The “Logic” of Richard Dawkins’ Atheism and the Logic of the Cross

It’s a pretty mean world out there, especially if you’re the kind of person for whom self-advocacy is difficult. Case in point:

Dawkins quote

I don’t know what’s worse–the fact that Dawkins made this remark in public, or that it received, at the time this image was captured, 46 retweets and 22 favorites. I’m not surprised. I’m just saddened.

After receiving tremendous criticism for this detestable remark, Dawkins issued an “apology” of sorts, one that smells distinctly of a PR disaster cleanup. He says, in fact, that he received “hate mail” after he posted the comment, apparently oblivious to hatefulness of his own comment.

Within his “apology,” Dawkins says that, had he been able to use more than 140 characters, he would have said the following:

“Obviously the choice would be yours. For what it’s worth, my own choice would be to abort the Down fetus and, assuming you want a baby at all, try again. Given a free choice of having an early abortion or deliberately bringing a Down child into the world, I think the moral and sensible choice would be to abort. And, indeed, that is what the great majority of women, in America and especially in Europe, actually do.  I personally would go further and say that, if your morality is based, as mine is, on a desire to increase the sum of happiness and reduce suffering, the decision to deliberately give birth to a Down baby, when you have the choice to abort it early in the pregnancy, might actually be immoral from the point of view of the child’s own welfare. I agree that that personal opinion is contentious and needs to be argued further, possibly to be withdrawn. In any case, you would probably be condemning yourself as a mother (or yourselves as a couple) to a lifetime of caring for an adult with the needs of a child. Your child would probably have a short life expectancy but, if she did outlive you, you would have the worry of who would care for her after you are gone. No wonder most people choose abortion when offered the choice. Having said that, the choice would be entirely yours and I would never dream of trying to impose my views on you or anyone else.”

Where to begin? One could of course take issue with the idea that morality should be based on the sum total of happiness (Utilitarianism), but I want to draw attention to another problem with the argument. Dawkins seems to suggest that life with a person with Down syndrome decreases the sum total of happiness, and increases the sum total of suffering. This seems to be a prima facie assumption, one that I think many parents and siblings of children with DS would say is entirely wrong. For example:

Screen Shot 2014-08-21 at 11.10.35 AM

Apparently, apart from me, there are 15,758 people who agree. I can say the same about my son, Sean. Yes, he does present us with extra challenges, but he also significantly raises the sum total of happiness in our lives. I’d like to know, moreover, which disabling conditions, from Dawkins’ perspective, will allow parents to enjoy more happiness than sorrow and which will not. Depression? Anxiety? Autism? Deafness? Blindness? ADD? Cerebral palsy? Once we can test for the predisposition to or presence of such conditions, will it be immoral to bring such people into the world? What criteria is he using to decide this? (And, by the way, if you’re a parent, you’ll very likely agree that any kid, regardless of abilities, will leave a few gray hairs on your head.)

Dawkins fancies himself as a public intellectual and logician. In one part of his apology, he answers objections of people “who took offence because they know and love a person with Down Syndrome, and who thought I was saying that their loved one had no right to exist. I have sympathy for this emotional point, but it is an emotional one not a logical one.” Fair enough, but there are two matters that should be addressed here. First, let’s grant that he was not saying that people with DS have no right to exist. He was saying, however, that it is immoral to bring such a person into the world. So yes, they have a right to exist (how magnanimous!), but it would be better if they did not. Second, since Dawkins sees happiness as the ground of morality, I find it incoherent that he rejects arguments based on emotion.

The final points that I want to make are not ones that Dawkins himself would find in any way convincing, or even admissible, because they are based on divine revelation. Christians should necessarily have a vastly different view of the world than people who are non-Christians. That is because at the heart of Christianity is the message of the cross. Perhaps the most important summary of the message of the cross is in the “kenosis” hymn of Philippians 2:5-11:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Christ had all power, glory, and honor, and went of his own accord to the cross. It is because he emptied himself that the Father highly exalted him. He did not seek his own happiness first, but sought the wellbeing of imperfect, sinful people like us, so that we could have eternal life, rather than death. Extending this logic, true life is not to be found in a vigilant protectiveness of our own happiness, but in self-giving. (As an aside I believe that the vigilant protection of our happiness will ultimately lead to unhappiness.)

Jesus’ ethic of self-giving shows up in many other parts of the New Testament. For example:

“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35).

“You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45). 

“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matt 25:40). 

“In all this I have given you an example that by such work we must support the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, for he himself said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). 

Perhaps if I didn’t believe in God, if I thought that this life and the material world around me made up the sum total of existence, I would think in the same way as Dawkins. I don’t know. But I do believe in God, and not just any God. I believe in the God who became incarnate in Jesus, the God of the cross. That belief puts a claim on my life—not one that I always live out rightly, but a claim nonetheless. It reaches into every part of my life. I have read several comments stating that Dawkins’ claim is the logical outcome of his worldview. The logical outcome of a worldview that takes its starting point as the Incarnate God who went to the cross will not be “survival of the fittest,” but the lifting up of the lowly.

We can enact laws to curb “hate speech.” We can censor, shame, and cajole people into saying the right things. But what we cannot do with these kinds of tactics is change hearts. God changes hearts. Pray for God to change hearts.



22 thoughts on “The “Logic” of Richard Dawkins’ Atheism and the Logic of the Cross

  1. Richard Dawkins’ opinion has nothing to do with him being an atheist. His opinion has everything to do with a lack of empathy and being judgmental, which has nothing to do with atheism. I know some very compassionate and non-judgmental atheists.

    I’ve posted many comments in social media about a life threatening liver disease that I struggle with and my support of universal healthcare, i.e. “Obamacare” and the most hate filled responses I’ve received have been from very devout, conservative Christians, with their comments receiving dozens of “likes” by others. It’s not been just a few cruel comments – it’s been a lot. Of course, they’ve all added that they’d pray for me. While some Christians have been extremely compassionate and kind toward me, by far the most judgmental and harsh have also been Christians. If I hadn’t been raised as a Christian, I would definitely not become one, specifically because of how so many have treated me regarding my disease and need of healthcare.

    Somewhat along these lines, you may have read this morning that the Cincinnati Archdiocese has warned Catholic school principals not to encourage the ALS “ice bucket fundraising challenge” and said not donate to the ALS foundation because the foundation supports one study using embryonic stem cells. The ALS foundation said that if you make a donation to them and specify that it not be used for stem cell research, they’ll honor that request.

    Fr. Michael F. Duffy, who’s been making a prominent issue of all this, said that: “While I can’t donate to ALS Association, I will certainly pray for those that suffer from this disease.” In response I’d quote James 2:15-16: “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?”

    • Britt, I just can’t agree with you that his moral perspective as no relationship to his atheism. If that’s the case, he’s not thinking through the implications of his atheism.

      I respect the honest difference of opinion, but I firmly believe that our religious beliefs, or lack thereof, come to bear in important ways on our actions, attitudes, and ethics.

      • David, you’re painting with a very broad brush. My girlfriend is an atheist and she’s very compassionate and non-judgmental. If religious beliefs are so important in making one compassionate, then why have conservative Christians been the source of so many harsh and cruel things been said to me regarding my disease and healthcare or others? Those same Christians believe that Jesus died for our sins and rose from the grave. As James said, even the demons believe. Perhaps you’re not aware that Richard Dawkins has said that as a child he was sexually abused. I would imagine that might be the cause of his emotional callousness today, rather than his particular religions beliefs. That might even be why he doesn’t believe in God.

  2. Indeed, belief systems have consequences. Sadly, the fingerprints of Richard Dawkins’ atheism are all over the page. Other observers have pointed this out. Dawkins has come under fire in the UK for the bizarre tangents of his logic; some say these may be expressions of a floundering mind.

  3. If we wish to make Dawkins “representative” of atheists, we need to make Pat Robertson “representative” of Christians. They both are low hanging fruit.

  4. Jon, a careful reading of the post will show that I am not making Dawkins representative of all atheists. I think it is telling, though, that you seem more concerned about the way in which I have supposedly depicted atheists than about the devaluation of human life in Dawkins’ comments.

  5. Contrary to dismissing Dawkins as “not worth the effort,” it is both worthy and courageous to push back against Dawkins and the tidal wash of the popularizers, the cultural brahmins and media-celeb sophists among us, where the devil is in clever words. Dawkins gave an opening, and David Watson made a witness. That’s being faithful.

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