Saturday, 29 June 2013

The Atheist Dogma On Abortion

While I am in the main opposed to organised religion, I don't believe that everything (say) the Catholic Church opposes must therefore be supported by rationalists and atheists. Yes, religious beliefs often distort concepts of morality in very ugly ways, but this is not an infallibly predictable rule.

There is a Facebook site I subscribe to called "Atheist Quotes of the Day" (AQOTD). Normally, the posts here are the warm and fuzzy attacks on religious dogma and superstition that I enjoy. Recently, however, there have appeared some posts in favour of abortion, and these have not been greeted with the same degree of agreement even by the faithful.

I have always been highly uncomfortable with abortion. I believe it is not a subject that has clear demarcations between right and wrong, and one of the mistakes made by hard-liners on either side of the debate is in assuming that there is a clear line and the other side is just not seeing it.

My point is that the line, if there is one, is highly blurred. Making an unequivocal statement of right and wrong is naive at best and dangerously arrogant at worst. So I don't want to see legislation outlawing abortion, and at the same time, I wouldn't want to see people accepting an abortion as nothing more serious than the extraction of an inconvenient tooth. (See what I did there? "An inconvenient tooth", get it?). Obviously, I would support abortion in cases of rape and incest, and also when the life of the mother is threatened. These are absolutely non-controversial to me. What makes me say "Not so fast!" is the hard-line feminist argument that a woman's body is her own and therefore there can be no questioning of a woman's decision to abort the child she is carrying inside her body under any circumstances.

I think we need to look at abortion not as a crime but as an ethical issue. That should take some of the heat out of the debate while still keeping us from turning our backs on it. I also strongly believe we should take religion out of the debate and rely on reason and empathy alone. I think reason and empathy form the necessary and sufficient foundation for a moral worldview. Religion only muddies the waters. As Arthur C Clarke said,

The greatest tragedy in mankind's entire history may be the hijacking of morality by religion.

Abortion should be seen as a moral issue, not a religious one. And (surprise!) atheists can have morals too. The most recent post on AQOTD that spurred me to respond showed a petri dish containing human eggs (it wasn't clear whether they were fertilised or not). The site's owner had posted a rather arrogant (I thought) statement under it: "These are not human beings. Any questions?"

Edict from the High Church of Atheism: "These are not human beings. Any questions?"

This was the proverbial last straw. I can understand dogma from the religious, but dogma from atheists?

It's a little like the vegetarian debate, which again should be divorced from religion. There are people who are strict vegans and do not favour any kind of human imposition on the animal kingdom, the "ordinary" vegetarians (lacto-vegetarians), the ovo-lacto-vegetarians who will not eat fertilised eggs (and those who will), people who will eat fish and poultry but not red meat, people who will eat "regular" meat but not dogs, cats, horses and monkeys, those who will eat anything that moves except humans, and of course, cannibals. To each group of people, those further "ahead" of them seem weird and/or immoral, and those "behind" them are unnecessarily squeamish and should get with the program.

It's a bit like the saying about driving - anyone driving slower than you is an idiot; anyone driving faster than you is a maniac.

The resolution to all of these issues is the recognition that there is no single line that divides the acceptable from the unacceptable. Real life is messy, and different people (however rational and intelligent) will fail to agree on where to draw the line. Each will draw it in a slightly different place, and we must learn to accept some degree of difference in our approaches to ethical issues without condemning people as either immoral or superstitious.

When thinking about how to respond to the AQOTD post, I weighed several response styles from humorous to sarcastic and finally settled on a tone of civilised reason:

"So, after the non-controversial arguments against believing in imaginary friends, we have now moved on to the more controversial topic of human morality. As rational people, how can we be expected to accept someone else's line on morality without thinking for ourselves?

Hear me out. 100% of rationalists would agree that the killing of unfertilised eggs or of sperms is not murder. Also, 100% of rationalists would agree that the killing of a new-born baby is murder. Clearly, all of us have crossed over from "not murder" to "murder" at some point along the development of the human foetus.

Is this point conception (the point before which development into a complete human was impossible)?
Is it the development of discernible organs (when we begin to feel empathy for something like ourselves)?
Is it the development of a heartbeat (when we begin to think of the foetus as a living being and therefore capable of being "killed")?
Is it the development of the nervous system to the point of being able to feel pain (which again appeals to our empathy)?
Is it the development of the foetus to a point where it can be kept alive artificially outside the body of the mother (which makes it a complete and viable human being)?

No matter how we look at it, the 100% of rationalists who cross over from "not murder" to "murder" do so at different points, depending on their personal philosophies, which have nothing to do with god or religion (so don't insult anyone's intelligence by accusing them of religious beliefs).

It is naive to believe that there is a single line in the sand here after which 100% of rationalists will immediately cross over from "not murder" to "murder". We are all intelligent beings who believe in reason, but we need not all agree on everything, certainly not on something as blurry as the development of a human being from individual cells.

What I am asking for is an end to dogma and more respect for the views of other rationalists. "These are not human beings. Any questions?" sounds like an arrogant religious diktat from the High Church of Atheism. It is not respectful of the considered opinions of other rationalists and leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Let the atheist community not degenerate into another church with its own approved dogmas."

That should have kicked the hornet's nest good and proper :-). The angry buzzing must have started already. But I'm sure there will be plenty of people whose thoughts and sentiments I have expressed, so I'm not going to be alone.

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