I and some of the other authors in Atheist Voices of Minnesota spoke this afternoon at a local community college about morality and atheism. There’s very little in my Atheist Voices essay about morality, and it isn’t a topic I deal with much here outside religion’s contribution to the problem of unearned authority. I wanted to talk about morality itself directly, though, so I knew I’d be speaking about something new.
The first half of my remarks were based around a story I wrote up for last week, about not having the words to help a gay classmate back in high school and how the situation has changed between then and now. I told the story and pointed out how various churches and denominations have lagged behind society on this moral issue. Secular society has led on this matter of religion, and religion is playing catch-up–or not.
That wasn’t going to be enough, however, and it’s a well-worn argument. I wanted to make my talk my own, and to do it by more than using a personal story. I was at a bit of a loss until a comment by Ophelia made something click. I knew what I’d talk about. The morality of abortion is a light subject matter for a lunch talk with students, right? Well, whether it is or not, here’s what I told them:
Now, even if we look at an issue where churches are leading society, we can still see that they’re not relying on religious doctrine to do it.
Reaching back to high school again (I don’t know why exactly; it’s not as though I enjoyed it), it wasn’t exactly an oddity to find students who weren’t pro-choice in general terms, but it did indicate a certain conservatism. Since that time, the ranks of people who consider themselves pro-life have swelled. We are now “pro-life” enough that political candidates can do things like claiming that pregnancies resulting from rape are “God’s will” and not watch their political careers end.
The Catholic and evangelical Protestant churches have a lot to do with that change. They have successfully led a large portion of our country on a moral issue.
What they haven’t done is changed people’s minds and beliefs based on any traditional biblical or theological argument. When was the last time you saw someone tell a woman she had to carry to term and go through a painful labor because Eve ate some fruit? Anyone? No, it doesn’t happen.
The idea of life beginning at conception is very new and not at all biblical. While the Christian church has always opposed at least some abortions, it’s done so for very different reasons. The early church thought abortion was a way of hiding the shame of sins of the flesh. Abortion was bad because sex–remember that this was a church that didnt’ believe in marrying because the end times were nigh–was a form of bondage. Does anyone think that argument would fly these days?
In at least part of the Middle Ages, abortion was only murder once the fetus looked reasonably like a baby. The church then decided fetuses weren’t human until they looked human. Slightly earlier than that, whether an abortion was a murder depended on why the mother chose to abort. Was it too difficult to raise another child? That wasn’t so bad. Covering up for harlotry? Uh-uh.
It wasn’t until 1964 that life was firmly considered to start at the moment of conception and nearly 10 years later that it was declared a sacred right. Even now, however, appeals to the public don’t rely on that doctrine.
When someone tries to tell you that abortion is wrong, they don’t show you the pinprick of blood that is a rapidly dividing embryo just a few days past conception. They don’t show you the early-term human zygotes that are indistinguishable from the zygotes of other animals. Despite the fact that these account for the vast majority of abortions performed, making them more honest images of abortion, that isn’t what they show you. Their doctrines tell you that these are life–and sacred–but that isn’t how the religious appeal to your moral sense.
Instead, they show you cute, smiling babies dressed up for the camera. They show you late-term fetuses that look mostly human. They show you models that emphasize the cute rather than the reality. They show you pictures of blood and tiny body parts that no one knows where they came from or whether what you see is just another model. Believe it or not, abortions aren’t usually posed for pictures.
They don’t rely on their doctrine to convince us because doctrine does not influence our moral decisions. We don’t decide whether abortion is right or wrong based on some theologian’s concept of ensoulment or the beginning of sacred life. We make our decisions on the the moral issue of abortion based on secular ideals, not religious ones.
They know this, just as we know this. It shows in their decisions.
Our morality is secular, based in our real-world experiences, despite the best attempts of various churches to make it otherwise. Sometimes they follow where we lead. Sometimes they abandon their doctrine to try a more effective, secular (if not entirely honest) approach to making our moral judgments match theirs.
Either way, the moral decisions are still ours and still secular.