These are the sorts of questions you should be discussing around the dinner table with your children of a Sunday afternoon…
Jayman, a Christian commenter here on occasion, pushed back on a recent article I posted concerning William Lane Craig’s position on apostates.
Jayman tried to put the ball back in the atheist’s court with a tu quoque (a fallacious argument that switches attention to the other side to deflect from answering the initial usually moral issue themselves – “You’re saying it was bad for me to murder Harry? But you’ve murdered three people!” – the move does nothing to justify the murder of Harry), as follows (the italics refer to 3lemenope’s previous comment):
I have a somewhat related idea for a future post. Many atheists think it is wrong for God to create humans in this world of evil and suffering. If it is wrong for God to create humans in this world is it not also wrong for humans to create humans in this world via reproduction? Should atheists convinced of certain forms of the argument from evil/suffering be antinatalists?…
How do you make your moral judgments? What is the reason it is morally impermissible for God to put humans in this world but morally permissible for humans to put other humans in this world?
We bring children into the world because, first, a biological-psychological imperative, and second, an expression of love.
The question each atheist must ask himself is whether these reasons morally justify bringing children into a world of evil and suffering.
Since this world, imperfect and dangerous and often cruel as it is, also contains everything worth valuing, it is not from an atheistic perspective a moral negative to bring one more perceiving being into the world.
I think that depends on how evil the atheist in question thinks the world is. As far as I can tell most antinatalists are atheists/agnostics. They say the bad in life far outweighs the good in life.
As if to head me off at the pass, Jayman does also chip in with this:
The interesting question is how you can consistently hold (1) the argument from evil/suffering is sound and (2) it is morally permissible to have children. I don’t think the two positions need contradict each other but tensions can arise. A true dilemma will only arise in the minds of atheists with unexamined contradictory beliefs. I am not saying this is a dilemma for all atheists.
I’m glad that he added this last comment because his argument certainly wouldn’t hold up as being logically valid or necessary. The problem is that Jayman creates a false equivalence between God and humans. Of course, God is supposedly omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent. We humans are not. I mean, I’m pretty close, but…
There is definitely an argument to say that all True Christians™ should murder their babies at birth because the Bible tells us that you have a greater chance of failing to get into heaven than of successfully navigating a path through the pearly gates. Therefore, statistically speaking, there is less than 50% chance your child will make it to heaven, all other things remaining equal. A baby, Christians generally surmise, would automatically bypass any judgement to get straight in through those gates. Thus the chances are much higher for a baby than for an adult who has to suffer the vagaries of a life of temptation. A Christian is potentially, probabilistically, condemning their child to eternal punishment. Harsh.
The defence a Christian would give here is one similar to the understanding of a human approach to giving birth in general in this context. Most humans assume that they are exceptional, above the norm in some way. We can overcome the odds. We might be living in social deprivation where opportunity and aspiration is in short measure, but we bring a child into the world anyway, thinking “we can make it work as a family; it’ll be alright!” Likewise, that Christian family are the best people to provide the nurturing environment for that given baby.
It’s kind of like gambling, where the odds are stacked against the gambler, but he gives his money away anyway, in the hope that he might be the lucky one, and this might be the lucky time. The gambling machines give inconsistent payback that happens just regularly enough to keep the gambler interested.
The simple fact is that the gambler doesn’t indubitably know what will happen with that next coin that he throws into the slot machine. Even if he does know, as the machine designers do, that the machine only has an 82% payout rate, the next coin he puts in might well fall into the 18% chance of winning something.
There are many complex psychological reasons why people have children and, very far down the list indeed comes the rational calculation as to whether the chances for that child are above 50% in terms of some kind of success matrix in life. People simply don’t work like that and they don’t have the knowledge to be able to accurately work out the chances for their child given that they won’t know the genetic makeup up front, the social context that the child will enjoy for the next 18 years plus, all the environmental variables that wall be causally influential and so on. And that’s given that they can even agree on what success in life actually is!
There is, however, and increasingly so, the ability to fairly well predict these sorts of things to a fairly good level of probability, opening up the ability to socially engineer to some degree from more of a societal level. This is how evidence-based policy-making takes place, looking at birth rates and modelling policies based on literacy levels and education, aspiration, income, welfare and so on. But, again, it gets back to the gambling example whereby, on an individual scale, we inherently think we can overcome those probabilities. At the end of the day, no one likes to be told that they shouldn’t have a baby because the probability is, given the context, that baby will struggle to succeed.
This becomes just as awkward when you are discussing the context of war-torn countries or those ravaged by famine. And perhaps there are organisations who seek to keep birth rates down in these problematic scenarios. However, from an evolutionary point of view, the more pressures on mortality there are, the more children a family will likely have. This is why developing nations have higher birth rates than mature, economically stable and educated societies.
Which brings us onto evolution: aside from psychological reasons why we might have children, there are also biological reasons derived from evolutionary pressures that work under the radar in an attempt to secure the long-term future for our genes.
And then there is God. God, in his infinite wisdom and knowledge, designed and created humans with the foreknowledge that most of them will be condemned to hell. This knowledge is indubitable (I am assuming that God has divine foreknowledge here and we aren’t operating on something like Open Theism). I have set this problem out in a number of places and included it in several books:
- God’s Divine Foreknowledge, His Culpability and the Problem of Evil
- Adam & Eve as Bad Test Cases, and God’s Moral Culpability
If I created a sentient lifeform in the lab – designed from scratch and created entirely myself – and I knew 100% (and I mean infallibly) that they would break out of the lab and rampage through town causing harm (rape, murder, mugging) and knew this in advance, and then still decided to create these lifeforms and they went out and did their evil thing, would I not be in some way culpable? Yes, some of them might go out and paint pictures and do charity work, but the majority were pretty evil. Yes, they did it of their own free will. But I knew this in advance. I designed them in such a way. And I created them with this perfect foreknowledge. Would the police, in evaluating the crime and suffering in the town not see me as somewhat morally or causally culpable?
Let’s put it another way. I am the CEO of a massive car company. I design a car that I know 100% will have a certain amount of faults and will, as a result, cause pain and suffering through crashing as a result of those faults. Yes, some of the cars will be great, and provide good service. But many will crash and burn. Literally. And I create them knowingly. Would I not, as CEO, be held accountable? Would I be seen as the paragon of moral virtue for this?
No. No I wouldn’t.
Jayman’s argument is simply creating a very dubious false equivalence. An infallibly all-knowledgeable God with full divine foreknowledge of the future resulting from his “decisions”, making those “decisions”, and a largely irrational human, lacking knowledge in many relevant areas, making a decision based on evolutionary and psychological pressures and with a lot of hope and no real sense of what the future will behold.
As our knowledge and education increases, though, our birthrates do drop. And then there is the idea of designer babies where we are entering a time of possibilities in being able to select successful characteristics into our babies. But that’s another blog post. God seems not to be selecting in good traits all that much (see Hitler, Dharma, Bundy etc.), or got only so far before she gave up. The more knowledge we have, the fewer babies; the more knowledge God has…well…there are 7 billion of us and growing. Nice one, God.
In the same way that I wouldn’t expect a Christian to actually go about murdering their baby (because I don’t believe in heaven or hell for a start, but assuming I did) even though it makes for an interesting argument, I wouldn’t necessarily expect atheists not to have babies on account of the problem of evil and the fact that there is so much suffering in the world. That said, I have only two children and may have only stuck with one had they not been twins (but probably would have opted for two). That is from both an environmental point of view but also from a pragmatic point of view, based on love and resources and providing optimal care. So, to a funny sort of degree, Jayman’s argument sort of bears fruit for me on a personal level after a certain point. You could, if you squint your eyes a little bit here and there, say that I would cap my child-rearing activities at two due to the “problem of evil”. But that’s being charitable. Essentially, there really is a false equivalence.
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