Let’s begin with a story. I think about this one often. On March 11, 2017, a landslide in the only trash dump for Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, swept dark earth and detritus over 115 human beings, smothering them to death. Most were women and children. Most made their livings picking through the trash that they lived in–and through that labour, many had painstakingly upgraded from fragile shacks to sturdier homes, brick by brick. One of the dead was a sixteen-year-old boy eager to go to university, to become an engineer. Other dreams never made it to Western papers.
The trash dump was about 50 years old, and the only landfill for somewhere over 2.8 million people. The city had tried to open another in 2015, to alleviate the pressure on this first one, where hundreds of human beings lived and scavenged for scraps… but other citizens protested the new dump, not wanting the presence of garbage to diminish the shine of socioeconomic advancement in their neighbourhoods, too.
When the landslide story hit the international news, this last angle was especially critical: the juxtaposition between a rapidly rising and a socially precarious economic market. The rich and the abysmally working poor.
But when I think of this story (and I do often, not fully understanding why this story stands out among so many similar tragedies: the fires that consume overfilled buildings whole, the boats that sink overburdened with refugees) it’s the children who haunt me most of all. Now, that’s not a slight against the adults, whose deaths I find grievous, too… but the adults quite possibly knew a touch more of the world than that landfill. The children? Well, that’s debatable.
And so I can’t seem to shake the idea of human beings born into that refuse, and knowing nothing but that refuse. Toddlers taking their first steps in it, hopefully but not assuredly under someone’s watchful eye. Little ones watching the sun rise and set over its heat stench; bigger children entertaining themselves with bits of junk. And then, one day, all of them catching sight of that incomprehensible tide of dirt and castoffs rising up impossibly fast over them, or around their neighbours. Children crying out from a ground suddenly turned to earthen river, their littles hands outstretched in one last, startled breath before the whole of their inner cosmos fell to silence…
Human Dignity outside Religious Rhetoric
Does a person’s life still matter if their story is lost?
Or if they don’t live long enough to tell their story at all?
These are delicate questions for most of us outside the parameters of faith.
Because faith says, Yes, absolutely, because every human is imbued with a soul by God Almighty!
Meanwhile, we cold dead atheists in a cold dead cosmos clear our throats and raise a finger and hem and haw. “Well…” we deliberate, “I guess you could say that sentience is a precious gift no matter how limited its existence.” But then what does that say about humans with less sentience? Who haven’t the means to tell the rest of us their tales?
It’s not the easiest thing to speak of plainly. I’ve written on the subject more optimistically elsewhere, but today I want to be blunt about the downside: namely, that we atheists tend to be more pragmatic in our sense of limits to the gift of life. It’s why we advocate more for assisted suicide, and the cessation of care to persons in persistently vegetative states, and for terminating pregnancies where there is a high risk of non-viability… or even certain genetic conditions where life is possible, like Down’s syndrome. It’s why we measure the simple fact of life so often against quality of life.
And as such, it’s why we’re more vulnerable to questions about how far that pragmatism should go. Just try to answer the question “What makes a life worth living?” without tripping into counterexamples of lives being lived today that don’t fit your definition due to the impact of racism, classism, sexism, and/or ableism in our world. Black Africans in Libya tortured and enslaved. Male indentured servants in Qatar worked to death and female indentured servants imprisoned for pregnancy, no matter the circumstances that placed them in that state. Child labourers the world over. Sex-trafficking victims the world over. What are you trying to say, Cold-Dead-Atheist? Are you trying to say that those lives don’t have equal value?
Meanwhile, when religious groups rally around the cause, say, of making abortion illegal, they often employ the rhetoric of valuing each and every human being. They claim that every life is precious. Every life a gift.
Which of course yields the obvious counterpoint, that if these groups genuinely care about human life they have an oddly myopic way of showing it. (Nope, I’m not going to talk about the most recent example out of Texas, though oh boy am I still seething over it.) But I’m not so much interested in their hypocrisy as our own.
Because how do we as atheists–and the compassionate humanists especially among us–speak of life’s value without also being selective to the point of contradiction?
Hint: It’s Not a Standalone Issue
Abortion currently arises more as a political issue than a moral one. If it were otherwise, the groups advocating against it would do a better job advocating for social systems that actually reduce its incidence.
Indeed, it’s because abortion is a political issue that anti-abortion groups don’t focus their activism on making the world itself a better place in which to birth a child. Why? Because that would involve championing people who are already moving through the world of their own accord… and those people are complicated poster-children for the inviolate nature of human dignity. Their life-stories are messy. They exist in specific contexts–of nationality, ethnicity, politics, personality, criminal record, education level, and geographical positioning. You can therefore easily get caught up in arguing over their respective worth in a way that the blank slate of a fetus will never approximate. You’re never going to find a criminal record or a bad Twitter history with an embryo.
Helping a human being outside the womb is thus, by far, the more difficult advocacy challenge. From the moment that a baby is no longer literally tethered to one other human being, it is developing stories all its own. And the older the human becomes, the more its stories gain in dimension and nuance.
Just like that, then, if you really care about other human beings, your job as an advocate becomes less to speak for others, and more to create space for others to speak for themselves. And that just won’t do for many politicians who prefer to use these blank slates (the “unborn”) to create a pool of intractably one-issue voters.
Oh, the Cynicism of Caesar!I mean, you almost have to admire such political actors, the way you might admire an apex predator or a cancer cell for its efficiency. Abortion, after all, is a tremendously effective way to keep people voting against their interests, because as much as the exploited religious rhetoric suggests that ours is a sexually depraved world needing nothing more than a return of humility and fear for our eternal souls to reset the balance… the actual evidence points starkly in the opposite direction.
Yes, yes, marriage rates have fallen… among the lower working classes, tethering the institution of marriage significantly to pre-existing wealth stability. But also, a lack of marriage doesn’t intrinsically mean hedonism reigns. Quite the opposite! Sex rates have sharply dropped off in the developed world. Moreover, birth rates within marriage have markedly declined as well.
As such, no matter how much politicians try to employ religion to refigure social problems as problems of the flesh (with many religious institutions happy to go along with this gambit), we are not so much lustfully errant as economically overburdened.
The real cruelty, then, of so much political fixation on the supposed “genocide” of the “unborn” is how it permits higher-than-thou deflection from the wealth of concrete suffering that should be receiving our more immediate attention–not just unto itself, but also because fixing worldly desperation reduces the abortion rate in turn.
Abortion, after all, is nothing more than a consequence of unwanted pregnancies. Build a world in which pregnancies are not unwanted–not a punishment, not a socioeconomic and stigma-inducing nightmare, not caused by poor sex-ed and contraception-access among vulnerable youth–and the pressure on people with uteruses to make such a difficult decision diminishes. Abortion, in a more socioeconomically secure world, would simply be a matter for the most grievous cases of wanted but horrifically nonviable pregnancies, or pregnancies that risk the life of the parent.
It should be a no-brainer win-win, right? But it isn’t.
Thinking Outside the… Womb
Now, this isn’t to suggest that all religious organizations aren’t also trying to limit the number of landfill disasters, heinous building fires, and capsized boat incidents that we have to bear witness to as a society. Indeed, many do go to great lengths to try to elevate birthed human beings from situations more conducive to poor health, poverty, and housing and food insecurity. A rare few even do both: advocate for counterproductive anti-abortion legislation and try to improve the lot of birthed humans through aid that will actually help alleviate their suffering.
But among the many reasons that we humanists are by and large frustrated with the exploitation of religious fervour to advocate for the criminalization of abortion… is the fact that this approach to advocacy involves the imposition of stories on those who cannot speak for themselves.
Which is odd, right? I mean, by an Abrahamic anti-abortionist’s own logic (and a hefty cherry-picking of Jeremiah to the exclusion of pro-abortion discourse for the worst possible reasons throughout the Old Testament, as well as Christ’s own “woe to pregnant women” in his failed end-times prophecy), the “unborn” are already in conversation with their god. And that would still be true (to their beliefs) if all the unborn were to die before birth. So… they’re good, spiritually speaking! If human dignity simply lies in being recognized by their god, as many religious people believe, the (unborn) kids are all right.
However, the moment a child is born–viable preemie or otherwise–it enters into a different conversation. A plainly public and more human conversation.
And in this conversation, a child does not actually know a god unless adults tell them such a being exists… but they do know the sounds and smells and eventually faces (after a few weeks of working out detail and colour) of the people and places around them.
Which… for far too many human beings, means they’re immediately learning the sounds and smells and appearance of a landfill, too.
Or the underbelly of a refugee boat.
Or the dysentery-ridden wasteland of a refugee camp.
Or an urban-squatters’ residence, surrounded by the detritus of drug-addicted living.
And that’s a conversation about human worth that we all too often let this politicized issue steal from the public sphere.
Do We Advocate for Life as If Life Matters?
Simply put, every time people show up for anti-abortion rallies instead of anti-poverty rallies, they–at best–play into an exploitation of the most superficial forms of Christian fervour to shore up political corruption in Caesar’s realm.
And at worst, for those who have thrown themselves wholeheartedly into the belief that abortion is the most atrocious thing human beings do to other human beings? They shirk the demands of real stewardship in this, our shared and hurting world.
But we as compassionate humanists aren’t doing much better if we let the fight stay on their chosen territory. Because good grief, we know better.
We know–whether we arrive at our compassionate humanism from positions of faith or atheism–that the value of human life is a communicated property: on a day-to-day level with our neighbours; in the legal conversations that frame our geopolitical realities; and (if you’re a religious humanist) in conversation, too, with your notion of a creator.
By that metric, then, we need to stand strong against people who would try to navigate the conversation away from the central struggles for human dignity and worth in the 21st Century. Public figureheads, in particular, who would compel us to spend all our time protecting the last vestiges, say, of abortion rights in our developed world… in large part to keep us too busy to rally effectively against the underlying disease.
Because it’s not really about defending abortion rights, is it?
That’s secondary. That’s staunching a wound caused by a much deeper, much more debilitating social concern.
What really matters, what is desperately needed in our world of 7.7 billion human beings, is building a species-wide culture where no one need hesitate when answering the question, “What makes a life worth living?”
And right now, atheist or otherwise, one needn’t delve too deeply into the news to realize how bloody far we are from achieving that most humanist of aims.