gene and spare future generations the suffering caused by a debilitating disease. This would constitute germ line alteration for therapeutic motives. In principle scientists could select or even engineer genetic predispositions to favorable traits in the same manner. This would constitute germ line alteration for enhancement motives.

Both of these scenarios are risky, and for the same reason. Too much remains unknown about gene function. It is probable that gene expression works in delicate systems, so it is rare that a single gene is responsible for a single phenotypical expression. If one or two genes are removed or engineered, scientists may unknowingly upset an entire system of gene interaction that could lead to unfortunate consequences. The proscription against playing God serves here as a warning to avoid rushing in prematurely with what appears to be an improvement but could turn out to be a disaster. Ethicists often advise that scientists and researchers proceed with caution—the precautionary principle—until the scope of knowledge is adequate to cover all possible contingencies.

Note that the precautionary principle does not rely upon the tacit belief that DNA is sacred. Rather it relies upon a principle of prudence that respects the complexity of the natural world and the finite limits of human knowledge.


SEE ALSO Death and Dying; Fetal Research; Frankenstein; Gene Therapy; Genethics; Genetic Counseling; In Vitro Fertilization and Genetic Screening; Prometheus.


Bruce, Donald, and Ann Bruce, eds. (1999). Engineering Genesis: The Ethics of Genetic Engineering in Non-Human Species. London: Earthscan Publications. A collection of essays on the ethical implications of plant genetics and human genetics.

Chapman, Audrey R. (1999). Unprecedented Choices: Religious Ethics at the Frontiers of Genetic Science. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press. An overview of the challenges posed to public consciousness by the genetic revolution.

Council of the Churches of Christ. (1980). Human Life and the New Genetics. New York: Author.

Dutney, Andrew. (2001). Playing God: Ethics and Faith. San Francisco: HarperCollins. A warning to be cautious in genetic research based on religious convictions.

Kelly, Kevin. (1999). "Nerd Theology." Technology in Society 21(4): 387–392.

National Council of Churches of Singapore. (2002). A Christian Response to the Life Sciences. Singapore: Genesis Books. A brief and brilliant analysis of the science of cloning and stem cell research from a theological perspective.

Peters, Ted. (2002). Playing God? Genetic Determinism and Human Freedom, 2nd edition. London, New York: Routledge. A theological and ethical analysis of the gene myth, genetic determinism, the so-called "gay gene," cloning, stem cells, and genetic patenting.

Peters, Ted, ed. (1998). Genetics: Issues of Social Justice. Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press. A collection of essays by scientists and theologians analyzing the human genome project.


United Methodist Church. (2000). "Book of Resolutions of the United Methodist Church 2000: Developments in Genetic Science." Available at