The New Materialists

Yesterday was the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in America, so inevitably the pro-lifers were out in force. Having been a pro-lifer once myself, I thought I’d take a moment to share my perspective. Back in the early 90’s I attended a pro-life protest rally with a busload of pro-lifers, and even though I was an ardent Christian at the time, there were some aspects of the protest that bothered me, even then.

The thing that bothered me the most was the emphasis on Christianity. Not that I objected to the faith, of course. I joined in the prayers and the hymns as enthusiastically as anyone else. But I couldn’t help but notice the atmosphere of possessiveness and exclusivity with which the pro-life position was being linked to the religion. It was as if there were a sub-text hiding in the signs and banners people were carrying: “Pro-life is for CHRISTIANS ONLY.”

It bothered me at the time, because the pro-life movement was unlikely to win without the support of a large number of other groups, and yet there was a tangible attitude of not wanting those other groups to join in. There was a certain amount of tolerance for Christian-like religions (Rabbis For Life could be openly accepted for instance), but I didn’t see too many Mormons for Life or (God forbid!) Gays for Life. I even had one pro-lifer tell me frankly and honestly that the only terms on which he would be willing to see America outlaw abortion again would be if the nation first turned to Jesus, so that Jesus could take the credit. Dead babies were something to shout about, but they came in a firm and distant second to the goal of using the pro-life movement to establish the political clout of believers.

Nowadays I see that as a rather more positive aspect of the pro-life movement: their self-righteous exclusivism makes them naturally self-limiting and self-defeating. Considering that they are crusading to dehumanize women, that’s a good thing. And not just women, because if you look at the philosophical basis of the pro-life movement, they’re really dehumanizing us all.

Before I get into that, though, let me just point out in passing that one of the big problems with trying to worship and serve a non-existent God is that you leave yourself open to the political influence of anyone who can do a convincing imitation of what you think the voice of God would sound like if He could talk. And there are any number of people who want your labor, your money, your vote, your military service, and on and on, who are more than willing to tell you what God is urging you to do.

The pro-life movement is a classic example. Back in the early 70’s, Republican strategists hit on the idea of using abortion as a political wedge to drive conservative Christians into the ranks (and coffers) of the party. It was not a particularly Christian issue, but it was a popular superstition, and Christian leaders like Pat Robertson and James Dobson were only to happy to enlist in the Republican crusade and make it a religious issue. In effect, they sold the American Christian church to the Republican party in exchange for some political influence, not realizing that most of the influence was actually flowing the wrong way. (As usual.)

The result is that we have a major Judeo-Christian political movement that manipulates believers into obeying the directives of Republican strategists, and that incidentally dehumanizes humankind in general and women in particular. It’s an unbiblical position, and flows contrary to a lot of what we might call the “spirit” of Christianity, but because God does not show up in real life and the Republicans are willing to take the lead in “relaying” God’s voice in His absence, Christians willingly embrace it as a part of their faith.

Ok, let’s get into the details. The root of the problem here, as in so many other cases, is that we all know that murder is wrong and surgery is ok, but it’s not clear at what point abortion switches from being the latter to being the former. That kind of ambiguity is not the sort of banner the average Joe can rally around. If you’re going to draw a line in the sand, it needs to be a clear, definite line, not a bunch of people sitting around wondering who, if anyone, might have crossed it. So how do you turn this into a black-and-white issue to use as a political tool?

Well, that’s easy, we’ll just say that “life begins at conception.” Sperm + egg = human life and therefore it’s murder if you take that life. The Bible never says anything about life beginning at conception (and in fact declares in Genesis 2 that Man first became “a living soul” when God breathed the breath of life into his nostrils, so there’s reason to believe that breathing marks the point at which God regards us as human souls). But modern Republican leaders of the pro-life movement have declared that conception is what makes us people, and that’s good enough for the rank-and-file pro-lifer.

Notice what we’re saying, though. The nucleic acids of the sperm penetrate the cell wall of the egg, migrate to the nucleus, and recombine in an mundane biochemical reaction just like in every other organism from bacteria on up. There are as yet none of the attributes we normally associate with “soul,” like mind or emotion or will or perception. Nature has just begun construction of the physical, material housing into which these human (and dare I say “spiritual”) characteristics will later take root. But they’re not present yet, at conception.

What we have here, in other words, is an extremely materialistic reduction of what it means to be a person. We’re not beings of soul or spirit, let alone any image of God. We’re fundamentally a mere collection of proteins and amino acids and other materialistic chemicals. Kudos to pro-lifers for acknowledging the materialistic nature of man, and the fact that our true essence and worth is rooted in the physical and material substances of which we are composed. But this takes materialism too far.

The material universe is not just a universe of substances, it is a universe of substances and processes—nouns and verbs. And the verbs are no less important than the nouns. The reason human beings have value and dignity is not just because of the bare physical substances that interact biochemically at conception, as they do in all species. What makes us truly human, in the personal and spiritual sense, are the unique material processes that develop within our bodies once development advances beyond a certain point, the thoughts and emotions and goals and, yes, even the temptations.

These post-conception attributes are what make us human, not the mere substances of the single-celled organism. Philosophically, the pro-life movement is based on a heartless materialism that ignores the verbs and reduces people in general and women in particular to mere nouns. The fertilized egg lacks the processes and capacities that make us uniquely human persons—no mind, no thought, no feeling, no will, no perception, no desire, nothing more than a lowly bacterium would have. And that, pro-lifers tell us, is what it means to be a real, true human being.

This New Materialism flies in the face of the spirituality that pro-lifers allegedly believe in. Ok, not allegedly, they really do believe in it. It’s just that they’re following political leaders who don’t believe, and who could care less about the contradictions you produce in a believer’s testimony when you force him to reduce humanity to a mere chemical formula, and to call that “the whole person.”

But that’s what happen when you try to obey the voice of a God Who isn’t there, and is easily imitated. You become a pawn, a tool, to be deployed and used at will by whoever has the ambition and lack of scruples to pull it off.

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Posted in Atheistic Morality, Politics, Society, Unapologetics. 7 Comments »

7 Responses to “The New Materialists”

  1. Nemo Says:

    Funny. But my outsider’s understanding of this has always been different: I thought that the slogan “life begins at conception” was based on the doctrine of “ensoulment” — the supposed moment when the soul enters the body — occurring at conception. Of course this is still unbiblical, but it’s not materialistic. We rarely hear the word “ensoulment”, but that’s because it’s blatantly religious, while “life begins at conception” is something that they want to write into the (secular) law. I’d think that they were trying to appeal to non-Christians, too, but little else they do suggests that.

  2. Arthur Says:

    But that’s what happens when you try to obey the voice of a God Who isn’t there, and is easily imitated. You become a pawn, a tool…

    Maybe this isn’t such a big deal to people who believe that moral behavior means obeying the dictates of some outside source. I mean, they already believe that they’re someone’s pawn, unless I misunderstand.

  3. exrelayman Says:

    Neat. So the pawns don’t know they’ve been pwned. No pun intended.

  4. Hunt Says:

    I think the reason Christians don’t use the “soul insertion” argument publicly is because they know it won’t fly in open discourse. It’s interesting that even Christians know that some of their arguments are so tenuous and metaphysically vague that they are essentially unusable. Instead they resort to the sort of hand waving arguments that present embryos as fully human, not just potentially human. But if they don’t want to endorse the metaphysical aspect, this argument is no good, since the sperm and egg as a system with two components is as much a human as the fertilized egg, minus the process of union. So they’ve already conceded that “process” is a part of becoming human.

  5. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Good point. I think the other reason they don’t try to argue that the soul enters the body at conception is because they can’t really back it up with anything more than speculation. It’s not a doctrine that has been written anywhere in any significant scripture. It’s just another one of those “arguments of convenience” that Christians invented on the spur of the moment to try and justify their superstitions about abortion.

  6. John Morales Says:


    Of course this is still unbiblical

    Heh. I first misread this as ‘umbilical’, and thought “yeah, so?”. 🙂


    Well, that’s easy, we’ll just say that “life begins at conception.” Sperm + egg = human life and therefore it’s murder if you take that life.

    Of course, gametes (both the egg and the spermatozoon) are already alive, so there’s merely a continuation, rather than a genesis of life.

  7. Jer Says:

    Good point. I think the other reason they don’t try to argue that the soul enters the body at conception is because they can’t really back it up with anything more than speculation. It’s not a doctrine that has been written anywhere in any significant scripture.

    Until contraception became a widespread thing, the Catholic Church and most Christian denominations that I’m aware of taught that the soul didn’t enter a body until “Quickening” – i.e. when the mother first started feeling the baby move within the womb. IIRC this happens sometime around month 4 to month 6. When birth control and women’s suffrage started to become political issues supported by liberal Protestant churches, the Catholic Church decided that life began at conception and that birth control was interfering with God’s Will. There is no Scripture to back this up because the Catholic Church insists that authority can’t come from Scripture but only from Apostolic tradition so they don’t bother combing through Scripture performing textual exegesis to try to justify their doctrines – Jesus established the apostles as his heirs on Earth after all, not the New Testament. So by Catholic teachings what the Pope says has authority in Heaven as on Earth with no scouring of ancient texts to figure out what God wants required.

    I find it somewhat hilarious that the evangelical Protestant community in the US has latched onto what is essentially a bit of Catholic doctrine that was created specifically to smack the Protestants across the face. Of course the doctrine is unbiblical – it’s a Papist doctrine. I’ll bet the current Pope gets a lot of giggles out of the whole thing too, because you know he understands what it really all means.