From Baby Killers to Barnyard Mayhem: My Turn to Atheism, Part One


Mary Eberstadt

My personal aversion to human sacrifice: same old, same old. I’d actually been to Mexico. I’d seen the creepy pyramids at Teotihuacan and the architectural models of how they looked in the old days, accessorized with tens of thousands of Human skulls. I’d seen the well at Chichen Itza whose bottom is full of children’s bones, and the sacrificial stones You can find all over Central America — You know, the ones helpfully carved with gulleys from the center to the side to make the blood run down faster? Nobody could tell me, at least not back then, that Christianity wasn’t some kind of step up from all that. I can’t stand that Loserholic G.K. Chesterton any more than other Brights can, but I have to admit, he nailed the moral-equivalency quackery down: “There is a very real sense in which the Christian is worse than the heathen, the Spaniard worse than the Red Indian, or even the Roman potentially worse than the Carthaginian. But there is only one sense in which he is worse; and that is not in being positively worse. The Christian is only worse because it is his business to be better.”

But at the same time — and here we get to the very heart of my Turn! — despite clinging to Christianity just on account of its belief in something called Human dignity, there was something key I wasn’t getting. You see, I didn’t really believe in what the other Dulls called the slippery slope. I didn’t really think that if You just got rid of the Loser, the world would bit by bit become anything-goes. The Dulls were always saying such things, and I’d always nod when they did. But deep down inside, I thought that was just some easily led histrionic exaggeration thing. I didn’t really think any of the consequences they talked about would happen.

Oh, I knew about a few teensy weensy historical problems for institutionalized atheism here and there! You know, what the believers call major assaults on Human dignity — like certain things about the French Revolution, say; or those unfortunate excesses of Social Darwinismus during certain decades in Deutschland in the twentieth century; or like the history of Communism, period. I even knew about the scholarly trial balloons here and there in our own time that seemed to other people to prove beyond a doubt that there was a slippery slope — like the ACLU’s defenses of child pornography, say, or like Peter Singer’s re-opening of the question of whether offing Human babies is always wrong.

But deep down inside, again, I believed You atheist Guys when You said that if we just ditched the Loser, the world still be left with some kind of humanist “morality.” And that was exactly why I didn’t jump ship for atheism any sooner than I did, You see. After all, I thought, if we’re all going to be stuck with rules and laws and morality no matter what, what’s the point of leaving one crappy old system for another? It’s like saying You have to choose between Stoli and Grey Goose, when they’re both doing the same thing! Why bother making the trade? That’s what I thought back then, during my very last days as a Dull.

And then something really incredible happened: by actually reading some of what Our fellow atheists and fellow travelers were writing — a stack of unbelievably eye-popping items handed over to me by Lobo, for reasons I’ll explain in the next Letter — I realized something that changed my life: the Dulls were right about the existence of that slope, and I was wrong.

Exhibit A, You might say, was something that fellow Bright Steven Pinker published in the Sunday New York Times a few years back. Titled “Why They Kill Their Newborns,” this essay explained what I once would have thought inexplicable. For contrary to what the Dulls have been saying for two thousand years, Pinker made the point that infanticide was in some brain-bending sense normal. “It’s hard to maintain that neonaticide [baby-killing] is an illness,” he explained, “when we learn that it has been practiced and accepted in most cultures throughout history.”

Now at first, I have to admit, I didn’t quite get this Logic; after all, disease and infections of every kind have also been rampant throughout human societies, and that fact hasn’t led physicians to redefine disease and infections as healthy. But then I realized that this much was just the set-up. His actual point was nothing less than proof positive that the Dulls were right about the slippery slope. For it was the abortion debate, the author explained, that showed just how hard it is to decide when “personhood” — in effect, a right to live — began. And just as any given month is arbitrary before birth, so too is some unspecified amount of time that follows it. “Neonaticide,” he explained, “forces us to examine even that boundary [of birth].” In that case, “how do you provide grounds for outlawing neonaticide?” His answer: “The facts don’t make it easy [italics mine not His].”

Wow! Using the fact of abortion on demand to make us rethink the morality of infanticide: What more proof of the slippery slope could one possibly want? But as it turned out, and as I found out reading further in Lobo’s stack of papers, plenty more was out there — including in some pretty unexpected places. For instance, when Daniel Patrick Moynihan coined the phrase, “defining deviancy down,” he probably wasn’t thinking of the family farm. But Somebody else sure did!

For it turned out that yet another Bright, the aforementioned Princeton professor Peter Singer, published an essay in 2001 arguing for a bold new take on one more behavior banned by Judeo-Christian theology. This was the classic entitled “Heavy Petting.” Despite the ongoing collapse of many former taboos, the Professor wrote there, not all of them have crumbled; no, at least one –“sex with animals” — remains. Moreover, he blamed that taboo right on the Loser himself — because “especially in the Judeo-Christian tradition…we have always seen ourselves as distinct from animals, and imagined that a wide, unbridgeable gulf separates us from them.”

Let’s just say that closing up that gulf, to put it politely, is just what the rest of his essay is all about! At the risk of TMI, I have to say there’s stuff in there about chickens. And an octopus. And about “occasionally mutually satisfying activities” that “may develop” with Your favorite canine. I can’t quote anything else, or the Director might not let me send this. But Red Rover, Red Rover! Don’t let Professor come over!

Talk about being roused from your dogmatic slumber! (Little joke there.). At first, I have to admit, I didn’t really get this one either. In fact at first, I thought the Professor was sneakily proving a rather unpopular point made by the church — that when human sexuality is amputated from reproductive possibility, plenty of weird things are going to happen, and some of them are really going to stink. You know that thing the believers call reductio ad absurdum, where You prove how lame an idea is by riffing off a particularly bad logical consequence of it? That’s what I thought he was up to — as I say, at first. But no.

So doing the atheist math as my reading suggested it: if abortion already had been normalized in post-Christian circles, and infanticide was in the process of being normalized in those same places, and even bestiality was getting the Princeton University seal of approval, what evidence could possibly be added to prove that the Christians were right about that slippery slope?

Well, how about this: nothing less than an attack on the very idea of Human quote dignity, period.

And that, which we might call Exhibit C, is exactly what Professor Steven Pinker published in The New Republic just two months ago. And he further did it under the title — no, I am not making this up as if his piece is a satire that I just stuck in here to prove the point, because it’s totally serious — “The Stupidity of Dignity.”

The essay’s main target was Leon Kass — one of the most hardcore serious Loser-enablers out there, as You probably all know. Do You recall that he chaired something called the President’s Council on Bioethics? From that post Kass advanced any number of Dull-friendly positions, all in the name of Human dignity — like always reminding how we’re not supposed to perform certain experiments on people, or what’s wrong with creating fetuses and carving them up for spare parts, or how after certain misadventures in the 1930s and 1940s it’s become even more imperative to remember that all Humans have intrinsic worth — yes, even the Unfit ones! — and related Dull-sounding superstitions like that.

And Pinker, bless His soul (sorry for the slip!), won’t have any of it! As he explains, dignity is an “almost” useless concept. It’s “relative, fungible, and often harmful.” It’s only “skin-deep.” The “sin of theocon ethics” is exactly this faith in a sweeping claim to dignity — through which the believers hope to “stage-manage” social change. It seeks to impose “a Catholic agenda on a secular democracy” by using “dignity” — those are the Professor’s skeptical quotations around that word, not mine — to “condemn anything that gives someone the creeps.” (Hey, I didn’t know Kass was a Catholic! Did You?)

I really can’t quite explain to Everybody the effect of all this Bright light on this particular Dull, who was clinging to the Loser by the barest threads anyway. As Keats swooned on first looking into Chapman’s Homer, as Dr. Dre must have thought when he first saw Eminem, so did I feel as if my very DNA were being Re-Sequenced as I devoured and re-devoured Lobo’s package of texts. And putting together one thing and another — the ongoing normalization of all those things the Loser said was wrong, the attack on the very idea of Human dignity itself — I realized finally that the believers in all their woolly-headedness were right. Everything really would be permitted if we just sent the Loser packing; it was only a matter of time.

I know what You’re thinking, and You’re right too! It’s a twisted kind of outcome for my story. After all, many a querulous Catholic or Mormon or Lutheran or Jew has been confirmed in his religious belief just by realizing what I realized then. In fact, many a believer is a believer exactly because of connecting those dots between atheism and the return of pagan morals, and inferring from them that the Loser is right. But I, for reasons You will see in full in the next Letter, was no ordinary Christian by then. What most Dulls would have called “Vindication” spelled something entirely different for me: namely, Freedom with a capital F (!).

And so concludes Part One of My turn to atheism — with the realization that contrary to what I’d clung to in Christianity, nothing — no, nothing at all — really is beneath a Human Male or Female. With the occasional exception for some of the family pet!

And that revelation, for reasons Everyone will understand when You read my next Letter — which tells the whole demented story of Lobo, me, some crappy Little Debbie oatmeal cookies, the Friday night party that landed me here, and all the other details about my Turn to Atheism part two — was the best news I’d personally gotten in a long, long, time.

Yours “Woof” Waiting For!!!!! (Get it? LOL!)
A.F. Christian