When is a human not really a person? When do they lose their human rights?

For some the answer seems to be: “When they have Down syndrome.” This is a stark way of putting the issue, but the reality is that babies in the womb with Down syndrome are being aborted with increasing frequency. In Iceland, where non-invasive prenatal testing for Down’s has been introduced, almost 100 percent of women who discover their baby has the condition opt for an abortion. The same trend is now occurring in the UK as the availability of Non-Invasive Prenatal Testing has led to a sharp increase in terminations.

Recently Heidi Crowter, a young woman with Down syndrome, has also been raising awareness of the fact that UK law allows abortion up till birth of children with Down syndrome. The standard cut-off for everyone else is 24-weeks. In a variety of interviews Heidi has made clear that her life is as valuable as anyone else and is calling on health secretary Matt Hancock to change abortion law when it comes to non-fatal disabilities. Now her campaign is generating it’s own #IStandWithHeidi hashtag on social media.

Such extreme discrimination against the disabled is one more consequence of our secular retreat from the Christian gospel. And it raises the question: can the West hold on to the fruits of its liberal values while divorcing itself from their Christian roots?

As the historian Tom Holland pointed out in this magazine last month, our modern, liberal intuitions are not modern at all. We may have come to a moral consensus in the West – that all humans are equal, that we possess inherent rights and dignity, that a society is measured by its treatment of the weak and marginalised – yet such beliefs are not obvious. They are not the result of any scientific, mathematical or philosophical spade work.

What evidence is there that all humans are equal? In fact, don’t answer that. When it comes to human rights, it’s important to keep ‘evidence’ out of consideration. We don’t possess human rights because of any particular quality we can point to. Nobody earns human rights. Human dignity is not dependent on a person’s strength, position or wealth. It is simply inherent in humans as humans.

Human rights are based not on evidence but on prior beliefs – beliefs that, in the West, have been founded on Christ and his scriptures. Without those foundations, all talk of rights becomes nonsensical. 


Can atheism deliver a better world?

Matt Dillahunty is the host of The Atheist Experience, a popular Texas-based TV show and YouTube channel with more than 100 million views. He wants us to believe that all will be well – better, even – if we leave Christianity behind. But few things have convinced me of Christ’s necessity more than my conversation with Dillahunty on The Big Conversation from Unbelievable?, Premier’s flagship apologetics show. As his position unfolded over the course of 90 minutes it became clear, to me at least, that there are only two options: Christ or the pit. Without Jesus we descend into a realm where strength is paramount and the weak are cast off.


In the realm of the flesh – the realm of biological reality – we see ‘the survival of the fittest’ and therefore ‘the sacrifice of the weakest’. But uniquely in Christianity we see the way of the Spirit, and it is the reverse. Christ, the fittest, is sacrificed for us, the weakest. Instead of our selfish natures crying: “Your life for mine”, Christ comes and says: “My life for yours!” This ‘way of the cross’ prizes not the powerful but the weak (1 Corinthians 1:18, 26-29). It builds a kingdom where all are included in the circle of humanity, even the despised and damnable. Even enemies are treated as neighbours.

But what happens if we reject Christ and his ‘way of the cross’? To the degree that we reject Jesus we will also reject the weak, we will seek to establish our position as the strong and we will, ever more, shrink the circle of humanity to suit our desires. If you consider this a sensationalist prediction, you’re wrong. It’s not a prediction. It’s happening. 


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A modern genocide

We are witnessing a shocking human rights violation happening globally among those with Down syndrome. Through pre-natal screenings leading to abortion, we are eliminating a whole people group and we’re calling it ‘choice’. We have denied the most fundamental of rights to fellow members of the human family, and we have done so on the basis of disability. Surely any humanist worthy of the name will repudiate such a practice? Dillahunty does not, and it’s his rejection of Christianity that also entails his rejection of this properly humanist cause.

As an adoptive father, caring for those who would otherwise be cast off is very close to my heart. What’s more, I have friends and family with Down’s and have made a number of videos about it, including the Down syndrome nativity He Came Down (available on YouTube). I care deeply about the subject and, quite honestly, come to tears when thinking about it. But there’s a deeper reason to raise the subject.


In debates about morality, it’s too easy to get abstract. We can talk, for instance, about historical instances of slavery (we briefly touched on this in the debate). Similarly, we can imagine hypothetical instances of genocide (we got onto that subject, too). But the historical and the hypothetical – as important as such questions might be – are nothing compared to the moral struggle we face in the present. And this is where our attention should be. We ought not to commend ourselves for backing the right side in historical battles. The struggle to abolish slavery (fought and won by evangelicals and Quakers in the 19th Century) has moved on. While all of us – Christians and atheists alike – now occupy the same moral high ground, won by Bible-believers of another age, the battle continues elsewhere. There is a fight today to prize the inherent worth of all humans. But a key place it rages is over the question of the unborn. And on that question, Dillahunty and others are emphatically on the wrong side.


Failing humanism

Humanists believe that our morality should be based on the equal rights and dignity of all human beings. Today, humanism is generally seen as an atheistic form of morality, but it has a long Christian history and deep Christian roots. If you ask me, it’s Christians who can properly own the humanist label, while it’s atheists, like Dillahunty, who ought to return their ‘humanist card’.

In our conversation I asked Dillahunty: “Would you agree that all members of the human family – no matter what their achievements, no matter what their attributes…are worthy of all provision and protection?”

After a pause, he replied: “I’ve no idea.”

This is ‘Humanism-101’ and he fails it. Then, within a minute, he proffers another disavowal of a cherished humanist belief: “I think human lives have incredible value. I don’t think they have any intrinsic value.”

The whole idea of human rights collapses at this point. As the declaration of independence puts it, “all men are created equal [and] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights”. That word ‘unalienable’ is vital. Unless humans are intrinsically valuable – valuable simply because they are humans – we will use them as instruments, as means towards other ends. But Dillahunty denies this whole way of thinking. Why? It’s because of his theological beliefs. It’s because he has abandoned Christianity. So he continues…

Matt Dillahunty (MD): I don’t think the universe cares at all about human life. [Humans] have value because they have value to us.

Glen Scrivener (GS): And who’s us?

MD: Humans.

GS: All humans?

MD: Well…any of the humans who are able to consider the proposition of whether or not they have value.

GS: Which is the strong. And that’s my problem – it becomes an ever-shrinking circle of humanity that we have, and it’s the strong who rule over the weak.


Bringing up the Nazis

And then the conversation turned – as all conversations about morality inevitably must – to the Nazis (but I’d like to state for the record that the moderator Justin Brierley brought it up, not me!). At this point, our conversation was far more about ‘the Hitler’ – an archetypal evil-doer – than about the historical Hitler, but the alarm bells that had been ringing earlier in the discussion now became deafening klaxons.

Justin Brierley (JB): If the person in power, say ‘the Hitler’, simply has a very different conception of what the best is for his life compared to your life, then do you have any moral force to say: “You’re doing something wrong”? Isn’t he just going with his preferences as opposed to your preferences?

MD: Yes.

GS: So, what is it that says your preferences are better, and his preferences are worse?

MD: Right…I could sit down with Hitler…If we could find the thing that we agree on, that we care about, we can then demonstrate which one of our preferences is in conflict with that…Hitler probably valued human life, he just had justifications for excluding certain others.

JB: And you think you could reason Hitler into…

MD: I don’t know that I necessarily could.

GS: Why wouldn’t he reason you into his way?

MD: It might be. I’m not saying that that’s not necessarily the case…

This was, for me, the most disturbing comment of all. When challenged, Dillahunty had to admit that as he engages ‘the Hitler’ in a debate about genocide, he must, in principle, be open to persuasion concerning the ‘Final Solution’. Such a position is consistent with his atheism and a flat contradiction of ‘humanism’– or, indeed, any decent moral sense. One minute later I ask:

GS: If well-being, just very vaguely defined, is the metric that we are using, Hitler could say: “We’re so much better off without the disabled; we’re soaring at industry, our numbers are through the roof, our well-being is doing incredibly well, once we eliminate the sick, the weak, the handicapped”…is he right at that point?

MD: Well, that’s when you go through and you talk about what data you’re looking at to define well-being, because…

GS: What… ‘data’?

MD: Yeah.

Analysing the ‘data’ amounts, essentially, to running a cost/benefit analysis of the disabled. Dillahunty continued this line of thinking moments later as he spoke of how to reason with someone who is attempting to eliminate the disabled. He said: “You’ve got to go back and look at it and say: ‘What have you lost?’” At this point you would hope that the answer is: “You’ve lost them. You’ve lost those people themselves.” And you would hope to God – very literally! – that the humanity of those being eliminated is itself the decisive reason to halt the genocide. But that is not how Dillahunty’s reasoning runs. Having considered this genocide and having asked the question “what have you lost?”, he continues with his cost/benefit thinking…

MD: Is your society better, and are you just looking at short term? How do you know that you didn’t lose a cure for disease? How do you know that you’re not worse off because it has fundamentally changed your psyche? How do you know you’re not worse off because you’ve lost art?

At this point Brierley chimes in with the moment of the debate.

JB: But aren’t those people’s lives worth something even if they didn’t produce a cure for cancer or great works of art? Even if they just sat around and consumed all the resources that all the able-bodied people were producing?

MD: If somebody sat around and did nothing but consume, I don’t know how you could consider that as adding value. You have to point to something where they’re adding value to society.

GS: So they have to achieve. They have to add value. But they don’t have value.

MD: Yeah. So, this is what I’m saying when I said that there’s no intrinsic value to it.

This is the chilling consequence of abandoning the biblical view that humans are made “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27). That simple truth, declared from the first page of scripture, laid the foundation for the humanist concept of the intrinsic value of every human being. When we jettison it, we begin to value people for other things – their productivity, their physical features, their abilities. But in the absence of God, who gets to decide that? The strong, not the weak. Sadly, we’ve been here before in the 20th Century, and we know where it leads.


It’s Jesus or bust

I’ve been asked many times what my hopes have been for this debate. Honestly, I pray that people will listen and take to heart everything that Dillahunty says and all the reasons he says it. Do it for the sake of people like Heidi Crowter. With our Christian roots rejected, the fruits have already soured, hellishly so. I long for people to ‘taste the difference’ and renounce this flight from Christ.

Christians are used to saying things like: “It’s Jesus or the pit”, “It’s the cross or hell” and so on. It can sound like a narrow fundamentalism. Maybe you don’t even subscribe to such a binary outlook, theologically speaking. Well, look at it ethically: without the God of the cross – the God who became weak and despised for all weak and despised people –where do we end up? And look at it historically: without Christ and his scriptures, what prevents us from using and abusing the weak and letting the strong reign in terror? If you didn’t believe in the binary before, watch the whole conversation between myself and Dillahunty through to the end, and ask yourself: can we really hope to abandon Jesus and avoid this abyss?

May all who watch the debate have ears to hear (Matthew 11:15, ESV), and may we in the West flee such sinking sand to find refuge in Christ, our Rock.


Watch Glen Scrivener and Matt Dillahunty debate ‘Morality: Can atheism deliver a better world?’ at thebigconversation.show


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