Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
Marc Barnes recently met a girl he thought he might be interested in...until he found out that she was a pro-choice vegetarian. He goes on to dissect the silliness of this viewpoint, which, from the Catholic perspective, is basically an exercise of shooting fish in a barrel. It’s such an obviously inconsistent position that many of my Catholic friends are baffled by how someone could hold both of those views simultaneously: How can you respect animal life but not human life? they wonder. To me, it makes sense. In fact, I used to be a pro-choice vegetarian. And while I now vehemently disagree with at least the pro-choice part of it, I still find the vegetarian/pro-choice position to be an intellectually consistent—if chilling—part of the atheist-materialist worldview.
The way I used to see it, all life is just chemical reactions, no one type of life any more inherently special than the next. In this view, the only reason that a human being would be considered more valuable than, say, a squirrel is because the human has higher levels of intelligence and consciousness than his furry friend. The “truth” of this position seemed obvious. For example, most of us would have no problem killing a simple lifeform like a gnat, but we would be opposed to killing a more intelligent lifeform like a dog. Increased intelligence equals increased value.
I would ponder this sort of thing whenever I ate meat, imagining what must have gone through the pig’s mind before it was slaughtered to provide the meat for my BLT sandwich. Maybe it didn’t experience the level of fear that an adult human would, but it had enough intelligence to know that something bad was happening. I began to do research into the conditions of modern slaughter houses, and was disturbed by what I found. I decided to adopt a mostly vegetarian diet. The few exceptions I made were based on the animals’ low levels of consciousness: I ate shrimp and shellfish as a protein source, justifying this choice on the grounds that their brains were not as complex as those of mammals and birds.
My intentions were good, and my views were internally consistent. But the implications for human life were chilling.
While I donated money to PETA and other animal rights organizations to help save pigs and cows, I also donated money to Planned Parenthood to support the abortion industry. I had not the slightest qualm about the idea of an early-stage abortion. On my spectrum of worthiness of life, adult humans were on the far right side; fetuses were on the left. Unborn humans were somewhere around shrimp and worms in terms of value, because they could not display any intelligence. And so it seemed unfair to ask women to turn their lives upside down for a lifeform that had all the value of a crustacean.
Even though it would be years before I would come to see that this entire understanding of human life was founded on a lie, I would occasionally get a glimpse of the chilling implications of this view. For example, one time in college I heard a professor make the statement that it would be more ethical to kill a newborn baby than a pig, since pigs are more intelligent and aware of their surroundings. I scoffed at the absurdity of such a notion. Yet when I tried to argue against it, I realized that he was actually using my own worldview to justify his position.
Also in college, I heard a classmate (who was a vegetarian too) make the case that severely mentally disabled people should be euthanized. I thought it to be one of the most offensive, disgusting statements I’d ever heard. I was even able to come up with some defense about it being wrong because we’re evolved to protect members of our own species…but such a coldly scientific argument sounded lame and hollow. There was absolutely nothing in the atheist lexicon that allowed me to articulate just how morally repugnant such an idea really was.
When I began researching Catholicism, one of the many things that immediately resonated as true was the Church’s teaching on the dignity of man. This idea that every single one of us has dignity—a dignity that exists simply by virtue of being human, regardless of our of size, intelligence, consciousness, or any other observable traits—was like an articulation of a truth that had been written on my heart all along. Somewhere deep down inside, I had known that that this was true, which is why I’d been so horrified by the professor and the classmate’s statements. As with so many other things in life, Catholicism took all my well-meaning energy and channeled it in a healthy way: I maintained a compassion for animals, but came to see that the members of my own species were in an entirely different category than other lifeforms, because we are the only ones made in the image and likeness of God.
These days I’ve gone back to eating meat, though I try to support local farms and other organizations that treat their animals humanely. I maintain respect for vegetarians, and understand why a lot of people choose to go that route. What’s troubling, however, is that this idea of intelligence = value is increasingly prevalent in our culture. It might make a certain amount of sense when applying it to other animals, but when we evaluate people by this standard, throwing out the millennia-old concept of the inherent value of human life, the results are chilling indeed.