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Post-Christianity & the Culture of Death

A reader writes:

I’m a longtime reader of your blog, and while your writing has certainly made me, an agnostic/atheist, more sympathetic towards religion and its followers than I was as a callous teenager and young adult, this one article had the effect of making me practically jump in my car and speed to the nearest church.  It’s horrific, and I try not to use that term lightly.

She’s talking about a piece in the current issue of The New Yorker about the euthanasia culture in Belgium.  [1] It is as horrifying as she says it is, and about as pure an expression of what John Paul II called the “Culture of Death” as you can imagine in our time. Euthanasia, the magazine reports, is thoroughly mainstream in Belgium, and embracing it has become a sign of what it means to be modern. Wim Distelmans, the Dr. Kevorkian of Belgium, has become a respected celebrity. From the piece:

In Belgium, euthanasia is embraced as an emblem of enlightenment and progress, a sign that the country has extricated itself from its Catholic, patriarchal roots. Distelmans, who was brought up as a Catholic and then rejected the Church, told me that his work is inspired by an aversion to all forms of paternalism. “Who am I to convince patients that they have to suffer longer than they want?” he said.

The euthanasia culture is a fruit of post-Christianity. Even its proponents say so:

De Wachter believes that the country’s approach to suicide reflects a crisis of nihilism created by the rapid secularization of Flemish culture in the past thirty years. Euthanasia became a humanist solution to a humanist dilemma. “What is life worth when there is no God?” he said. “What is life worth when I am not successful?” He said that he has repeatedly been confronted by patients who tell him, “I am an autonomous decision-maker. I can decide how long I live. When I think my life is not worth living anymore, I must decide.” He recently approved the euthanasia of a twenty-five-year-old woman with borderline personality disorder who did not “suffer from depression in the psychiatric sense of the word,” he said. “It was more existential; it was impossible for her to have a goal in this life.” He said that her parents “came to my office, got on their knees, and begged me, ‘Please, help our daughter to die.’ ”

De Wachter told me, “I don’t want to kill people—I don’t think psychiatrists should kill people—but when the suffering is so extreme we cannot look the other way.” When he gives lectures, he tries to appeal to Christian audiences by saying, “If Jesus were here, I think he would help these people.”

René Stockman, the director of a Catholic organization, Brothers of Charity, which says that it runs a third of the psychiatric institutions in Belgium, told me, “They are using our Christian vocabulary in a new context. They say they are ‘saving’ people from their bad lives, through ‘mercy’ and ‘compassion.’ I cannot accept that.” He sees euthanasia as a failure of both psychiatry and medical education. “Any questions about ethics—they say, ‘Oh, we need a specialist for that.’ They are not learning to reflect morally on what they are doing.”


The invocation of science and the resort to euphemism to disguise murder: where have we seen that before? [2]

The New Yorker piece follows Tom Mortier, the son of Godelieva, a depressed woman euthanized by Distelmans. Tom is outraged that the doctor approved his mother’s choice for euthanasia without consulting family members; Tom and his sister only learned of their mother’s death after the fact. From a Daily Telegraph profile of Tom and his outspoken criticism of euthanasia: [3]

“If you made a movie about what’s happening, people just wouldn’t believe it, but in Belgium, it’s reality,” Mr Mortier, 38, told The Sunday Telegraph. “You should not give a physician the right, or the legal possibility, to give someone a lethal injection, and definitely not to people with mental illnesses or older people tired of life. These are people who should be helped.”

The doctor who carried out euthanasia on Mr Mortier’s mother was Professor Wim Distelmans, an oncologist (cancer specialist) and expert in palliative care. A charismatic advocate for the right to elect for death in cases of “unbearable suffering,” he is something of a celebrity figure in Belgium.

He tours the country, dressed casually in jeans and a polo shirt, giving joke-filled talks at rallies on how to request euthanasia. He is estimated to have administered euthanasia to more than 1,000 people.

Last year, he came under fire after organising a tour to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, which he described in a leaflet as an “inspiring venue” for discussions on the euthanasia issues. He said the camp was “the pre-eminent symbol of a degrading end of life”.

Tom Mortier’s one-man crusade against the euthanasia culture earned the attention of a sympathetic Belgian philosopher, who is “troubled by the way that his colleagues’ theories about autonomy seemed to have stiffened into ideology, a mentality that the euthanasia law both reflected and encouraged.” The philosopher warned Tom that the Belgian media, which is heavily pro-euthanasia, was going to tear him to bits. And in fact, Tom was savaged in the media and in popular culture for his unenlightened attitude. Thousands of prominent Belgians — including politicians, celebrities, journalists, academics, and athletes — signed a public petition denouncing Tom. One critic even denounced Tom, who is non-religious, as “secretly Catholic.”

Here is the creepiest part of the story:

Last spring, Tom was reviewing his eight-year-old daughter’s journal for school, as he does every night, when he saw in the pages a flyer with Distelmans’s face on it. “Euthanasia lecture: With Wim Distelmans,” it said. It had been put there by his daughter’s non-confessional-ethics teacher, who is also the chair of the local humanist chapter. Tom and his wife e-mailed the school’s principal to complain that the ethics teacher was promoting a lecture by the doctor who had euthanized the grandmother of one of her pupils. The principal apologized for causing discomfort but explained that the “flyer has only an informative character which gives parents the opportunity to get informed about this contemporary humanist subject.” She wrote that the subject of euthanasia was in keeping with the curriculum, but she said that she would advise teachers not to discuss it until after the second grade.

So: Belgian schools are teaching small children about “the contemporary humanist subject” of doctor-assisted suicide, and people who object to it are the crazy ones.

It’s coming here too. They will use Christian categories and Christian language to mainstream it, as they are doing and have done with sex and sexuality, and those who oppose euthanasia will inevitably be denounced as haters and bigots, perhaps even “secretly Catholic.” Euthanasia is the logical endpoint of the belief that the individual is radically autonomous, and that the purpose of life is to maximize enjoyment and minimize suffering. The reader who sent me the New Yorker piece was so frightened by the Belgian utopia that it made her impulsively think of religion as a bulwark against this suicidal nihilism. If not religion, then what? Tell me, reader, what in secular culture is strong enough to stand up to the ideology of autonomous individualism and an ethic that would rather die than live with suffering.

74 Comments (Open | Close)

74 Comments To "Post-Christianity & the Culture of Death"

#1 Comment By Rusty On June 16, 2015 @ 5:26 pm

And we wonder why the West cannot defeat ISIS.

Well, that seems a little premature.

#2 Comment By M_Young On June 16, 2015 @ 5:26 pm

Creepiest scene in a movie, ever, possibly relevant.

#3 Comment By Eamus Catuli On June 16, 2015 @ 6:39 pm

@Matth, soma is fictional, but from the way it’s described in Brave New World, it’s not like antidepressants at all (at least not SSRI’s):

> “By this time the soma had begun to work. Eyes shone, cheeks were flushed, the inner light of universal benevolence broke out on every face in happy, friendly smiles. Even Bernard felt himself a little melted.”

> “When the Warden started booming, she had inconspicuously swallowed half a gramme of soma, with the result that she could now sit, serenely not listening, thinking of nothing at all, but with her large blue eyes fixed on the Warden’s face in an expression of rapt attention.”

> “Bernard also laughed; after two grammes of soma the joke seemed, for some reason, good. Laughed and then, almost immediately, dropped off to sleep.”

From what I’ve heard from former users, that sounds more like Ecstasy, maybe mixed with a little THC. The effects of antidepressants (which, for starters, take much longer to work) are nothing like these descriptions.

#4 Comment By Rob On June 16, 2015 @ 6:46 pm

These two statements are not equivalent:

(1) “The individual is radically autonomous.”

(2) “The purpose of life is to maximize enjoyment and minimize suffering.”

One can (and should) accept (1) while rejecting (2).

An easy way to see this, without bringing in Kant (Robert Nozick instead): imagine that there was a machine that can keep people alive, motionless, for a normal human lifespan while giving them coherent hallucinations of a life they’d find highly pleasurable. If the life Alex would most enjoy is a life of gourmet food and wild sex, the machine will give Alex a hallucination of eating gourmet food and wild sex. If the life Bob would most enjoy is raising a family, the machine will give Bob a hallucination of getting married and having children. If the life Carla would most enjoy is publishing novels, the machine will give Carla the experience of publishing novels. Alex wouldn’t actually be eating or having sex, Bob wouldn’t actually have children or a spouse, and Carla wouldn’t actually be publishing. All three of them would be motionless in a vat of nutrient gel, with electrodes stuck to their heads. But they’d believe their experiences are real, because the hallucinations are really convincing, and their memories of the decision to get in the machine have been erased.

Would you choose to get into the Experience Machine? If pleasure is the only thing that matters, there is no self-interested reason not to get in. Yet many people, including many secular people who believe in the value of autonomy, would not choose to get into the Experience Machine, and not merely because of duties to others, e.g. to family. We believe that it would be bad for us to live a life that is based on a lie, even if that life is very pleasant and even if the life we’d live outside of the machine would have a lot of suffering.

#5 Comment By David Lobron On June 16, 2015 @ 7:04 pm

I felt the same way as your reader: shocked that it’s come to this. I’m haunted by a comment from Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britian, who said that Europe is in danger of “losing its will to live.” This article about Belgium felt like confirmation of his words. Sacks has written that the philosophers who justify suicide are cousins of the Epicureans, who believed that our purpose in life was merely to satisfy our desires, and that we are only answerable to those desires.

This article made me think of a friend who is struggling right now with depression. We are trying hard to support her, and praying for her to feel better soon and recover her sense of herself. I shudder to think that if we lived in Belgium, she might not be alive right now to be a mother to her children.

I think the answer to Rod’s question about whether a purely secular ethic can ever be enough on its own has been made clear by history: it can’t. Tolstoy wrote that a society that loses its religion is like an orchestra that loses its conductor: it hums along for a while, but it gradually loses its bearings and the music falls apart. I have great respect for some atheist thinkers, but they often lack humility. Maybe this article will cure some of them of their arrogance towards religion.

#6 Comment By JonF On June 16, 2015 @ 7:22 pm

Re: those who do not conceive of Human Existence as a desperate and bitter struggle but rather as a inalienable right do not deserve Human Existence

I am neither desperate nor bitter (though often I am annoyed and frustrated). Those who have taken Christ for their leader have no reason for either desperation or bitterness (“Be of good cheer, for I have overcome the World.”)

#7 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On June 16, 2015 @ 9:31 pm

The West will not defeat ISIS. The Kurds and whatever non-Kurdish Sunni forces rally to them appear to be making some headway. The U.S. is providing tactical air support, which is a very helpful adjunct.

#8 Comment By Anne On June 16, 2015 @ 9:44 pm

Fwiw, I agree that SSRIs don’t work like Soma. From all I’ve read and heard from users, the problem is they don’t work much at all for what they’re given except by the placebo effect, a response deemed valuable enough to keep them on the market.

#9 Comment By Gregory Manning On June 17, 2015 @ 12:04 am

The real problem comes down the road when people refuse to exercise their right to die with dignity. You can bet that’s going to be an unruly lot!

#10 Comment By heartright On June 17, 2015 @ 2:52 am

JonF says:

I am neither desperate nor bitter (though often I am annoyed and frustrated). Those who have taken Christ for their leader have no reason for either desperation or bitterness (“Be of good cheer, for I have overcome the World.”)
Amen to that.

Nonetheless, it is often a grimy and bloody business. Ask the Kurds about it. And I have very limited use for those who cannot be relied upon to take an ‘Ut veniant omnes’-attitude.

Siarlys Jenkins says:

The West will not defeat ISIS.
Exactly. Couldn’t possibly rely on the West to defeat Hitler either. Just an adjunct.

#11 Comment By Eamus Catuli On June 17, 2015 @ 7:50 am

Fwiw, I agree that SSRIs don’t work like Soma. From all I’ve read and heard from users, the problem is they don’t work much at all for what they’re given except by the placebo effect, a response deemed valuable enough to keep them on the market.

SSRIs won’t work for everyone, but there’s no question they have a real and not just a placebo effect. This is known because, like all drugs, they are specifically tested against placebos to see if they’re actually working.

#12 Comment By Matth On June 17, 2015 @ 9:12 am

Rob, I don’t see that proves anything other than that thought experiments are useless except as mental exercise.

First, neither I nor (I believe) Rod are making the claim that statements 1 and 2 are mutually dependent. Rather, 1 and 2 taken together describe the current ethos. Perhaps a world exists where 1 is held by the population as true, while 2 is rejected, but that’s not the case in today’s world.

Second, your rejection of getting into the vat ultimately relies on a gut instinct that something is wrong. What we’re observing in greater society is a large trend to either ignore or change those gut reactions; I have a strong gut reaction that a person should continue living, and this reaction is precisely what Benelux culture is saying is wrong. I see no reason why the same forces driving that couldn’t also say that our mutual agreement that this Experience Machine is bad for us is an incorrect or unenlightened reaction.

Third, I reject your premise that statement 1 is correct and should be accepted. I believe that a radically autonomous person is a person who defines himself by sin, a rejection of the communion of love that God has properly created humankind for. This is a statement of our shared reality, not a mental exercise. Everything that I believe follows from this belief in the communal aspect of life, including my argument against assisted suicide. Your philosophical arguments are fine as far as they go, and they are intellectually stimulating, but I really see no way to make those arguments into the structure of a rational and robust belief system. They work for you, and that’s wonderful and something I truly applaud, but spread across the entirety of society, they literally deny that there is anything that can be referred to as “the entirey of society” since one of the central premises is that each and every human is radically autonomous.

I’m fine losing this argument, such as it is, as I have no doubt that your rhetorical abilities are far in excess of my own. In truth, my beliefs are not predicated on any sort of conjecture, but rather are seated in the faith I have in Christ which God graced me with. I accept and admit that they therefore are senseless to one who does not have that faith, though I also believe that are our lived reality.

#13 Comment By Matth On June 17, 2015 @ 9:22 am

Eamus Catuli:

My comment was tongue-in-cheek, though that of course was not clear since the Internet is the great leveler of tone. I’ve known many people who have greatly benefited from pharmacological help. They have been a wonderful development, as has so much of medical science.

I don’t think, however, that simply producing better or more effective drugs will entirely solve the problem in the Benelux countries, and bringing up soma was meant to also bring up the plight of the savage, John, who ultimately takes his own life despite the material comfort of the society into which he has been brought. There will always be some people who dislike the idea of using a pharmaceutical to make the world bearable.

#14 Comment By Eamus Catuli On June 17, 2015 @ 11:55 am

@Matth, thanks for clarifying, and my apologies if I misunderstood. (Didn’t recognize your name from previous threads, so I don’t know your general orientation.) You are certainly correct that more effective drugs will not entirely solve the Benelux problem, nor any others for that matter. Nor in a free society will everyone who might benefit agree to treatment. Fair enough. My point was just that a lot of what we’re hearing described here sounds to me like depression, and depression is a treatable organic disorder involving brain chemistry; it often has other components as well, but there’s no reason to assume, as I think some here are inclined to do, that it’s mainly a reflection of philosophical or spiritual deficits, or that the best treatment is higher levels of religiosity — although frankly, I’m in favor of anything that works (if it doesn’t create worse problems) in a given case.

#15 Comment By Rob On June 17, 2015 @ 1:00 pm

@Matth: Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I agree with you that (1) and (2) describe much of our current culture, and I share your view that the widespread acceptance of (2) is disturbing.

I’m much more optimistic than you are about the possibility of social unity in a society where most people believe (1). If radical autonomy means that people accept their feelings as authoritative, then autonomy and unity are incompatible, since people’s feelings differ. But if radical autonomy means that people accept their own reason as authoritative, then autonomy and social unity are compatible, since reason is universal. When different people reason well about ethics, their reasoning will converge, just as different people’s sound reasoning converges in mathematics. (As in mathematics, there are some people who are uninterested in ethical reasoning, there are some people who are very bad at it, and everyone makes at least occasional mistakes.)

You are absolutely right to point out that the Nozick Experience Machine thought experiment relies on an emotional intuition about what is good, and you are right to worry about arguments that work in this way. If all moral reasoning works in this way, then the hope for rational convergence is dim, because people’s emotional intuitions may differ radically. (This wouldn’t mean that we couldn’t engage in moral reasoning together; for instance, you could point out to me a way in which my moral intuitions are inconsistent with each other.) I am attracted to Kantian ethics because Kantian arguments don’t appeal to emotional intuitions about what is right or good; they appeal to principles of practical reasoning akin to principles of logic. Perhaps we rely on intuitions to assess these principles, but the intuitions at work aren’t mere emotions.

#16 Comment By heartright On June 17, 2015 @ 2:26 pm

(1) “The individual is radically autonomous.”
As good a definition of a cancercell as any.

Autonomy is the ultimsate crime and demands the ultimate punishment.

#17 Comment By panda On June 17, 2015 @ 3:24 pm

“The question isn’t why secular humanist empiricist types want to pay people to kill them when they’re tired of life; the question is why any of them choose to live past 45 or so, all things considered.

Ironically, the best secular answer to that is given in Ecclesiastes, 9:4…

#18 Comment By panda On June 17, 2015 @ 3:28 pm

“This article about Belgium felt like confirmation of his words. Sacks has written that the philosophers who justify suicide are cousins of the Epicureans, who believed that our purpose in life was merely to satisfy our desires, and that we are only answerable to those desires.”

That is of course a very Jewish reading of the Epicurians (and in rabbinical literature, an Epicurian, epikors, is pretty much the worse curse one could muster). In reality, the Epicurians’ views were much more complicated, and their central tenet was knowing and moderating one’s desires, not blindly following them. [There are actually very interesting parallels between Epicurus and Buddha, in that they both strove for the “middle path” between hedonism and asceticism, in order to achieve a state of independence from desires.

#19 Comment By Raymond Takashi Swenson On June 17, 2015 @ 4:32 pm

The patient’s suicide is the panacea for all medical problems. It is so much cheaper and easier than true diagnosis and treatment, and eliminates the need for research and costly treatment. If you are so sick you can’t enjoy life, then die!

And it solves so many problems for society at large that, once it becomes a choice for anyone under any circumstances, society and the state will use all its power to coerce people into making that choice, out of a “duty” to “others”. If suicide is the way out of misery, we already know that society can make your life miserable, and push you into self-extinction.

For Europe, the result will be that the more radical Muslims, who reject this secularist nonsense, are going to repopulate Europe as the existing population kills itself off.

#20 Comment By Rob On June 17, 2015 @ 7:15 pm

(1) “The individual is radically autonomous.”
As good a definition of a cancercell as any.

Your metaphor suggests that human beings are only valuable as parts of a larger whole. But human beings do not exist for the sake of society. Society exists for the sake of human beings. We are not bees or ants.

#21 Comment By Eamus Catuli On June 17, 2015 @ 7:52 pm

Your metaphor suggests that human beings are only valuable as parts of a larger whole.

Rob, as Franklin Evans just reminded me on another thread, heartright is not someone you should bother arguing with seriously. For one thing, his position is self-canceling, since a statement like “Autonomy is the ultimate crime and demands the ultimate punishment” is itself an act of autonomy. So he’s disproven his point even in making it. Second, it appears the extremism is basically just trolling — although I suppose if we were charitable, we could consider it some kind of verbal performance art. At any rate, it’s not propositional logic in the sense you’re assuming.

OTOH, you could ask him about World War II sometime — he seems actually to know a lot about that.

#22 Comment By Abelard Lindsey On June 18, 2015 @ 12:52 am

It seems to me that the root of the problem is that people experience terminal medical conditions that are not curable by current medical technology. This is the reason why they might choose to self-terminate. What is needed is a form of medical time travel (an ambulance ride into the future) that could “transport” such a person to a time in the future that their condition could be cured and their physiology restored to full youthful vitality. Such a method of medical time travel would be the appropriate “pro-life” solution to this issue.

#23 Comment By heartright On June 18, 2015 @ 1:30 am

Your metaphor suggests that human beings are only valuable as parts of a larger whole. But human beings do not exist for the sake of society. Society exists for the sake of human beings. We are not bees or ants.

Imasmuch as human beings do not grow on trees, your precious individual cannot even come into existence as a radically autonomous being: his existence is the result of a communal effort.

Nor does it stop there: until the day arrives that humanity goes fully cannibal ( hopefully never ) humanity itself merely exists by the grace of interaction with the rest of Life on our planet.

ALL living matter is interconnected, and all of it can only be properly understood within the context of the sum total of that living matter ( and even that may be too narrow a view of things ).

, since a statement like “Autonomy is the ultimate crime and demands the ultimate punishment” is itself an act of autonomy

BS. That overlooks the concept of the intelligent agent – or, to take it one step further the concept of the non-autonomous individual. You are propsoing a false dichtomy – that between the colonial life-form and the autonomous individual. Biological existence is slightly more complex than that.

In theory, one might tolerate autonomous individuals on the Mowgli-level: shunted into the jungle, and with zero means of interacting, and with zero imoact on the biosphere. Odds are Mowgli will die within days of his shunting – and that would be all for the best.

We are not bees or ants.
Bees and ants actually play a useful role to the sum total of life on this planet – a thing that cannot be said of a radically autonomous being.

Such a radically autonomous individual is worth LESS than an insect. Such a being is merely a cancercell.

#24 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On June 18, 2015 @ 1:31 pm

heartright is leaning a little too hard on one side of a complex dialectic. I bet when he goes to a coffee shop or a pub or wherever he likes to hang out, he doesn’t ask the community to dictate what he will order today.

It is true that an individual human being cannot bring about or sustain their own existence. It is therefore true that the individual owes a duty to the community that sustains them. But what is the purpose of this community? It is to sustain the individual human being, not merely as a functionary of a community, but for their own sake, or because they are made in the image of God.

Institutions that are endowed with authority are rightly restrained, to reduce abuse of authority to a minimum, and to assure that authority will be exercised as necessary for the good of all, while allowing individuals the freedom to exercise the capacities God gave each of us, if the good of the community is not infringed.

As to the original question… if people are seeking and being given euthanasia because they feel depressed, there is something seriously wrong. To the extent that euthanasia is either legally available, or to some extent tolerated, it should be in extremis of overwhelming pain from a terminal condition. It would be counter-productive to start making a long list of all the conditions that do NOT qualify a patient for assisted death.