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Intellectually Honest Atheism

In Christianity Today, Dinesh D’Souza reflects on a debate he recently had with Peter Singer.  If you have not heard of Singer, he is a professor of Bio-Ethics at Princeton University and very well-known in his field.  He is also an atheist, and D’Souza notes that his atheism leads to surprising conclusions.  Moreover, those conclusions are quite disturbing – i.e., he believes that we should have the right to kill babies up until they are 28 days old.

Says D’Souza:

He argues that we are not creations of God but rather mere Darwinian primates. We exist on an unbroken continuum with animals. Christianity, he says, arbitrarily separated man and animal, placing human life on a pedestal and consigning the animals to the status of tools for human well-being. Now, Singer says, we must remove Homo sapiens from this privileged position and restore the natural order. This translates into more rights for animals and less special treatment for human beings. There is a grim consistency in Singer’s call to extend rights to the apes while removing traditional protections for unwanted children, people with mental disabilities, and the noncontributing elderly.

The key is that Singer thinks the differentiation between people and animals is arbitrary.  In other words, we are not made in God’s image.  Therefore, there is no need to protect the rights of the less useful in society, just as we do not protect the rights of less useful animals*.

This is D’Souza’s concluding paragraph:

Why haven’t the atheists embraced Peter Singer? I suspect it is because they fear that his unpalatable views will discredit the cause of atheism. What they haven’t considered, however, is whether Singer, virtually alone among their numbers, is uncompromisingly working out the implications of living in a truly secular society, one completely purged of Christian and transcendental foundations. In Singer, we may be witnessing someone both horrifying and yet somehow refreshing: an intellectually honest atheist.

In other words, atheism naturally leads to the conclusion that humans have no more value than animals.  In fairness, the atheists that D’Souza normally debates would not espouse Singer’s extreme views.  Therefore, it may be inappropriate to say that they would have those views if the atheists were intellectually honest.

On the other hand, if we completely rid ourselves of any belief that people are image-bearers of God, then (as Nietzche said) we need a new standard for morality.  What would that look like?  Singer’s view may be the logical end.

*edited this word from “people” to “animals” after the first commenter pointed out my mistake!

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  1. March 17, 2009 at 3:37 pm

    “In other words, atheism naturally leads to the conclusion that humans have no more value than people.”

    This is probably a typo, but you’ve struck upon the truth.

    Humans are people. And that’s it. Not spirits, souls, parts of a god, supernatural creatures in meat bags…just people.

    “we need a new standard for morality.”

    Simple selfishness.

    I don’t want to be attacked and killed for my livelihood or goods or life. The best way to avoid that is to not do it to others.

  2. jlemke
    March 17, 2009 at 5:32 pm

    Thanks for pointing out the type – post is updated to reflect it. But I appreciated how you used my type to your advantage!

    Selfishness is not a great way to live. We are made in the image of God, and that includes a desire to be in community. Nearly everyone has some activity somewhere that represents this need: social clubs like Kiwanis, churches, sports teams, etc. All of these are an outgrowth of our desire to live in community.

    Selfishness works against this need. In communities, we subsume our desires for the goals of the larger group. If all I want is to be left alone for my own selfish pursuits, where does that leave the community?

    Furthermore, if all I want is to be left alone, how do I define when the rights of others come into play. For example, what stops me from (as Singer advocates) killing a 28 day old child that I believe is pressing on my ability to make a living? Or killing a senile parent who takes constant care?

  3. March 17, 2009 at 7:34 pm

    “Selfishness is not a great way to live.”

    Not if we use the term colloquially.

    However, what is it that I desire? To have a happy, healthy life. To have a good job and make enough money to live well. To make friends because it makes me feel good.

    Obviously that’s put simplistically, but it’s true.

    So, selfishly, I will act in ways to make all that happen. And none of that selfish behavior involves killing people.

    “For example, what stops me from (as Singer advocates) killing a 28 day old child that I believe is pressing on my ability to make a living?”

    The people who will harm or kill you for doing so. Selfishly, I do not want to be harmed.

    Of course, in this hypothetical you’re referring to someone who seems to me (and modern psychology, I would wager) to be mentally unstable. So morals or rationality may not apply.

    “Or killing a senile parent who takes constant care?”

    I’m against killing. Which may very well be a completely irrational and emotional thing, in addition to being a selfish desire to avoid being killed myself.

  4. jlemke
    March 17, 2009 at 8:06 pm

    In the hypothetical killing of a 28 day baby, it is exactly what Peter Singer is advocating. No one considers him mentally unstable.

    I’m also curious – is it OK with you to kill others once it’s socially acceptable? After all, the reason you don’t want to is for your own safety. What if that’s not an issue?

  5. March 17, 2009 at 8:11 pm

    “In the hypothetical killing of a 28 day baby, it is exactly what Peter Singer is advocating. No one considers him mentally unstable.”

    Where does he say this? Please provide a link or a quote.

    If he does say it, I may very well call him mentally unstable.

    “I’m also curious – is it OK with you to kill others once it’s socially acceptable?”

    I don’t think anything I said had anything to do with what is or isn’t socially acceptable.

    “After all, the reason you don’t want to is for your own safety.”

    That’s a major reason, but not the only one. I also enjoy making people happy. It makes me happy as well. It’s called ’empathy’. And killing someone, by observation, seems to really put a big dent in the ‘happiness’ factor.

  6. jlemke
    March 17, 2009 at 8:54 pm

    The quote is in the article I linked to in the original post.

    “And killing someone, by observation, seems to really put a big dent in the ‘happiness’ factor.” LOL, I guess it does!

    What I was really interested in: what if it DIDN’T put a dent in the happiness factor. For example, senile seniors and 28 day babies. Your theory of ethics breaks down (at least to me – that’s why I’m interested in what you think!).

  7. March 17, 2009 at 10:04 pm

    “”My colleague Helga Kuhse and I suggest that a period of 28 days after birth might be allowed before an infant is accepted as having the same right to life as others.””

    If that quote is taken at face value, I would say that Singer is both wrong and, possibly, a bit off mentally.

    However, and forgive me for this, I don’t fully trust Dinesh D’Souza. I’ve seen enough of him being dishonest in debates that I suspect this may be a situation in which he has quote mined: that is, taken a single sentence that out of context makes the author look bad or contrary.

    A quick google search seems to indicate that Singer is not advocating just arbitrarily killing babies after 28 days. Rather, that if it is determined that the child will suffer horrible/painful/debilitating handicaps that it may be acceptable to euthanize the child up to a month after birth.

    I’m not sure if I agree. Never having given that particular hypothetical much thought, I resist jumping to one position or the other. But, already, with the prospect of the handicap I find Singer’s position less radical.

    I hope I would never have to make such a decision as that.

    I will honestly have to think long and hard about how I feel about that issue.

    I think I would personally resist killing the child. But seeing a child suffer horribly with no chance of improvement? I might go with euthanasia.

    I don’t know. Suppose that’s why it’s called a moral dilemma.

    “For example, senile seniors and 28 day babies.”

    Your hypothetical only works if neither of these people have any loved ones and I have completely lost my empathy.

  8. shamelesslyatheist
    March 17, 2009 at 11:01 pm

    I am not a fan of D’Souza. I find him to be quite bigoted when it comes to atheists, atheism being a concept he is simply incapable of understanding. He seems completely baffled by the ability of atheists to be moral people. I think a lot of Christians do, even the ones that recognize that it is possible. Others just assume that atheists are immoral people. But religion is not a source of morality at all, never has been. A good deal of science has shown that each of us has an innate moral sense. How does my lack of faith relate to why I feel good when I do something good? Or bad if I do something bad? It doesn’t relate at all. If it did, the National Academy of Sciences, whose members are 93% atheist at last count, would be the greatest criminal organization ever, rivaling the SPECTRE of James Bond fame. Yet they don’t.

    I am myself a strong believer in allowing euthenasia, but only on a case-by-case basis and after passing very stringent criteria. It’s a sticky wicket, and I would always err on the side of caution in such matters. There are a whole spectrum of views on euthenasia and none are grouped by religion. You will find many Christians who favor allowing it just as you will find many atheists who will not, and there is no chance of consensus in any particular case. However, I find that I can not reconcile a person’s desire to end their life with dignity with my desire to massage my tender sensibilities just because I don’t like the idea. No one likes the idea of death. But it’s not about me. It’s about the person requesting to end their own suffering. If you see this as black and white, you have not seen much in this life yet.

  9. March 18, 2009 at 2:17 am

    “Your hypothetical only works if neither of these people have any loved ones and I have completely lost my empathy.”

    Hmmm, empathy strikes me as a somewhat arbitrary emotion in an atheistic world. If you have much to gain by killing an individual, and are quite sure no one would care or notice, why wouldn’t you?

  10. March 18, 2009 at 7:49 am

    “Hmmm, empathy strikes me as a somewhat arbitrary emotion in an atheistic world.”

    Are you an atheist? Then your lack of understanding doesn’t surprise me.

    “If you have much to gain by killing an individual, and are quite sure no one would care or notice, why wouldn’t you?”

    Because I value human life so highly (somewhat rationally and somewhat just emotionally), whatever I might gain by killing an individual I would lose in the loss of another human being.

  11. jlemke
    March 18, 2009 at 9:25 am

    I appreciate everyone adding to the debate. It’s been interesting.

    Singer often says he is misrepresented, and this may be so. Perhaps D’Souza has taken him out of context – I don’t know. I acknowledge I have not read his stuff. However, he has a different view of what it means to be a person than Christians have. For him, persons are defined as those able to anticipate the future. Christians define persons as one made in God’s image from the moment of conception. It leads to a difference in how we treat life.

    The logical outcome of Singer’s view is a devaluing of life. The logical outcome of a Christian’s view is the valuing of life. I’m not saying that’s what always happens – clearly, it not. But if a Christian and an atheist take their views to their logical conlusions, it has different outcomes. We already see this in the abortion debate.

    D’Souza’s statement, which I (so far) agree with, is that it will ultimately lead to different outcomes in other areas as well. Including some that might make everyone cringe. Singer’s quote seems to reflect that. However, morsec0de and shamelesslyatheist seem not to agree.

    Shamelesslyatheist said, “How does my lack of faith relate to why I feel good when I do something good? Or bad if I do something bad?” My answer is that you are still made in the image of God. But what’s your answer? I agree that you have some moral bent. I simply want to know WHY you have it.

  12. March 18, 2009 at 9:31 am

    “The logical outcome of Singer’s view is a devaluing of life.”

    I don’t necessarily agree.

    I think the atheist view is more concerned with quality of life, while the Christian view is just concerned with life, regardless of the quality.

    As I think that nothing happens after one dies, the quality of this life take precedence. And if one is to spend the rest of their life in terrible debilitating pain, isn’t it a mercy to end that life sooner rather than later?

    But to be clear, I’m not advocating making that decision for other people. The individual, if of sound mind, should make that decision, or the family should have that right.

  13. jlemke
    March 18, 2009 at 9:51 am

    You’ve implied one good question and one bad one. The good question implied – Who get’s to decide? You’ve already said that the person does. That’s a step in the right direction, but (this might surprise you) I think the community has a say in the matter as well. And I believe the community should support life. If the person decides on their own, they will not be taking into account the imapact on others. If the community decides but does not hold life as sacred, they may put pressure on the individual to end their life.

    The bad question – What is quality of life? That will have to be answered if it is going to be the standard for ending life. I think it’s a bad question. Life is sacred.

    Finally, one last question for you. On the basis of your own foundation for morality (selfishness, per your first comment of this thread), why is mercy even a standard rather than community desires? If the community (selfishly) wants to use it’s resources for things other than keeping a person alive, why couldn’t it do that?

  14. March 18, 2009 at 10:19 am

    “On the basis of your own foundation for morality”

    To be clear, selfishness is part of my foundation for morality. It is not all of it. I also have harm and benefit as a main pillar, if you will, in my foundation. Harm and benefit as determined by observation and the scientific method. I strive to cause the least harm and the most benefit.

    If you’re in a situation that is so extreme that there is more harm caused by keeping a person alive, it may be justifiable to consider removing resources from said person. But I honestly don’t see that hypothetical taking place.

    I also don’t see how an individual or family’s choice on ending their own life will effect a community. I honestly do not see it. If you can explain and or demonstrate it, I would appreciate it.

    That being said, if there is a point where I am undergoing horrible suffering with the inevitable result of my own death, I would seriously consider ending my own life early rather than suffer unnecessarily. We do it out of mercy for our pets, so I see no reason not to extend that right, should a person desire it and be of sound mind, to people.

  15. shamelesslyatheist
    March 18, 2009 at 10:21 am

    ““How does my lack of faith relate to why I feel good when I do something good? Or bad if I do something bad?” My answer is that you are still made in the image of God. But what’s your answer? I agree that you have some moral bent. I simply want to know WHY you have it.”

    Evolution. In particular, evolved behavior. As social mammalian species, the ability to interact cooperatively with other members of a group to distribute workload and use their numbers to fend off threats. This is the source of tribalism. No group can act cooperatively in such a manner without having rules for interaction. Individuals that did not play by the rules were cast out, which was really a death sentence.

    Here’s a quote taken from an interview with a primatologist speaking at this year’s AAAS meeting:

    Christopher Boehm, director of the Jane Goodall Research Center, part of the University of Southern California’s anthropology department, believes such humans devised codes to stop bigger, stronger males hogging all the food.

    “To ensure fair meat distribution, hunting bands had to gang up physically against alpha males,” he said. This theory has been borne out by studies of contemporary hunter-gatherer tribes.

    In research released at the AAAS he argued that under such a system those who broke the rules would have been killed, their “amoral” genes lost to posterity. By contrast, those who abided by the rules would have had many more children.

    Other studies have confirmed that the strength of a person’s conscience depends partly on their genes. Several researchers have shown, for example, that the children of habitual criminals will often become criminals too – even when they have had no contact with their biological parents.

    Primatology is perhaps the best way in which to study the evolution of morality. Chimps display every one of the facets of what we call morality, if not to the same heightened level. A very good discussion on the science of ethics can be found in a number of books: Marc Hauser – Moral Minds; Michael Shermer – The Science of Good & Evil; Franz deWaal – Your Inner Ape. There’s far too much in those works to discuss here.

    So the question of where our moral sense came from is an active area of psychological (and, weirdly, economic) research. Just saying that we were made in the image of God does not make it so and isn’t at all an acceptable or intellectually satisfying answer. To me, those that say it are simply unwilling to put the effort into finding the real answers. At one time lightning was thought to be a visible display of a god’s anger. Everybody knew this. Today, we know that it is the perfectly natural phenomenon of a static discharge across a very large spark gap. I see the explanation of ethics in the same light and nothing that we understand about the development of ethics runs counter to there being a totally natural explanation.

    But religion (particularly for the Abrahamic ones) sets the boundaries in an objective morality, right? I don’t think it does. It tells you how to act. It does not give reasons for them. In essence, those that use the bible as a moral source are simply acting on God’s whim. Hardly objective.

    Nor is it as unchanging as many think. You previously wondered if society considered it normal to kill, would we? Of course we would, but society would break down rather rapidly. Have there been such societies? Well, the Puritans operated witch hunts. The Albigensian crusade killed a few hundred thousand over a couple of decades during the Inquisition. I would not consider the Holocaust amongst these examples because this was not a societal norm and very few of the populace really knew what was going on. Mind you, Christian anti-semitism of the type Martin Luther in his disgusting book The Jews and Their Lies (and earlier, the Vatican) subscribed to had a big role to play in that tragedy. The Lutheran church is still trying to come to grips with Luther’s vitriolic anti-Semitism and the Vatican isn’t even trying.

    Anyway, my point is that the very definition of ‘murder’ has changed hugely in the last two millennia. Back then, murder did not mean ‘do not kill anyone else’. It meant, ‘don’t kill a fellow Jew’. There were even rules for situations such as if you killed a fellow Jew while killing ten gentiles. Turns out that you were ok, since you got rid of more gentiles. Despite protestations of those with a vested interest in maintaining that morality hasn’t changed (at least not since the time of Jesus), there is a copious amount of evidence to suggest that the moral zeitgeist is continually changing, and not always in small ways. Even for Christians.

  16. Brian McLaughlin
    March 18, 2009 at 10:28 am

    For my two cents…I encourage Shamelesslyatheist to read Francis Collin’s The Language of God. Collins is perhaps the most important biologist in the world. He was the head of the Human Genome Project. He is obviously a staunch evolutionist. However, his understanding of morality/desire/etc is what led him from atheism to faith in Christ. I think he would disagree with your conclusions in your last post. He sees no morality from evolution.

  17. March 18, 2009 at 10:38 am

    I respect Francis Collins as a scientist.

    But he also stated that he converted because he saw a frozen waterfall split into three parts. Echoing, in his mind, the three parts of the Christian god.

    One wonders if he saw a frozen waterfall split into dozens of parts, would he have converted to Hinduism?

  18. jlemke
    March 18, 2009 at 10:42 am

    “I also don’t see how an individual or family’s choice on ending their own life will effect a community. I honestly do not see it. If you can explain and or demonstrate it, I would appreciate it.”

    Sorry, I think we were talking past each other. To me, it was self-evident. Let me try to explain. When a person chooses to end their own life, they are removing themselves from their community and from their family. This causes grief and loss. That is an impact on the community.

    “To be clear, selfishness is part of my foundation for morality. It is not all of it. I also have harm and benefit as a main pillar, if you will, in my foundation. Harm and benefit as determined by observation and the scientific method. I strive to cause the least harm and the most benefit.”

    We eventually arrive at the same problem, which we are unable to solve. I believe that approach to ethics devalues life because it does not see life as having intrinsic value. You seem to believe that the value can be measured by the scientific method. Fair enough. (I mean no disrespect, and I’m not trying to misrepresent your position. If I have, correct me.) But I appreciate the approach you’ve taken in the disagreement, and because of it I have learned some things.

  19. March 18, 2009 at 10:51 am

    “This causes grief and loss. That is an impact on the community. ”

    I accept that. But my question would be, is that grief and loss more or less harm than whatever suffering the person may be undergoing? The answer will not always be the same.

    “life as having intrinsic value.”

    What do you mean by ‘intrinsic value’?

    If you mean that life has to be valued regardless of anything, then you’re correct that I don’t agree with you.

  20. jlemke
    March 18, 2009 at 10:56 am

    “If you mean that life has to be valued regardless of anything, then you’re correct that I don’t agree with you.”

    Close enough. Ultimately, I think life has value regardless of the harm or benefit to others. You would measure it before determining value. Singer would decide whether or not it can anticipate the future.

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