Thursday, December 10, 2009

Misinformed Atheists

The London Free Press
By Rory Leishman

Is there still any reason to worship God at Christmas?

Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens think not. In their view, Darwinian science has done away with any rational basis for belief in God, let alone the divinity of Christ.

Dawkins and Hitchens are the authors, respectively, of The God Delusion and God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. They not only mock a caricature of the Christian faith, but also reject the traditional principles of Judeo-Christian morality.

This is not to suggest that Dawkins and Hitchens are amoral nihilists. Nothing, it seems, offends them more than the suggestion that there is no reason to be good without God.

A. J. Ayer, the celebrated British philosopher and atheist, once debated the scholarly Catholic Bishop Christopher Butler. Hitchens recalls: "The exchange proceeded politely enough until the bishop, hearing Ayer assert that he saw no evidence at all for the existence of any god, broke in to say, ‘Then I cannot see why you do not lead a life of unbridled immorality.’

"At this point," adds Hitchens, "‘Freddie,’ as his friends knew him, abandoned his normal suave urbanity and exclaimed, ‘I must say that I think that is a perfectly monstrous insinuation,’ Now, Freddie had certainly broken most commandments respecting the sexual code as adumbrated from Sinai. He was, in a way, justly famous for this. But he was an excellent teacher, a loving parent, and a man who spent much of his spare time pressing for human rights and free speech. To say that his life was an immoral one would be a travesty of the truth.”

Note that according to Hitchens' account, Butler did not accuse Ayer of immorality: The bishop only said he could not see why an atheist does not lead a life of unbridled immorality.

Hitchens' book is rife with such sloppy thinking and misinformation. And Dawkins' book is no better. In a devastating critique for the London Review of Books, Terry Eagleton wrote: “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the British Book of Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.”

Granted, there are some excellent books that disparage Christianity from an atheistic perspective. One of the best is The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevski, a gripping murder mystery that has been much lauded as the greatest of all novels.

The late Susan Sontag, a prominent atheist intellectual, praised The Brothers Karamazov as "the novel I reread most often and love best." She must have appreciated the atheistic arguments of
Ivan, the most brilliant of the three Karamazov brothers.

However, like Bishop Butler, Ivan famously holds that if there is no God or immortality of the soul, there is no reason for virtue. Rakitin, an atheistic seminarian, dismisses this theory as a fraud. In his view: "Humanity will find in itself the power to live for virtue even without believing in immortality. It will find it in love for freedom, for equality, for fraternity."

Dimitri Karamazov agrees with his brother Ivan. Both maintain that even idealistic atheists end up employing utilitarianism as a "social justification for every nasty thing they do!"

The third and youngest Karamazov brother, Alyosha, stakes his life on the truth of Christianity. How, though, can he know that God and immortality exist? Father Zossima, Alyosha's saintly mentor at the local monastery, explains: "There's no proving it, though you can be convinced of it. By the experience of active love. Strive to love your neighbour actively and indefatigably. In as far as you advance in love you will grow surer of the reality of God and of the immortality of your soul."

Here, then, is an ideal Christmas present for any reader. However, atheists should beware: After reading and pondering The Brothers Karamazov, they, too, could end up with a reasonable and firm belief that the darkness shall never, ever overcome the true light that came into the world at Christmas.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Pro-life gains in the United States

The Interim
By Rory Leishman

In a headline story on November 8, The New York Times reported that by voting to ban federal funding for abortion from the major health-care reform bill under consideration in the United States Congress, the House of Representatives "has energized the opponents of abortion with their biggest victory in years."

Quite so. The $1.1 trillion House health-care reform bill proposes to extend insurance coverage to 36 million uninsured Americans, by subsidizing health-care premiums for everyone who earns less than the equivalent of $88,000 for a family of four. Under terms of an amendment sponsored by Congressman BartStupak , a pro-life Democrat from Michigan, no money authorized by this bill can be used to offset any of the costs of an insurance plan that covers abortion, except in the case of rape, incest or risk of death to the mother if the pregnancy continues.

The vote on the Stupak amendment was not even close: 240 Congressmen, including 64 Democrats, voted in favour, while 194, all of them Democrats, were opposed.

Meanwhile, the United States Senate is devising a health-care reform bill of its own that is also likely to ban federal funding for abortion. Even the courts will probably go along with the ban. In 1980, the United States Supreme Court held in Harris v. McRae that there is no constitutional right to federal funding for abortion.

Pro-abortion activists in the United States are alarmed. Diana DeGette of Colorado, co-chair of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus, had decried the Stupak amendment, saying it "sets a terrible precedent and marks a significant step backwards." Laurie Rubiner, vice president of public policy for Planned Parenthood, has pointed out that private insurance companies are bound to cease coverage for abortion in order to qualify for the proposed federal subsidies and remain competitive.

Passage of the Stupak amendment in the House is just the latest in a series of legislative measures over the past 20 years to curtail abortion. The Hyde Amendment, an annually renewed provision introduced by pro-life Republican Congressman Henry Hyde, forbids federal funding for abortion under the Medicaid program for the poor, except in cases of rape, incest or some physical condition that would endanger the life of the mother if the pregnancy were to continue. A similar legislative ban on abortion funding applies to insurance plans for federal employees and the military.

President George W. Bush signed into law the Born Alive Infants Protection Act in 2002 and the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act in 2003. Meanwhile, numerous state legislatures have also adopted funding restrictions and informed consent laws for abortion. For example, in 2006, the Michigan legislature enacted the Ultrasound Viewing Option, a law that requires an abortionist to give the mother an opportunity to view an active ultrasound image of her growing baby.

There can be no doubt that these laws have been effective in reducing abortion. In a comprehensive recent study of the consequences of enacting and quashing laws restricting abortion in various states, Michael J. New, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Alabama and an associate of the Harvard-MIT data centre, concluded that public funding restrictions and informed consent laws have had "the largest and most statistically significant impact" in reducing abortion.

The Guttmacher Institute, which serves as the “research arm” of Planned Parenthood in the United States, has found that restrictions on funding in the Hyde Amendment alone have cut the abortion rate among Medicaid recipients by 25 per cent. If the expanded ban on federal funding for abortion in theStupak amendment is finally enacted into law, it's certain that many, many more babies will be saved from death by abortion.

In recent years, the abortion rate in the United States has steadily declined to 19.4 per 1,000 women of child-bearing age in 2005. While that's still appallingly high, it's down 34 per cent from the peak of 29.3 per 1,000 women in 1980.

Canadian pro-lifers should take note: There is reason to hope that a concerted effort to promote the enactment of informed consent laws and restrictions on public funding for abortion within Canada would likewise result in a substantial reduction in the death rate from abortion.