Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Reply to Megan on Bumper Sticker Philosophy

My goal is eventually to write a book on the philosophical and factual mistakes underlying the prolife movement, but I seem to be much more at home writing short pieces (though long for blog comments) in conversation with prolifers, usually in the form of replies to specific statements. The following is a comment I posted (but who knows when it will be published) to a blog entry by Megan on the Life Training Institute's blog. It was titled "Bumper Sticker Philosophy" and can be found here:
Megan was commenting on what she believed to be the contradictory philosophical presuppositions of a fellow college student based on the bumper stickers on her car. The three bumper stickers she mentions are a Darwin fish, "Fight Racism" and "Pro-Choice."
I deal with her comments about evolution, naturalism and the value of the embryo first. Then I go into a long account of how the rise of the prolife movement among evangelicals in the South may have been linked to changing attitudes about race. I have never heard anyone put these ideas together in this way before. I thought up this way of looking at things some time ago, building on a very narrow historical knowledge base. I am not confident in it. There are definitely facts consistent with it -- like the support for apartheid by conservative prolife senators with a history of racism -- but I elaborate beyond what I know. For instance the statement that "A kind of moral hysteria swept through evangelical congregations" is pure filling-in on my part. I don't know much about just what happened in churches or in the prolife movement as it took off in the late 70s. If people want to correct me, I'd be glad to learn from them.


I realize this blog is more or less intended for LTI insiders, not for pro-choice secularists like me. But speaking just to those who agree with you can lead to complacency and even to sloppy thinking, and I know you consider yourself to be a careful thinker. So look on this as an attempt to keep you from sinking into a too-easy complacency. Besides, you attacked the woman who expressed those bumper-sticker opinions without giving her a chance to defend herself. Let me be her stand-in.

Regarding the “Darwin fish” bumper sticker, you’re right that it pokes fun at Christians, but not all Christians, just those who deny the reality of evolution. You are mistaken if you believe the theory of evolution is based on a naturalistic worldview. If anything, it is the other way around: evolution by natural selection made belief in naturalism possible. Darwin was a Bible-believing Christian when he began his voyage on the Beagle. If he had found evidence supporting the story of Noah’s Ark instead of contradicting it, no doubt he would have remained one. Darwin’s theory arose from his struggles to understand a vast range of facts, many of which he discovered or became vivid to him on his voyage around the world or through his later painstaking investigations. The theory managed to convince the scientific community and the science-literate public not because it flattered their presuppositions – it didn’t – but because it succeeded wonderfully at explaining intelligibly so much of the living world. In the century and a half since the publication of The Origin of Species, supporting evidence has continued to build and build, while not a single solid fact that contradicts the theory has turned up. A flood of genetic information is now pouring out of laboratories, shedding light on the evolutionary history of life on earth in undreamed-of detail. If evolution were false, there would be no reason for all this data to be consistent with it. But the data supports the theory in spades. Without evolution, it would make no sense. Many Christians have accommodated their religious beliefs to the incontrovertible reality of the evolution of species, including our own. Those who continue to deny something so well-substantiated deserve to be poked fun at. If you believe that the theory of evolution by natural selection is scientifically controversial, you have been lied to. Evolutionary theory is normal, established science. Species evolved from other species as surely as the sun is a star and the moon is made of rock and the world is older than last Tuesday. Whatever your metaphysics, if you must deny the solid fact of evolution, you need to revise your assumptions.

Just as your assumption that Darwinism is in error shows an ignorance of biology, so does your claim that naturalism cannot account for goodness. I remember being puzzled by this claim in C.S. Lewis. Like you, he goes from a universe of “bombarding particles” to an absence of value. Inexplicably, he omits the realm of organized matter we know as life. Things are good and bad for organisms. If they don’t behave accordingly, they don’t survive. As products of evolution, it is not surprising that we perceive the world as infused with values. You say, “according to her worldview, ideas are just the inevitable result of bombarding particles. So ideas can be different, but none can be better than others.” On the contrary, ideas can be more or less accurate, and having accurate ideas of the world around us has survival value. For instance, we are liable to harm our descendants if we fail to adopt accurate ideas about climate change.

When it comes to morality, you say that someone with a naturalistic worldview cannot say why her view is better. I admit that arriving at an account of the foundations of morality compatible with naturalism is a difficult challenge, but it seems to me that the theistic alternative is no better than a parent’s answer to the umpteenth ‘why’ question: “because!” Except that the theist elaborates: “because God said so.” You tell us, “Human beings are intrinsically valuable – valuable just in light of being human.” Why is that? Because God said so (never mind where, or to whom, or how you know it), or what amounts to the same thing (namely no explanation at all): because we are “made in the image of God.” But God is invisible. He has no body. He is incomparable to anything. So what is His image? The basic tenet of your morality is an oxymoron! Is that a license to make it mean whatever you want it to mean? If not, let me try to understand it.

Are human embryos valuable – made in the image of God – because they have human DNA? But God does not have DNA. Is it because they are human animals? But God is not an animal. Is it because they have human life? God doesn’t. Then because they are alive? Is God biologically alive? No – He has no body. But if He is ‘living’ in some abstract sense, then aren’t all living things made in His image? According to Christian theology, God is a person (actually three). So perhaps, insofar as we are persons, we are made in His image. But what is a person? ‘Person’ cannot mean ‘human animal’, since God is a person but not an animal. Those on the pro-choice side tend to believe that an essential characteristic of persons is that they have minds. We tend to think of God as having a mind. So this is also consistent with being made in His image. But for humans, having a mind requires having a functioning brain. Therefore embryos are not yet persons, and have not yet been made in God’s image. The idea that it could take time to be made in His image is consistent with the Bible. After all, we are told that He knitted us together, not that we popped into existence when He snapped His fingers. If God molds us like clay, then perhaps he molds a human organism into a person during the final months of pregnancy. On what basis did pro-lifers become so certain – contrary to the beliefs of many other Christians, both now and historically – that this ‘making’ occurs instantaneously at the moment of conception? This used to be thought of in terms of the question of when the soul entered the body; perhaps it was the invisible, immaterial soul or spirit that was supposed to be made in the image of the invisible, immaterial God. That would make sense. But, curiously, evangelical Protestant pro-lifers no longer speak of the soul, at least not in this context. Once they accused Darwin of trying to reduce man to the level of the beasts, but now they are ready to fight for the proposition that man’s most essential identity is his animal nature. How did that happen?

I have an idea, and it is related to the third bumper sticker: “Fight Racism.” Conservative evangelicals did not become fired up over the issue of abortion until the late 1970s. Up until the late 60s southern white conservative evangelicals were much more concerned about defending their right to deny their black neighbors equality, dignity and the vote. They hated liberals and the Supreme Court for pushing integration on them, and they left the Democratic Party in rebellion over civil rights legislation. This is what occupied their passions, while opinions favoring liberalization of abortion laws were widespread, even among evangelicals in the South. For instance, in 1971 both the Southern Baptist Convention and the National Convention of Evangelicals passed moderate statements on abortion. The Baptist resolution stated, “we call upon Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.” What happened after 1971? Did a new book of the Bible turn up? Not quite. The Roe v Wade decision came down in 1973, but that wasn’t enough in itself to spark evangelicals’ passions. There was something else that lit the tinder box, and I think it was race – but in a peculiar, indirect kind of way.

Something important was happening during the 1970s, maybe beginning with the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968: racism was losing respectability in the South. This was a reversal of centuries of tradition, and it must have been wrenching, especially for preachers who had defended Jim Crow with fervor and scripture from the pulpit.  Southern Baptists, after all, had split from their northern coreligionists over their support for slavery, and conservative white southern evangelicals had continued to defend the right of white Christians to deny their black neighbors equality, dignity, and the vote in self-righteous tones of defiance or misunderstood and put-upon victimhood ever since. But all that was coming to an end. What was a proud, formerly openly racist preacher to do?

The decent, Christian thing would have been to call on his congregation to join him in repenting for centuries of oppression, to admit they had been wrong, and to invite their black neighbors into their churches, offer to wash their feet, and beg their forgiveness. On the other hand, Catholics were making quite a noise about abortion, especially after Roe, and while the Catholic Church had formerly been reviled, maybe they had a point. If abortion was murder, that made liberals and the hated Supreme Court baby killers. And if conservative southern evangelicals could accuse their enemies, the civil-rights-defending integration-forcing school prayer-preventing godless commie liberals, of killing innocent babies, how sweet was that?

Conservatives, who had fought tooth and nail to preserve white supremacy in this country, and who were still defending it in South Africa, by opposing abortion could become authorities on equality and human rights. People who had dedicated their lives to preserving their God-given right to humiliate their black neighbors could preach to liberals, in tones of moral outrage, about human dignity. It was a godsend, if you believe in that kind of God. Preachers and their congregations could climb back on their high horse, defending Christian goodness against godless evil. They just had to change horses. Why repent or atone, if you can change the subject? 

A kind of moral hysteria swept through evangelical congregations. Formerly moderate positions and statements on abortion were forgotten. The “defender of human rights” had become a new, or newly current, kind of moral hero. It was a much-coveted role, and by affirming as God’s truth certain non-obvious things about the beginning and end of life, it could be yours. People who had been shamed for their racist culture became the righteous defenders of human rights that as Christians they felt they deserved to be recognized as.

At least, that’s one possible explanation for the virulent, extremist anti-abortion movement in this country, which is peculiar to the USA, like its racial history.

I’m not saying that all prolifers were racists, or that many are racist now. Times have changed. In 1995 the Southern Baptist Convention finally apologized for Jim Crow. Now prolife conservative white southerners claim the mantle of the civil rights movement, likening their pro-choice liberal opponents to racists, as Megan did, without a hint of irony. It is now unquestioned among them that a central tenet of Christianity is the right to life from the moment of conception. But this was not always so. It could be that this controversial proposition became gospel for a certain group at a particular moment in history not on its intrinsic merits, but because it served to restore the self-esteem and express the anger and self-righteousness of people whose goodness and way of life had been called into question. That was intolerable and didn’t bear thinking about. So they changed the subject by inventing a new self-evident truth, and rallied around it like a battle flag, which they marched off under, to the culture wars. And we have been fighting ever since.

What might seem surprising in all this is the lack of a sense of humility, or maybe just fallibility. Considering how wrong southern white conservative evangelicals got the race question, over decades and centuries, not just personally but institutionally and doctrinally, you might think they would consider the possibility that, even when they believe now that they know the mind of God, they could be wrong, again.  And that, especially when the issue is equality and human rights, maybe they might have something to learn from liberals.

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