P. Z. Myers is one of the 25 most influential living atheists. He is also on record as saying that he doesn’t believe that new-born babies are fully human, and he makes it clear that he doesn’t regard them as persons, either. Almost no-one noticed when P. Z. Myers made these utterances, because they were made in a comment on one of his recent posts. (See here for P.Z. Myers’ post,here for one reader’s comment and here for P. Z. Myers’ reply, in which he makes his own views plain.) So, what exactly did P. Z. say? In response to a reader who claimed that there is one very easily defined line between personhood and non-personhood – namely, birth – P. Z. Myers replied:
Nope, birth is also arbitrary, and it has not been even a cultural universal that new-borns are regarded as fully human.
I’ve had a few. They weren’t.
Let me state at the outset that I have no doubt that P. Z. Myers is a good father; but that is not the issue here. His views on new-born babies are the issue.
For the benefit of readers, here is a list of the 25 most influential living atheists:
Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Stephen Hawking, Steven Pinker, Michael Shermer, Peter Singer, Steven Weinberg, Paul Kurtz, Lawrence Krauss, Edward O. Wilson, P. Z. Myers, James Randi, Jennifer Michael Hecht, Peter Atkins, John Brockman, Philip Pullman, Barbara Forrest, David Sloan Wilson, Ray Kurzweil, William B. (“Will”) Provine, Kai Nielsen, Susan Blackmore and Richard Carrier.
The purpose of my post today is to ask each of the 25 most influential living atheists five simple questions:
(a) Do you believe that a new-born baby is fully human? Yes/No (please see Question 1 below if you find it difficult to give a clear answer to this question).
(b) Do you believe that a new-born baby is a person? Yes/No (please see Questions 1 and 2 below if you find it difficult to give a clear answer to this question).
(c) Do you believe that a new-born baby has a right to life? Yes/No (please see Questions 1 and 3 below if you find it difficult to give a clear answer to this question).
(d) Do you believe that every human person has a duty towards new-born babies, to refrain from killing them? Yes/No (please see Questions 1, 4, 5 and 6 below if you find it difficult to give a clear answer to this question).
(e) Do you believe that killing a new-born baby is just as wrong as killing an adult? Yes/No (please see Questions 1 and 7 below if you find it difficult to give a clear answer to this question).
I’m asking these questions, because I think the world has a right to know how the 25 most influential living atheists view new-born babies. The moral status of new-born babies is an ethical issue of vital importance, and I’d like to know what the world’s leading atheists think about this subject. Because I’m a generous person, I’m giving them four days to answer my five simple questions. The countdown ends at 12:01 a.m. (one minute past midnight) onFriday, 21 January, 2011, Greenwich Mean Time (UTC). I think that’s quite enough time for the word to get around, and for people to respond.
And in case some of these atheists object that they’re too busy to respond, let me state that I will happily accept, in good faith, responses written on their behalf by friends, acquaintances, personal assistants or people who have read their books and can quote relevant passages, complete with publication details and page numbers. If someone responding on behalf of an influential atheist wishes to preserve his/her anonymity, he/she is free to use a pseudonym. Please note, however, that I will not be imputing views to influential atheists on the basis of anonymous responses. That would be irresponsible.
To respond to my five questions, all you need to do is write a brief comment at the end of this post – for example:
(a) Yes. (b) No. (c) No. (d) No. (e) No.
Note: If you are replying on behalf of an influential atheist, please list his/her name, your name (if you are willing to give it) and your connection with the atheist in question.
Here are my answers to some questions which I anticipate that people will ask about my quiz:
Question 1. How do you define “fully human,” “person,” “right to life” and “wrong”? I don’t. We’re all grown-ups here. I’m quite happy to let you use your own definitions.
Question 2. What if I believe that a new-born baby is neither clearly a person nor clearly a non-person, but somewhere in between? In that case, please answer “Gray” to question (b) above.
Question 3. What if I believe that talk of “rights” is meaningless nonsense, for babies and adults alike? In that case, please answer “No, and I don’t believe adults do either” to question (c) above.
Question 4. What if I believe that our duties towards babies and adults alike are defined by the society we happen to live in? In that case, please answer “No” to question (d) above. Obviously if you believe that, then you believe that people living in a society which tolerates infanticide don’t have a duty towards new-born babies, to refrain from killing them.
Question 5. What if I believe that we have a duty to refrain from killing new-born babies, not because we have a duty towards the babies as such, but because it would cause great anguish to their parents if they were killed? In that case, please answer “No” to question (d) above. I’m asking you whether you believe we have a duty towards the babies, to refrain from killing them. I’m not asking about duties towards their parents.
Question 6. What if I believe that we normally have a duty towards new-born babies, to refrain from killing them, but that it may be OK inexceptional circumstances – e.g. if the baby is suffering excruciating pain, or is very severely deformed? In that case, please answer “Yes (qualified)” to question (d) above.
Question 7. What if I believe that killing a new-born baby is a terrible, terrible thing, but that killing an adult is even worse? In that case, please answer “No” to question (e) above.
Question 8. Don’t you know that there is very little myelin in a new-born baby’s brain? Don’t you know that a new-born baby lacks an autobiographical memory, a concept of self and a theory of mind? Sure I do. You’re not telling me anything new; I didn’t come down in the last shower. All I want is an answer to the five questions I listed above, from the 25 most influential living atheists.
Question 9. What is the relevance of all this to Intelligent Design? Simple. Many of these influential atheists are on the record as saying that we can go on behaving ethically, even if there is no Designer of life and the cosmos. Fine. Here’s a splendid test case: the moral status of new-born babies, and our obligations towards them. I’d like to see how they answer my questionnaire, and I can assure these atheists that a lot of people will be watching.
Question 10. What if I refuse to answer your questionnaire? Fine. If you do not respond, and if no-one responds on your behalf, I shall assume by default that your responses are: (a) Yes. (b) No. (c) No. (d) No. (e) No. Why? Because that’s about the most consistent set of responses that I can conceive of an atheist making, if he/she were also a materialist. Please note that I said “assume.” I did not say that I would impute those views to influential atheists who choose not to respond. There’s a very big difference.
Question 11. Are you seriously suggesting that a new-born baby has the same rights as an adult? What about the right to drive or vote? Reply: in this questionnaire, you are being asked about one right only: the right to life. The question I’m asking is: do you believe that a new-born human baby has a right to life or not? It is perfectly obvious that new-born babies don’t have the right to drive, which isn’t a natural human right in any case.
Question 12. Are you implying that people who don’t believe new-born babies are persons support infanticide? No. Let me be quite clear about that. I simply want to know what the world’s most influential atheists think about the moral status of new-born babies.
Finally, let me remind readers that this post is about new-born babies. It is not about the morality of abortion, or about the moral status of an embryo or fetus. I would like to ask readers to keep their comments to the point.
UPDATE: THREE of the 25 most influential living atheists (Professor Peter Atkins, Dr. Richard Carrier and Dr. Michael Shermer) have already responded to my quiz (see comments 27, 29 and 33 below, respectively). I would like to thank them all for their prompt and courteous responses. ONE atheist (James Randi) has refused to respond (see comment 28 below). At least he answered my email, so I’ll give him credit for that.
I have also added the responses that I believe Professor Peter Singer and Professor Steven Pinker would give, on the basis of their published writings, from which I quote (see comments 64 and 65 below).