A University of Utah professor of philosophy has expanded the applied ethics field with her book, "Ethics in the Sanctuary; Examining the Practices of Organized Religion."

"Organized religion is a tremendous force that shapes our culture for believers and non-believers alike," says Margaret P. Battin. "Religion influences society at least as powerfully as other institutions like law or medicine but has not been critiqued in the same way."The book, thought to be the first of its kind, looks at ethical dilemmas caused by common practices of religious groups across the nation. It analyzes numerous questions including:

- When a Catholic priest hears the confession of someone about to commit murder, what should he do?

- Should Christian Science journals report believers' cures but not cases in which Christian Scientists have died of disease?

- Ought a Pentecostal church in Appalachia encourage serpent handling?

- Should a London church approach prospective converts by means of sexual lures?

The book doesn't question religious beliefs but looks at organized religion through the eyes of an ethicist, using the same tools used to critique law, medicine and business. "Like corporate enterprises, organized religion has clients that receive services, officials that administrate, codes of behavior that are unwritten and written and ways that money gets from the clients to the leaders," says Battin.

She does not seek to change the behavior of the book's readers but to make people think about things they take for granted. "In a way, philosophers are troublemakers. We are interested in a thorough critique and examination of everyday assumptions."

Philosophy keeps people alert to the benefits of constant rethinking and questioning, says Battin. "It can help someone take greater intellectual control of his or her own life. Sometimes a person will find a more solid foundation and belief in something for having thought it through. Other times, the assumption will be discarded, because it is not coherent after all."

The book ponders dilemmas of confidentiality in confession, risk-taking practices and proselytizing methods.

Some religions encourage health-endangering or life-threatening behavior to demonstrate spirituality. Christian Scientists are taught to avoid conventional medical treatment and Jehovah's Witnesses refuse blood transfusions. On the outer fringes of common religious groups, some Holiness Churches in the Appalachians practice serpent handling and strychnine drinking, sometimes called a "salvation cocktail," activities that often result in death. Should those churches, Battin asks, require or encourage their members to first consider the potential impact of the risk?

Some churches cross the ethical line when they claim prayer is more effective than medicine without providing any scientific evidence to support the claim or without revealing exactly how many people died or lived after refusing medical treatment, Battin says.

Battin says the government should not create laws to control risky religious practices. "The state can't control in a sophisticated enough way to separate purely religious claims, which it should not control, from fraudulent scientific claims, which it should control. However, religion needs critics," she says. "The public, together with applied professional ethicists, should scrutinize organized religion. While ethicists have no power to control, people are free to make choices and can request changes or protest by finding a new church."

Members are caught in a trap if their church instructs them not to criticize. The no-criticism-allowed approach is self-insulating, according to Battin. "Like countries that execute criticizers, churches cut off self-reflection and examination, leaving no possibility of checks on the ethical nature of their practices."

Society tends to think of religion as screened-off from the rest of society, thinking it shouldn't be critiqued says Battin. "Certainly, government shouldn't critique or censor religion, but people should. It is possible to critique religious practices and still protect religious freedom."

Battin cautions against focusing too heavily on fringe groups that have extraordinary religious practices. She says mainstream religions need to be examined, too.

"Ethics in the Sanctuary; Examining the Practices of Organized Religion" is published by Yale University Press.