Zoos with humans on display; an academic who wishes publicly that 90 percent of humans would perish from ebola; suicide tourists; “after-birth abortions” – what is the world coming to? In a new book, The Death of Humanity: And the Case for Life, history professor Richard Weikart examines the intellectual currents that produce these shocking phenomena and defends the sanctity of human life. Here, Professor Weikart answers some questions from MercatorNet.
‘The Death of Humanity’ is a sombre title. Are things really that bad? What do you mean by it?
My title refers to the way that many intellectuals and scholars in our day have tried to deal a death-blow to the Judeo-Christian view that human life is valuable. Peter Singer with his book, Unsanctifying Human Life, is a prime example, but I provide dozens of examples of secular thinkers who have promoted dehumanizing ideologies. Some of them view humans as nothing more than machines, while others see us as nothing more than another animal produced through millions of copying errors (mutations) over eons of time. Multitudes of educated people in our society think humans are just a cosmic accident with no value, meaning or purpose. As I demonstrate in my book, these ideas foster attitudes inimical to life, leading to easy acceptance of abortion, infanticide, assisted suicide, and euthanasia. The demise of the idea of humanity thus leads to the death of real individuals, who are being killed, often by physicians.
Your subtitle is The Case for Life – again, is it necessary to make a case for something as inevitable as life itself?
The “case for life” is more specifically the case for human life, and yes, it is necessary, because many in our day are arguing that human life has no special value. Interestingly, one of the ways I build my “case for life” is by showing that even many of those who deny that humans have any intrinsic value nonetheless recognize that human life is valuable. For example, the University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne has stated,
“Although it’s seen by nearly everyone as humane—and even moral—to end the life of our terminally ill pets, it’s regarded as murder to make the same decision for ourselves.”
He scoffs at the idea that humans are qualitatively different from, or have greater value than, animals. However, if you read more of Coyne, you find that he embraces many moral stances typical of many American progressives. He would be horrified if I suggested that we round up all the homeless people in a city, sterilize them, imprison them until someone comes to take them home with them, and if no one comes for them, euthanize them. Yet this is how we treat stray dogs. Coyne and other intellectuals need to understand that their philosophies lead to untenable conclusions, which should lead them to question and then jettison their false presuppositions.
What does the term “sanctity of life” mean? Is it meaningful outside of the Judaeo-Christian tradition?
Every society understands the “sanctity of life” at some level, because all societies forbid murder. However, unfortunately, many societies restrict the moral community, leaving some people vulnerable to depredation, oppression, and even death. In some societies membership in the moral community has been restricted by race. In our society many prominent bioethicists are urging us to define unborn children or people with some kinds of disabilities as “non-persons.” The Judeo-Christian tradition has promoted the sanctity of life, to be sure, but other religions and philosophies have stood up for the equal value of humans, too.
Secularists might object that the slaughter and divine punishments recorded in the Old Testament, and the wars and oppression marking the history of Christianity, suggest anything but the sacredness of human life. What has the tradition to show compared with so much bloodshed?
I find it ironic that secularists, who often deny that any objective morality exists, get so moralistic when confronting Christianity. They apparently understand—contra their own worldview—that killing and oppression are objectively wrong!
The atheist Richard Dawkins was once being asked about his own moral relativism, and Dawkins asked,
“What’s to prevent us from saying Hitler wasn’t right? I mean, that is a genuinely difficult question.”
But, while (amazingly) Dawkins finds it difficult to condemn Hitler for his atrocities, he has no problem continually blasting Christianity (and other religions) for being immoral.
Having said that, let me confront the question more directly. While secularists have no moral fulcrum to condemn anything as immoral, Christianity does have the moral resources to condemn injustices, even if they are performed in the name of Christianity! Indeed, Jesus warned that false prophets would come in his name and deceive many people (Matt. 7:15-23; 24:23-24), and the apostle Peter prophesied that many people in the churches would follow false teachers, “because of whom the way of truth will be blasphemed.” (II Pet. 2:2) Thus Christianity from its very inception recognized that not everything done in the name of Christianity would be moral, but rather every action would have to be judged on the basis of God’s eternal standards.
As Christians, we need to acknowledge and condemn past abuses committed by anyone, whether they called themselves Christians or not. At the same time, we need to excel in good works, as many Christians throughout the ages have done, by helping the poor, the weak, the disabled, the elderly, little children, and the needy.
We assume that people still ask themselves questions about the meaning and purpose of life, but do they? What answers are being proposed – in the West, anyway – other than creation by a loving God who wills our eternal happiness?
Many of the intellectuals I discuss in my book directly deny that there is any meaning and purpose in life. But, while they may suppress this question, I wonder how many evade it completely. Let me give a poignant example to illustrate this—one that I was surprised to discover while researching this book. Bertrand Russell, one of the most influential atheistic philosophers of the twentieth century, publicly taught that life was meaningless. However, in 1916 he wrote in private correspondence:
“The centre of me is always and eternally a terrible pain—a curious wild pain—a searching for something beyond what the world contains, something transfigured and infinite—the beatific vision—God—I do not find it, I do not think it is to be found—but the love of it is my life—it’s like passionate love for a ghost.”
This is a startling admission and shows that Russell at some level recognized that his worldview was inadequate.
The answer that seems to be the most frequent among the secular philosophers I examine is that we simply give meaning and purpose to our own lives. However, I’m not sure how satisfying this answer is, because it implies that the meaning they give to their lives is illusory.
The idea that we are just products of evolution, “and that’s OK”, misses the fact that humans took over from evolution some time ago and that scientists are making a bid to shape our destinies. Do you agree?
I certainly agree that scientists are trying to shape our destinies and guide evolution. Not only do I examine the eugenics movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in my book—and C. S. Lewis’s and George Orwell’s critiques of it—but my book also discusses the transhumanist movement, which today is trying to take the reins of evolution. There is a tension here—implied by your question—between simply accepting nature as it is, and trying to “improve” on nature. Ironically, the idea that we can “improve” on evolution and promote evolutionary progress implies that there is some higher goal, but this is fundamentally in conflict with a naturalistic worldview, in which there are no intrinsic goals or purposes to the process.
An important part of your book concerns the evolution of ideas that have led to today’s assaults on the sanctity of life. What, for example, explains the power of the abortion rights movement in the world today?
As secularization has increased in intellectual circles in the Western world, many have adopted the view that pleasure—including sexual pleasure—is the highest goal of life. One of the chapters of my book is on “The Love of Pleasure,” where I discuss (among other ideas) the rise of utilitarian philosophy, which teaches that the greatest pleasure for the greatest number is the measure of morality. I show that many thinkers have reduced humans to pleasure-seeking machines.
It is no coincidence that laws permitting abortion in many European countries, and Roe v. Wade in the US, came on the heels of the Sexual Revolution. Abortion on demand is a way to protect and promote indulgence in sexual immorality.
As well as reading your book, should we read more history?
How could I, as a historian, say no? If we are going to comprehend the moral quagmire we are in today, it helps to understand the history behind it. However, my book is more than just history. It not only explains, but also critiques many philosophies and ideologies that are still prominent today.
Despite the title, the purpose of my book is not to spread doom and gloom, but rather to call us to confront the problems that I raise. We need to do more than just wring our hands and complain about our society. We can change this world, if we will courageously, but humbly, speak the truth in love.
Richard Weikart is professor of history at California State University, Stanislaus, and author of The Death of Humanity: And the Case for Life.