The way I was raising them they could never be saved. ... Better for someone else to tie a millstone around their neck and cast them in a river than stumble. They were going to perish.
-- Andrea Yates
No, I don't believe in god. Although I do think it can be relevant. Probably not the way you imagine. Do you believe in hell?
Well, if you're going to entertain this impossible idea of mine -- that having children is at a minimum an imposition, then your belief system puts you in a far worse position, doesn't it? -- at least potentially. Being a childless atheist, I guess by your account I can look forward to burning in hellfire. The truth is, I'm not all that worried. But on your end, the stakes are raised.
Well, your kids. They're in grade school, right? And they go to church? Or Sunday school or whatever?
OK then, suppose they change their tune on the whole Jesus Christ story. Suppose they come to reject it, like I did. Like millions of people do. And then, not to be morbid, but...
But they'll go to Hell, right? Fire and brimstone for eternity? Isn't that what you believe? Eternity is a long time.
The point is that it's much worse for you. There's a chance that your condemning them to something far worse than prosaic disappointment and eventual death. Endless punishment. That's a serious fucking ticket. If you're not bulshitting, then you have to admit it's a real possibility.
I guess accusations are inevitable. But am I wrong? I mean, if they had never existed, then they would never suffer and die -- like I said before. So it comes back to my point that it's all preventable -- that life is a death sentence, and potentially at least, for you, much, much, much worse.
Children of (Godless) Men
What? You think this is all a joke? A supercilious sleight of sophistry rooted in churlish pessimism and ostentatious misanthropy? You suspect my purity of intention? Think I'm choking on the bitter backwash of too many bad days?
I may never rise above well suspected cynicism, but I must offer my assurance, all the same, that I am only too serious. Mortally serious. I've checked my premises. I've charted the escape clauses and raked over the eschatological implications of a logic at once compelling and impotent. And I refuse, finally and without apology, to shrug it off. For all his wishfully confused sentiment, Rothbard was off to a half decent start. But he choked on the lede. The ethics of liberty is the moral negation of breathing. This is libertarianism as existentially predicated ethical fascism. It's what I'm left with. And I mean it.
Part of the problem, I suspect, is that the existential dialectic proceeds after a stark bias, a bias wrought by consciousness and blindly insistent biochemical imperatives. Existence exists, said the homely Russian dilettante. But kick away the objectivist stilts and mull, once again, over the asymmetry that remains: sentient existence entails suffering and implies doom; non-existence is the absence of pain, the absence of a dying light. Metaphysics always misses the mark. In a phrase, you didn't ask for this. No one did, because they couldn't have. Because they were not. We are deducibly victims of existential harm, traceable to negligent agency. Thus every apology and every demand follows after this grave and arrogant presumption.
The Hoover Hog has taken frequent issue with the oft-disingenuous lip service paid in service to "critical thinking" by self-imagined freethinkers who would sooner teabag Boris Yeltsin's maggot-infested scrotum than think critically about biological race differences or engage the arguments of "holocaust deniers." But reflecting on the problem in our sights has given me pause to wonder. Could it be that antinatalism provides the most revealing litmus test of all? Unlike cookie-cutter taboos that evoke secretive fascination, this one cuts to the quick of every epistemic bias in one's mental reserve. If you're given to presuppose -- or postulate -- rights or interests or any proscriptive order of ethical conduct, regardless of your preferred philosophical edifices, the reconciliation you imagine does not come easily, if at all.
My thoughts turn to a random handful of prominent freethinking gadflies and skeptics whom I respect: Daniel Dennett, Ian McEwan, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Peter Singer -- all intelligent and outspoken critical thinkers who in various forums have provided subtle to devastating critiques of theism and the folly of religion. Collectively, these guys form the vanguard of the "new atheism" you've been reading so much about -- the more public-spirited in-your-face brand that's ever more inclined to rattle cages and pick fights. With a few unimportant caveats, I think it's a healthy, if somewhat over-hyped backlash. I respect each of these men for their public courage and intellectual mien. And I agree, Q.E.D., with a major point of their critique -- that ethical norms can be reliably derived -- or invented -- without reference supernatural order.
Yet the next thought, the one that always follows, turns on what I cannot but see as a contradiction. Or at least a mystery. All of these men -- every one of them -- has children. Even Peter Singer.
Am I wrong to puzzle over this? Am I mistaken or naive to wonder: did the questions that seem so obvious to me elude these thinkers? Did they arrive at different conclusions? Could it be that in some fleeting adumbration, the dire problem of procreation crossed their better minds, only to be deflected as untenable or hopelessly nihilistic. Or are they simply blinkered by base carnality? I bristle with curiosity.
Again, in the absence of divine guidance, most atheists would agree that ethical reasoning is a secular enterprise of considerable import. It could plausibly be argued that it is the only branch of philosophy that may never fully yield to scientific dethronement. Yet and thus, secularists of laudably inquiring disposition seldom find cause to articulate their reasons for bringing new life into existence. How and why this elision persists is the question that preoccupies me.
My money is on rank biology, abetted by habit. They're blinded, I suspect, by the same ecumenical gloss that afflicts the god-believing throng. They're victims of the same evolved moral sense, a sense long adapted to avoid certain show-stopping questions. And I fear that in some tragic sense, they are caught up the same pointless game.
That antinatalist arguments should so consistently be overlooked by superior minds is at first suggestive. That such arguments, once confronted, should typically be met with hostile or dismissive reception is, I submit, a testament not to any rational deficit in their formulation, but rather, and more acutely, to the same Darwinian bias. As sentient critters, our moral sense is at once informed by and limited by preprogrammed genetic interests. Our existential fate being at bottom a natural phenomenon, it follows that all this hard-wired brainstuff would have been selected for a staggering variety of reasons, most or all of which, it seems safe to assume, would have been intrinsically incompatible with antinatalist reasoning.
Indeed, it would be truly surprising if our viscera did not rebel against a moral conclusion that demands the cessation of generational propagation, which is reason enough to ask why the problem never came to focus in your otherwise searching mental machinery. And it is further reason to triple check your reflexive rebuttal once the matter is put. Only by recognizing the pre-rational constitution of one's reflexive discomfiture can we ward against the predictable temptation to fall back on the sort of lazily conceived and ill-supported axiomatic rejoinder that proceeds after this very special flavor of dissonance.
The point is not lost on Benatar, who writes:
...there is a good evolutionary explanation for the deep-seated belief that people do not harm their children seriously by bringing them into existence. Those who do not have this belief are less likely to reproduce. Those with reproduction-enhancing beliefs are more likely to breed and pass on whatever attributes incline one to such beliefs.
So what happens is, you assume a dismissive posture. Or maybe you just get pissed off.
A crass but telling illustration of this hostility may found in the negative reviews of Better Never to Have Been posted on Amazon. "So let me get this straight," sneers one reviewer, "Mankind would be better of [sic] had he never been born? Has this author offed himself? If not, what is his justification for his continued existence? Certainly not to produce laughably idiotic tomes like this."
Or consider the more syntactically confused splenetic pronouncement offered by one "Edgy Evangelical," who writes:
I have not read the book, but from reading the title, I do beleive [sic] the cosmic stupidity of it would have proven fatal. The author should apologize to all his teachers and instructors throughout his whole education by insinuating their incompetence through his stupidity [sic], and then he should be made to plant 5 trees to make up for the waste of paper that was this book. Then he should be forced to work in the real world until his brain works again. My life is lessened because I know of the existance [sic] of this book.
So antinatalist reasoning is branded as misanthropic. This may be no surprise, but it is nevertheless profoundly wrongheaded. Whatever his motives, Benatar's argument is essentially and explicitly philanthropic. And so, despite my intermittently flaring hostility, is mine. The iterations cannot be exhausted. Creating people increases suffering. Or creating people violates rights. There is nothing misanthropic or hostile in the mission to reduce suffering, to spare people an unknowable fate that could entail terrible illness or be defined by desperation and psychic malaise. There is nothing morally suspect about an ethical imperative that denies the multiplication of hangnails, holocausts, and gravestones.
But if the best of god's enemies have failed to step up on this crucial point, maybe I shouldn't crucify them for their lapse. After all, they're smarter than I, which means, of course and alas, they are also better than I. Thoughtless murderers though I believe they are. To paraphrase the old antisemitic quip, some of my best friends are breeders.
It is better instead that we should study on the implications of antinatalism for those who nakedly assert their claim to transcendentally based moral righteousness. Because once you think about it, most followers of the Nicene Creed have a lot more explaining to do.
Benatar is largely silent on the subject of religion, making only a passing reference to Shaker celibacy in observing that "religious traditions can embody views that superficial religious thinkers would take to be antithetical to religiosity."
He might have thought better, because for Christians, at least for the practicing majority who embrace a scriptural mandate for damnation, the inherent problems of procreation are infinitely magnified. To understand this, it is not necessary to entertain the veracity of preposterous christian claims about the fate awaits unsaved sinners. To borrow Dennett's expression, we need only posit a "belief in belief." If the hell-fearing christians mean what they say, then their conduct should be judged accordingly. When heaven and hell are introduced into the calculus, the import of antinatalist reasoning is cast so starkly that it defies credulity to believe that one could overlook the potential harm of their doing. Yet even with the stakes raised immeasurably, the christians seem at least as blind as the atheists.
All but one, that is.
The First and Last Pro-Mortalist Christian Martyr
I remember you, Mrs.Andrea Yates.
You who were so obviously -- biochemically, hormonally, legally, certifiably -- insane. That you drowned your five beloved broodlings, lest they should suffer the torment of eternal hellfire. You poor, haplessly afflicted christian-mother-wife-victim. So beleaguered and bedraggled and brainsick. So deserving of our enlightened compassion, yet so unfairly condemned by the masses of unthinking remote-control moralists. All the best people agree: we can learn from your plight.
But my dear Andrea, could it be that your detractors as well as your enlightened defenders have somehow missed the central lesson? As I recall, you were very clear about this. Those voices in your head, the one's you heeded in your unquestionably psychotic lapse of innate maternal judgment, the voices informing your unthinkable fillicidal deed, were they not consonant with the voices so long resonating in the minds of your flock? Were they not the same sermonically sanctioned voices long ratified by your chosen congregation?
Let's be honest, dear. You had your reasons. Reasons more soundly deduced than delusional. You knew what you were doing. Your mistake, Saint Andrea, was in believing too earnestly.
I do not intend to be airily mordacious or snide. I want instead to play on a forgotten thread of Szaszian skepticism by suggesting that Andrea Yates' actions can be understood without appeal to theories of insanity or feminist-enabled hormone-sickness. I want to suggest -- nay, insist -- that her crimes, considered in the context of clearly stated and widely believed church dogma, were inescapably rational. Katie Couric's postpartum psychosis poster child was acting, as they say, in her children's best interest.
Stop sighing and listen. Andrea Yates was a member of the Clear Lake Church of Christ, a Texas-based tendril of a fiercely but by no means uniquely fundamentalist sect of protestant christianity boasting a mostly southern American membership of more than two million people -- some of whom we might imagine, just for the sake of argument, to be very sincere. As with most sectarian strands of christendom, The Church of Christ embraces and promotes certain doctrines. With general reference to the subject of damnation, and with specific reference to this imaginatively dreadful place called hell, the Church of Christ is as abominably fanciful as they come. If you don't accept the j-man and submit to proper baptismal rites, you can look forward to an an unimaginable eternity of unimaginable suffering.
It's a vicious and tawdry idea, I know. But if you honestly believe it; if you sincerely ascribe to the notion that such inconceivable punishment awaits the nonbeliever, then how fucking dare you have children? Children who, by dint of free will (CoC votaries reject predestination), may succumb not merely to worldly misery and death, but to never-ending torturous agony.
Thus it is for you that I must reserve my harshest sentiments. Fuck you, careless christian procreators. Because of what you believe, you have placed yourselves beyond the bounds of human turpitude. You have consigned yourselves to the bottom depth of human iniquity. When the killing machines are fueled and ready, I hope you're the first in line.
But Andrea, only Andrea, in her perfect, tragic, pathetic, guileless, lonely sanity, saw the writing on the wall. She knew what she had wrought. And she knew there was one last ditch. A loophole; a way to save her children. It's all spelled out quite clearly in a gratingly ingenuous church lesson intended specifically for Andrea's erstwhile congregants:
History can be a wonderful teacher and help us gain perspective on current situations. We understand the Scriptures to teach that infants and small children are innocent of the guilt of sin. Jesus used them as illustrations of humility and innocence saying, in essence, “You adults need what they possess!” (See Matthew 18:2-6; 19:13-15; Mark 9:36-37; 10:13-16; Luke 9:46-48;18:15-17.) The baptism of infants and children was unknown during the New Testament period but began early in Christian history. It began due to a misunderstanding of the nature of God which led to unnecessary fear. There was fear that if an infant or child died he or she would not go to heaven. Baptism was thus seen as the method of providing assurance of salvation while giving the child the opportunity to develop faith.
Although we have, thankfully, never practiced infant baptism in Churches of Christ, we have sometimes fallen victim to the same false view of God and fear for the salvation of our children. If Jesus is to be taken at his word in the above scriptures, God is more interested in the salvation of your children than you are! For this reason, we must trust him enough to believe that His mercy and grace will extend to our children during their formative years and that His grace will cover your children during the time they need to develop their faith.
If I could wave a magic wand and change one concern in parent’s hearts in regard to this matter, it would be to give them the peace and assurance they need that God really is merciful and gracious. This way we can give our attention to how we can best develop the faith of our children without fear that they’ve got to get baptized quickly or God will not admit them to heaven.
Of course, Mother Yates put the matter a mite more bluntly, informing her worldly persecutors that "[t]hese were their innocent years. God would take them up." And whether it was meant as a baptismal precaution or an oblique stab at irony, I have to admit the bathtub was a nice touch.
But look. Ten out of ten faithful followers agree: all children go to heaven. Just ask one of the sheep: what fate befell these innocent victims? They'll tell you. Andrea's babes are playing put-put with Jesus in the heavenly hereafter, or something similarly trite. It's the sinful adults who are exclusively eligible for the other version of this Manichean cartoon. For the true believer, a vastly greater cruelty resides in foreclosing the fillicidal final solution. In heeding the command to be fruitful, christians wantonly place countless lives at far worse than mortal risk. Therein I submit lies a more resonant shade of insanity.
The droning liberal apologetics, inevitably fashioned in the language of warmed-over pop-feminist victimology, stands as a crass disservice to a brave Kierkegaardian heroine. Whose only real mistake was in sincerely believing what others emptily profess to believe. This woman's crimes were rationally compassionate, conceived in perfect fidelity with scriptural doctrine that she and millions of others insist upon being inescapably True.
It makes absolutely no difference that you and I reject such theistically countenanced fantasies out of hand. Andrea didn't. My apology may be exploitive, but it is necessary and sincere. Make no mistake, I mean to corner the argument. For the vast millions of hell-believing christians, procreation entails a uniquely unconscionable measure of horror. For the rest of us, it's merely unconscionable.
Am I gilding the lily? Honestly, I can't say that I care. The unsubtle point, whatever triangulation is assumed, remains the same.
No one should ever have children.
Note: This is the penultimate installment in a four-part series on antinatalism. Part Four will take a critical look at David Benatar's "pro-death" position on abortion, and will consider the paradoxical compatibility of antinatalism with the idea of "immortalism" as expounded by contemporary proponents of transhumanism. How's that for irrelevant?