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Atheism vs. Human Worth

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.

For three days, Americans sat glued to their TV sets 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.

A billboard appeared in Pennsylvania that simply read, “God gave us a miracle!”

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 very naturally of people possessing “inherent” value, “high” and “equal” value. We talk about the “dignity” each person “deserves.” We use words like priceless to describe human lives.

The biblical worldview confirms this intuition. If God exists, and we have been created in his image and likeness, then we do possess unique value among created beings. Christianity provides a metaphysical basis and foundation for what we seem to intuitively know to be true.

O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth. . . . When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You made him ruler over the works of your hands, and put everything under his feet. . . . O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth (Psalm 8:1, 3-6).

In accord with the Christian worldview, the truth of our value and dignity as human persons is something God has written on our hearts and etched into our very beings. It’s something we simply know.

Naturalism, Value, and Dignity

But what if the atheist-naturalist worldview is true? What if we 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?

What then becomes of inherent value and dignity?  It would be an illusion. Objectively speaking, in a naturalist universe, we would have no more value than any other aspect of nature. The only “value” we would possess would be what others were willing to grant us in our few moments on this Earth.

This is something that consistent atheists admit all the time. As Ingrid Newkirk, president of PETA, observed in a 1989 issue of Vogue: “Animal liberationists do not separate out the human animal. . . . A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy. They are all mammals.”

Here’s how atheist philosopher James Rachels put it:

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.

Take a moment to read these quotations a time or two. Allow their meaning to sink in. This is consistent naturalism. This is what is simply true if there is no God, and we are merely the accidental products of nature. In this worldview, it would be “speciesism” to assign a higher value to one kind of animal over another.

Is there any way to escape this implication of the naturalist worldview? Is there any way to justify our intuition that human beings possess inherent, high, and equal value—higher than that of rats and pigs and dogs and cockroaches and equal to one another’s—without believing in our creation in God’s image?

Rachels doesn’t seem to think so. With the rejection of the biblical worldview, he concludes:

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.

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, almost everyone believes in treating people as though they possessed equal value and dignity.

But can an atheist justify this belief on the basis of the worldview he holds?

Atheist philosopher Joel Feinberg has spent time thinking through this exact question. Since people quite obviously display inequalities of merit—greater or lesser amounts of talent, ability, personality, character, contribution to society, etc.—why, he wonders, do we have this universal intuition that each human being possesses equal value and should be treated with equal dignity?

His conclusion? However common it may be, this intuition has no basis whatsoever in the natural world. It’s an irrational and subjective feeling by which we agree to pretend everyone has equal value when in fact they don’t.

As grim as that idea sounds, though, I believe it can also be a powerful evangelistic tool. Because your atheist friend is the image and likeness of God—and thus knows that human beings possess inherent, high, and equal value—it’s going to bother him to realize that his worldview gives him no foundation for this belief; that his atheism directly contradicts something he feels in his bones.

This is no proof of God’s existence, of course. But it’s a powerful argument for our being more than accidents of nature. And that can open the door to some interesting conversations.


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