Monday, July 29, 2013

The Basis for the Pro-Life View: Science or Religion?

"Surely," I argued, "The Holocaust was truly evil."

We were seated in a train, watching the sun rise as the gritty precincts of Los Angeles glided past the window. My conversation partner was an atheist around my own age. He had noticed my Bible and, in the ensuing discussion, had professed a belief in moral relativism. I assumed he did not understand the implications of his philosophy.

I was wrong.

"You have to see it from the German point of view," the young man explained. "The Germans thought the Jews were a real threat. They told them to leave, and the Jews insisted on staying."  

At one time I might have dismissed my fellow traveler as an anomaly. I am afraid, however, that he is actually quite normal.

A few months before the train ride, I had a similar experience at my church. I was teaching a class of junior high students, most of whom had grown up in the church. During the lesson, I showed the following clip from The Hiding Place:

After the clip was finished, I asked the class to help me compile a list of all of the truths which we could perceive about the event depicted in the film. We quickly assembled a list on the whiteboard describing what we had seen and heard. The list included statements such as "the boys smashed the merchandise" and "the owner was forced to watch."

After a stretch of silence, I added one more item to the list: "What the boys did was wrong." Before I had finished writing this statement, one of the students corrected me.

"That's not a truth," he confidently asserted. "It's an opinion."

I turned around to see the class nodding in agreement. “So you mean you don’t believe this statement is true?” I asked, pointing to what I had just written.

“No, it’s an opinion,” someone else answered.

“It’s true from the Christian perspective,” interjected another, “But obviously the German officer doesn't believe it’s true, so it’s just an opinion.”

I pressed the question further, but not a single student in the junior high youth group believed that the statement I had written was objective truth. In fact, they seemed genuinely surprised that I would even suggest something so naive and uneducated. Later that evening, I presented the same lesson to the high school youth group and received a similar response. 

What is happening here? It is really quite simple. From a very early age, these students, along with the young man on the train, have been taught that science is the only means of discovering objective truth. Therefore, since moral claims cannot be empirically verified in a laboratory, they are viewed merely as subjective constructs of human societies.

The articulations of the young man on the train are therefore not as unreasonable as one might at first suppose. In fact, they are quite logical if naturalism is true. But what if naturalism is not true? What if reality consists of more than the particles described by physics? In the final analysis, therefore, moral questions cannot be separated from religious ones. 

This is why I cringe when I hear pro-lifers say that their views against abortion are founded on science and not religion. What they should say instead is that their views against abortion are neither more nor less religious than their views against rape, child abuse, or infanticide. Science can demonstrate that all of these various actions damage another human being, but science itself cannot tell you whether it is right or wrong to damage another human being. Therefore, while science certainly undergirds one's beliefs about the content of these actions, any question about the morality of these actions transcends science.

In short, I do not believe abortion kills an innocent human being because of my religion. I believe abortion kills an innocent human being because of science. But I believe it is wrong to kill an innocent human being because of my religion.


Anonymous said...

I agree. I am fed up with people assuming that because I am a Christian that that is why I believe abortion is wrong. I believe it's wrong for many reasons, & only one of them is my faith...but I also know a lot of Christians who have had abortions, my aunt included. I know that it's not my faith that leads my belief that abortion is wrong, because I thought so long before I was a Christian. I just have morals that say that you shouldn't kill someone who hasn't done anything to harm anyone.

GandalfOlorin said...

Mr. Vasser, A good post, but you need to go further. Unless you show your hearers that reason and faith are not contradictory or even competitive, you will not really convince them. The reason people know that murder and abortion are wrong, even when they bury their consciences, is that all our laws are based on the morality of the Ten Commandments. This means that all our laws ultimately come from God, at least in Western Civilization (what used to be called Christendom). Since all real law and all morality come from God, there is no such thing as an argument against murder or abortion without mentioning that it is wrong, sinful, against God's law. Those who would deny this are obviously giving an opinion alright--a very wrong opinion.

Murray Vasser said...

Hi GandalfOlorin,

"Unless you show your hearers that reason and faith are not contradictory or even competitive"

Please see my previous post:

Jean-Marc said...

I don't agree that this "wrong" is only a religious point of view. We have to think why there is atheist for life : they have no religious point of view about it ...

"... because life is all that is and all that matters and the abortion destroys the life of an innocent human being "

or also with Albert Schweitzer "reverence for life" ... yes he was a christian, but before he was a doctor and a philosopher.

Jean-Marc said...

also :

Jean-Marc said...

The same for Holocaust : it is wrong and not only because of religious point of view ...

David M said...

"I believe it is wrong to kill an innocent human being because of my religion." - Murray, you seem to be implying that if you gave up your religion, you would no longer believe it is wrong to kill innocent human beings. That seems implausible, don't you think? I think you have some fine-tuning to do here.

Murray Vasser said...

If I gave up my religion and became a naturalist, I would of course still feel that murder was wrong. However, I would understand this feeling to be nothing more than an instinct produced by evolution. I would have no rational grounds for believing that this instinct corresponded to some objective reality, and I would have no rational grounds for insisting that this instinct always be obeyed.

Please see my previous post for a more in depth explanation:

David M said...

So, Murray, perhaps your comment should have been: "I believe that the only rational basis for believing it is always wrong to kill an innocent human being is a basis in religion." And of course that claim will be disputable, from a number of directions, but some naturalists will be happy to agree with you, saying either that we don't need a rational basis (Hume), or that in fact it isn't always wrong.

Jimmy John Shelton said...

Why do you feel you need this objective reality? Why not law, social consensus, common sense? Why do you need more than that?

You really, really want abortion to be wrong in that objective sense, if I'm reading the crux of this piece in tune with your meaning. Killing is wrong, across the board.

But, it isn't. Unless you are a completely against war, or the death penalty, then you aren't "pro-life". I don't know your stance on those issues, but I have a feeling you are completely okay with killing in certain contexts.

So, the statement: "War is wrong." is an opinion, not a fact. Your youth group is right. They know how to separate facts and opinions, and that is a good thing. That is critical thinking. You should commend them.

David M said...

"They know how to separate facts and opinions, and that is a good thing. That is critical thinking. You should commend them." - Hilarious. Thanks for reinforcing Murray's point. Here's a fact for you: "killing is okay in certain contexts" is not contradicted by "intentional killing of innocent human beings is always wrong." If you think otherwise, then you have failed to understand the claims being made.

Jimmy John Shelton said...

David M.

If it is wrong to kill innocent people, that comes from social consensus; because people agree it is bad, IN MOST CONTEXTS. Sorry to burst your bubble, but in some contexts, the killing of innocents is shrugged off as "collateral damage". Maybe some abortion pro-lifers are as anti-war as they are anti-abortion, but it seems the opposite is true. Most pro-lifers don't seem to have a problem with war, but to be logically consistent, they must be pacifists.

For instance, if there is an objective morality that most Christians know, I would expect to find Christians to be the most anti-war people on the planet. I do not find that at all.

So, tell me again where you find this objective standard that fits across the board in every context. Tell me why you need this construct.

David M said...

As I suspected, Jimmy: "you have failed to understand the claims being made." You have ignored the word 'intentional.'

You also (very strangely) seem to be assuming that the fact that people might shrug something off is relevant to establishing that that something is not actually immoral.

David M said...

And Jimmy, in the interests of having an intelligent discussion, please read up on the doctrine (or principle) of double effect before coming back with another reply based on basic misunderstanding of the claim being made.

David M said...

...I recommend David Oderberg's book "Moral Theory"

David M said...

"Since all real law and all morality come from God, there is no such thing as an argument against murder or abortion without mentioning that it is wrong, sinful, against God's law." - That simply doesn't follow. Why could you not admit that all morality ultimately comes from God, but still maintain that a moral argument need not mention this ultimate source?