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Secularism is a dark abyss

A Belgian euthanasia case shows us what a post-Christian world looks like

A police officer removes the handcuffs of Geneviève Lhermitte before the start of her murder trial in Nivelles, Belgium, on Dec. 8, 2008. Associated Press/Photo by Denis Closon, pool

Secularism is a dark abyss
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In late February, a story that one might imagine in an Aldous Huxley novel occurred in Belgium. There, in euthanasia’s world capital, a person by the name of Genevieve Lhermitte was permitted to undergo euthanasia for what was called “persistent psychological suffering.” As this example demonstrates, Belgian law authorizing euthanasia is incredibly lax, and permits its citizens to kill themselves not only for unbearable physical anguish, but for psychological anguish as well. If this were not extreme enough, children may now also take advantage of euthanasia with parental consent.

While the use of euthanasia in any instance is worth commenting on simply for its own immorality, what is particularly eye-popping is the fact that Mrs. Lhermitte was incarcerated under a life sentence for the brutal slaying of her five children in 2007. So, to summarize the situation at hand: A prisoner with a severe mental illness who was guilty of an unspeakably evil crime was granted permission to kill herself by the state.

There are several moral problems to consider in this tragic story. But preeminent in this horrible situation is the revealing nature of what secular society looks like when biblical categories of human dignity and retributive justice are cast off in exchange for the materialist-driven barbarism of late-modern secularism and therapeutic understandings of justice.

First, while in no way overlooking the pain and anguish that can come from severe mental illness, a regime of euthanasia calls into question the very stability of society’s collective understanding of life’s purpose and what values it should communicate to those who suffer. Where Christian categories that ground and champion the intrinsic value of the human person are jettisoned, it is all too easy to see how the idea of escape from a painful existence and the promise of non-existence may seem tenable, if not desirable.

In the secular worldview, life is valueless, but objective value does not exist at all. If consciousness is a mere contingency guided by blind evolutionary chance, then the need to continue one’s consciousness has no absolute moral content and can be snuffed out at will. If there is no afterlife, there is no account to be given for how one lives. Indeed, to quote the humanist Carl Sagan, if “the Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be,” then the elimination of suffering for the offer of cosmic nothingness at least seems plausible.

As Western civilization barrels on down the secular path, we must be honest about what awaits us: cold and calculating discounting of the value of human life.

Perversely incentivizing the death of human beings brings me to the second issue that should concern us as Christians: The government’s self-understanding of why it punishes at all. The reality of Mrs. Lhermitte’s suicide represents a devaluing of how the Christian tradition has conceived of punishment. A Christian theory of punishment takes seriously the moral agency of human persons. The state does not “bear the sword in vain” (Romans 13:4). Rather, biblical punishment functions with a view toward recognizing that when someone does something truly wicked, that same person must answer for it. We treat a person, even in punishment, as a person with responsible agency who should bear the consequence for their actions. Yes, we hope that a person acknowledges their crimes and repents in sorrowful despair. But we do not gloss over true moral evil that human beings inflict on others (Genesis 9:5-6).

What Belgium permitted in this episode is straight out of C.S. Lewis’ objection to what he called the “humanitarian theory of punishment”—a view of punishment that does not hold persons responsible for their crimes removes the concept of “desert.” “When we cease to consider what the criminal deserves and consider only what will cure him or deter others,” writes Lewis, “we have tacitly removed him from the sphere of justice altogether; instead of a person, a subject of rights, we now have a mere object, a patient, a ‘case.’”

Relatedly, it is no doubt the case that where the state must choose between continuing a prisoner’s life sentence at the cost of thousands of dollars per year to taxpayers and the offer of painless, efficient, and low-cost euthanasia to alleviate a budget constraint, it is not hard to predict how government budget managers are going to score the cost-benefit analysis.

As Western civilization barrels on down the secular path, we must be honest about what awaits us: cold and calculating discounting of the value of human life. Human dignity becomes scalable to an actuarial table. As one author put it, “Celebrate the naked public square all you want, but when the reality of winter sets in, you start looking for clothes.”

The world is left to stare down two options. One is a civilization imbued with the moral claims of Christian theism that offers it a pathway for the true, the good, and the beautiful to flourish. The other is a darkness that slowly settles in from realizing that nothing really has any meaning at all.

Andrew T. Walker

Andrew is the managing editor of WORLD Opinions and serves as associate professor of Christian ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also a fellow with The Ethics and Public Policy Center. He resides with his family in Louisville, Ky.

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