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.
Immediately as astonishing rescue effort was 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 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 room 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 nearly 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 as a permanent, essential attribute, not value we subjectively churn up and assign to them. We speak of them as possessing "high value", meaning more value than, say, a worm. We speak of human beings possessing "equal value" and the equal "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 deadened and consciences seared by evil (a second beheading video was released just yesterday by ISIS) 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 once again, the biblical worldview makes sense of our experience in this regard. The existence of the infinite personal God and our creation in his image and likeness provides a coherent 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).
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. What if you and I really have come from nowhere and really are going nowhere? What if it's true that we don't have "souls", that we aren't "spiritual beings" at all? That we're nothing more than very complicated biochemical machines that appear for a moment, gears spinning, and then disappear forever? What if we're simply the forward edge of the sludge of evolution? What becomes of inherent value and dignity, then?
That's right. If atheism is true, your life has no inherent value. The lives of your children and grandchildren have no inherent value. The only "value" we possess is what we grant to one another in these 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 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 equality of all living beings is to commit the grave sin of "speciesism". This is the evil of assigning 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.
Question: 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 as 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."
So much for inherent value and high value. What about "equal value" among human beings?
Atheists believe in treating people as though they possessed equal value and dignity---just as much as anyone else. Sure they do, because they're not who they think they are. But can they justify this attitude on the basis of the worldview they hold?
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.
Now, as we saw with the issue of meaning and purpose, when you talk to your agnostic or atheist friend about this inescapable implication of the naturalist worldview, it's going to bother her.
Why? Because as the image and likeness of God your friend 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. She may assert the truth of naturalism. She may say she believes that human beings are mere animals, and on a more or less intellectual level she may truly believe it. She may insist that Ingrid Newkirk is entirely correct in saying that "a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy". She may agree with professor Rachels that we human beings are not "entitled" to think of ourselves as "higher" or "better" than a cockroach. She may say a lot of things.
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.
Again, this no proof of God's existence. It's no proof of the truth of the Christian worldview. But it is another illustration of the tension the atheist lives with, attempting to hold a view of the world that contradicts who they are. It's another window into the soul of your unbelieving friend.
And it makes you a better apologist to have this truth clear in your mind:
While the Christian theistic worldview makes sense of the most basic and fundamental aspects of our experience as human beings---for instance, believing that life has meaning and purpose, believing that people possess inherent value---the naturalist worldview does not. In fact, not only does it fail to account for our experience, it flatly contradicts it. Again and again, as we shall see.