I’ve joked before that, “I could never be an atheist because I don’t like the taste of babies.”
Of course I know that atheists don’t eat babies. The sheer absurdity of that implication is what makes it a joke. A tasteless joke perhaps, but I never claimed to be terribly funny. Just ask my wife. She’ll testify that I’m terribly unfunny. But just to be clear, I am NOT saying that atheists eat babies or eat any other human beings for that matter. Since there are no atheist scriptures, creeds, or confessional statements to clarify any “orthodoxy” beyond simply the lack of God-belief, I’ll propose a proclamation here. Adopt it if you like atheists, but it states what I’m assuming for the rest of this article.
Let it therefore be known henceforth and forevermore that Atheists, Agnostics, “Free Thinkers,” “BRITES,” and various species of religious skeptics are not known, in point of fact, and by any common measure or observation, to be in the habit of eating babies.
Not to my knowledge at least. But recently, this bedrock of realism has started to crack. A few atheists have started to wander a bit in that direction and I have to say, I’m a little worried. Permit me to share a little backstory.
Recently the political pundit and liberal Muslim Reza Aslan soared into headline news for unseemly reasons. Usually, he’s a CNN commentator on religious issues but this time however, his notoriety sprang from a television show he’s hosting wherein he found himself eating human brains.
Yes, you heard right, Reza Aslan ate brains. He was on location with a small (100 person) Hindu cult, “the Aghori.” Hindu’s disavow the group, for obvious reasons. But Aslan partook of the Aghori religious rites, including drinking an alcoholic concoction from a human skull and then eating a piece of human brain. Several media outlets covered the story including Washington Post, Foxnews, Telegraph, and Dailymail. Conspicuously absent from the media firestorm was CNN. Aslan is a CNN correspondent and the show in question, “Believer” is sponsored by CNN. So it’s no surprise that Google searching turned up no CNN coverage of the story but only advertisements so you can go watch the show.
Now, just to be clear, Aslan didn’t eat soft pink chewy brains, they were fire roasted slices burnt to a crisp. I guess that makes it better (?). I found this scene provocative and worthy of social media. So, as I’m prone to do, I posted a conversational comment about it on Facebook.
Sure enough, the post generated discussion, a modest 53 comments to be exact (not including replies). I stand by what I said. I condemn the act, but I pass no final judgment on him as a person. I hope that he has since learned not to eat people, in part or in whole. But this thread turned up some surprising results.
I’m not writing here about Reza Aslan per se. I’m writing about atheism. Aslan is a liberal Muslim, I’m a conservative Christian. So I was a surprised to find that the only common denominator among his defenders, on my thread, was atheism. No muslims, nor Christians, and definitely no Hindus, whether liberal, moderate, or conservative, chimed in to defend Aslan’s 15 minutes of shame. It was atheists who volleyed defensive fire.
I didn’t expect that.
Now to be clear, I don’t dismiss all defenses for him. I’m not trying to “pile on” to Reza Aslan. I condemn the act, but not the person. Perhaps Aslan got “in over his head.” That’s possible. Perhaps he didn’t expect to be stretched this far past his comfort zone. Maybe he’s a religious idealist and thought that such a drastic demonstration would earn trust and lend solidarity with this unusual group and validate his open-arm theology. Maybe he’s just a media puppet, dancing like a marrionette on the strings of popular entertainment. Regardless of what was going on in his head, he bit into someone’s brain. I hope, for his own sake, that he regrets what he did. All the religious folks commenting uniformly decried this behavior as gross and immoral.
But not the atheists.
Atheists Defend Cannibalism
Later Davey added:
Davey was concerned about health risks. A fair concern, I guess. And indeed some rare diseases emerge from brain-eating (Kuru; CJD). But even if brain-eating didn’t have any health risks, I’d still have to say, “thanks for offering your brain for dinner, but I’ll have the chicken instead.” I do give him credit for inviting critical inquiry on the subject. Despite the tastelessness of the subject matter, we had some fruitful discussion afterward.But I’m still shocked. Perhaps my surprise stems from the discord I’m sensing between (1) permitting cannibalism and (2) the swollen moral indignation atheists commonly don when decrying the Old Testament God, or the doctrine of Hell, and so forth. When atheists rejecti Christian moral commitments I would expect there to be some alternative principled moral high-ground for them to stand on in making these judgments against the Faith. It seems, however, that in abandoning the moral framework of Christianity many atheists may have given permission for than just fashionable acts like gay marriage, and abortion. They also unlocked the cage around cannibalism.Another atheist, we’ll call him Joe, helped clarify the ethics involved. In his view, it’s all about harm.
He admits the possibility of disease from eating human flesh, and how that would be harmful, but he wraps up his case saying, cannibalism is “not inherently immoral.” He’s already defeating himself though. He talks about “harms’ but harmful behaviors are only “ill-advised” as he calls it. People consume things all that time that can make them sick; people drink till they get alcohol poisoning, they eat unhealthy foods, they will ingest suspicious drugs on the hopes of getting high. So cannibalism isn’t “wrong,” it’s just risky.
We might add that neither Davey nor Joe have explained why on earth we should believe that “harm” is bad. Nor do they offer any rubric, or source (in these posts or any subsequent ones), to clarify how these harms are determined or measured. For the sado-masochist, one man’s “harm” is another man’s “help.” And for the strict utilitarian, one people’s “harm” can spell far greater pleasures for more people. The majority of people could benefit greatly by brutalizing a small population with every horror imaginable (with no respect for consent, equality, liberty, or rights). Utilitarian ethics is quite adaptable like that to where most anything can “add up” in those calculations.
Are you starting to feel the skin-crawling sensation that there are some seriously deviant “ethics” at work here?
This defense of cannibalism is scary enough on it’s own, but notice: he got five likes!
Connecting these atheistic arguments from Jay, Joe, and Davey we see that, allegedly, cannibalism is morally permissible if the victim, we’ll call him Mr. Dinner, was not murdered for this purpose or ingested as some sort of dominance ritual. It involves potential harms to whoever eats Mr. Dinner, but that’s merely risky or “ill-advised” and not inherently immoral. If Mr. Dinner was murdered for dominance purposes then that murder would be wrong on two counts (murder is wrong, and deadly dominance rituals are wrong). But after that fact, it’s perfectly fine to eat Mr. Dinner afterwards so long as it’s for otherwise “harmless” reasons like recycling, entertainment, culinary art, etc. Mr. Dinner can be eaten freely so long as no one is physically harmed in the process, and as long as we do not violate some pre-established obligation to the dead. I guess we can no longer assume that “don’t eat me” is implied in people’s Last will and Testament.
Note also that Jay talks about “outrage,” and Davey talked about it “feeling wrong.” But I’m not talking about feelings. Feelings matter but I’m more concerned with moral facts here. And the historic and nearly universal taboo on cannibalism is good reason to think that it is a moral fact that “cannibalism is wicked.” I’m not going to assume, by method or policy, that all the cultures of the world, across human history are wrong on this issue and the fringe opinions of western skeptics and reactionary atheists are somehow “wiser” than all of them. I allow that vast majorities of people, are intelligent, sensible, reasonable, and well-rounded in their worldview. So when the overwhelming majority of smart people, academics, scholars, wise commoners, across every race, culture and creed agree that cannibalism is evil–well that’s a substantial evidence base. We can combine this socio-historical foundation with various lines of evidence regarding legal and civil decorum showing respect for human beings, laws against desecrating a corpse, laws regarding proper disposal human remains, together with meta-level concerns for the “sanctity of life” in both it’s religious and secular sense (yes, “sanctity of life” is not a strictly religious concept). Altogether we have pretty good case for not upsetting the apple cart on this one. Cannibalism has all the appearance of a moral evil.
Perhaps what’s most shocking to me, however, is the cold consistency of these atheists when applying their naturalistic ethics, even when it permits cannibalism. The atheists in question don’t necessarily represent most or all atheists. But from what I can tell, they aren’t oddballs either. They are fairly normal atheists, reasonably well-education, thoughtful, intelligent people with a religious background who have walked away from the Faith of their younger days. I have no reason to suspect them of some closet occultism or some dastardly and nefarious “dark side” where they are secretly looking for an excuse to eat babies or go on a crime spree. I would have assumed–by the principle of charitable interpretation–that atheists tend to be selective in what they reject, discarding only those restrictive and offensive ethical norms that seem to trace to theistic influence such as, “Don’t have sex before marriage,” “Give 10% of your income to church,” and “Don’t say ‘G-d D-mn.'” I would assume that atheists aren’t in the habit of deliberately ostracizing themselves with radically counter-cultural or deeply revisionary ethics, inviting wild accusations of orgies, baby-eating, polyamory, cutting-parties, etc. and so on. But I’m starting to wonder now. No, I’m not considering an open marriage cutting party orgy. I’m starting to wonder whether atheists have the foundations, within a godless cosmos, to morally push hard against ANY behavior whatsoever.
Before this Reza Aslan post, the closest thing I’ve heard to this, so far, is when a particular atheist rejects the notion of “human rights.” Their reasoning seems to be that “rights” aren’t material relations, and “morality” is more like a set of relativistic social conventions so “rights” aren’t “real.” I would hope they just didn’t realize the centrality of “human rights” to modern political liberalism, the progressive movement, the democrat party, the civil rights movement, feminism, gay rights, the U.S. constitution, and the Declaration of Independence. I’m a political conservative and I fully support the notion intrinsic human rights. So, I would hope we could agree that human rights are real and important.
I would have assumed that atheists would recognize that there’s wisdom to be gleaned from observing all that legal history, all those laws, all those voices, all those cultures. And we can assume many of those people across the globe and across history are extremely smart, deeply skeptical, and quite opposed to religion, yet they would never reject such foundational concepts as “human rights” or in this case, “cannibalism is wrong.” We can assume all that.
But you know what happens when we “assume.”
What have we learned about Reza Aslan, Believers, and Cannibalism?
We left asking what can we learn from this strange exchange? For one thing, we can observe that Reza Aslan doesn’t really speak for muslims worldwide (he’s too “western” and not Sharia observant); the Aghori cult doesn’t speak for Hindus (Hindus lean vegetarian and vegan); and none of the atheists above speak for all atheists. We should not generalize too widely as if these particular atheists speak for “atheism proper.” Neither should we assume too little and think that they are somehow “heretical” defying atheistic orthodoxy. There’s only one tenet of belief or practice common to all atheists, and that is the lack of God-belief. Orthodoxy for atheists is wide-open. The “theology” of atheism, so to speak, is an open-arms policy where absolutely any belief, conspiracy theory, philosophy, political party, paranoia, or moral framework is allowed so long as they don’t believe in God.
Second we learn from this exchange that being an atheist does not guarantee any moral or intellectual high ground. Atheists can be moral and intelligent, but their atheism offers no clean neat leverage against foolishness and evil. If an atheist wants the moral and intellectual high ground, he or she is going to have to earn it just like the rest of us.
Lastly we see that a sample of atheists aren’t principally opposed to eating babies, although, we have no way of knowing how far this green light shines across the world of atheists. We don’t know how many atheists would chime in with vocal support. Fortunately these atheists have so far abstained from eating people because they find it “distasteful” and risky. I guess that’s a good thing. Congratulations for not eating people!
In the final analysis we can safely say that atheists don’t eat babies, although it’s still on the menu.