In many areas, the clash between science and religion arises from scientific discoveries clashing with religious doctrines, demonstrating for example that a scripturally described cataclysm didn't occur as claimed. But occasionally a different sort of dynamic occurs, one wherein science enables the actualization of theological goals historically deemed only aspirational, but impossible to achieve in actuality. An instance of this is exemplified by the theologically motivated desire to keep people from dying, as was observed some years ago in the case of a woman named Terri Schiavo. Ms. Schiavo was in a persistent vegetative state, spending every hour of her day unable to move of her own accord, suspended in a grotesque gape-mouthed non-communicative stare. Naturally, some of her family members held out the sort of hope borne of love but not reason, imagining that Ms. Schiavo was communicating to them through some subtle signals or metaphysical means. But all the time she was brain dead; post-mortem examination finally proved that, mercifully, there was not enough brain matter left in her cranium for the processing of thoughts. But before that state was established, a momentous legal and societal battle was waged for years and years between those desiring to remove Ms. Schiavo's life support and allow her to die, and those wishing to keep her alive in that state -- potentially in perpetuity.

And in this case, it was indeed a mercy that the victim was indeed brain dead all along. It is arguable that it would have been worse, not better, for her to have been aware, suspend in a frozen body and unable to speak a word or move a muscle while the drool pooled around the corners of her mouth and her eyes grew dry until somebody comes around to put drops in them. This same issue has played out even with paralyzed but communicative persons who have had to wage lengthy, costly court battles for their own right to die, to have life-sustaining treatment ended, or to have a physician assist them in the ending of their lives. The courts, being secularly oriented at this juncture, have thus far permitted people to refuse treatment, to lay out in advance what life-saving measures they would prefer not to receive, and in some cases even to receive aid in the ending of their lives. But such a state of affairs is always tenuous. Those who believe themselves to hold special insights into divine will are perpetually afire with the desire to mould the polity into a reflection of their views, to impose what they "know" to be right for others over the will of those others. The living will, for example, is only of use to the extent that governments will enforce it; where governments are overcome by zealots, enforcement becomes a dead letter.

And here is where the march of science becomes problematic -- indeed, chillingly so, for those caught, or potentially caught, in the personal hell of a state of physical helplessness, possibly paralyzed, possibly unable to communicate to the outside world. Every day science advances in the treatment of disease and in combatting the ill effects of aging. For those who desire a greatly enhanced lifespan, and are able to express such desire, this is excellent news. But for those who would never wish to have their lives so extended, especially those unable to cry out for an ending of their perpetuated suffering, this scientific advance promises the opposite, the enforced administration, at the hands of religious zealots, of new treatments designed to prevent death, to prolong life possibly without end even for those whose minds have broken and who know nothing but inexpressible pain. Any one of us could, in a terrible enough circumstance, end up like Terri Schiavo -- or worse, in her physical state but trapped in an aware mind. Imagine, then, if those who believe they have the right to do so were to get the courts packed so that they could order that you not be allowed to die, and perhaps (if such technology becomes available), not even age towards death. And so ought we all to fear, as we have good reason to, religious zealots employing advancing technology to require that the infirm be kept alive against their will, eternally.