The Atheist’s Progressive Gospel: Dawk and Hitch on…
The Church’s Victorian Prudery…
Repression of Homosexuals…
Speciesist Love of the Human Embryo…
Both Dawkins and Hitchens think that the Church’s most malevolent bequest to mankind is (in Hitchens’ phrase) a “dangerous sexual repression”. If Hitchens’ own erotomaniacal feats weren’t so well known, I’d say he ought to get out more. Attend some raves or rock concerts; see some Hollywood films; watch some reality T.V.; look at the ubiquitous Calvin Klein ads on billboards, buses, and in magazines. As the urban underclass throughout America and Europe is being ravaged by epidemics of teenage pregnancy, out-of-wedlock births, absentee fatherhood, and the consequent epidemics of welfare-dependency, poverty, crime, and incarceration, about the only people besides our authors who would still argue that the main problem of our culture is its sexual prudery are Dr. Ruth and Larry Flynt.
In the presence of such widespread social pathologies (a poison for which post-religious secularism is at least partly to blame), it is bizarre that Hitchens should be appalled by the fact that at various times throughout history certain religious sects have had the effrontery to prohibit anal sex(!) If they genuinely believe we live in a puritanical society whose citizens have been systematically “indoctrinated” in the repressive morality of Mother Church, Hitchens and Dawkins are more deracinated from reality than any psychotic who deludedly imagines he hears the voice of Jesus.
No one will be surprised to learn that both of our authors vehemently disapprove of the Church’s disapproval of homosexuality. After noting that several bishops “made the fatuous point that homosexuality is ‘unnatural’ “, Hitchens’ outrage boils over: “Who are the clerics to interpret nature”? Who indeed? Clerics ought not to meddle in science, just as they ought to keep their religious convictions in cathedra and out of the public square. Here the shrill sonorities of secularist bigotry resound as clearly as Joshua’s genocidal trumpet.
How many monumental scientific discoveries, I wonder, have been made by “divines”? But let’s leave that aside for the moment, since the “interpretation of nature” is, in any case, not a subject for science. Like so many of the questions that really matter, it is quite beyond science’s purview.
Interpreting nature is precisely, however, a problem for theology, or more generally for philosophy, of which theology was once a department. Nature herself is a mythological allegory (the personified abstraction with which Western philosophical speculation began), and hardly an object of empirical observation and measurement. As the brilliant classicist Francis Cornford demonstrated almost a century ago, the Physis of the earliest Greek philosophers was a religious datum inherited from pre-Homeric pantheism; it was the Pre-Socratics’ “philosophical” name for God or the hidden Soul-Substance that indwells and rationally governs the cosmos. Even when modern empirical science employs the term, it refers to something elusively incorporeal, unlocalizable, ineffable, immeasurable: in other words, a mythologem, little different from those other religious postulates (God, the soul, heaven and hell) that Dawkins, Hitchens, et al. dismiss as vain fantasies. Yet from such fantasies science cannot apparently extricate itself.
What ultimately irks Hitchens is not that the Church should be so out of her element as to call homosexuality “unnatural”, but that in so doing She merely echoes the overwhelming consensus of Western philosophical thought. In every epoch and culture including our own, moral philosophers, natural scientists, and ordinary human beings have recognized the banal unnaturalness of homosexuality. Even the Greeks, in spite of the modern progressive myth to the contrary, abhored it. In the Laws, Plato condemns homosexuality as a detestable Spartan aberration, and in the Symposium, Socrates rebuffs the advances of Alcibiades politely, but unambiguously.
Nor was the ancients’ abhorrence of homosexuality dictated by “revelation” or clerical decree; it was based on what the hard-headed likes of Cicero, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius called “right reason in harmony with nature”. Throughout antiquity, both Platonists and Stoics defined “natural” as that which conduces to the realization of a thing’s essence, telos, and final good; and in accordance with that definition, they observed, matter-of-factly, that the male rectum is conspicuously ill-suited for use as a sexual organ. As an adherent of the fastidiously “scientific” theory of evolution, Hitchens should realize that he is on rather thin ice in condemning tradition’s judgment that homosexuality is unnatural: if propagation and survival of the group are one’s Darwinian metrics of what is natural, homosexuality fails rather miserably.
And if you really want to look into the credulous countenance of blind, uncritical, reason- and science-defying faith, surely nothing can compare with the modern fable, evangelized by Hitchens and his liberal co-religionists, that homosexuality is wholly unrelated to the AIDS epidemic. Nothing to do with bath-house promiscuity; with the decidedly unhygienic practice of inserting the male member into an orifice from which issues human waste (one wonders how the nanny governments and international health agencies that are constantly reminding us to wash our hands after going to the loo can so breezily overlook this breeding-ground of germs); nothing to do with the statistically disproportionate incidence of AIDS in the gay community.
If promoting scientific truth and public health are your only desiderata, no measure would more effectively reduce the spread of AIDS – neither better nor cheaper vaccines, nor more condoms, nor more “awareness”, nor even programs promoting abstinence – than the total cessation of homosexual activity. (The same is true of the scandal of clerical “pedophilia”, about which Hitchens affects equal indignation in his chapter “Is Religion Child Abuse?”). No one is calling for homogenocide here: only the rational, untrammeled, open-minded discussion of the “facts” that Hitchens and his fellow scoffers at faith pretend to revere. But progressive ideology has recently sacralized another alternative lifestyle, and the reason and science that free-thinkers such as Hitchens and Dawkins claim are their only authorities must inevitably bow the knee to the gods of moral fashion and political correctness.
Transcendently the worst of the Church’s sins, however, is her opposition to “freedom of choice”. Writing about abortion, Hitchens at least acknowledges that the old feminist definition of the embryo as a mass of protoplasm parastically attached to the mother’s body is “nonsense” that “seems to have stopped”. It is science, once again (specifically the sonogram) that has been the agent of enlightenment. Naturally, Hitchens gives no credit to the benighted religionists who somehow knew the feminist euphemism was nonsense all along. (To do so would be to admit that “faith” can apprehend truth after all.)
But having stripped this whited sepulcher of one layer of imposture, Hitchens then adorns it with another. Nature, he says, already “aborts” (in the form of miscarriage) a great number of pregnancies that would otherwise end in “deformed or idiot” children. Moreover, “our ancestors on the savannah”, unable to survive “with a clutch of sickly and lolling infants to protect against predators”, sensibly practised both abortion and infanticide. Oh dear. Throughout his book, Hitchens derides “our ancestors on the savannah” for a whole range of backward superstitions and savage rituals, including, but especially, child sacrifice. Now their resort to infanticide – prompted not by “faith” but by their intuitive understanding of the Darwinian imperative, I suppose – is somehow reasonable.
Of course, we no longer live on the savannah, and those parents who are burdened with sickly or mentally retarded children are no longer at the mercy of nature red in tooth and claw. In any case, these are the hard cases that anti-anti-abortionists are always bringing up. In fact, a miniscule percentage of abortions are performed in order to spare children the hardship of living with deformity or disease; the vast majority are elected as a form of eleventh-hour prophylaxis to spare casual paramours the hardship of caring for the children they have insouciantly conceived at an inconvenient stage in their lives.
Unlike Hitchens, Dawkins remains unembarrassed when he characterizes the nascent embryo as a “microscopic cluster of cells”. But then, even if he could bring himself to recognize that the unborn child is an autonomous human person, such an unremarkable status within the evolutionary continuum would confer upon it no special rights or privileges. Dawkins regards the idolatrous “contemplation of embryos” as the signal symptom, in fact, of religious psychosis. (Apparently, many pro-abortion activists agree with him: while participating recently in a silent protest against abortion, I kept hearing the same refrain, “F–k you, fetus-lovers”, screamed by passers-by: the demotic version of Dawkins’ argument.)
So peculiarly enamoured of fetuses are they, according to Dawkins, that many of those people of faith “who most ardently oppose the taking of embryonic life also seem to be more than usually enthusiastic about taking adult life [i.e, capital punishment]”. It is the exhumation of such mouldering canards that prompted one reviewer of Dawkins’ book to write that his “reasoning” would have made a first-year philosophy student cringe. No Christian theological defence of the sanctity of human life has ever failed to mark the ethical, and therefore, ontological, difference between a life of serial homicide and that of an embryo; just as no Christian theological defence of the sanctity of human life forbids the killing of would-be rapists or murderers in self-defense, or enemy combatants in times of war. Dawkins accuses Christian anti-abortionists of being “absolutists”, but it is he who is the absolutist here. There are any number of moral and even utilitarian (e.g., deterrence) reasons why one might support the death penalty while opposing abortion. The very fact that within the pro-life movement there are vigorous disagreements over capital punishment demonstrates that these are two discreet philosophical problems.
Religious “absolutism” is nonetheless the organizing motive of Dawkins’ attack on the Christian pro-life movement – I count several dozen instances of the word within the scope of eight pages –, even if it more aptly characterizes the other side. Most opponents of abortion would be grateful to see some – any – tiny restrictions placed upon an almost absolutely unfettered abortion regime; but the mere suggestion automatically evokes from abortion rights activists nightmare scenarios of “back-alley” butchery with “coat-hangers”. (Note that when anti-abortionists display graphic images of aborted fetuses, they are accused of misogynist “insensitivity” and “sensationalism”; when the defenders of the status quo show images – invariably doctored, if you will forgive the pun – of mangled women abandoned in the streets with bloody coat-hangers lying beside them –, we are told that a little shock and awe is necessary to prevent a reversion to the Dark Ages.) So rigidly absolutist is the position of “pro-choice” activists that they have resisted even the outlawing of so-called “partial birth abortion” (the late-third-trimester procedure involving the withdrawal of the fetus’ head outside the birth canal so as to facilitate the insertion into its brain of the abortionist’s scissors) which, they maintain, would return us forthwith to the back alleys. Talk about slippery slopes(!)
By contrast to the absolutist opponents of abortion (a.k.a., the “American Taliban”, whose “ambition [is] to achieve what can only be called a Christian fascist state”), Dawkins identifies himself as a utilitarian or “consequentialist”. As a consequentialist, he explains that the only rational way to adjudicate the rightness or wrongness of abortion is “by trying to weigh up suffering”. (Dawkins is obviously fetched by the philosophical school of “consequentialism”, and imagines that in subscribing to it he is being very scientific and modern; but it was Epicurus, in the late-fourth century B.C., who first defined the good as whatever conduces to the greatest pleasure and the least pain, and so reduced complex moral problems to a matter of emotional book-keeping.)
As a consequentialist, Dawkins asks:
Does the embryo suffer? (Presumably not if it is aborted before it has a nervous system; and even if it is old enough to have a nervous system it surely suffers less than, say, an adult cow in a slaughterhouse.) Does the pregnant woman, or her family, suffer if she does not have an abortion? Very possibly so; and, in any case, given that the embryo lacks a nervous system, shouldn’t the mother’s well-developed nervous system have the choice?
I doubt that the liberal Zeitgeist could be more perfectly encapsulated than in Dawkins’ framing of the problem as a suffering contest (which is how, after all, private disputes and public policy are so often decided these days). Of course, the pretense of compassion for the mother’s suffering merely obscures the monstrous ruthlessness of Dawkins’ syllogism. Anyone in possession of a “well-developed nervous system”, while inconveniently burdened with the duty to care for another with a “less-developed” nervous system or capacity to suffer (e.g., an infant; a toddler; someone who is mentally ill; handicapped; old; depressed; apathetic), is hereby entitled to eliminate the agent of his “suffering”. It does not matter that the neurologically immature, handicapped, or elderly dependent has done nothing to injure you; it matters only that his or her existence causes you pain, and that pain can (according to Dawkins) be calculated to be greater than that which the death of your dependent would cause him or her (insofar, that is, as his or her nervous system is under-developed or impaired). (But then, what are anaesthetics for? A good general, administered beforehand, should alleviate the suffering of anyone whose existence annoys you. In fact, why pay for anaesthetics? Bump off your charge in his sleep and he won’t feel a thing – certainly less than a cow in a slaughterhouse.)
Dawkins’ cow comparison is not by any means merely rhetorical, by the way. After noting that the Nazis justified their monstrous treatment of blacks, Jews, and gypsies on the grounds that they were “not fully human” – which is how Dawkins justifies the abortion of “less-developed nervous systems”, is it not? – he writes:
The philosopher Peter Singer, in Animal Liberation, is the most eloquent advocate of the view that we should move to a post-speciesist condition in which humane treatment is meted out to all species that have the brain power to appreciate it. Perhaps this hints at the direction in which the moral Zeitgeist might move in future centuries. It would be a natural extrapolation of earlier reforms like the abolition of slavery, and the emancipation of women.
Dawkins is already a post-speciesist, of course. He really does regard the killing of a baby in the womb as ontologically and morally indistinguishable from the killing of a cow in the slaughterhouse (as is evident from a subsequent passage):
Notice now that “pro-life” doesn’t exactly mean pro-life at all. It means pro-human-life. The granting of uniquely special rights to cells of the species Homo sapiens is hard to reconcile with the fact of evolution. Admittedly, this will not worry those many anti-abortionists who don’t understand that evolution is a fact…The evolutionary point is very simple. The humanness of an embryo’s cells cannot confer upon it any absolutely discontinuous moral status. It cannot, because of our evolutionary continuity with…every species on the planet….There are no nature borderlines in evolution….Absolutist moral discrimination is devastatingly undermined by the fact of evolution.
But here is another troubling “fact”. If evolutionary gradualism means that every biological system, no matter how advanced and complex, already exists in statu nascendi, in some earlier or lower stage of evolution, where on the ladder of life or in the fossil record can Dawkins empirically identify the germinal origins of human consciousness? Of art? Or music? Of literature? Or religion? Of philosophy? Or science? Or reason itself? The very subject of his book ought to have persuaded him that there is something discontinuously novel about the human person.
As we all know, the real reason that the mother is morally justified in aborting her fetus is that she can; the fetus is powerless to stop her; there is a lethal disparity in their “power relationship”. Liberals are supposed to be uniquely sensitive to such inequities. Above all, the very foundation and purpose of moral philosophy is to advance the human species beyond the primitive ethos of might-is-right, and replace such merely arbitrary and accidental criteria with those founded in reason.
What, for instance, about the monstrous disproportionality (to use another liberal buzz-word) between the taking of a life and the endurance of nine months of “suffering”? What about the question of the moral responsibility of the mother and father whose actions were the cause of their “suffering” in the first place (consequentialism, anyone?)? And if you insist on basing your moral philosophy in an Epicurean calculus of pain and pleasure, what about the incalculable quantity of pleasure that has been pre-emptively annulled (pleasure that would have accrued to the baby, his family, friends, and associates) by aborting a life? All such considerations are blithely left off Dawkins’ ledger of pain and pleasure.
Like Hitchens and Dawkins, almost all anti-religionists seem to be social liberals. Yet there is no inherent reason why this should be so. If, as Hitchens and Dawkins argue, the moral and legal codes of Western Civilization have arisen independently of divine revelations or priestly creeds, why blame religion if you think that our secularly-begotten social ethic is insufficiently progressive?
As a matter of fact, one does not need, nor ever has needed, to be religious to oppose, let us say, our current, modish attitudes toward homosexuality or abortion. (I count both as morally wrong, though I have never been a member of any religious communion.) The ancient Stoics argued that our moral laws are founded upon certain rational and innate (i.e., “natural”) prolepseis or “pre-notions” about right and wrong; and that, insofar as reason is a universal human endowment, just laws will naturally transcend all merely accidental differences of ethnicity, religious culture, geography, or time.
In the West, our ancient and nearly universal revulsion of homosexuality and abortion are undoubtedly rooted in such rational pre-notions; like homosexuality, abortion has also been regarded as “unnatural”, insofar as mothers are presumed to be the champions and defenders of children, rather than their executioners. In ridiculing the Church’s unprogressive moral doctrines, therefore, Dawkins and Hitchens are not really arguing with the troglodytes of faith, so much as with a traditional secular consensus omnium. As progressives (and not coincidentally, as Darwinians), they are as reflexively hostile to traditional ethical norms as they are to ancient religious beliefs, both of which they apparently deem useless appendages left over from the infancy of the race.