A couple weeks ago “Unbelievable” featured a debate/dialogue on human rights between Christian apologist Andy Bannister and humanist/atheist Peter Tatchell. The show begins with a short video from Andy and so in providing my critical response that is where I’ll begin as well:
Andy is an articulate and engaging speaker. But I disagree with his presentation in this video. I’ll focus my critical comments on two points in dialogue with the short video before noting some additional comments about the “Unbelievable” exchange more generally.
Atheism and a Random Collocation of Atoms
My first problem centers on the way that Andy suggests that atheism is somehow committed to a grossly reductionistic understanding of the human person and thus human value and dignity. He begins to set up the point a mere 31 seconds into the video. Andy opines:
“The problem is talking about human dignity, especially inherent dignity of human beings is basically impossible if you’re an atheist.”
“Human rights is based on human dignity and human value and where does that come from on atheism? You see, if you don’t believe in God, if you believe in just a random collocation of atoms … or just the result of time plus chance plus natural selection, how is it that we have some kind of special dignity that other animals don’t? And on that dignity you can build human rights.”
Andy suggests here that there are but two choices: either accept theism and human dignity and value or accept atheism in which case you are committed to a reductionism about the person which undermines any basis for human dignity and value. We can’t have dignity and value if we are merely “a random collocation of atoms….”
However, atheism is not committed to a reductionism about the human person. Atheism is simply the view that God does not exist. It is not the view that only random collocations of atoms exist. Nor does it entail that only random collocations of atoms exist. Consequently, atheism is consistent with many different views of the human person, dignity, and value.
For example, a person could be an atheist and accept that human persons are emergent non-physical substances which are irreducible to the material atoms that compose their bodies. This may be an unusual anthropology for an atheist to hold in the sense that statistically not many atheists currently hold such a view. But there is no inconsistency between this anthropology and atheism. An atheism could also affirm the existence of objective moral value which exists sui generis as part of the basic metaphysical furniture of the universe. This too is compatible with atheism.
Interestingly, I already made these points in a previous podcast with Andy. So I’m disappointed to see that he is still attempting to further this line of attack on atheism. Alas, by attempting to claim atheism is committed to this kind of implausible reductionism Andy commits at least two logical fallacies, the strawman and the fallacy of false alternatives. This is not an auspicious beginning.
Value: Inherent or Ascribed?
As the video continues, Andy asks how human dignity and value can be established. Andy then argues that value is ascribed rather than inherent. He bases this claim on the economist’s definition of value as that which a person (i.e. the valuer) is willing to pay for something (i.e. the object valued). Andy then presents a surprising argument that Christianity can explain this ascribed value because God paid for human beings with the life of his son, and thus in virtue of that act we have ascribed value. By contrast, on atheism there is no (divine) being to value the human race and thus ascribe value to that race.
I’ll present three points in response to this argument in ascending order of importance.
First, the least important point. Andy seems to assume an economic model of atonement according to which God in Christ pays for human beings. But pays to whom? The devil? Surely Andy is familiar with the great difficulties with attempting to provide the ransom motif the technical status of a genuine theory of atonement.
Andy could avoid this problem by saying that God only “pays” in some sort of metaphorical or analogical sense. But then it is not at all clear that this extended sense is sufficiently like the market economic exchange to which he appealed such that it can in fact establish the kind of value that is secured by genuine economic valuation.
Second, and more importantly, I was frankly taken aback by Andy’s decision to define value in terms of a market exchange. That seems like exactly the wrong way to define value. To borrow a famous quote from Oscar Wilde’s Lord Darlington, a cynic is “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” In other words, you can know what everybody will pay for every object in a market exchange and yet know what nothing is truly worth. The lesson is that genuine value, the kind of value with which Andy is presumably concerned, is not secured by the mere valuation in a market exchange.
Finally, and most importantly, the ascribed definition of value in this short video appears to be fundamentally inconsistent with the inherent conception of value that Andy appeals to in the “Unbelievable” program, a conception that Andy claims is located in the image of God.
This left me deeply puzzled. On the one hand, Andy says that value is ascribed and established by Christ’s atoning work. On the other hand, he says value is inherent and resides in the image of God. I don’t understand how Andy believes these two views fit together because they seem incompatible to me. Perhaps Andy can fit them together, but he has not as yet provided sufficient depth on his views to explain how.
Universal Human Rights?
I will close by turning from the video to the wider “Unbelievable” discussion. Throughout this debate Andy attacks Peter Tatchell’s basis for truly universal human values. Unfortunately for the humanists, while Tatchell seems like an eminently nice and intelligent person, he is not a particularly skilled debater. But Andy’s view of human rights has significant vulnerabilities that could have been explored in the program.
To begin with, let’s return to Andy’s claim that the image of God secures an inherent conception of human dignity and value. Andy appeals to the image of God at several points, but what is the image, exactly?
Here’s one possibility. The image could be a supervenient property which exists in virtue of particular (human) organisms exemplifying particular powers (e.g. imagination, free will, reason, language, etc.). If the image of God is explicable in terms of the exercise of one or more of these properties then the atheist can appeal to those same properties in his account of value.
Of course, all such accounts face a problem: what about the human beings who lack the properties or capacities in question? E.g. they lack reason or language or whatever. Are they not fully human? Are they not in the image of God? Note that this is a problem for the Christian as surely as the atheist.
Andy could avoid that problem by retreating to the view that the image is simply an arbitrary divine declaration: by fiat God declares this particular species of especial value irrespective of the powers or properties of any individual members of the species. Certainly Andy could make that claim, but let’s be clear that it exacts the high cost of making the declaration of “image of God” an empty placeholder in search of a substantive account of human value.
I’ll note one more problem before wrapping up. Tatchell never brings up the problem of biblical violence and human rights. Consider, for example, the fact that particular groups (e.g. Canaanites; Amalekites) are given over to the herem in portions of the Old Testament. These actions, described in passages like Joshua 6-11 and 1 Samuel 15 meet the standards of ethnic cleansing and genocide. And that raises a fair question: how can Andy justify a universal conception of human rights if he believes God can command actions as extreme as the eradication of entire people groups?