|I was recently following a story on CNN about the “selfishness” of couples who are childless by choice. When I asked several commentors why they thought these couples selfish, I kept hearing the same few themes emerge:
- They may one day regret not having children because they will grow old and lonely.
- They are selfish because they think only of themselves and do not want to share with a child.
- They have an obligation to God to have children, as directed.
Of the three, only the last two address the question of selfishness. The first is, actually, a selfish justification – if that is truly the primary factor in deciding to have a child.
The last two were supported entirely from religious beliefs. The third is honest and clear, but that second one is sneaky.
Except in cases where a child is actually conceived, even the most hard-line pro-lifer has no leg to stand on when talking about a couple’s obligation not to exclude the needs of a non-existent child. Hormonal birth control and abortion present a much more difficult scenario.
So, where does this concept of an unconceived child, to which a couple owes an obligation, originate? Among Christians, it seems to be a fairly broad interpretation of Jeremiah 1:4-5:
4 Then the word of the Lord came unto me, saying,
5 Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.
Of course, that is pretty thin, even if you take the Bible literally. If God is all-knowing it certainly follows that he could have known (about) Jeremiah, and known all that Jeremiah was to do in his life before Jeremiah actually existed. I also think it reasonable to conclude that this view would be present in anti-abortion and anti-contraception schools of thought.
Reaching back deeper, the first recorded mention of a pre-existent soul is the “ka” of the ancient Egyptians. They had very complex beliefs about the soul and their intense focus on the afterlife surely had a strong effect on the development of the soul concept in the latter Christian religion that would emerge in the same region.
So, It is fair to say that the second rationale is a thinly-veiled appeal to Christian tradition that manifests itself in the debate over several social issues.
You can see the entire article and the comments in their full context here.
My suspicions were borne out by the replies I received to my question. Even though the article was not overtly religious, although I think I have demonstrated the motivation to be connected to religious tradition, when individuals use their religious world views to justify a position on any topic, I usually comes down to this (included as posted):
please dont think im jusging just sharing my experience to see if can relate….maybe….u were in a “spiritual wilderness” or “desert” for a time…maybe God was testing to see if u really loved Him (im sure u did)…God is very mysterious and doesnt act the way we think He should…not judging u at all but i was kind of an atheist for a lot of my life after looking for Him and needing Him so desperately and thinking He just didnt care….yet God showed up in my life BIG TIME and now i know He was always there and because of my terrible experience of looking for Him and not “finding” Him, to know He was always there…it makes me appreciate Him so much more…i know He was there in the midst of all my problems…Hes so real to me now
I appreciate your comment. It is not those who genuinely wish me well, but with whom I disagree, that I take issue with. Nor, can I be overly judgmental, given that I was once a evangelical myself. I have a great deal of empathy for that position, though I am now glad to be past it. I take offense when those who believe claim a divine authority over my affairs, or the common civil society we all have to share.
I think you misunderstand the cause of my despair. I once would have said that I absolutely felt his presence. I always, certainly, felt the fear of his judgment. It is a seriously heavy trip to lay on someone – that a all-powerful, omniscient, holy deity created you personally and expects your perfection to match his own. Dispite his declared capability to do otherwise, he created you with a fatal flaw that assured that you could never, by your own abilities, live up to those expectations. And then, he sent his son to Earth as a man to prove to you that only he, himself could live the way he expects from you, as if to further illustrate the point.
That is the bad news, but here is the good news: He, as his own son, brings you a great gift and opportunity. If you accept what he says, and put your whole being into it, he will accept your scapegoating of a faultless man (himself) and personal capability for the attendant ritualistic, unjust human sacrifice, as absolution for your flawed soul (that he himself created). You will get to live for eternity in worship and praise of him knowing every millisecond of eternity that you are entirely indebted to him for *loving* you so much as to put you through it in the first place.
Of course, if you don’t – unspeakable misery and unimaginable torture THAT WILL NEVER END awaits you behind door number two. – That’s the GOOD news…
My despair is that I did believe this for a long time. My despair is that I spread this vile proposition to the people I loved and cared about. My despair is that even though I could not reconcile this obvious paradox with my rational mind, I shut it off and proceeded on “faith alone”.
If a human father did this to their human child, we would rightly call him a monster. We would not let “faith” or the compiled and heavily edited scrawlings of the oral stories of bronze-age sheep headers blind us to the obvious injustice of it, or excuse ourselves of our obligation to speak against the evil of its regressive effects on humanity.
My despair was that I allowed myself to be deluded into thinking that this was the only moral thing to do. The conflict between what my rational mind was screaming, and the strength it took to suppress those thoughts as heretical, or as the “influence of this world, ruled by the prince of this world”, exhausted me. So, I went through a second conversion experience, where I decided that I would go where reason and evidence took me.
So, now I am as free as any human mind can be. I am still guilty of having been deceived by some well-intentioned and some not-so-well intentioned people into believing without evidence so damaging a belief. I now strive to learn the unknowns; indeed admit that they exist. In a world where God is mysterious, irrational to our mind, and has a plan that we are not equipped to understand, that drive to learn is extinguished – and sometimes punished by death. It is no coincidence that those old stories tell us that man’s original sin was to eat of the tree of knowledge and assume to know the mind of God.
Now, here is the actual good news:
There seems to be no credible evidence that we are actually in such a pickle. You do not get to live forever, and there is no divine dictator that has every moral choice answered for you – no thought required.
Instead, you get to actually BE moral. You get to take credit for, and live with the consequences of, your actions. You can be a moral person FOR IT’S OWN SAKE. Not because you live in fear of punishment, or hope for eternal reward for living with the honesty, integrity, curiosity, agency, passion, empathy and love you should strive for god or no. You only have one life to live, indeterminate and finite. You have obligations to those around you and everyone you share the Earth’s resources with. Reason, evidence, empathy, and love are much better guides and tools for navigating that life than any holy book.
It has become clear to me that the first admonition is the one that should concern believers most. When you eat of the tree of knowledge, you realize that god has no power over you; you created your own god in your own mind.