Antinatalism and the Culture of Death
In chapter one of the first book of the Bible, we find a remarkable, even revolutionary statement – indeed, a series of such statements.
At the end of each day, after God has put the finishing touches on one more part of His creation, He pauses to survey His handiwork. And, the Bible says each time, “He saw that it was good.” The water and dry land are “good.” The stars and the sun and the moon are “good.” The birds of the air, and all the animals and fish are “good.”
On the sixth day, God creates human beings. “In the image of God, He created them,” says Genesis. And after God has blessed them, He commands them to “be fruitful and multiply.” And then, with this crown jewel of His creation completed, He steps back and takes in the whole of His cosmos. The first chapter of Genesis concludes: “God saw all that He had made, and it was very good.”
You may be wondering, “What is so remarkable or revolutionary about this? Surely, there is nothing so very groundbreaking in the idea that God is good, and that everything He has made is good. This is Theology 101!”
In reality, however, the idea that everything we see around us – above our fellow human beings – is in some deep, metaphysical, unshakeable sense “good,” is simply not self-evident. Quite the contrary. There have existed and do exist many human beings, and many philosophical and religious systems, that insist that material things are evil through and through, that human beings are a blight upon the earth, and that life itself, far from being “good,” is a curse, and that the one truly “good” thing would be the extinction of our consciousness, or the melting of that consciousness into a state of oblivion.
St. Augustine, for instance, before his conversion to Catholicism, famously believed in Manicheism. Manicheism is but one of countless “dualistic” philosophical systems, a form of Gnosticism, that proclaimed that matter was created by an evil deity whose power rivaled that of God. God Himself, the creator of a “spiritual” world, had no part whatsoever in material creation. The whole point of life was to escape matter and the body.
The Return of Pagan Despair
Certain pagan creeds advocated a worldview far more bleak even than Manicheism. The idea that life itself is evil is captured most famously and pungently in a line in the play Oedipus at Colonus by the Greek tragedian Sophocles. In that line, the chorus declares: “Never to have been born is best. Everyone knows that, and a close second, once you have appeared in this life, is a quick return, as soon as you can, to where you came from.”
This is dark stuff.
But, is also a sentiment that is making a comeback. Indeed, South African philosopher David Benetar turned to Sophocles when searching for the title of his book outlining the case for his philosophy, called “antinatalism.” The subtitle of the book is, “The Harm of Coming into Existence.”
Antinatalism is not a subtle theory. It is precisely what it proclaims itself to be: a philosophical theory that argues that human existence is essentially and irredeemably an evil thing. Benetar does not hesitate to draw out the logical consequences of this theory. If life is evil, then it is immoral to give life to another human being – that is, to have children.
The Guardian pithily summarizes Benetar’s ideas in a recent article about the growth of antinatalism, writing:
The basic tenet of antinatalism is simple but, for most of us, profoundly counterintuitive: that life, even under the best of circumstances, is not a gift or a miracle, but rather a harm and an imposition. According to this logic, the question of whether to have a child is not just a personal choice but an ethical one – and the correct answer is always no.
Though we might be inclined to dismiss Benetar as a fringe lunatic, the first thing to note is that he is currently the head of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Cape Town. More importantly, his ideas are gaining traction.
A sub-forum on the social media site Reddit dedicated to antinatalism currently has some 45,000 followers. Earlier this year, antinatalism got a big publicity boost after Raphael Samuel, an Indian man, sued his parents for giving him life. Though the lawsuit was in some respects merely symbolic – he was asking for a tiny sum of money – Samuel was deadly serious. “It was not our decision to be born,” he told the BBC. “Human existence is totally pointless.”
Forms of antinatalism have also embedded themselves deeply in contemporary environmentalism. More and more we are hearing A-list celebrities declare that there is a moral duty not to bring any more human beings into the world. Their views may not be as bleak as Benetar’s. They may not, for instance, believe that human life is intrinsically evil, as such, but only evil insofar as it harms the planet. But clearly, the ideas are closely related. And many philosophical antinatalists are also (unsurprisingly) environmental extremists.
Christian Hope and the Meaning of Life
It’s quite natural for many of us to recoil in horror from Benetar’s theories. And yet, the first thing I want to point out is that there is a perverse logic to his worldview. Benetar is quite right to point to the fact that human life, even in the best of cases, is suffused with suffering. Further, in the end, all of us will have to face the dark and terrifying mystery of death. In the face of these hard facts, there is cause for our courage to fail.
Even in the Judeo-Christian worldview, we find this bleak strain of thought. Psalm 84 refers to this world as a “vale of tears,” and that phrase has been picked up by countless saints and spiritual writers. At the end of every rosary we pray the Salve Regina, which describes Christians as crying out to the Blessed Mother, “mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.” Christianity and Benetar see eye to eye in acknowledging this: life can be difficult and full of suffering.
But where the antinatalists and Benetar radically depart from Christians is on the place and the meaning they give to suffering.
For Benetar and the antinatalists, suffering is the final word. Life is suffering and death. Full stop. For Christians, suffering and death are but one part of life, and by far the least important part. For Christians, human beings are not destined for death. Quite the contrary: God intended for every human being to spend all of eternity with Him, enjoying the greatest happiness conceivable. Perfect happiness. Happiness without even the hint of suffering. And though suffering and death entered the world through sin, human beings still have the option to attain to the high dignity for which God intended them. Death, therefore, far from being the final word, is merely a footnote. It is but one step on the path to the fullness of life.
The noble purpose of human existence is summarized by Pope St. John Paul II at the very beginning of his encyclical Evangelium Vitae. There he writes:
Man is called to a fullness of life which far exceeds the dimensions of his earthly existence, because it consists in sharing the very life of God. The loftiness of this supernatural vocation reveals the greatness and the inestimable value of human life even in its temporal phase. Life in time, in fact, is the fundamental condition, the initial stage and an integral part of the entire unified process of human existence. It is a process which, unexpectedly and undeservedly, is enlightened by the promise and renewed by the gift of divine life, which will reach its full realization in eternity (cf. 1 Jn 3:1-2).
It is this supernatural calling, says the saintly pope, “which highlights the relative character of each individual’s earthly life. After all, life on earth is not an ‘ultimate’ but a ‘penultimate’ reality.”
Remove a human being’s supernatural destiny from the picture, and “antinatalism” may well be the most logical conclusion. But place all of the suffering and pain of our earthly existence against the background of our eternal supernatural destiny, and suffering and death fade from view. Indeed, not only are suffering and death no longer the final word, but they become integrated into our great destiny. Seen with the supernatural eyes of Christian revelation, suffering and death take on a whole new meaning, and can be seen as one of the means by which we attain eternal life. Suffering embraced can be the means by which we are purged of our selfishness and sinfulness and rendered fit for eternal life with God.
Antinatalism feeds upon the despair that comes when human life is flattened. If this life is all there is, then the prevalence of suffering leads inevitably to despair. And this despair is what the Culture of Death is built upon. Viewed at with the eyes of faith, however, it is the deep joys present even in this life that are seen to be the only truly real things. Viewed this way, life is indeed seen as the great and wonderful gift that it is, and the bringing of new life into this world as an astonishing miracle.
Over two decades ago, journalist Andrew Coyne, responding to the case of Robert Latimer, who murdered his daughter Traci because she had cerebral palsy, wrote the following prophetic words: “A society that believes in nothing can offer no argument even against death. A culture that has lost its faith in life cannot comprehend why it should be endured.”
Prophetic, I say, because since Coyne wrote these words, the perverse mentality that he described has only grown in prevalence. More and more jurisdictions have legalized so-called “mercy killing.” Increasingly, even those suffering from mental illnesses are being deemed candidates for euthanasia and assisted suicide. No longer are we to find the meaning in suffering, or to peer through the façade of suffering to discover the inherent dignity of human life.
The Culture of Death feeds upon the despair that gives rise to the philosophy of antinatalism. Without God, antinatalism is the logical outcome. This is why I continuously hammer home the reality that it is not sufficient to fight the Culture of Death through political or social activism. The Culture of Death has a spiritual origin. And if we are to fight back and win, then we must fight with spiritual weapons.
We must return to the first chapter of Genesis. God created all things and all things are good. The antinatalists are fatally wrong. Life, indeed, is a great gift and a miracle. This is the good news of the Gospel of Life. In our efforts to fight abortion, euthanasia, and all the self-destructive tendencies of our Culture of Death, we must continuously strive to preach this Good News.
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Father Shenan J. Boquet was ordained in 1993 and is a priest of the Houma-Thibodaux Roman Catholic Diocese in Louisiana, his home state, where he served before joining HLI as its President in August 2011. Father Boquet earned a BA from Saint Joseph Seminary College, a Master of Divinity (MDiv) from Notre Dame Seminary Graduate School of Theology, a Certification Program in Health Care Ethics from the National Catholic Bioethics Center, and a Master of Science in Bioethics (MSBe) from the University of Mary in Bismarck. In 2018, Father Boquet was awarded an honorary visiting professorship by the Benedict XVI Catholic University in Trujillo, Peru. He is available for interviews and bookings on behalf of HLI by emailing email@example.com.