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Answering Michael Martin's
"Atheism, Christian Theism, and Rape"

by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith

One might, however, on the same grounds, argue not for an extension of human rights to animals, but for the opposite -- the extension of animal behavior to humans. One might argue, in other words, for the entire elimination of the notion of “ethics,” whether for humans or for animals, on the grounds that it endangers our species. Let the fittest survive. This doesnt have to mean random murder. On the presuppositions of evolution, why couldnt one argue for allowing the demonstrably superior individuals — intelligent, healthy, etc. — to kill not only biologically defective infants, depressed elderly, mentally retarded, and others who fit the category of unwanted “persons,” but also to reduce the population of pollution creators by killing and eating whomever among our overly reproduced race has the kind of biological predispositions that lead to that species-weakening prejudice which is called “religion”?

When it comes to a question like rape, one would think that there may be more biological reasons for allowing humans to conform to their animal cousins than for trying to force dogs, cats, and bats to adopt the custom called monogamy found in some human societies. How Peter Singer intends to manage this aspect of his animal liberation, I am not certain. At any rate, monogamy as an institution has no basis in biology per se and seems to be indefensible on evolutionary grounds. Prohibitions against rape in the West are the result of the influence of the Bible and its monogamist ideal of marriage. Once the Biblical ideal of sex as an expression of marital love is eliminated, who is to say what is right or wrong in the area of sexual relationships? Or again, if it could be proved that sadism has as much a biological basis as homosexuality is thought by some to have, why shouldnt a sadist be allowed to express himself?

Why should any strong, healthy animal of the species known as homo sapiens be forbidden by anyone to fulfill any particular biological urge? Because it violates someones rights? What are rights? Whatever they are, rights must be defined by some individual or group. For rights to have any actual social meaning, they must be imposed. Usually that means there must be an elite faction who will decide what is right and who can impose its own ideas of rights on the rest. Who shall be the elite? Whoever has the power to impose his will?

I do not know of anything in the atheists view of the world that would enable the atheist to offer a truly ethical answer to this kind of problem. I can imagine long debates about what is really best for the survival of our species, but what I cannot imagine is a moral reason for our species to survive which is grounded in the atheists evolutionary worldview. We are not really talking about ethics when we argue about what is best for survival. Any view that tries to give man rights that are not available to the animals seems to be the function of a Christian hangover or, even worse, that deep-seated irrational prejudice termed “speciesism.”[4]

Although this is a digression, I hasten to add that being an atheist does not necessarily transform a person into a moral monster. I am not trying to suggest that Martin or any other particular atheist has some hidden conspiracy to kill people or that atheists are all immoral. On the contrary, some atheists are nicer than some Christians. An atheist may be honest, hard working, and kind. Nor is this a paradox or a contradiction of the teaching of Christianity. For the Bible teaches that all men are created in Gods image and that all men reflect the moral character of God, to a greater or lesser degree, regardless of what they believe. Even though the human race has fallen into sin, men still manifest, though in a distorted fashion, their Creators goodness.

In addition, just as some men have greater gifts and ability in music or business, other men are born with greater ability at self-control, a kinder disposition, etc. What might be called “ethical propensity” is not distributed according to ones faith. A cruel vicious man may be an atheist or a theist. It is not the teaching of the Bible that each individual who disbelieves in God will become morally rotten, though it is the teaching of the apostle Paul that an idolatrous society will suffer gradual moral decline over time. Paul is talking about the long term social corruption of groups, he is not saying that every individual non-Christian becomes radically evil.

What difference does faith make, then, to the individual? The man who is born with the tendency to be cruel and vicious, must, if he becomes a Christian, fight against that tendency and seek to become ethically like his Creator and Savior, kind and loving. He must repent of his cruelty and attempt to eradicate it from his life. An atheist may or may not take a similar course of action. But there is nothing in his atheism that requires him to do so. Faith in the Christian God entails the pursuit of righteousness and conformity to His will, but rejection of faith in the Christian God does not entail the pursuit of goodness. Faith that the universe is ultimate and that man is an accident of the natural process of evolution carries with it no particular moral obligations that I can imagine.

Finally, I also wish to add that there may be a certain sense in which it is fair to say that Martin actually does have “an objective ethic.” For atheists are created in Gods image. They can look at personal relationships and discern what is loving and what is not loving. Generally speaking, modern atheists will be able to define love very much in the same way that Christians do because most modern atheists live in societies with a Christian conscience. Martin knows that his own views of right and wrong are profoundly influenced by the Christian history of the West and that other peoples in other places had views significantly different. But, as a Christian, I believe that in many respects his views are closer to being “objectively” correct than the views of those other peoples. In this sense, Martin does have “objective knowledge” of ethical truth, because he reflects the fact that He is created in the image of the tripersonal God by often expressing ethical judgments that accord with the Christians conscience.

The problem is, it seems to me, that Martin cannot provide an adequate justification for his ethical observations. When one asks why we ought to be ethical, why ethical notions like goodness make any difference whatsoever for an animal who has accidentally emerged from the primordial soup, Martin cannot provide the kind of answers that ground whole societies and civilizations.


[4] Singer tells us that the term was coined by Oxford psychologist Richard Ryder in 1970 and that it is now in the Oxford English Dictionary. It is defined as “discrimination against or exploitation of certain animal species by human beings, based upon an assumption of mankinds superiority.” It is, Singer explains, essentially the same as racism. Ibid., p. 173.

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