A Rat is a Pig is a Dog is a Boy: Atheism and the Problem of 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.

An astonishing rescue effort was immediately launched. Engineers were brought in to examine the situation and make recommendation, environmental scientists to run tests on the ground water, massive drilling equipment and men who could operate it. Even the U.S. Navy arrived, supplying underwater experts and nine decompression chambers, in hope the men would be brought up alive.

For three days Americans sat transfixed in front of 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.

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” — 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 speak talk about the “dignity” each person “deserves.” We use words like “priceless” to describe our children and grandchildren.

This is simply how we very naturally think and speak.

In fact, except in cases where human hearts have been, by whatever means, deadened and consciences completely 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 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).

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?

Assume that it’s true, for a moment. 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 very 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 covers us completely.

Of course none of this should seem strange to us, or surprising. It’s something consistent atheists admit all the time. Listen to how casually Ingrid Newkirk the president of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) 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.

For those who feel this assessment 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.

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.

Of course I would be willing to bet that in the situation both Ingrid Newkirk and James Rachels would favor the child over rat, but they might be ever-so-slightly embarrassed that their speciesist impulses go 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” and 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.

James 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.

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 the worldview he holds?

Philosopher Joel Feinberg spent time thinking through this exact question from a naturalist perspective. Since people quite obviously have inequalities of ‘merit’ — inequalities of gifting, 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 grounding or 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.

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, she knows that human beings are worth more than cockroaches. She knows people have inherent, high and equal value. She feels this and more than likely she lives as though it were the case.

Now, she may say that she believes human beings are the mere excretions of the material universe with no inherent value, and on a more or less intellectual level she may truly believe it.

In fact, she may insist that Ingrid 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.

She may commit to all of this on paper. But unless she’s a member of ISIS, the chances are she lives more or less as though she 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 — for instance that human beings possess inherent, high and equal value.

My experience is that putting your finger on that tension can lead to the most interesting of conversations.

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6 Comments

  • Sharon says:

    If humans don’t possess an inherent, high and equal value then what was the purpose of ending slavery, if humans have no more value than a cockroach?

    • Ken Hensley says:

      Good point! I suppose one could argue that society works better without slavery but if human beings REALLY have no more value that rats, then why not enslave some if it creates value for the society?

  • Thomas R Hanson says:

    atheists live with, attempting to hold a view of the world that contradicts who they are and what they intuitively know to be true — for instance that human beings possess inherent, high and equal value.

    I agree with everything you are saying, except that I think you mildly misrepresent what atheist “naturalist” philosophers are saying or would say, (correctly in my opinion) about intuitive knowledge about human value. . Specifically I don’t think the word intuitive is the word you want. History looks back on many cultures and some major civilizations who arguably had no such notions, for example the Aztecs in the Americas and Roman civilization (pre-Christian) in the Mediterranean basin. As far as governments dealing with concepts like “human rights” that is a relatively new phenomenon in the world.

  • Ken Hensley says:

    Thomas. Thanks for writing. In answer What word would you select rather than intuitive? What I mean to communicate is simply that at some level and to some degree everyone knows that human beings have special value. Now, I don’t mean that there aren’t exceptions when it comes to individuals or cultures that become so evil and hardened that they lose, as we say, their humanity. You mention the Aztecs and Romans and I’m sure others could be listed. (But even there I don’t really think that EVERY Aztec – including the Aztec mother or father – believed human beings had no more value that rats.) But anyway, I’m speaking in general terms like C.S. Lewis was speaking in general terms in the opening passages of Mere Christianity when he argued that everyone knows there is a law of morality. I would certainly agree that in societies where Christian values have had their effect, belief in human worth has increased greatly. But if we believe that human beings are created in the image and likeness of God then I think we have to believe that even as people have an “innate” (intuitive?) sense of right and wrong, so they have an innate sense that people are special. No?

  • Thomas R Hanson says:

    Sorry for the delay, but it takes time to go through various reasonably respectable atheistic blog-archives to figure out a word that would not needlessly insult
    them. “Intuition”, for them, conjures up fuzzy thinking and they mostly like to pride themselves as skeptics, questioning everything, literally (except skepticism itself). I think the better word would be “innately,” which you have already used as a second possibility in your response. My thinking is that for them it would mean “genetically” which is a serious difficulty they mostly respect and acknowledge and generally treat in regard to ethics as a good thing (plants, pets, insects etc are “beneath” the value of any human being) but in reference to the general penchant of human beings toward religion, they would consider religion a genetic trait that has outlived its survival value and in the long run will die-out by itself (pointing to 18th century arguments about religious atrocities and somehow denying Stalin and Hitler and Mao were atheists.) (Why? The human appendix is still killing human beings in badly impoverished areas and it has hung on for how long?) . They do not ignore the general tendency of the religions of the world to encourage pregnancies, and they think that to be a bad thing because of overpopulation and its problems, but certainly they do pretty much ignore the implications about birth control among atheists, which imply that they will probably die out before religion does. Easy arguments to rebut.

  • Thomas R Hanson says:

    So my answer is ‘Yes” ” Innate” includes some but not all intuitions, and “innate” specifies, for them, genetics, which they understand.

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