Thursday, August 5

Facing the 800-Lb Gorilla

skepticThe questions I will ask in this post will all be "800-lb-gorilla" questions -- pretty obvious but usually unaddressed -- that apply to any theistic religious believer, irrespective of their stance on the abortion issue. But it does apply especially – though, I repeat, not exclusively -- to people who self-describe as “pro-life” and therefore presumably “anti-abortion”. For it seems that there is a certain … what should I call it? … cognitive dissonance, a certain conceptual disconnect between the “pro-life” opposition to abortion, on the one hand, and the theology that undergirds that position, on the other: vis a vis the abortion issue, it is difficult to see how theology supports a categorical and unqualified “pro-life” ethic. In fact, I believe a stronger case can be made that an orthodox Christian theology -- a personalistic God with the traditional “omnis” who is active in history -- supports some forms of abortion.


Christianity, like the Judaism that parented it, is a historical religion. Christianity does not view God as antiseptically disconnected from the events in human history. On the contrary, Christianity sees the “fingerprints” of God all over the Universe and all the events occurring therein. Of course, as you might expect, God’s “fingerprints” – God’s sovereign supervenience of human history – are more evident sometimes than at others. This is the whole point of stories like the Exodus from Egypt, the conquest of Canaan, the Christmas story, the Easter Passion, etc., etc., etc. Regardless of whether any, some, or all of these stories recount actual, space-time-historical facts and events, they do at the very least, record the biblical writers’ belief that (1) God acts in history in (2) such a way as to further the unfolding of a Divine Plan or Purpose. As it is with its sister religions of Judaism and Islam, Christianity asserts that God is active in shaping nations and events. In other words, God is not a passive observer. According to historical religions, God “does stuff”.

Furthermore, God “does stuff” at all levels: the level of the entire human species, the level of nations, and for our purposes most importantly, the level of individual people. God’s involvement extends even to the act of conception in the womb. Perhaps the most moving classical statement of this belief is contained in Psalm 139:

psalm 139v13

 For you created my inmost being;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
    your works are wonderful,
    I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
    when I was made in the secret place,
    when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
    all the days ordained for me were written in your book
    before one of them came to be.

 Now consider some statistics:

o Worldwide 208 million pregnancies occur each year

o As you might imagine, reliable worldwide statistics for spontaneous abortions / stillbirths are difficult to come by, but the consensus seems to be that, worldwide, between 17% and 22% of pregnancies result in spontaneous abortion

o That means that, worldwide and annually, there are between 35 million and 46 million spontaneous abortions every year—a little over 1 spontaneous abortion / stillbirth per second

Note again that these statistics count only spontaneous abortions, not those sought and intentionally induced.

Now, the question that “pro-life” people confront is the following: given that God is intimately and intentionally and providentially involved in the “knitting together” of the child in the womb, can one escape the conclusion that spontaneous abortion occurs at least with God’s acquiescence, if not God’s active intervention? Remember: God “does stuff”.

I have raised this question to friends in the “pro-life” movement and the rejoinder I have come to expect is almost always some form of the following: God being God, there is a Divine Plan at work, in the context of which spontaneous abortion is fully justified.


Fine. Fair enough. But that ends up begging yet another question. Orthodox (lower-case “o”) Christianity insists that God frequently asserts God’s will and purposes in history through human agency. God called Abram / Abraham and Sarah to found a nation. God called Moses to lead that nation out of Egypt. God called Joshua to lead it into the Promised Land. God called the Judges and Prophets to accomplish yet other purposes. God – as Jesus – called the Apostles to form the early Church. Etc., etc., etc. Sometimes the people God called were of dubious moral character at best: Haman, who was hanged on his own gallows; Balaam, whose donkey illustrated faith; Judas Iscariot, whose very betrayal of Christ furthered God’s salvific Plan. Etc., etc., etc. Orthodox Christianity asserts that God’s good purposes are sometimes accomplished through bad people.

 So herewith another question I would invite “pro-life” people to consider: even if abortion is evil, and even if abortion providers (Dr. George Tiller, Planned Parenthood, etc.) are evil, is it not at least possible that their activity nevertheless furthers God’s Purpose in the world? If you answer in the negative, then I think it is fair to ask “How do you know?” Note: not “How do you believe?”, but “How do you know?” And if you do not know, how certain can you be that, by opposing abortion, you are not opposing the sovereign Purposes of God? Perhaps not all the time, but certainly sometimes, in certain cases, on certain occasions. "There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death." Prov. 14:12 (NIV) How do you know?

I will freely and explicitly admit: I do not know. Seriously. I do not in the least feign ignorance. I honestly, really, truly, sincerely do not know. However, I am convinced that seeking to dragoon the God of any historical religion onto anyone's side in the abortion debate -- either one:  "pro-choice" or "pro-life" -- merely shrinks whatever common ground on public policy there may be and guarantees that the issue will remain beyond resolution. I have been following this controversy for a long, long time, and I have yet to see an instance in which orthodox theology -- from either side -- shed light rather than darkness on the issue. Appealing to the God who "does stuff" clarifies nothing and merely confirms one's pre-existing position on all "life" issues (abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, etc.). I have also never yet seen anyone consult God in order to discern what is right, only to reaffirm their prior certainty that they were already right.  In any case, it was through posing questions like that – questions regarding the limits of my own knowledge and the foundations of my own certitude – that I began, a dozen-plus years ago, a process of questioning that eventually culminated in the realization that, when it came to matters religious, I actually knew almost nothing. (Incidentally, that is why, even after all that, I am still willing to admit that there may be a God … because I do not know there is not.) And even the little that I do know is founded, not on institutional religious teachings, but on the kinds of things human beings have discovered are and are not good for them after roughly 10,000 years of living in community with each other: e.g., it is better to talk than to fight; better to feed than to allow to starve; better to treat with dignity and respect than with disdain and degradation; etc. (And to answer your next question ... I mean "better" in the purely "anthropic" sense that, if we believe fighting, starving, degradation are better, then the human community will eventually perish -- in which case, there will be no one left to engage in moral reasoning and discourse.) Beyond that … I know virtually nothing. “Know” is a very big word.


The point is not to promote my own position on abortion (which is “pro-choice” within, basically, the limitations of Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, plus allowing abortion in cases of rape and incest). You say you are “pro-life”? You may well be right. Regardless, be you “pro-life” or “pro-choice,” what I am advocating for is intellectual integrity. If you base your opposition to abortion on your theological principles, intellectual integrity demands that you (a) think through the full implications of those principles as they relate to abortion and (b) decide what to do if, as a result of (a), you discover that your theology will not, after all, support your ethics. (If you have never undertaken the inventory I recommend in [a], then you are, and can be, in no position to be certain that such a clash will not occur.) I do not have this problem – any more – because my ethics are entirely “human-centric”. But, as one of the now-legendary “Nones”, I am in the minority.

So, in the end, here is my modest counsel: never allow your partisan enthusiasm for any cause to drive your ethics to write a check your theology cannot cash.


James R. Cowles


  • Yes. When I debate with my evangelical friends and they say that “It was all God’s plan.” Then I say, “So God is the author of all evil?” Then they go…backpeddle or they say “Yes.” In which case, I peddle out of there!

    • I always say something to the effect of “In the Christian understanding, does God ever use bad people doing bad things in order to accomplish good purposes?” The answer is always “Yes, of course”. Then I ask “OK … so PP may be doing God’s work in performing abortions, in which case your opposition to PP is opposition to God’s Plan.” That’s when the discussion really gets … interesting.

    • There are biblical texts like … maybe … Matt. 18:7 that sugges that evil is necessary in the sense that structural / systemic evil exists & there’s nothing you can do about it, but that the agents of this evil are culpable and accountable, nevertheless. So evil BOTH serves some (good) plan but is no less reprehensible for all that. See why I prefer a “human-centric” ethic?

      • I totally hear you. I think I can get to any image of God … loving, judging, controlling, watchmaker …

        Since the existence of God is a priori for me, then my task is to construct an image of God that fits my experience, at least some of the scripture, some tradition, and that uses my brain. Hopefully, that is what I have done. I believe I have done it in cooperation with God. (Process).

  • Which is a pretty good (implicit) summary of why I became a practical atheist: the God I ended up believing in that fit my experience was a God Who had no business existing, the kind of God Whose existence would drive me (almost did drive me) to do a Sylvia Plath: the God who enjoys playing head games and mind-fucking people … or at least me. Vis a vis that God, I am not just an atheist, but an anti-theist.

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