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Saving Cockroaches and Other Tales of Reason Gone Awry

BY Karl Keating

November 30-December 6, 1997 Issue | Posted 11/30/97 at 1:00 PM

 

Years ago I used to write a column for a local “alternative” newspaper. My assignment was to cover public lectures, discussions, and demonstrations and to illustrate the illogic of the participants simply by quoting them. Editorializing was forbidden by the editor, but there was no need for it anyway, since the easiest way to make certain people look foolish is to report their words accurately.

Most of the assignments I no longer remember, though I do recall taking notes at a talk given by Jane Fonda. Her topic was Cuba or the Sandinistas or some such thing. She had little to say, but used many words to say it. More interesting than her ideas was her fawning audience. My article ended up focusing not so much on Fonda's remarks as on those of her credulous listeners. I was surprised—but should not have been—that even her most baseless comments received approval from the large contingent of well-dressed people in La Jolla, Calif.

Attending talks like hers was the exception. I preferred local color. Sometimes I found it at the city's largest park, a haven for people with opinions and soapboxes, and invariably I found it at the Unitarian church. Instead of religious ceremonies, the Unitarians held sparsely-attended lectures and small-group discussions. The events never featured big-name speakers, but I found them more instructive—and more amusing—than speeches by fading film stars.

The church seemed to be the last refuge for the socially eccentric. One fellow—who claimed that, as a boy, he survived the firebombing of Dresden—was known as “the U-Boat Captain” because that was the moniker he used when telephoning call-in radio programs, which he apparently spent most of his waking hours doing.

Another regular, an older man with a constantly furrowed brow, prided himself on his anticlericalism and spoke darkly in terms of the looming threat from “priestcraft,” meaning Catholicism. I never figured out what launched him on his crusade.

Perhaps the most entertaining of the bunch was a skinny young man who, a decade later, would come to head a nationally-prominent organization of secular humanists.

To me, such men were living testaments to the futility of rejecting the Christian faith. They illustrated why 19thcentury rationalism, prolonged through the 20th century, has been a dead-end. Like Ayn Rand's Objectivists, they praised reason while hardly being able to wield it.

However rich a mine the sessions at the Unitarian church were, my favorite assignment happened out of doors at the University of California campus, where I covered a demonstration at the medical school. Several dozen people were protesting the use of animals in medical research. After milling around the crowd for a while, I zeroed in on a clean-cut young couple carrying picket signs. Even from a distance they exuded naiveté.

“What are you objecting to?"

“We don't think dogs and monkeys should be made to suffer in laboratories,” the young man replied. “Did you know that rabbits are killed just so cosmetics companies can test whether their new formulas are hypoallergenic?"

“No, I didn't know that,” I said. “Do you oppose all forms of medical research on animals?"

“Yes, all forms. Animals are being killed in there,” he said, pointing toward the laboratories, “and that's cruel. No one deserves to be treated that way.”

“But what if an experiment, performed on a dog, results in a new medicine or a new medical technique that saves the life of a child?"

“That wouldn't make it right to kill the dog. Adog is just as valuable as a child and has the same right to live. There's no essential difference between the two. You can't go around killing one sentient creature for the benefit of another.”

The young couple turned out to be vegetarians, not surprisingly, but not for health reasons. For them, vegetarianism was a matter of ethics. (It didn't occur to me to ask whether they thought it right to uproot plants, which also are sentient creatures.) Since I wasn't making progress in talking about medical experiments, I turned closer to home.

“So you say you don't believe in killing any animal, right?"

“Right.”

“But let's say you discover cockroaches in your kitchen. Wouldn't you kill them?"

“We don't have cockroaches.”

“But let's say you did. Wouldn't you kill them?"

“Definitely not.”

“You mean you'd just let them run around your house?"

“No. We're not slobs.”

“What would you do about them?"

“We'd capture them and let them go at the house next door.”

This was said with a straight face. I marveled at the patience of their neighbors and at the blind alleys people end up in once they deny Christian anthropology. Once you say a child is no more valuable than a dog, you can make no argument against sharing your table with bugs.

Karl Keating is founding director of Catholic Answers.