Thursday, December 31, 2009

50 blogs on disbelief - Death with Dignity

50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.
p 252 Edgar Dahl “Imagine No Religion”

I was drawn to this title because I am a John Lennon fan, but the essay never mentions him. It turned out to be the type of essay that I expected to find in this book, covering the standard for and against arguments. Happily most of them have not followed this same pattern. It does have a few surprises, and the author has an easy style, so it is enjoyable.

He starts with his own history, and says that where he is from, East Germany, most people don’t bother with religion at all. Usually I find these broad statements about people of a certain country inaccurate, but I was convinced by Mr. Dahl. He never even met a Christian until he was 12. He usually went to movies on Sunday mornings. One day he missed the beginning of the movie, so he wandered around until he happened upon St. Paul’s Cathedral. Imagine his shock when he overheard them talking about eating a body and drinking blood!

Surprisingly, he studied theology. He found it an excellent education in the humanities and several other disciplines. He then covers a few of the arguments for God, “The Ontological Argument” - God is that which nothing greater can be conceived, “The Cosmological Argument” - God is the prime mover, and the “Teleological Argument” - the universe is amazing, someone must have been behind its creation. It is a good quick history and introduction to these arguments and their refutations. He then covers an argument against God, “The Problem of Evil”.

His philosophical training led him to work with ethical issues relating to new biological and medical technologies. At first he thought this would take him away from religion, but he quickly discovered that not only do religious leaders have an opinion on these matters, they are taken seriously. He understands that religion and ethics are inseparable, but he can’t figure out why. He can’t figure how this idea that God and the Bible have the final answer on ethical questions has survived.

To discuss this, he uses the “Euthyphro Dilemma”, from Plato’s dialogue about a conversation between Socrates and a young man named Euthyphro. This was mentioned in Pete Singer’s essay, who Edgar Dahl has worked with, but Edgar spends much more time with it. The dilemma is:

Does God command the good because it is good, or is it good because it is commanded by God?

Either God is irrelevant, because good exists outside of Him, or God is an arbitrary law giver, and even cruel things are good because He says so, or they are good is some way that we have yet to understand. It is difficult for a believer to take either side, or to offer an alternative. Edgar explores this in more depth, and many similar discussions can be found on the web. It is worth thinking about and worth exploring.

In this case, the author of the essay leads to the conclusion that “morality is independent of theology”. That may be, but I think he takes this a step too far when he applies it to a subject he has worked with extensively, physician-assisted suicide. Dahl says,

“But who is the Church to tell those who do not subscribe to their religious views how they ought to die?”

I agree there are times when someone is suffering and continued efforts to keep them alive will result only in more suffering and needless expense, however, Dahl’s statement is an oversimplification. There is much more to this discussion than just what the Catholics or others have to say about it. Perhaps that is the nature of a short essay, but he could have used his allotted space to cover it in more detail, rather than leaving it until the last paragraph. And in his final sentence,

“A liberal democracy based on a strict separation of church and state ought to enable all of its citizens to live and die according to their own values.”

This also sounds simple and practical, but taken to its extremes, could result in family members condoning medical procedures that they don’t fully understand. I don’t agree with a strict interpretation of “Thou shalt not kill”, but once you start trying to find where to draw the line, it gets very complicated very quickly. Edgar Dahl seems to imply that just removing religion from the equation would somehow make it all so easy.

The Bible does not provide an easy answer. Theologians have tried for centuries, but often disagree. Biblical stories present the moral dilemmas, but do little to sort them out. Samson is chained between two pillars by his enemies. He pushes them apart, killing many of his enemies, and himself. Saul was wounded in battle, rather than be tortured by the Philistines, he chooses to fall on his own sword. Even the great Elijah prayed to the Lord to take his life. Catholics may consider suicide a mortal sin, but I am hard pressed to see how they reached this conclusion. On this, Edgar Dahl and I agree.

I would be just as hard pressed to define exactly when it was time for someone to consider “death with dignity.” Dahl does not provide much help in this essay. He has written extensively on the subject, so I hope more answers can be found there. I often find that writing on ethical issues is long on problem explanation and very short on solutions. In this case, I am only reading his blaming. That blame may be well placed, but people usually need an alternative before they begin to change their minds.

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