Atheists, Absolutes & Abortion

Last week Richard Dawkins, the biologist and prominent atheist, caused a storm on social media by tweeting that a woman should abort an unborn child that has been diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome. Dawkins went on to claim that allowing the child to be born would be ‘immoral.’

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Back in 2010, during a discussion on an Australian TV show, Dawkins was asked a question about whether, as an atheist, he believed in absolute morality. His response, in typical Dawkins style, was to launch an attack upon the morality of the Bible and other religious texts. Then he made this statement:

“I don’t think I want an absolute morality. I think I want a morality that is thought out, reasoned, argued, discussed, and based upon what you could almost call an intelligent design. Can we not design our society in such a way to have the sort of morality that we want to live in?”

At first glance this may just sound like a philosophical soundbite, but it actually cuts to the heart of how we look at right and wrong – and how we treat the most vulnerable members of our society.

Christians, and people of most other religious faiths, believe that there exists an absolute, or objective, morality. In other words, there are certain things that are morally wrong, and they always will be morally wrong irrespective of human opinion. Let’s take an extreme and obvious example. It is morally wrong to torture babies to death for fun. Nothing can change that fact. Even if the human race were to become so twisted that everybody thought it was OK to torture babies to death for fun, it would still be morally wrong. Even if not one single human being realised how depraved such a practice is, God would still view it as horribly wrong and immoral. That is what we mean when we say we believe in an absolute, or an objective, morality. There is a standard of right and wrong which is not determined by human debate or opinion, but is derived from God Himself and is built into the very fabric of the universe.

Now, we must admit that religions have often failed miserably in how they have expressed, and in how they have lived out, their ideas of morality. We have seen abominations such as Inquisitions, Crusades and ISIS. But, nevertheless, there remains this most basic notion that there is an absolute and objective standard of right and wrong by which all our thoughts, words and actions can be ultimately judged.

If you take God out of the equation, however, then what basis do you have for believing in absolute standards of right and wrong? Morality becomes something that we subjectively decide for ourselves, rather than something that exists objectively. In this scenario, torturing babies to death for fun is not wrong in and of itself, but that is simply a decision we have made because it makes sense for the survival of our species and the ordering of our society. It is hypothetically possible that, at some stage in the future, people will decide that torturing babies to death for fun isn’t actually that bad an idea. You can object to a practice on the grounds that you don’t personally like it, or because it hinders the progression of your society or of the human race – but you can’t ever say, “Look, this practice is immoral and flat out wrong.”

While such a view of morality is the logical outcome of atheism, I have discovered that very few atheists will, in a discussion, admit so. They are much more likely to dodge the issue by changing the subject and arguing about how religions have applied their views of morality. That is why it was significant that Dawkins, when pressed by an interviewer, admitted that, in his view, there is no absolute standard of right and wrong, and that we can construct our own morals to suit the kind of society that we want to build.

The problem with this kind of view is that the weakest and most vulnerable members of our society often don’t figure very highly in our dreams of what the human race should look like. They can become an inconvenience, either to be locked away in institutions or simply removed altogether. Think of how physically and mentally disabled children were left to rot in squalid orphanages under Soviet-era regimes in Eastern Europe. Or, closer to home, think of the recent controversy in Ireland when a suicidal rape victim was denied the opportunity to have an abortion. A public full of compassion for a teenage girl who had suffered a great violence and injustice somehow failed to show a similar compassion for a second innocent victim of rape – the baby that was conceived.

It is ironic that our society would be aghast if the death penalty were ever to be implemented against a rapist for the crime he has committed. Yet most people’s unspoken assumption seemed to be that an unborn baby who has committed the ‘crime’ of being conceived through rape should be destroyed, and that anyone questioning the morality of an abortion in such circumstances is automatically deemed to be heartless and unfeeling. Maybe we aren’t as clever at constructing our own morality as we think we are?

Chinese dissident, Ma Jian, portrayed a searing indictment of his society in the novel The Dark Road. In one passage, possibly the most harrowing piece of literature you are ever likely to read, Jian graphically describes how a woman who had violated China’s One Child Policy is subjected to a forced abortion. One of the most horrifying aspects of Jian’s tale is that the mother-to-be is the one who is deemed to have acted immorally. She has threatened the wellbeing of Chinese society by conceiving a second child. She has contributed to overpopulation and selfishly endangered the economic miracle that is dragging millions of people out of poverty. Yet the power of Jian’s novel lies in the fact that we know, deep down inside, that such arguments are wrong and always will be wrong. Even if State propaganda were to convince every single human being of the rightness of the One Child policy – it would still be wrong. No matter how we construct our morality to say otherwise, there is an absolute and objective morality by which it is wrong to kidnap a young woman, wrong to strap her to a table, wrong to forcibly inject poison into her unborn child’s head, and wrong to then strangle her baby when it still emerges alive from the womb.

‘Eugenics’ refers to the planned improvement of the human race’s genetic stock – giving evolution a bit of a helping hand, if you will. Two of the leading pioneers in the field of birth control, Marie Stopes and Margaret Sanger (Founder of Planned Parenthood), were supporters of eugenics. Stopes argued that deficiencies could be weeded out of populations by racial purification. Sanger, who once observed that Aboriginal Australians were “just a step higher than the chimpanzee,” advocated rigorous immigration controls and the forced sterilisation of “the undeniably feeble-minded.”

Actually, both Stopes and Sanger were opposed to abortion. Sanger believed that life should not be taken after conception, and that the numbers of abortions then taking place in the United States (although a mere fraction of today’s figures) were “a disgrace to civilisation.” Stopes referred to abortion as the murder of an unborn child. However, as we continue subjectively to ‘construct our own morality’ things have obviously changed. Today the Marie Stopes International NGO is a leading provider of abortions worldwide (including China) and Planned Parenthood is the largest promoter and provider of abortions in the United States.

Which brings us to the next step in constructing our own morality – Richard Dawkins’ claim that knowingly allowing an unborn child with Down’s Syndrome to survive to birth is an immoral act.

I have some experience of being a parent to a daughter with severe physical limitations and challenges. I have never parented a child with Down’s Syndrome, but those who have tell me that their children experience great joy and fulfilment in life, and are a blessing to their parents and siblings.

Yet somehow, in constructing a non-absolute morality, the lives of children with Down’s Syndrome have, in at least one atheist’s mind, become not only expendable, but morally undesirable.

It is true that sometimes religions, including the Christian varieties of religion, have done some horrible things. People often fail to live up to their own moral standards. Others find theological and dogmatic excuses to evade moral responsibility. Still others have failed miserably in expressing a morality which reflects the compassion of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, we should remember that discovering what is right and what is wrong is still one of the greatest pursuits we can follow as moral beings made in the image of God.

But woe betide the human race, and particularly its weakest and most vulnerable members, if we become arrogant enough to think that we have the right to abandon the quest for absolute or objective morality and instead construct our own subjective morality created in our own flawed and selfish image.

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Ice Buckets, Donations & Stem Cells

It was bound to happen. Sooner or later someone was going to nominate me for the latest craze of the ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’. One of our youth leaders issued the challenge, so yesterday (Sunday) morning I had a bucket of water and ice cubes poured over my head just prior to preaching my sermon. We were able to maximise the moment by encouraging the congregation to pull out their cellphones (most of them had already done so to take a photo or video) and to send a text donation to the Irish Motor Neurone Disease Association. If you live in Ireland, and have not already done so, I encourage you to text the letters MND to 50300 to make an instant €2 donation.

Ice Bucket

However, before I took the challenge or made a donation, I took care to find out what the Irish MND Association’s stand is on embryonic stem cell research. I am no scientist, but I understand that there are two types of stem cells. Adult stem cells can be harvested and grown in various ways. Embryonic stem cells are obtained by creating a human embryo, and the embryo is then destroyed in the harvesting process. For most Christians this creates an ethical dilemma.

First off, Motor Neurone Disease (known in the United States as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease) is a horrible and fatal affliction. Anyone with even a flicker of compassion in their hearts should be supportive of efforts to carry out research to find treatments or a cure.

However, many people (including myself) believe that human life starts at conception. This means that embryonic stem cell research involves creating a human being with the express intention of killing them before birth for the purposes of medical experimentation.

So, we have an ethical dilemma. If a human embryo is indeed viewed as a person, then is it justified to carry out fatal medical experimentation on it even if it helps find a cure for a horrible disease that might end up afflicting friends and family members? My answer is a decided ‘No’. Several years ago I visited the museum at Dachau Concentration Camp in Germany. I stood in tears as I saw photographs of inmates undergoing torture and eventual death in experiments conducted by Nazi doctors. I decided that day that no medical advance, even if it were to save millions of lives, is worth non-consensual experimentation on another human being. A human embryo may not have laughed, loved and played music like those poor guys in Dachau, indeed it doesn’t even have the photogenic cuddliness of a rabbit or a puppy, but it is IMHO nevertheless a human person and has a right to be protected.

Now, back to the Ice Bucket Challenge. I am aware that the major charity in the US that is benefiting from this profusion of cold showers funds embryonic stem cell research. However, I understand that they will honour your wishes if you make a donation and specify that it not be used to fund research that involves the destruction of human embryos. There are also other Stateside charities that are tackling MND in a way that would be consistent with the ethics of most Christians.

In Ireland, as it turns out, experimentation on human embryos is forbidden by law. The Irish Motor Neurone Disease Association spends most of its income on providing help and support for those who are already suffering from the disease (including nursing).

So, keep tipping those ice buckets. Keep donating (important, as churchgoers on average give much more to charities than do non-churchgoers). And let’s try to do so in a way that is consistent with our respect for the value of all human life.

Free Sample of Nick Park’s Testimony Book: “From Touching Rock Bottom to Touching the Nations”

Rock Bottom cover

“From Touching Rock Bottom to Touching the Nations” is, like Nick Park’s other books, available from Amazon both in paperback or in e-book format for the Kindle.

Or order your copy direct (with no extra charges for shipping) at http://www.nickpark.ie

At every opportunity I had been drinking heavily. The escape and oblivion that came from alcohol was something that I increasingly craved. The time when I was sober was spent looking forward to my next drink. The only problem, as I saw it, was that money was short, thus limiting my drinking. So I found a much cheaper way of reaching oblivion. I began sniffing solvents.

Carbon tetrachloride is a common chemical used for stain removal or stripping polish and varnish from surfaces. I discovered that I could buy a bottle for less than a pound (that’s less than $2 US dollars), pour a few drops onto a cloth, and then place the cloth over my nose and mouth. One bottle could keep me intoxicated for an entire day. Solvent abuse is incredibly dangerous, each episode causes hallucinations that culminate in a juddering shock to the body that makes you feel as if your heart is bursting out of your chest. Sometimes I could hear my heart stop beating, and in my befuddled state I would wonder whether this was the time I would die or whether I would come back to full consciousness again.

For the next two or three months I spent most of my waking time either high on solvents or drunk. At fifteen years of age I was too young to claim welfare payments legally, so I did so under a false name. This was before the computer age, and I figured that by the time the welfare office could receive all the relevant paperwork from Belfast, I would have moved on to another district of London. So I used the name and date of birth of an older boy at school who had once bullied me. I don’t know if the term ‘identity theft’ had been coined in 1978, but that is what it was. In a grim act of revenge I used his name to collect welfare payments and build up a substantial criminal record of petty theft, public order offences, bad loans and unpaid fines.

Occasionally I would earn a few pounds working as a roadie for bands, carrying their equipment into venues and setting everything up. The band I was living with was never successful enough to pay roadies. Although musically challenged, they tried to gain notoriety by courting controversy. They were called ‘The Raped’ and released a record called ‘Pretty Paedophiles.’ Every now and again a letter would appear in the music press expressing disgust at them – but in fact these letters were written by their manager in an attempt to generate publicity. They weren’t even significant enough to cause genuine offence to anyone.

Eventually my craving for solvents and alcohol became so all-consuming that I had no money left for food or rent. My weight began to drop alarmingly, and I ended up being evicted from my room in the house at Hendon. I wandered the streets of London for a few days, sleeping at night in shop doorways. When the weather turned wet I would shelter during the daytime in public libraries.

Even though my life was sliding downhill on an ever accelerating track to destruction, there was still a stubborn irrational glimmer of hope within me that things could be better. My fascination with other countries continued to grow. I would read books in the library that introduced me to the great writers of other nations’ literature.

One day I felt as if I had touched rock bottom. In fact I still had further to fall, but this day still represented a new low for me. I sat on the pavement of Tottenham Court Road and begged for coins. I wasn’t seeking to get food, or even alcohol. I just wanted enough coins to buy a bottle of solvent so I could put a rag over my face and inhale some oblivion. As I sat begging, with a piece of card in front of me bearing some hastily scrawled lie of a sob-story, I was two-thirds of the way through reading a book that I had stolen from a library. A well-dressed man stopped in front of me with a kindly expression on his face. I looked up and tried to appear needy and pathetic.

“What’s that book you’re reading?” he asked. I showed him the book cover. It was ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. He shook his head in amazement. “There probably aren’t even twenty young men your age in this entire city who have an interest in reading that kind of literature. Yet you’re begging on the street. Don’t you know that God could do so much more with your life?”

“I’m an atheist.” I replied, “There is no God.” For a moment I thought I had offended him, stopping him from giving to me. But he still dropped a few coins into the box in front of me. I remained begging on the pavement on Tottenham Court Road until I had finished my book, but I didn’t follow through with my plan to straight away buy a bottle of solvent. Instead I retraced my steps to the library from which I had stolen that book, and I put it back on its shelf alongside Dostoyevsky’s other novels.

Then I went to another shelf and pulled down a big illustrated atlas. I opened it up at a map of the world, and one-by-one I began to touch the outlines of the different countries. “One day,” I whispered to myself, “I’m going to touch the nations!”

Tears of a Clown – Fears of a Pastor

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Last night the news broke that Robin Williams, who had brought laughter to millions throughout his acting career, had been pronounced dead following an apparent suicide. Williams had struggled with depression for some time.

Sadly this is not a unique story. For some reason, those whose job is to make other people smile and laugh often seem to be tormented by deep personal unhappiness in their private lives. A popular 19th-Century opera, Pagliacci, played on this theme by portraying a circus clown who was violently tormented by grief over his wife’s infidelity. For those of us who prefer our culture to be less high-brow, Pagliacci was the inspiration behind the Motown hit song Tears of a Clown, by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.

The image of the tragic clown also has a scientific basis. A recent study by Gordon Claridge, Emeritus Professor of Abnormal Psychology in Oxford University, discovered that comedians demonstrated significantly higher than normal psychotic personality traits, including introverted moodiness.

This set me thinking about Christian pastors. Those of us who serve in the ministry have something in common with comedians. Every week we are expected to stand in front of a crowd of people and meet a variety of expectations. Yes, I know how we echo the apostle Paul and stress that our aim is to please God rather than to please people (Galatians 1:10). But we are human beings also, and most of us desire to please God while still preaching in a way that informs and inspires our listeners rather than sending them to sleep (as Paul did in Acts 20:9).

Today, thanks to Christian television, there is not just an expectation for a preacher to deliver a message from God’s Word, there is also an additional pressure for he or she to look good, have white shining teeth, and to entertain a crowd. The insidious modern culture of personality has invaded the Church too, with people having their ‘favourite preachers.’

The biggest nightmare of any comedian is to ‘die on stage’ – not in the sense of physical death during a performance (as happened with the British comedian Tommy Cooper) but the experience of receiving total silence from the audience with no laughter response. Most preachers can testify to having preached an occasional sermon that felt like that!

In recent months I have heard some shocking reports, mainly from the USA, of Christian pastors who have taken their own lives. In each report it was revealed that they were struggling with depression and great personal turmoil, yet in most cases their congregations were entirely unaware of these inner battles.
This leads me to ask, ‘How real should a preacher be?’

To some, the answer is obvious, they insist that a Christian minister should be 100% open and honest. I have a lot of sympathy with that view – no-one likes to listen to a phoney or a fake. Yet there is evidence to show that many churchgoers are turned off when the preacher is too open in sharing their struggles and heartaches.
John Mosey was an Assemblies of God pastor in the UK. In December 1998 his 19-year-old daughter, Helga, was a passenger on Pan Am flight 103. When the plane was passing over the little town of Lockerbie in Scotland a terrorist bomb exploded and blasted Helga into eternity. Pastor Mosey and his wife were devastated, as any parent will understand. They found the grace to forgive their daughter’s murderers, and they were open with their church as they worked their way through their raw and intense grief. The saddest part of this story is that members, and other leaders, in their church were unable to cope with their openness. Relationships deteriorated to the point where Pastor Mosey had a breakdown and resigned from the church. My purpose in mentioning this is not in any way to criticise John Mosey – he is an incredible person who has continued to serve the Body of Christ – but simply to illustrate that we might say we want openness from leaders, but we don’t always appreciate it when we get it.

A few years ago Janice and I went through an extremely tough time in our pastorate at the Solid Rock Church in Drogheda. We have had the privilege for the last 20 years of pastoring a wonderful and growing multicultural congregation of people from all over the world. Yet we were hanging on by our fingernails. Stuff was going on in our family and we had experienced a devastating betrayal of trust from a colleague in the ministry. Some people in the church were unhappy, and very vocal in their unhappiness. The collapse of the Irish economy had cut our church income to less than 40% of where it had been two years previously. We couldn’t make the mortgage payments on our church building, we weren’t getting paid, and every day I would arrive in the church office expecting to find a letter notifying us that the bank was foreclosing on the church building. A lot of people had put a lot of trust in me, including our parent denomination, and I felt like I was letting them all down. At times I would wake up at night struggling to breath and feeling like someone was sitting on my chest. I would pray and read my Bible, but nothing seemed to shift the shadows and lethargy that clung to me.

Thankfully, by God’s grace, Janice and I came through that experience. We, and the church, are in a better place now. Things are still challenging – but we kept our building, our faith and our sanity.

Yet there were many Sundays in those dark days when I really didn’t feel like preaching at all. I didn’t feel like smiling. Given a choice I would have stayed at home and curled up on a sofa. If I really did have to preach then I just wanted to cry and tell everyone how miserable I was. Then I would step up to the pulpit, and I saw rows of expectant faces. I saw people who were fighting cancer and needed encouragement. I saw families who had gone from being a dual-income household to living off State welfare and were desperately looking for hope. I saw immigrants who had come to Ireland to build a better future and were now having their homes repossessed by the bank. I saw the wife whose face still bore the bruises from the fists of her abusive husband. And I knew that my task at that moment was to bring life and hope. Publicly airing my pain was not a luxury that the church could afford if we were to come through that period.

When training other leaders in the church I sometimes liken our role to that of the cabin crew on a plane. Jesus is the pilot, and He will build His Church. We are the stewards and stewardesses who serve throughout the flight. The plane might hit a bit of turbulence, or there might be a smell of burning in the cabin at times. But if we start panicking and showing fear then pretty soon the whole plane is going to descend into chaos. Our job is to smile, and to encourage everyone else on the plane to behave in a way that is going to help keep everybody safe until they reach their destination.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not talking about a culture of secrecy. Nor am I saying that leaders should have a fake persona. But I am saying that, at times, leadership demands that you place the needs of others before your own feelings.
And yet, all of us crave authenticity. We want to be real. No-one wants to be part of a church where people put on masks and pretend to be something they are not. Sometimes I have been criticised for being too open, for sharing struggles, frustrations and doubts with the church. For, despite the responsibilities that go with leadership, I still see the church as my brothers and sisters – not as children or consumers.

What I’m saying is that pastors and church leaders sometimes struggle to find the right balance between transparency and being the inspirational speaker that the church wants to hear from the pulpit. We don’t always get it right. But maybe an incident like the suicide of a comedian can help us talk more openly and honestly about the tears of a clown, and the fears of a pastor.

And, for those of you who serve the church in some other capacity rather than as a preacher, please do remember to pray for your ministers. They need your love and support.