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How do Christians offer an alternative to the ‘nonsense all around us’?

The growing acceptance of euthanasia represents the triumph of atheism over European society

By on Monday, 14 January 2013

Anne Turner Assisted Suicide

I have just finished reading Brighton Rock by Graham Greene, the story of the life and death of Pinkie, a young psychopath (for want of a better word to describe him). At the very end of the book, after Pinkie dies violently, Rose, a girl who has become tragically entangled with him, goes to Confession believing she is damned. The old priest, Greene writes, “Sighed and whistled, bending his old head. He said, ‘You can’t conceive, my child, nor can I or anyone, the…appalling…strangeness of the mercy of God.’”

This is a wonderful and arresting phrase and it has been reverberating in my mind ever since I read it. Yesterday morning I happened to turn on Radio 4 as the writer Will Self was giving his “Point of View” at 8.50 am. Called “Terminal Thoughts”, it was Self’s idea of how to die with dignity. Starting with the statement that at some future time in his life “I am expecting to kill myself”, he gave an atheist’s view of why suicide should be the acceptable and normal way to end life when “the alternative is a slow and painful death from a terminal illness.”

I have to say he gave a fluent, persuasive and seemingly reasonable presentation. He spoke of “an epidemic of old age” because “we are living longer and longer”. Due to the advances of modern medicine death, “the final tragic act of our lives”, is now “more and more protracted”. He described the deaths of both his parents from cancer “while heavily sedated”. He commented that “few of us really understand how to end our lives painlessly and effectively” and concluded with the opinion (which I do not quarrel with) that we cannot hope to understand how to have a good life unless we also prepare ourselves “for a good death.” Indeed, he quoted with approval the words of the Christian funeral rite, that “in the midst of life we are in death”.

It is all in the interpretation of these phrases: what do we mean by a good life or a good death? I blogged recently about my brother’s last day; he had said his goodbyes, made his peace, received the sacraments and was ready for the end. His dying was not unduly hastened but nor was it unnecessarily protracted. He had what Christians would describe as a “good death”. I think what Self seems to be advocating is suicide by (doctor-assisted?) morphine when you are staring a terminal and painful illness in the face. But this raises other questions and difficulties: what if you are old and ill – but not dying?

What if you are lonely, afraid and without friends? What if you are depressed or despairing or demented but otherwise healthy?

Our parish priest remarked in his homily yesterday that he sometimes wished Christians could live in a parallel world where they had their own schools and hospitals and did not have to engage with the “nonsense all around us”. Well, this is the time and the world that we are living in; we have to engage with it, not flee from it, and in the case of suicide, assisted dying or euthanasia, we should support the vast majority of doctors who have always voted against government legislation in this area. We should also work to ensure that end of life protocols like the Liverpool Care Pathway are not misused so as to precipitate death with indifferent haste.

If, as Christians, we really live as we profess, truly believing that we come from God and will one day return to Him, and that our lives are intrinsically sacred because of this, we can offer intelligent, questioning atheists like Self an alternative to the bleak image of white-coated professionals advancing with their hypodermic syringes: indeed, a compelling vision of “the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God”.

  • Peter

    Atheists believe in a quantum field from which countless universes are spontaneously born with different physical laws, one of which is ours.  They refer to such a field as the natural potential for universes to exist, yet decline to offer any explanation of its origin.  However, whatever is deemed to be natural requires an ultimate cause outside of itself, outside of the natural realm, and therefore such a cause can only be supernatural.

    For theists the supernatural cause of the universe is the Creator, who has created the humans through cosmic and biological evolution acting as secondary causes.  It is the fundamental conviction that the root of our creation is supernatural which gives us the confidence to believe that we will one day return to our supernatural origin, to our Creator.

    Since we are destined to return to a supernatural life, we cannot value ourselves or our fellow humans merely in terms of our relative worthiness during our natural life.   Such a trivial comparison is meaningless when we are faced with eternity.   Every human being, in whatever condition of frailty or feebleness, is fully known and highly valued by the Creator who awaits their return to him in his own time.

    For this reason we cannot presume to impose our will on the Creator, by electing to terminate a life we deem worthless, even our own, before he has called us.   Our supernatural origin means that our value transcends any measure of worth applied to us during our natural life.

  • karlf

    I am not changing the subject. Consciousness is created by the physical nature of the brain isn’t it? – as it is with other animals. I can’t see any good reason to believe that it is formed by magic, nor do I believe in the whimsical notion of a “soul”.’
    But if you are right, and our personalities, our ‘minds’, can exist without the brain, why would physical or chemical differences and alterations affect them so drastically, and so permanently? What do you believe the actual function of the brain to be?

  • Deodatus

    This is a profound and quite lovely (loving) meditation – I have been reading ‘Jesus the Christ’, Walter Kasper’s remarkable study, and so much in this resonates with this meditation.

  • Advocatus diaboli

    If atheists want to kill themselves, why should Christians object?

  • JabbaPapa

    Suicide is inherently evil.

  • JabbaPapa

    Because suicide is inherently evil.

  • JabbaPapa

    Sorry, but your claims are a load of rubbish, as far as I can tell.

    The origin of reality transcends our understanding ; and I doubt that your description of the beliefs of atheists in general can be accurate.

  • JabbaPapa

    Are you paranoid ?

  • OldMeena

    Calling people “wicked” because they do not share your supernatural beliefs is truly an evil and wicked thing to do. 

  • JabbaPapa

    Consciousness is created by the physical nature of the brain isn’t it?

    No, it’s created by our incarnation.

    as it is with other animals

    ???

    What sort of definition of consciousness are you running about with ???

    Can you demonstrate the validity of this claim ? Can you demonstrate the consciousness of Megaphragma Caribea, for instance ?

    nor do I believe in the whimsical notion of a “soul”.

    Why then are you attempting to engage in a “discussion” about Heaven ?

    You have not “demonstrated” the non-existence of the soul, you’ve just arbitrarily declared your non-belief in its existence.

    This is not an argument, it’s a declaration of your own dogmatism.

    Therefore, your phrase “if a part of our consciousness was to survive our death” is inherently dishonest.

    You’ve no interest whatsoever in discussing the issue, you just want to come in here and plaster your own prejudice all over the website.

    But if you are right, and our personalities, our ‘minds’, can exist
    without the brain, why would physical or chemical differences and
    alterations affect them so drastically, and so permanently?

    “If I am right” LMAO

    You haven’t even bothered to ask me about my opinions on the nature of souls, intelligence, consciousness, human versus animal versus vegetable, physical versus spiritual versus educational, and so on & etc, and yet you presume to dictate to me what the contents of those opinions must be ?

    Your inability to engage with the actual opinions of others, and to erect ignorant strawman arguments instead, is not admirable.

  • Jonathan West

     How do you know?

  • JabbaPapa

    You are extremely naïve if you imagine that euthanasia must always be voluntary — quite apart from the fact that suicide is inherently evil.

  • OldMeena

    Remarks from people such as JP really bring me back down to earth.

    I have received much criticism for my “wet” approach in trying to foster understanding of, and some respect for, religions (especially Catholicism) – but feel increasingly that my critics are right.

  • JabbaPapa

    Your intolerant views disgust me.

  • Jonathan West

    We aren’t talking about legalising the involuntary kind.

    And how do you know that suicide is “inherently evil”. And I’d want an answer that addresses both words of your description – not merely evil but inherently so.

  • Jonathan West

    Your complete lack of awareness of the double standards you apply amuses me.

  • JabbaPapa

    How can you not ?

  • JabbaPapa

    Is this attitude towards me pre-determined by your origins, or do you expect me to think that you have come up with it yourself ?

    In either case, I disagree with it.

  • JabbaPapa

    Your complete lack of awareness of the double standards you apply amuses me.

    What “double standards” ???

    Why do you invent these accusations out of thin air ?

    I believe in the sanctity of all life, in the intrinsic value of each created soul, and in the inherent respect that is due to each individual human life and intelligence and spirituality.

    In what way, exactly, is expressing my profound disagreement with those like Meeny and yourself, when you utterly denigrate these basics, “double standards” ???

  • JabbaPapa

    The nature of suicide is necessarily inherent, because it is an action of the self, by the self, against the self.

    It is evil because it destroys.

    It is not impressive that you need these basics explained to you.

  • OldMeena

    .deleted by author – website playing-up

  • OldMeena

    ditto

  • karlf

    The consciousness of chimps was nicely demonstrated in the article in today’s news: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-20973753

    “Why then are you attempting to engage in a “discussion” about Heaven ?” Because I’m trying to discover more about your notions of an afterlife. Duh!

    I know I haven’t demonstrated that “souls” don’t exist. Nor could I prove to you that fairies don’t exist. Duh! If you believe fairies do exist, show me the evidence to support your outlandish claim.

    I do not believe that “souls” (what are they made of?) exist because I do not think I have reasonable grounds to consider them to be a reality – not because of dogma. However, I am very open and keen to consider any evidence which supports the existence of “souls”.

    “You’ve no interest whatsoever in discussing the issue, you just want to come in here and plaster your own prejudice all over the website” As is plain to see, I ask you questions about your views and opinions in every post, but you always dodge away from answering them. For example:

    What do you believe to be the function of the human brain?

  • Agnes

    why not answer JW’s question before asking another?

  • Lewispbuckingham

     Also a loss to the genetic pool.We need people who think laterally.Better not lessen the pool.

  • maxmarley

    Let’s not go down the road of gods as understood by Horace or the Mayans. It is the one God understood by theists
    And with regard to the wager it is either there is God or there isn’t.

  • karlf

    No

  • karlf

    “It is evil because it destroys.” Is all destroying evil then Jabba?

  • karlf

    Unbelievable! LOL!

  • JabbaPapa

    Only the illiterate could see my rhetorical question as anything other than a direct answer to that ghastly “question”, and its evil inhumanity …

  • JabbaPapa

    Because I’m trying to discover more about your notions of an afterlife

    By forcibly denying any ideas that disagree with your notion of its non-existence ???

    Yeh right, pull the other one to see if it has bells on …

    I know I haven’t demonstrated that “souls” don’t exist

    Case in point — whereas in fact, you haven’t discussed the question AT ALL.

    You’re NOT interested in any points of view except ones that agree with your own bigoted prejudice.

    I am very open

    This is a false statement, as you have demonstrated on multiple occasions.

    As is plain to see, I ask you questions about your views and opinions in
    every post, but you always dodge away from answering them

    Rubbish, you have refrained from making any kind of useful commentary to the answers provided to your initial post.

    You continually expect people to subject themselves to your questions as if they were some kind of forced interrogation, and refuse to address ANY counterpoints or direct challenges to the questions themselves.

    What is the causal link between brains, personalities, consciousness, and potentially souls and heaven ?

    How can you expect anybody to respond to your metaphysics if you never explain any of it ?

    The burden of proof for your statements is yours — it’s not my job to prove their contrary.

    WHY are personalities provided by “the physical nature” of the brain ???

    Just asking another question does not address this basic question about your initial statement.

  • JabbaPapa

    It is not impressive that you need these basics explained to you.

  • Peter

    A good question which strikes at the heart of the matter.

    The problem is that atheists who voluntarily end their lives to avoid terminal suffering are making a chilling statement.

    They are saying that, at a certain irreversible point in its decline, a human life becomes so valueless that it it is no longer worth maintaining.  In doing so, they are setting a dangerous precedent.

    It will not only be atheists in painful terminal decline who will end their lives, but also atheists who are in the early painless stages of decline who wish to completely avoid the expected suffering. 

     It will also be atheists who are not in terminal decline at all, but who consider themselves so physically handicapped that they feel they cannot lead a worthwhile life.  This will include young and old who are otherwise healthy.

    What we will see therefore is a gradual widening of the criteria for atheists choosing to end their own lives, away from the acute suffering of terminal illness to more general motives such as expected suffering in the future or physical incapacity.

    Once the criteria have been widened to include all categories of physical deficiency, it is only a small step from one to volunteer to end one’s own life to one to volunteer to end the life of another.

    In the case of physical deficiencies which are either non-terminal or not yet terminal, those who would be having their lives ended will not only be atheists, who do so voluntarily, but could also include those who may otherwise wish to live.

    We have seen the start of this with the killing of unborn handicapped infants.

  • Nicolas Bellord

    I think you are unaware that for Catholics there is no obligation to prolong life unnecessarily.  If medical treatment can only prolong suffering with no chance of recovery one is entitled to refuse it and allow nature to take its course.

  • http://rationaldreaming.com/ Mike

    I am certainly aware that the Catholic Church allows adherents to make their own decisions over end-of-life decisions, but the situation isn’t always as convenient as fact, which is what the article is about — what to do when you’re terminal, and suffering terribly, but not dying yet.

    It’s true that some people find a way to “give up the ghost” seemingly without effort, but for others, life clings to them tenaciously, prolonging their suffering with no hope of relief except through death (or being doped up to the point they will die). I see absolutely no reason why these people should not have the power to end their own suffering. It is their body, their mind, and it should be their choice.

    Yes, there is the “slippery slope” argument, but to deny people the right to end their suffering in the only way possible because of it is nothing more than a dodge.

  • http://rationaldreaming.com/ Mike

    I think you’ll find that most atheists who bother to get on the web and defend their position have put more thought into religious faith and related issues than the average believer. (Not that there aren’t a lot of ignorant non-believers too, of course.)

    Although I was a church-going Methodist for thirty years, I’ll admit didn’t know that much about the Catholic Church until I started listening to the local Catholic radio station here in Texas. While I understand that they may be a little more conservative than the average British catholic (to put it mildly), I can’t say I’ve been terribly impressed by what I’ve learned so far. If anything, it seems to me that the average Catholic is more superstitious and less connected with reality than the Christians I grew up around.

  • Nicolas Bellord

    “Being doped up to the point they will die”  I understand that palliative medecine using painkillers can alleviate most pain.  Further that the administration of say morphine does not in fact hasten death.  However provided the morphine is administered with the intention of alleviating pain and NOT in order to hasten death that is perfectly licit even though it might hasten death.  In the Catholic understanding of ethics it is the intention to do something or to omit doing something is what gives rise to the rightness or wrongness of what is done.

    We are not the owners of our bodies.  We are made in the image of God and we should allow God alone to decide on the destination of our bodies.  I know this is not the view of atheists and that for them suffering should be suppressed at all cost but for Christians suffering can be put to good use.

  • Jonathan West

    I assume there is a typo there that “Further that the administration of say morphine does not in fact hasten death.” has a “not” in there that shouldn’t be – the rest of your comment only makes sense that way.

    “However provided the morphine is administered with the intention of
    alleviating pain and NOT in order to hasten death that is perfectly
    licit even though it might hasten death.”

    I realise that this an accurate statement of Catholic teaching, but it is nonsense nevertheless. If you give morphine in the fairly certain knowledge that you are hastening death, then you cannot with any honesty claim that the hastened death is not an intended consequence.

    Therefore, Catholic teaching is accepting euthanasia without openly admitting it, and it does so by accepting forms of euthanasia that can be dressed up as “unintended” effects of actions that have other purposes in addition.

    This kind of dishonesty (let us not mince words, this is exactly what it is) is far more likely to create situations open to abuse than a wholly honest appraisal of the totality of the consequences of administering morphine.

    “In the Catholic understanding of ethics it is the intention to do something or to omit doing something is what gives rise to the rightness or wrongness of what is done.”

    So, I can drink myself silly and get into a car to drive home. And if in my drunken state I run over and kill a pedestian, according to Catholic teaching as you ahve described I have done nothing wrong, because my intention was to drive safely home, and there is nothing wrong with that intention.

    I think that most people would say that the rightness or wrongness of an action depends not only on the intention but on the reasonably foreseeable consequences of an action, whether intended or not. That is why drinking under the influence of alcohol is illegal.

  • Nicolas Bellord

    No I meant that I believe that the administration of morphine does not necessarily hasten death.  I am not a medic so may be wrong about that.  

    What I have described is the doctrine of double effect with which no doubt you are familiar but disagree with.  I do not think it helps to describe it as nonsense or dishonest.  Why not argue with reason against it?

    As for your example of the drunken driver I fail to see how you can have an intention to drive safely if you have drunk yourself silly.  Drinking your self silly is a sin in the first place, driving in that state is a further serious sin.  

    When you talk about the rightness or wrongness of an action I think one has to make a distinction.  To kill an innocent person is wrong.  However whether moral culpability attaches to the killer is another matter.  He may have thought he was acting in justifiable self-defence or something similar.

    The criminal law makes this kind of distinction between murder and lesser offences where somebody is killed such as manslaughter.

    Deciding on the rightness or wrongness only by its consequences is consequentialism which I do not accept but that is a whole other subject!  Perhaps though the example of the drunken driver can be used here.  If he calculates that he will not kill anyone does that make his driving okay?

  • Jonathan West

    I did argue with reason, by pointing out by means of an example that people don’t actually build their moral systems that way.

    I could also argue that the doctrine of double effect is entirely arbitrary in that you can freely define (or the Catholic hierarchy can freely define) which of the reasonably foreseeable effects of an action can be regarded as “unintentional” and therefore don’t matter. A moral system wich rests on such arbitrary decisions is extremely prone to corruption. It is a way of getting out of the moral absolutes that the Catholic church likes to believe it deals in.

    Why is driving while drunk sinful? After all, motor vehicles are a relatively recent invention, so there can be no biblical justification for declaring drunk-driving to be sinful. It seems to me that you are inventing sins as you go along. If the drunk driver genuinely does not intend to kill anybody, in what way does his action become sinful, except by considering the reasonably foreseeable (though unintended) consequences of his action?

  • Nicolas Bellord

    (This business of only being able to display 5 comments at a time is very tiresome!)

    I am not swayed by arguments that “people don’t actually build their moral systems that way.”  Ethics is a very difficult subject and the opinion of even a majority is not a sound basis for arriving at sound ethics.

    Killing an innocent human being is wrong.  I do not see any problem when giving morphine in knowing whether your intention is to kill or not.  In administering morphine to alleviate suffering you cannot be certain whether it is going to hasten death or not.  Surely one can distinguish between an intention to cause death from an intention to alleviate suffering?  Further I cannot see any Church authority suddenly deciding that an intention is other than what it is.

    If you do not accept this argument then I can see that one is inevitably led to the conclusion that euthanasia should be allowed.

    As to drunk driving being a sin:  whether something is sinful or not is not going to depend on whether it is defined specifically in the bible or not as being wrong.  However I would have thought it comes under the commandment to love one’s neighbour as oneself.  It seems self-evident to me that to drive a car one should be fit to do so.  To act otherwise is to risk harm to your neighbour and to oneself.  To drive in a drunken stupor cannot be excused by saying “oh well there is nobody else on the road at this time of night” as a consequentialist might argue.  It is wrong in itself.  Yes consequences should be taken into consideration but they are not the only test as a consequentialist would argue.

    It is interesting that traditionally “mens rea” or the guilty mind or intention had to be proved in English criminal law.  This concept was removed in respect of driving offences and as a matter of principle I am not sure that was a good thing.

  • Jonathan West

     Killing an innocent human being is wrong.  I do not see any problem when giving morphine in knowing whether your intention is to kill or not.  In administering morphine to alleviate suffering you cannot be certain whether it is going to hasten death or not.

    A reasonably foreseeable consequence of administering morphine above a certain dose is the hastening of death. It might not happen in all circumstances, but it happens in a sufficient proportion of them that “reasonably foreseeable” is an accurate description of this outcome of that action.

    So, if “killing an innocent human being is wrong”, what does it matter that it is done by means of a dose of morphine?

  • Nicolas Bellord

    I said that one could not be CERTAIN that administering morphine to alleviate suffering would hasten death.  I have no problem with it being “reasonably foreseeable” or more precisely that it might be possible; or even probable.  There is however a basic difference in what one does depending upon one’s intention.  If my intention is to alleviate pain then I would surely give the minimum dose necessary to achieve that.  If my intention was to kill then I would surely give a dose that was certain to kill – I would be going beyond “reasonably foreseeable” but wanting certainty.

    I am not sure I understand your final question.