God’s a delusion (Dawkins). Religion poisons everything (Hitchens). So let’s have the end of faith (Harris)!
Okay. You’ve got your wish. Let’s imagine that the New Atheists have won. The world is our big and collective secular oyster to do whatever we want with. John Lennon’s Imagine is on everybody’s iPod playlist.
Well, let’s talk about eugenics, shall we? Yeah, you know, eugenics. That Social Darwinian thing that has, since the late 19th century, been taboo within the major religious traditions. Eugenics. Setting human reproduction on more rational grounds. Tinkering with the human genome to make better, smarter, faster people. Think Lee Majors and the Six Million Dollar Man:
Based on reason or not, religious taboos tend to keep people away from certain behaviors, and to make them fear those behaviors on visceral grounds, and the fact is that the New Atheism seeks to unloose humanity from all its religious taboos, and to ground our taboos in pragmatic and rational justifications (as opposed to simple religious sanctions).
But this makes it much more likely that serious eugenic projects will be coming in the very near future, doesn’t it? I mean, what’s going to stop them if not religious taboos? Paul Kurtz-style appeals to ethical humanism? Please. And in a sense, the New Atheists have already got their secular wish. There’s lots and lots of places in the world (and with lots and lots of people) where religion is so marginalized that it plays little or no role in policy making. China, for example. You know, the most populous country in the world! China is an atheist nation with top flight geneticists, and there appears to be nothing publicly functioning within that atheist culture that would make tinkering with the human genome taboo. And if you think that, as we speak, there are no “black sites” in China or elsewhere in the world where funky human genetic experiments are going on in secret, you’re kidding yourself. For good or ill, a broad religious taboo is in the process of being breached, and will continue to be breached, and if it goes horrendously wrong religion will not be to blame.
I would like to offer an analogy: Hinduism has long held a taboo against the eating of cows. It may be irrational (from an atheist perspective) to have such a taboo, but it effectively prevents the widespread popularity of McDonald’s in India. There may be a few McDonald’s restaurants in the big cities, and around the airports that Westerners frequent, but an atheist country like China is going to be much more fertile ground for McDonald’s (for good and for ill) than India is. If McDonald’s spreads throughout India someday, whatever good or ill might be brought upon the country by this fact cannot be placed at the door of orthodox Hindus.
Likewise with Darwinian eugenics. The world of the future will be, for better or worse, different from today not because of currently functioning religious taboos against eugenics, but because those taboos will be absent from the equation. The New Atheists will have their wish soon. The world will function much more rationally and non-religiously in the future. The elite atheist, agnostic, and secular scientists of today (and those in the near future) are about to take over the genetic destiny of humankind (against the taboos of religion), and if they make something wonderful of it, they’ll own it. Religion will get no credit for what the world will have become. But as Colin Powell also told President Bush about invading Iraq: “If you break it, you own it.” That will be true of secular eugenics projects too.
In short, if you are an atheist devoted to breaking down irrational religious taboos, and you want to live in a world based strictly on materialist assumptions—and on pragmatism, reason, and science—you might still want to be careful what you wish for, and worry about what such a religion-free and rational future will look like. As Dr. Zaius said to Taylor in Planet of the Apes, “You may not like what you find.”