July 2002. I remember hearing the terrible news. An explosion had ripped through a coal mine in Pennsylvania and nine miners were trapped 240 feet underground in a dark, partially flooded mineshaft.
An astonishing rescue effort was launched. Engineers examined the situation and made recommendations, environmental scientists ran tests on the ground water, massive drilling equipment and men who operated it were brought in. Even the U.S. Navy supplied underwater experts and nine decompression chambers in hopes the men would be brought up alive.
For three days Americans sat transfixed in front of their TVs as engineers drilled a narrow shaft the entire distance down to the trapped miners. If they miscalculated the angle and failed to intersect the area where the men were waiting, it would be too late to start again.
Finally, news came that they had reached the men. As they were brought up alive, one by one, the entire nation celebrated. It was impossible to remain unmoved. Nine miners we'd never seen before and didn't know from Adam were saved.
Value, dignity, and the Christian worldview
It's clear that we share a universal intuition and strong belief in the unique value of human life.
We speak naturally of people possessing “inherent value”—value that exists in them rather than value we might subjectively churn up and assign to them. We speak of them as possessing “high” and “equal” value. We talk about the “dignity” each person “deserves.” We use words like priceless to describe our children and grandchildren.
This is simply how we naturally think and speak.
In fact, except in cases where human hearts have been, by whatever means, deadened and consciences seared, this belief in the inherent, high, and equal value of human persons seems as natural to us as belief in our own existence or in the existence of the physical world.
And of course the biblical worldview makes sense of our experience in this regard. If God exists and we have been created in his image and likeness, then we do possess unique value among created things. The Christian worldview provides a metaphysical basis and foundation for what we seem to intuitively know to be true.
O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth! . . . When I look at thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou hast established; what is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him? Yet thou hast made him little less than God, and dost crown him with glory and honor. Thou hast given him dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet . . . O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth! (Psalm 8:1, 3-6, 9).
As a Christian, I believe the truth of our value and dignity as human persons is something God has written on our hearts and etched into our beings. It's something we simply know.
Naturalism, value, and dignity
But what if the worldview of the atheist is true?
For a moment, assume that it is. Climb inside the naturalist worldview and think about what naturalism would imply about the value and dignity of human life. I'm talking about the kind of atheistic materialism most modern atheists espouse: no God, no human souls, no spirits. Just matter.
What if you and I really are nothing more than complicated biochemical machines that appear for a moment, gears spinning, and then disappear forever? What if we really have come from nowhere and are going nowhere? What if we really are nothing more than the product of an entirely impersonal, material universe, that we don't have souls and aren't spiritual beings at all?
What becomes of inherent value and dignity then?
That's right. If materialism is true, we posses no inherent value. In that case the only “value” we possess is what we are willing to grant to one another in the few moments before the quicksand swallows us.
Of course, none of this should seem strange or surprising to us. It's something consistent atheists admit all the time. Listen to how casually Ingrid Newkirk the president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) speaks of this: "Animal liberationists do not separate out the human animal. . . . A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy. They are all mammals" (Vogue magazine, Sept. 1, 1989).
For those who feel this assessment is a bit too generous, there's always that of atheist philosopher James Rachels:
As Darwin clearly recognized, we are not entitled—not on evolutionary grounds, at any rate—to regard our own adaptive behavior as "better" or "higher" than that of a cockroach, who, after all, is adapted equally well to life in its own environmental niche (Created from Animals, 70).
Read these quotations a couple of times. Allow their meaning to sink in. This is what you have to accept as true and live with if you do not believe in a higher origin for the human race and a higher purpose for human life.
This is consistent naturalism. This is what is true if there is no God and we are merely the products of nature.
In fact, in the circles of consistent naturalists, to deny the equal value of all living beings is to commit the grave sin of “speciesism.” To the consistent naturalist it is unwarranted and wrong to assign different values or rights to individuals based on the species of which they are members.
You know, like saving a child from a burning building before saving a rat simply because the child belongs to the human species. I would be willing to bet that in that situation both Ingrid Newkirk and James Rachels would favor the child over the rat, but they might be ever so slightly embarrassed that their speciesist impulses got the better of them.
Is there any way to escape this implication of the naturalist worldview? Is there any way to justify our thinking of human beings as possessing inherent value—value inherently higher than that of rats and pigs and dogs and cockroaches—without believing in our creation in God's image? Or at least our special creation by God?
Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University, doesn’t think so. As an atheist he has admitted that the Judeo-Christian doctrine of man’s creation in the image and likeness of God may be the only foundation there is to support such an idea.
Rachels agrees that with the rejection of the biblical worldview:
The traditional supports for the idea of human dignity are gone. . . . They have not survived the colossal shift of perspective brought about by Darwin’s theory. . . . [A] Darwinian may conclude that a successful defense of human dignity is most unlikely (Created from Animals, 171-172).
The problem of “equal” value
So much for inherent value and high value. What about “equal value?”
We all say yes to this. Whether we believe in God or not, everyone believes in treating people as though they possessed equal value and dignity. But can an atheist justify this belief on the basis of his worldview?
Philosopher Joel Feinberg spent time thinking through this exact question from a naturalist perspective. Since people quite obviously have inequalities of “merit”—inequalities of talent, ability, personality, character, inequalities in the contribution they make to society—why is it, he asked, that we seem to have this universal intuition and strong belief that each human being possesses “equal value” and should be treated with “equal dignity”? Why do we believe this and strive to practice it?
His conclusion was that this intuition and belief, however common it may be, has no basis whatsoever in the natural world. It seems to be some kind of irrational and unjustifiable attitude we share, a subjective feeling that everyone has equal value when in fact they don't (see J.P. Moreland, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: Human Persons and the Failure of Naturalism, 144-145).
Application to apologetics
It's my belief that this can be a powerful evangelistic tool.
Because when you talk to your agnostic or atheist friend about this question of value, and you draw out inescapable implication of the naturalist worldview, it's going to bother your friend. Why? Because as the image and likeness of God, he knows that human beings are worth more than cockroaches. He knows people have inherent, high, and equal value. He feels this and more than likely he lives as though it were the case.
Now, he may say he believes human beings are the mere excretions of the material universe with no inherent value, and on a more or less intellectual level he may truly believe it.
In fact, he may insist that Newkirk is entirely correct in saying that “a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy” and that professor Rachels is exactly right in saying that we human beings are not entitled to think of ourselves as being higher or better than cockroaches.
He may commit to all of this on paper. But unless he's a member of ISIS, the chances are he lives more or less as though he believed what Christians believe about the value and dignity of human persons.
This is no proof of God's existence. But it is another powerful illustration of the tension atheists live with, attempting to hold a view of the world that contradicts who they are and what they intuitively know to be true.
My experience is that putting your finger on that tension can lead to the most interesting of conversations.