Carrier’s Theory On The Christian Pro-Life Movement

So Richard Carrier has had another thought.  Given how his last one turned out, I’d almost suggest that when he has these thoughts he should follow the “Buffy” example and lie down until they go away.  This is mostly because Carrier tends to not make posts to explore or work out these thoughts, but instead makes posts as if these thoughts are fait accomplis, where he takes a lot of time to point how these things really are correct and, especially here, that they’re the only reasonable explanation for certain things, while they end up being entirely alien concepts to the members of the very group — Christians, in the last two examples — that he’s had the thoughts about.  That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s wrong, but it does mean that he needs to make very strong arguments free of flaws to convince people that he’s correct … and then he tends to make some elementary mistakes that call his arguments into question.

Here, what he’s exploring is what the actual driving force behind anti-abortionism is.  He makes the normal comment towards it being sexist patriarchal norms, but then suspects that it might be something more:  a personal fear of death, which is what he will argue for later.  But let me take on the sexism part first:

n other words, this is really just a desire to enforce sexist gender norms, lest failing to do so continually remind you that even your government has declared your religion false. Abortion has to be illegal—or else women can have all the sex they want without subordinating themselves to a man or enslaving themselves in servitude to his children. That’s why anti-abortionists are also against anything that actually reduces abortion—like free IUDs; or any kind of birth control; or even mere training in how to use it. Condoms are evil not because they kill babies—to the contrary, prohibiting condoms has killed a huge number of people, including babies—but instead because they actually allow women to claim equality with men, sexual and otherwise. It ****s up patriarchy.

I want to take this on because it highlights a major issue that I’ve had with the abortion debate over the years and that will raise its ugly head here again:  interpreting the goals and aims of a person based not on their own perspective and not on the perspective of the people they are analyzing.  The idea that any opposition to sexual promiscuity is based on, at least for the most part, a desire to avoid women being “free” has always puzzled me, since while it is entirely possible that some people hold that either consciously or unconsciously there’s a much more simple reason for that sort of opposition, that Carrier himself raises only to ignore (and misstate):

There is also, I suspect, a component of envy (like women who do not like other women claiming a hedonistic freedom they are themselves prohibited from enjoying; the “if I can’t have nice things, neither can anyone else” mentality) …

It’s not envy towards hedonistic freedom, but instead hostility towards hedonistic freedom.  Society in general and religions in particular have had a long history of being suspicious of and opposition to hedonism.  There, of course, could be a large analysis of why this occurs and there are probably a number of factors, but the primary one is probably that seeking simple pleasure is seen as, well, a bit childish.  Children live in the moment and only seek out the next pleasure, while adults are supposed to seek the “higher pleasures” and subordinate pleasure-seeking to those times when it is appropriate.  So while the traditional Protestant or societal work ethic of many cultures is that it is fine to seek pleasure once one’s work is done, the key part is to “earn” that pleasure with the hard work first, and we are supposed to be show the willpower to put aside pleasure and push through pain when appropriate.  Thus, pleasure and pain are seen as base components that we are supposed to be able, as humans, to push past.  Thus, any time someone makes an argument that restricting abortion and birth control will restrict the ability to have sex that argument is met with disdain because it is effectively saying that the person making the argument can’t restrict their seeking of sexual desire to appropriate conditions and times and wants to have completely freedom in that regard no matter what.  The same thing applied to a the debate over the Obamacare mandate to provide birth control when one woman — whose name a quick Google search cannot find, for good or for ill — protested that it was a necessity and was essentially called a “slut” over it who couldn’t control her own sexual urges.  It’s not that she was a woman, but instead that she was insisting that her sexual freedom had to count above all.  If you want to see the same reasoning from the other side, look at pretty much any argument from the left about incels (which hits a sore spot for me since I’m probably a technical incel but not part of their movement, but get tarred with the same “You only want sex” brush when my considered opinion is that if I only wanted sex I wouldn’t be even a technical incel).

Anyway, the whole idea that their pro-life opponents only want to control women is, it seems to me, a mistaken argument where they start from the presumption that the foetus ought not count as a person and to ban abortion is to restrict the freedom of women overly much, which leads to a conclusion that the effect, at least, is to control women’s reproductive choices for no reason, which means that the only reason for that can be to control women’s choices, and so the argument ends up the way Carrier expresses it (I recall Stephanie Zvan following that exact reasoning chain at one point).  The problem is that it starts from at least one assumption that their opponents do not hold:  that the foetus ought not count as a person.  Now, as you’ve seen above, pro-choice advocates have a way to dismiss the idea that pro-life advocates primarily care about the foetus, by arguing that they don’t support other options that would save more lives or improve the lives of children more.  But again this is a case of arguing from inside their own mindsets, since the things they advocate are also things that they think morally wrong or have other arguments for or against, and so are not directly related to their position on abortion.  Essentially, it’s like arguing that someone who supports the death penalty for murder cannot really be opposed to murder since executions are murder.  They have reasons that they use to argue that executions and murders are not the same thing, so you just can’t get there from that supposed contradiction.  It might still be a contradiction — their arguments might be incorrect — but it’s not a contradiction that you can use to consciously argue that they don’t hold the position they claim to hold.

So, for me, I think that “control women” and “control women’s bodies” are not, at all, the primary motivation for pro-life positions for, well, pretty much anyone.  Some advocates might see it as a nice bonus, but vanishingly few if any have that as their primary motivation, and I think that for most of them it really is the idea of simply killing something that will become a baby that drives their emotions and arguments on the issue.  Given how the stats show the contradictory idea that most people oppose completely free abortions and yet support some ability to get abortions, I don’t all that many people — either pro-life or pro-choice — are comfortable with the idea of abortion as birth control for that very reason:  they don’t like the idea that the thing that will become a baby and that pregnant women and their spouses have always waited for with joy and planned for and treated like a child — especially in the case of a miscarriage — should be disposed for the simple reason that someone just doesn’t want to have to deal with it for nine months.  That seems to treat such a thing too callously, even if it we don’t want to consider it a full person yet.

Anyway, as noted Carrier has an alternative motivation for being pro-life, and it starts from this idea about Christians:

… if we legalize that, just like if we legalize abortion, we are essentially declaring the Christian’s worldview false, because everything they believe about “man and woman” and their roles is inexorably linked to their entire Biblical worldview (Christ’s atonement, and thus mechanism of salvation, makes no sense without the story of Adam and Eve being taken in some sense literally).

Even worse: legalizing abortion means the government is thereby declaring their beliefs false. Right in their face. The cognitive dissonance is terrifyingly unbearable. It therefore must be crushed at all costs. The government must not repudiate their faith!

So, the basic idea is that if the government declares their beliefs false, this causes cognitive dissonance in them — as Christians — and this would challenge their faith and so they need to stop the government from doing that.  The problem is that this is a very odd view to take of Christians in general, as throughout the entire Bible — both the Old and the New Testaments — the fact that the government or the society around them held their beliefs to be incorrect wasn’t seen as something that caused them to lose their faith.  On the contrary, it caused them to strengthen their faith and led to the rise of various martyrs for the faith that Christians still idolize today.  Standing up for one’s Christian faith against the wave of societal disapproval is something that is a Christian’s duty and obligation, and not at all a sign that their faith is actually wrong.  I won’t go so far as to say that Christians want to be opposed and even oppressed in this manner, but while it can be depressing to Christians it’s something that we are supposed to fight our way through, not something to cause us to despondently relinquish our faith.  So from the start Carrier’s interpretation of what would be motivating Christians is remarkably unChristian.

Carrier is of course American-centric, and so we can see that in a sense he is correct about the impact of these governmental decisions, but not in the way he thinks:

It is an admission that they are losing the culture war. Their entire patriarchal culture—their entire religion—is just an archaic dying fad, factually unsustainable, and therefore unworthy of state endorsement. The horror!

The United States is somewhat unique in that many if not most Christians believe that it is in some sense a Christian nation, ranging from the belief that it was formed as a Christian nation to the belief that it at least espoused Christian values.  So, ultimately, American values and Christian values were aligned, and became even more so from both sides, as American values developed from those of the majority which were Christian ones and the values of American Christians evolved to bring in and justify what were considered to be the best of the American values.  So for a lot of American Christians that their democratic society is moving way from those shared values is indeed disturbing.  America is no longer a Christian nation in any sense, they fear, and since they obviously think that Christian values are the best ones they see it as becoming decadent and losing its way.  I don’t need to make this argument by implication as we see these arguments being made explicitly across a host of debates, from the abortion debate to the immigration debate to, well, a lot of other debates.  So, no, it’s not that they feel their faith challenged, but that they feel their society crumbling around them.

Anyway, ultimately Carrier is going to try to argue is that the fact that the government is declaring false is … the belief that they have a soul and so will survive death:

All the government is doing is admitting there are no facts admissible in court that a person even exists in a fetus. But that is tantamount to admitting there is no soul in a fetus warranting outlawing the killing of one. And if fetuses don’t have souls, the same evidence entails neither do babies, children, or adults. The state is thus declaring personal life is a particular physical brain-state. Which entails death is death. No more immortality …

The first thing to note here is that this is not an argument that Carrier really wants to make in the pro-choice context.  See, the argument implies that we cannot draw a distinction between a foetus and a baby and a child and an adult when it comes to whether or not one is a person.  Thus, if we have to declare that a foetus doesn’t have a soul, then we’d have to declare that none of the others do as well.  But if that’s the case, then we’d have to agree that there is nothing that distinguishes them as persons on that scale.  If we could distinguish them in some way then the argument doesn’t work since we could easily have a break at some point that allows for children and adults to have souls and so to be immortal even if they were forced to accept that foetuses don’t have souls (which, as noted above, is not something they need to accept on the government’s say-so anyway).  So no distinction between them as persons can be drawn if Carrier wants his argument to work.  But most people accept that adults and children are indeed persons and their lives ought to be protected by the law.  If we can’t draw a distinction wrt personhood between adults and foetuses, then they ought to be equally protected.  And so if foetuses are not to be protected, then neither should adults be.  Ultimately, if we can’t draw any distinctions, then either pro-life advocates are correct and the foetus deserves protection, or else adults don’t deserve protection either.  Neither outcome is good for the pro-choice advocate.

Carrier can try to avoid this by introducing a non-soul-based distinction, like he does with brain development.  However, that won’t work for him either.  First, if the distinction isn’t soul-based, then even if the Christian accepts it they have no need to accept that it means that the foetus doesn’t have a soul.  Second, if the distinction can be linked to the soul in some way then they can use that to break the progression and insist that, nevertheless, they still have souls.  Thus, either Carrier kills the pro-choice arguments or kills his own about the fear of death driving Christian pro-lifers.  Neither is a good outcome for him.

The second thing is that Carrier makes this argument in light of the fact that many if not most pro-choice advocates have abandoned the argument that the foetus is not a person and so has no rights.  The famous violinist argument, for example, explicitly argues that even in a case where the violinist is clearly a person the right to bodily autonomy trumps his right to life, and thus the bodily autonomy of the mother also trumps the right to life of the foetus if it has one.  For the most part, the argument has entirely shifted towards saying that the mother’s rights trump whatever rights the foetus may have.  Thus, for Carrier’s argument to work Christians must be deriving a message from the pro-choice outcome that its arguments no longer support.  That’s also not all that credible.

However, Carrier does make an interesting parallel in this section between Christian pro-life arguments and other ones, like same-sex marriage and creationism, and then makes a comparison to other potential issues:

Needless to say, there has to be some motive for being anti-abortion (as also anti-gay, anti-trans, anti-factual-education). Because it isn’t motivated by evidence. Indeed, even anti-abortionists recognize that it would be abhorrent of Jews to legislate a ban on pork and shrimp, or Hindus on beef, simply because of their personal religious beliefs. Everyone agrees they can simply freely not eat those things themselves; no one else, no one who lacks these beliefs, need heed such a directive. And so, if Christians believed in religious liberty, they’d agree they can refrain from abortions themselves if their religion declares them immoral; no one else, no one who lacks these beliefs, need heed such a directive. The government has no business outlawing abortion, then, than in outlawing pork, shrimp, or beef. But instead, when it’s abortion (or gay marriage, or switching gender, or teaching evolution or sex ed), they lash about for some rationalization to outlaw it, or at least impede it by law.

This is an interesting question.  Carrier also makes reference to banning pornography and notes that, again, it doesn’t seem like Christians are as upset by those things as they are by abortion and same sex marriage and creationism.  So what is the difference here?  Well, one big difference here is that in the same sex marriage or switching gender or creationism vs evolution or sexual education cases it’s not merely the case that the government is saying “Well, you can do it if you want but we’re staying out of it”.  Instead, they are taking an explicit and official position on it.  They are declaring that, under the law, same sex marriages are marriages and must be treated by everyone as such.  They are saying that someone who was born physically male or female can declare themselves to be a woman or a man instead and insist that everyone treat them that way.  As for creationism and sex ed, the issue is basically over public schooling, where the state is insisting that their children be taught those things that they don’t agree with and might not want them to know.  In all of these cases, then, it’s not simply something that the state is saying they aren’t getting involved in.  They are officially recognizing it and making others in some sense, at least officially, recognize it as well.  This contrasts to Carrier’s examples and to examples where homosexual sex or adultery were at least decriminalized, as in those cases the state can say that it’s not something they should be regulating — as per the “We have no business dictating what happens in the bedrooms of people” argument — but in the cases given here they can’t do that.

A useful way to think about it, I think, is with the line that Carrier references above:  how do people react to the argument of “Well, if you don’t agree with X, then just don’t do X!”.  For things like eating beef or pork, or watching porn, or having homosexual sex or committing adultery, even if people don’t like those things they can indeed claim that they can simply ignore it and, as Carrier cites in his post, say that those people are degenerates and sinners and bad and go on with their lives.  Yet when that argument is tossed into the other debates, it doesn’t work so well.  The only arguments about sex ed and evolution are that they can teach their own views in addition to the ones taught in schools, which makes the distinction explicitly clear.  For gender identity and same sex marriage, the answer is that the state is still demanding that they officially recognize it, as Carrier himself ends up noting without realizing it:

Consider a recent example. Atheists often scratched their head at why Christians were so enragedly obsessed with preventing the legalization of gay marriage. Why do they care what non-Christians do? It literally doesn’t affect them. Even when they insist it does (“I shouldn’t have to sell wedding cakes to homos!”), it really doesn’t (you literally are affected in no way whatever by who eats your cakes or where). Sure, maybe you can refuse to put words on your cake endorsing something you don’t believe in; that’s fine. But just cakes? Those aren’t words. And in any case, almost no one is a baker. So the once-nationally-pervasive anti-gay-marriage sentiment can’t be ascribed to angry bakers. This wasn’t a “won’t someone think of the bakers!” movement. Just as anti-trans activism isn’t really about bathrooms. So what was it really about?

Yes, the original opposition wasn’t to those specific claims.  Oddly, in both of these cases it was about the fact that the state was trying to recognize as real something that clearly wasn’t (ie the argument that same sex marriages weren’t marriages by definition, and that someone with a male sex isn’t a woman by definition).  But the arguments stay because the government officially recognizing those things has an impact on everyone around them.  The state uses that definition to insist that everyone has to accept that trans women are women … even if they don’t consider them such.  And the fear was that people involved in weddings had to treat same sex marriages the same as “traditional” marriages, even if they didn’t agree that they counted.  So the person who decorates wedding cakes — and surely would have had to, at least, put two grooms or two wives on the cake to reflect its same sex nature — is now compelled by the government to do that, even if it violates their religious beliefs.  That does add an element of state compulsion that means that “If you don’t like same sex marriage, don’t have one!” doesn’t really apply, as the decision impacts far more than one or more person’s private decisions.

Now, Carrier could note here that abortion doesn’t really fit in with these cases.  The state really does seem to be just saying that they’re staying out of making these decisions.  And yet if we analyze abortion in line with that argument I think we can see why it’s such a big deal and one that hasn’t been settled at all yet, unlike the other cases.  See, if you say to someone “If you don’t like abortion, just don’t get one!” you are quite likely to get a rather … aggressive response.  The reason, I think, is that to most people it ends up being the equivalent to “If you don’t like murder, just don’t commit one!” and we all have rather strong reactions to the idea of allowing murder, as is required for any society to survive.  It would basically be the equivalent of someone saying that an elderly wealthy person could be murdered for their inheritance, with a rather odd justification that their hoarding all that wealth is bad for society and so they don’t deserve the protection of the law (despite Carrier’s claims in the post, I have yet to see a really good argument that demonstrates that a foetus shouldn’t count as a person at some point during the pregnancy, and many of the ones given are indeed rather specious), and then when being challenged on that saying that if they don’t want to murder their wealthy relatives for their money they don’t have to.  We would tend to react rather poorly to such an argument, because we really can’t dismiss something that really does look like murder with such a specious reply.  Murder is serious enough that we don’t want to allow that sort of thing unless absolutely necessary.

That inherent distaste towards murder and our inherent feelings towards foetuses growing in the womb are the things, I think, that drive this for most pro-life advocates and, well, for most people in general.  That’s why, again, almost no one really supports completely unrestricted abortion and even those who do tend to try to adopt a position that they don’t care for abortions in some cases but think that it’s something that only the mother can decide.  Most people do not want to see foetuses aborted for exceptionally shallow reasons, even if they argue that freedom dictates that someone who makes that choice must be allowed by the state to do so.  It also explains why the abortion debate hasn’t died down all that much in the years and years after Roe vs Wade even though other issues have died down at least somewhat (yes, even the creationism debate).  It ties into too many primal emotions and the pro-choice side does not have solid enough arguments to overcome those emotions.

As one final rebuttal to Carrier’s attempted argument, note this:  one of the biggest religious opponents to abortion is the Catholic Church.  The Catholic Church is, of course, supremely concerned with souls and the afterlife.  And yet among the Christian religions the Catholic Church is one of the most reliable allies for allowing teaching evolution in schools and not teaching creationism.  Yes, you can argue that that’s because they have a theological way around the soul issue, but if they could do that for evolution surely they could do that for abortion as well, and they don’t.  This, then, suggests that the opposition to abortion cannot be primarily about something that connects those two issues, since a huge opponent of abortion does not have the same problems with creationism.  For them, the issue seems to be over facts.  They accept that evolution is a fact, but consider abortions, same sex marriage, and gender identity to deny basic facts about the world, and so indicate that their society is horribly deluded itself and in need of correction.  That is, then, a sharp contrast to Carrier’s argument.

8 Responses to “Carrier’s Theory On The Christian Pro-Life Movement”

  1. jayman777 Says:

    Could we make a theory on Carrier’s pro-choice position?

    It is based on a fear of making sacrifices for another person. Note his fear of a woman subordinating herself to a man and enslaving herself to her children. He describes marriage in catastrophic, rather than neutral, terms. This is a man who would not sacrifice for his own marriage.

    Allowing women to have all the sex they want is advantageous for adulterers, polyamorists, and horny men in general. He links being pro-life with the patriarchy so gullible women think it is empowering when they fulfill his sexual desires.

    He fights against laws that prohibit abortion because such laws essentially declare his worldview false. The cognitive dissonance is terrifyingly unbearable. The government is branding him an advocate for murder.

    Carrier is going to try to argue is that the fact that the government is declaring false is … the belief that they have a soul and so will survive death

    If one takes an Aristotelian view of the soul as the principle of life then something like an empirical test for whether the unborn has a soul is possible — simply determine whether he is alive or not.

    Yes, you can argue that that’s because they have a theological way around the soul issue, but if they could do that for evolution surely they could do that for abortion as well, and they don’t.

    Don’t quote me on this, but I think some Christians (and others) in the past, before modern embryology, supported some of what we would now call abortions. They thought a human being formed later in the pregnancy than what we now know to be the case. In other words, as science has progressed it has become more and more difficult to believe a human organism does not come into existence when the embryo comes into existence. The people allegedly not motivated by evidence were motivated by evidence.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      If one takes an Aristotelian view of the soul as the principle of life then something like an empirical test for whether the unborn has a soul is possible — simply determine whether he is alive or not.

      For Aristotle, isn’t there an aspect of the soul that adds rationality? That’s what would be more relevant for persons, as we don’t think that all things that count as “alive” are rational and so don’t deserve to be protected as humans, and we can doubt if the foetus can, at any point, claim rationality.

      Don’t quote me on this, but I think some Christians (and others) in the past, before modern embryology, supported some of what we would now call abortions. They thought a human being formed later in the pregnancy than what we now know to be the case.

      I know that some atheist pro-choice advocates love to throw that around fairly regularly, so it sounds right. Of course, they’d respond to the claim of “evidence” by saying that the change in attitude is political and not scientifically driven.

      • jayman777 Says:

        A human soul is a rational soul. Plants have a vegetative soul and animals have an animal soul. To have a rational soul merely means having the potential to think rationally, rather than to be thinking rationally at the moment (not even adults are always thinking rationally). It isn’t plausible to say the embryo/fetus is not a human.

  2. malcolmthecynic Says:

    He could, you know, ask us. My anti-abortion ism is driven by my belief that thee unborn are humans who have a right to not be killed.

    That’s it.

  3. malcolmthecynic Says:

    As Trent Horn once pointed out (Catholic apologist), the belief that the unborn are not fully human is a religious belief you are privately entitled to, but not to the point where you can use that belief to violate the fundamentally rights of the unborn.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      This sort of conundrum, I think, is one of the main reasons that the pro-choice arguments have shifted to claiming that bodily autonomy trumps all rather than denying that the foetus has no rights at all.

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