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A Rat Is a Pig Is a Dog Is a Boy: Atheism and Human Worth

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.

An astonishing rescue effort was launched. Engineers examined the situation and made recommendations, environmental scientists ran tests on the ground water, massive drilling equipment and men who operated it were brought in. Even the U.S. Navy supplied underwater experts and nine decompression chambers in hopes the men would be brought up alive.

For three days Americans sat transfixed in front of their TVs as engineers drilled a narrow shaft the entire distance down to the trapped miners. If they miscalculated the angle and failed to intersect the area 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 were saved.

Value, dignity, and the Christian worldview

It’s clear that we share a universal intuition and strong belief in the unique value of human life.

We speak naturally of people possessing “inherent value"—value that exists in them rather than value we might subjectively churn up and assign to them. We speak of them as possessing “high" and “equal" value. We talk about the “dignity" each person “deserves." We use words like priceless to describe our children and grandchildren.

This is simply how we naturally think and speak.

In fact, except in cases where human hearts have been, by whatever means, deadened and consciences seared, 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 of course the biblical worldview makes sense of our experience in this regard. If God exists and we have been created in his image and likeness, then we do possess unique value among created things. The Christian worldview provides a metaphysical basis and foundation for what we seem to intuitively know to be true.

O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth! . . . When I look at thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou hast established; what is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him? Yet thou hast made him little less than God, and dost crown him with glory and honor. Thou hast given him dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet . . . O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth! (Psalm 8:1, 3-6, 9).

As a Christian, I believe the truth of our value and dignity as human persons is something God has written on our hearts and etched into our beings. It’s something we simply know.

Naturalism, value, and dignity

But what if the worldview of the atheist is true?

For a moment, assume that it is. Climb inside the naturalist worldview and think about what naturalism would imply about the value and dignity of human life. I’m talking about the kind of atheistic materialism most modern atheists espouse: no God, no human souls, no spirits. Just matter.

What if you and I really are nothing more than complicated biochemical machines that appear for a moment, gears spinning, and then disappear forever? What if we really have come from nowhere and are going nowhere? What if we really are nothing more than the product of an entirely impersonal, material universe, that we don’t have souls and aren’t spiritual beings at all?

What becomes of inherent value and dignity then?

That’s right. If materialism is true, we posses no inherent value. In that case the only “value" we possess is what we are willing to grant to one another in the few moments before the quicksand swallows us.

Of course, none of this should seem strange or surprising to us. It’s something consistent atheists admit all the time. Listen to how casually Ingrid Newkirk the president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) 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” (Vogue magazine, Sept. 1, 1989).

For those who feel this assessment is 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 (Created from Animals, 70).

Read these quotations a couple of times. Allow their meaning to sink in. This is what you have to accept as true and live with if you do not believe in a higher origin for the human race and a higher purpose for human life.

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 equal value of all living beings is to commit the grave sin of “speciesism." To the consistent naturalist it is unwarranted and wrong to assign 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. I would be willing to bet that in that situation both Ingrid Newkirk and James Rachels would favor the child over the rat, but they might be ever so slightly embarrassed that their speciesist impulses got the better of them.

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—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 an 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.

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 (Created from Animals, 171-172).

The problem of “equal" value

So much for inherent value and high value. What about “equal value?"

We all say yes to this. Whether we believe in God or not, everyone believes in treating people as though they possessed equal value and dignity. But can an atheist justify this belief on the basis of his worldview?

Philosopher Joel Feinberg spent time thinking through this exact question from a naturalist perspective. Since people quite obviously have inequalities of “merit"—inequalities of 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 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 (see J.P. Moreland, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: Human Persons and the Failure of Naturalism, 144-145).

Application to apologetics

It’s my belief that this can be a powerful evangelistic tool.

Because when you talk to your agnostic or atheist friend about this question of value, and you draw out inescapable implication of the naturalist worldview, it’s going to bother your friend. Why? Because as the image and likeness of God, he knows that human beings are worth more than cockroaches. He knows people have inherent, high, and equal value. He feels this and more than likely he lives as though it were the case.

Now, he may say he believes human beings are the mere excretions of the material universe with no inherent value, and on a more or less intellectual level he may truly believe it.

In fact, he may insist that Newkirk is entirely correct in saying that “a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy" and that professor Rachels is exactly right in saying that we human beings are not entitled to think of ourselves as being higher or better than cockroaches.

He may commit to all of this on paper. But unless he’s a member of ISIS, the chances are he lives more or less as though he believed what Christians believe about the value and dignity of human persons.

This is no proof of God’s existence. But it is another powerful illustration of the tension atheists live with, attempting to hold a view of the world that contradicts who they are and what they intuitively know to be true.

My experience is that putting your finger on that tension can lead to the most interesting of conversations.

Written by Kenneth Hensley



  1. Tom Rafferty Reply

    ” IF God exists and we have been created in his image and likeness, then we do possess unique value among created things.” Evidence shows naturalism has won, so the “if” is defeated.

    So, now what? Evaluate life based on it’s presenting characteristics and circumstances, no matter the species. Please try to evaluate with open minds what Singer and other naturalistic ethicists are saying, and also look at what your religion teaches: unsupported dogma. What we as humans “feel” regarding our worth should not be used as criteria for this evaluation, as we tend to think we are “special” without good evidence.

  2. Patrick Gannon Reply

    What makes the value of human life unique? How do you know it’s unique? Evidence indicates that altruism is an evolved trait, and humans certainly aren’t the only ones to have developed it. Why do we take more interest in our own welfare, than that of organisms with different genomes? The answer is pretty basic. We have a vested interest in the preservation and success of the human genome that is built into us, as a result of natural selection. Those organisms, human or otherwise that exercised altruism, evolved, whereas those who did not were probably left without mates or shunned by the group, and their genes did not get passed along, reinforcing the trait generation after generation.

    The author (Ken) asks, what if we are machines that come and then go, disappearing forever? It’s a hard question for humans to face, but it’s a very real probability, given the complete lack of objective evidence for gods or afterlives. It is difficult for our egotistical selves to grasp, but cockroaches are a far more successful species than we are. They have been here much longer than us, and will likely still be here long after we are gone. How does one assign value? Survival and longevity must certainly have some place in the equation.

    Unlike roaches, our rapid evolution may end up killing us off early if we don’t change its course. While altruism is an evolved trait – so too is separation by tribe, and hostility to the other – which Christianity so aptly exercises. Zika may be one of the best things to happen in regard to changing our course. The Church will have to drop objections to contraception if the virus turns into a global epidemic, or sentence women to bearing the next generation of shrunken headed, brain damaged, Catholics, which will have the same result, only with a lot more of the suffering and misery that the Church loves so much.

    Why do we run into a burning building to rescue a baby? Because we share the same genome and it’s programmed into us. Have you not seen stories of cats and dogs running into burning buildings to rescue their young? Did some god make them self-interestedly altruistic too – or did they evolve that trait, like we did? Species that cooperate evolve to higher degrees of complexity. Those that don’t remain as amoeba.

    The milksop about the poor agnostic or atheist who is going to be “bothered” by this line of reasoning, is nonsense. You’re setting your minions up to fail. We’ll laugh at them. It’s this line of reasoning (or lack thereof) that tells the atheist or agnostic that he or she is on the right track.

    I think that most atheists and agnostics tend to have a much higher opinion regarding the value and dignity of human persons regardless of their religion, as well as all other organisms, because we know this is likely to be all we get, and we had better value what we have now and enjoy it while we can. You mention the tension atheists live with that contradicts who they are and what they intuitively know to be true – but for most of us we intuitively know that Bible God is a man made construction. The bit about tension is off the mark. It is the believer that lives with the tension of being under a microscope 24/7 with someone taking notes – and paying particular attention when their clothes are off! It’s the believer who faces the tension of believing, saying and doing the right things with regard to Jesus in order to avoid eternal torment. If there’s one thing I think most atheists and agnostics would agree with – it’s that the tension levels drop way off when you abandon belief in an overbearing invisible being that lives in the sky. Indeed, “relief” is a far better word than “tension.”

    Becoming enlightened can be scary too. You’re cutting out a (bad) part of yourself. You’re cutting out the beliefs which have no evidence to support them, but we make our beliefs part of who we are, part of our personal narrative, and for some people; it’s just too hard to drop that part of themselves and let it go; even if the alternative is a happier, more fulfilled life without all the needless fear.

    You admit to lack of proof for God’s existence, so is it better to lie to one’s self about believing something for which your brain knows there is no objective evidence; or to admit the ignorance we all have when it comes to gods and afterlives? If there is a (good) god, I can’t see It rewarding anyone for lying to themselves. Nor can I see any mental health benefits in lying to ourselves as religions insist that we must do.

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