Every generation has a few atheists who seem eager to tell the world how much smarter they are than everybody else. The fact that such individuals still exist, and that they are still producing popular tracts in defense of their disbelief, is no surprise.
Nevertheless, because ideas have consequences, one cannot ignore the recent push by big-name skeptics to persuade Americans that there is no God and that we should therefore adopt a new set of ethical standards. In previous times, most people had a solid enough understanding of moral truth that they were not easily persuaded by atheist rhetoric, but today many Americans are so influenced by relativism that they find it difficult to respond. Some men and women are beginning to wonder if they really believe America's founding principles, as stated in the Declaration of Independence, that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights..."
A couple of weeks ago, Peter Singer, a bioethicist at Princeton University, wrote an article for the New York Times that essentially denies the Declaration's core principles. While discussing the sad case of Ashley, a severely disabled girl whose parents had her uterus removed and put her on hormones to stunt her growth, Singer said:
We are always ready to find dignity in human beings, including those whose mental age will never exceed that of an infant, but we don't attribute dignity to dogs or cats, though they clearly operate at a more advanced mental level than human infants. Just making that comparison provokes outrage in some quarters. But why should dignity always go together with species membership, no matter what the characteristics of the individual may be?....[Ashley] is precious not so much for what she is, but because her parents and siblings love her and care about her.
In Singer's mind, Ashley is not precious for what she is, and she does not have dignity simply because she is human. He even strongly implies that dogs and cats have more dignity than this handicapped little girl. Yet the Founders believed that all people are created equal, even those whose mental age does not advance very far.
We have here a tale of two cities. One is the city envisioned by the Founders where God has created all men and women with a fundamental equality which ensures that every person's rights are secure. The strong do not have more worth than the weak, the young do not have more value than the old, and the rich do not have more human rights than the poor. The self-evident truth is that, despite the differences, every human being enjoys an essential dignity. Every life is precious, even the wretched, weak, penniless, despised, feeble and frightened.
Then there is the city envisioned by modern atheists like Peter Singer. This is a place where a dog can have more worth than a handicapped child. This is a place where a grandmother with Alzheimer's disease has no dignity if she has no one who loves her. This is a place where newborn babies can be killed if they are imperfect or unwanted. It is a godless city where human worth is measured on a sliding scale. Woe is she who is wretched, weak, penniless, despised, feeble and frightened. Such people may have been better off as a dog or a cat than an unwanted and imperfect human being!
Ultimately, America will choose one city or the other as its destiny. This week we celebrated the 96th birthday of the man who saw the United States as the shining city on a hill, Ronald Reagan. As the late president said, "A troubled and afflicted mankind looks to us, pleading for us to keep our rendezvous with destiny; that we will uphold the principles of self-reliance, self-discipline, morality, and, above all, responsible liberty for every individual, that we will become that shining city on a hill." This is the same city envisioned by the Founders, and it is the vision that is still admired by a troubled and afflicted mankind.
How might we guard against the men and women who try to persuade us that God does not exist, that there is no inherent human dignity, and that some people have less worth than others? If ideas really do have consequences, this set of ideas will inevitably lead to great human suffering and utter cultural collapse. Therefore, how can America keep its "rendezvous with destiny" and protect the shining city?
Our response must be multifaceted. First, men and women of faith should be educated in their own intellectual heritage. Many of the great Christian minds of the past have confronted similar challenges in their own generation, and they have left behind solid answers. Atheism is not new, nor is the idea that some human beings lack inherent worth. Rather than reinvent the wheel, we should become aquatinted with the way these challenges were previously addressed.
Christians must also be involved in the culture. Though a few famous atheists are churning out books, it is the movie makers, the song writers, and the television show creators that have the greatest influence. The church has a long history of producing beautiful and captivating art; there is no reason why Christians should not continue to engage and inspire the culture through art. One outstanding movie can do more to influence the culture than dozens of scholarly books.
Finally, Christians must be involved in the public square. When the ideas of Peter Singer, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris are translated into laws, injustice results. It is terrifying to contemplate a world where the law does not consider human beings to have any inherent value or dignity. We have seen this world in the past; we must never allow it to happen again. As Christians, our obligation is to love and serve our neighbors by remaining a persistent public voice in resistance to the growing threat against our culture and our nation. We must not abandon the shining city on the hill.