On Dawkins, Down Syndrome and Doing Human Life

Richard Dawkins is a voice of reason. That’s his whole deal. But one of the benefits of him being on Twitter is we get to see how unreasonable that position is.

I don’t follow him, largely because I only like to follow people on Twitter who make jokes. Twitter is like real life. I prefer to hang out with people who laugh a lot.

Speaking of which, one thing that is wonderfully refreshing about hanging out with people with special needs is how open and human they are with their feelings. This holds especially true, in my experience, for people with Down Syndrome. They cry a lot and they laugh a lot. There is no detached irony. There is no protective cynicism. There is a lot of bewildered dismay and unaffected delight. There is a lot of experiencing life that I can’t manage. My youngest niece is a baby who is unusually eager to smile. She is going to do life better than me in important ways.

What I am trying to say, for those of you schooled in a kind of Dawkins-esque reason that only feels comfortable around propositional claims, is that my friends with disabilities are significantly closer to exhibiting the best of what it means to be human than I am.

Dissing dis-ability

Some of the best writing in the aftermath of this tweet has come from the parents of people with Down Syndrome who admit that to some extent, they would have felt a similar conflict to the one Dawkins flattens out with customary brutality. Here is an example.

Stanley Hauerwas used to start his course on the ethics of marriage by asking his class: “What reason would you give for yourself or someone else having a child?” Few people had ever considered this and the justifications he would receive back would be thin, to say the least. Children were a hedge against suffering in old-age, or a cure for loneliness, or an attempt “to make the world better”. Hauerwas would then try to demonstrate how this apparently noble ethic is an example of moral idealism in its purest form and deeply threatening to the mentally handicapped:

If children are part of a progressive story about the necessity to make the world better, these children do not seem to fit. At best, they only can be understood as deserving existence insofar as our care of them makes us better people.

– Stanley Hauerwas, “The Church and the Mentally Handicapped” in Dispatches From The Front, 182.

This is the best thinking of the best young thinkers in the Christian church and Hauerwas concludes that such attitudes “reveal a society with a deficient moral imagination.”

That would be a polite way to describe Dawkins, not just in this tweet, but in his entire corpus. And not just Dawkins, but the entire new-atheist movement. And not just atheists, but Christians too. After all, Dawkins is accurate when he says that what he advocates is simply what people do. So many people abort their children with Down Syndrome that Christians must be in their number.

My supervisor, Brian Brock, has thought a great deal about disability. He has a wonderful essay in Disability in the Christian Tradition: A Reader where he gives a brief overview of the very interesting way that Augustine engaged with disability.

Augustine wrote a lot about everything and in the course of his life he is probably the first person to observe sign language among the deaf in the written word. As a man born with an extra finger, I was delighted to find that in City of God he writes:

We know of men who were born with more than five fingers or five toes. This is a trivial thing and not any great divergence from the norm.

– Augustine, City of God XVI.8

My birth abnormality isn’t simply trivial because it leaves me capable of being a tax-paying, law-abiding citizen. It is trivial because all human beings are born off-perfect. For Augustine, the perfect human being was born to Mary, wife of Joseph. As Brian puts it, apart from Jesus, Augustine denies “the ascription of physical, intellectual, or volitional perfection to any human being.” We all fall short of the norm.

The Christian claim is that Jesus relativises our abilities.

Gus, like Hauerwas in our age, does not condemn the sadness that we feel when people are born with disabilities more significant than my unusual hands. “Augustine insisted that, while the loss or lack of any of these traits was properly lamentable, life itself was a good not vitiated by the loss of any of these capacities.”

In the essay, Brock goes on to explain how Augustine saw humanness as intrinsically connected to rationality, but in such a way that humanity is not lost if rationality is not expressed. Gus even offered some thoughts as to why people are born with serious disabilities and “suggests that those who have come to appreciate the diversity that attends all human life may discover humans who lie at the margins of his norm as divine acts of communication.”

I have heard the Aberdeen practical theologian John Swinton discuss the possibility that Jesus had Down Syndrome. If you are a Christian who reads that and recoils (as I did when I first heard it), you might need to reflect on what the incarnation means. The diversity that attends all human life is created by God and is good. If you can’t see that, you might benefit from reflecting on the Christ as embryo, the Saviour in inchoate pain while teething, the Sustainer of all Existence relying on his mother for the milk that sustained him. Jesus didn’t defeat death with a high IQ.

Dawkins, for all his protestation about the wonder he finds in evolved life, sees little to wonder (in the full meaning of the word) over in the face of a disabled human. One suspects he hasn’t done enough empirical, hands-on investigation. If he hung out at L’Arche for a while, he would repudiate his words with a repentance much more interesting than his catastrophic apology.

Genuinely, that would be my prayer for him: that he might make friends with people with disabilities who would gently reveal his self-delusion for what it is. His ignorance handicaps him. His perception is disabling and will continue to be so, as long as he insists he knows what he is talking about. He doesn’t. Here’s Brian, on Augustine:

Our perception of other human beings must be illuminated or sanctified if we are to know them rightly and resist temptation to approach people as little more than their apparent deficits of mind or body.

Brian Brock, “Augustine’s Hierarchies of Human Wholeness and Their Healing” in Disability in the Christian Tradition: A Reader, 65.

Brian’s wife Stephanie has written often about raising their son Adam who has Down Syndrome. This closing paragraph of something she wrote last year has lingered with me as the final word when I talk about this stuff with family and friends. Check it:

Adam came to us and he changed our lives for the better. Would I cure his Down syndrome? Probably not. Would I rather try to cure the tendency in all people to be selfish, and unloving, and unwilling to accept life for what it is and not look for self-gratification at every turn? Now that’s a silly question.

I hope Dawkins is disabused of his silly answer. His life will be enriched.

Your Correspondent, The leader of the Weiner Patrol, boning up on his nerd lessons

4 Replies to “On Dawkins, Down Syndrome and Doing Human Life”

  1. “And not just Dawkins, but the entire new-atheist movement.”

    I know that that the issues you were referring to in the quote above were not simply those surrounding the new atheists stand on abortion or the dehumanising of those we identify as disabled but, as a matter of interest perhaps, Christopher Hitchens was opposed to abortion – however maybe you knew that already.

  2. I really appreciate your words and insights into this comment made by Dawkins. You made some very good points that encouraged me and inspired. Loving people with Down syndrome and even having the privilege to have them in our homes and be part of our families gives us wonderful glimpses of the love of Jesus.

  3. I think your constant forgery of important documents will eventually discredit some of them Laura. 🙂

    Donal: I did read Hitch on that in the past but you are right in that I am not simply trying to advocate some pro-life position here as it relates to abortion, but more generally as it relates to engaging with our humanity. On that Dawkins is sometimes comedically bad, and bad in a way that is representative of the new breed of atheism.

    But then again, Christians are too.

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