Plato famously opined that in his perfect city state great philosophers would serve as the supreme rulers. It is a common mantra among secularists today that we would surely want secular, non-religious people in that vaunted role. And it is easy to point to a contemporary example of a militant socio-political group with a distinct religious identity (e.g. ISIS) as a kind of support for the claim. Look at the evils of religion! Surely we’d be better off with some even-keeled secularists.
Rather than offer the predictable religious reply (i.e. a gesture to the bloody history of radically secular (e.g. communist) regimes in modern history), let’s consider the views of that doyen of modern secularism, he who is widely touted to be the premiere atheist in the world today, Richard Dawkins. And let’s ask ourselves, would we want to live in a society governed by those who share Dawkins’ view of the world?
Dawkins has a long history as that L’Enfant terrible as he has freely labelled the views of those he deems the religious as having a “mind virus” and being “faithheads”. And of course, those who disagree with him he has swept aside as “fleas”. Would you trust a government that shared the views of this man to be good stewards of the open society?
A couple days ago Dawkins posted a tweet heard around the world. When asked about the life of a fetus diagnosed with Down Syndrome he replied:
“Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.”
Dawkins has subsequently sought to quell the firestorm on his website. Here’s his concluding remarks:
“To conclude, what I was saying simply follows logically from the ordinary pro-choice stance that most of us, I presume, espouse. My phraseology may have been tactlessly vulnerable to misunderstanding, but I can’t help feeling that at least half the problem lies in a wanton eagerness to misunderstand.” (Source)
Dawkins is right about one thing. The cavalier attitude that kills developing human beings because they do not meet the desires of the parent(s) is indeed distressingly common. Incidentally, it is surely ironic that women who have fought fiercely for a liberal pro-choice policy then seek to backtrack when a pattern of pro-male sex selective abortion emerges. If you can kill a fetus because you don’t want your schedule disrupted (a position infamously defended by Amy Richards in her perfectly awful New York Times article “When One is Enough,”) why can’t you kill the fetus because of its gender? After all, the social and personal desire for a male heir could be a far more substantial ground for killing the fetus than the selfish desire not to need to buy large jars of mayonnaise at Costco (Amy Richards’ example).
One must also use care when seeking to tar Dawkins with the eugenics brush. The fact is that trisomy 21, the cause of Down Syndrome, is a genetic disorder. And presumably one can seek to eliminate genetic disorders without being labelled a eugenicist. What is disturbing about Dawkins’ position is not simply that he seeks to remove genetic disorders. It’s that he seeks to remove the human beings who have them. Granted, they are as yet unborn. (Many media reports incorrectly accused Dawkins of advocating for the killing of babies when, in fact, the proper term is fetuses.) But these unborn fetuses still are human beings.
Moreover, by claiming that his is the proper moral position, Dawkins reveals a stridency to his position which is deeply disturbing. His position is essentially that the best interests of both Down human beings and the wider society places on us the obligation to kill those human beings before they can be born. There is a chilling callousness to this position, a narrowness of vision, a lack of compassion or willingness to embrace the least of these in our midst, let alone the recognition that our lives might be inestimably richer for having done so.
Now imagine that society has a government headed by individuals who share Dawkins’ particular secular vision of the good society. It may not be as chilling as ISIS, but nonetheless it is not a society in which I would care to live.