In the Katholiek Nieuwsblad of 12-11-2021, an instructive interview appeared with a well-known atheist, Kevin Yuill, lecturer in modern American history at the University of Sunderland and author of the book “Assistant Suicide: The Liberal, Humanist Case against Legalisation”. His vision of euthanasia is like that of the Pope as head of the Catholic Church: “I believe that euthanasia and assisted suicide are the same as suicide” he declared.
He spent a few weeks in the Netherlands, a leader in the legalization of euthanasia (with in his wake as a docile little brother, our spiritually impoverished Belgium). He gave clear answers to the questions posed to him, which show that even from a non-religious humanistic perspective one can arrive at similar moral decisions as those taught by ecclesiastical authorities. We list some of his answers below.
“If you look at criminal law, it’s just as bad to kill an 86-year-old who doesn’t value his life as it is to kill a 26-year-old. Why should this be any different in the case of suicide? If you accept that euthanasia is suicide, you should make it available to everyone, or else to no one.”
“They started legalizing euthanasia for terminally ill patients. Later it was decided that dementia could also be torture for someone. Then they also started looking at mental illnesses… If you consider euthanasia a good deed and a medical act, how can you forbid it for a 24-year-old who suffers unbearably because of the loss of the love of his life?”
“Take the old people’s homes in England. People who work there are more often against legalizing euthanasia and assisted suicide than other groups. They see people dying and see that for the most part it is done peacefully… Mercy is not the same as killing someone.”
“As a community, we feel compelled to protect our members from violence. Why should this be any different in the case of suicide? When I look at euthanasia, I say, ‘I understand that you are upset or depressed.’ But as a human being, I think there’s always a part in that person that wouldn’t want euthanasia.”
“There’s a post-Catholic perspective, which I think has good elements. For example, in some cases I am in favour of legalising abortion, although I personally consider it to be a bad thing. But you cannot reject everything about the Catholic faith. ‘Thou shalt not kill’ is also relevant to atheists.”
“Some of my fellow atheists think believers are stupid. I do not agree with that. The Pope is a very intelligent man, who is well advised. He recognizes the same things I’m talking about, namely: the rise of a culture of narcissism from the seventies. You see the world as a mirror of your own feelings, separate from history and others. The Church understands that. We have a common concern. Maybe I don’t agree with the underpinnings of it, but I think people need meaning in their lives. The problem is that when they turn away from religion, they can no longer understand their existence in the universe. When you let go of religion, you must look for meaning, for something bigger than yourself.”
“All churches speak of the soul. I like that. We all have souls and are morally equal. That is specifically due to Christianity… The Catholic Church carries many important values. I have more in common with some Catholics than with inveterate atheists.”
These spontaneous and honest-sounding answers sound surprising, because on the one hand they do not ignore the fundamental dividing line between religious and atheistic thinking, while on the other hand they show that this dividing line is ethically bridgeable on important points. World and worldviews can be compared to glasses, which give us a certain view of reality. Some glasses can distort reality, obscure it, or represent only part of it, while others allow us to make observations even in the night darkness. We can even use tele- or microscopes, which expose something that our human eye cannot directly perceive, in the vast starry sky, or in the unimaginably small.
The glasses of the belief in God go one giant step further and give us insight into a reality that is higher and deeper than the material. Not only do they broaden our view of total reality, but they also show us its deep meaning. As Kevin Yuill himself admits, this vitally meaningful perspective is lacking in a world viewed with materialistic glasses. The atheist must therefore adjust his view of world events with artificial considerations. These can sometimes result in a rapprochement with religious thinking, as in his case, but they can also strengthen the dividing line. From this follows the conclusion that people live in parallel worlds in a certain sense. Materialists pride themselves on the fact that their worldview is very “open”, while from a belief in God it looks more like a tunnel vision, delimited and dead-end in space and time.
An important question in the discussion about euthanasia is the meaning of human suffering. It is very difficult or almost impossible to give a satisfactory answer to that as an atheist. From such a point ofview, one can only appeal to a mixture of emotional humanitarianism and instinctive sense of self-preservation, in the knowledge that suffering inevitably belongs to life. But just as inevitably, a materialistic signification collides with human limits that make suffering meaningless. A Christ, for example, who voluntarily accepts a horrible agony on the cross is in that context unthinkable or unacceptable and therefore a reason to reduce the historicity of this as much as possible. Not only is a loving God who allows suffering a ” contradiction in terms ” for an atheist, but he is also unaware that unbelief in God (or the breach of trust and communication with Him) is the root cause of the valley of tears in which humanity dwells.
These examples show how important the metaphysical aspect of the problem of suffering is and how it divides the views on this. Fortunately, there is not only “ Love God Above All “, but also the second commandment: “and your neighbor as yourself”. The second is more earthly or existential in nature and can therefore help to partially bridge the contradiction between materialism and religiosity. For Christians this is a main commandment, for people who do not believe in God a natural expression of their humanity, which also helps to give direction, meaning and “value” to their life path. But here again we see that within an atheistic attitude to life it is much more difficult to cross certain limits. After all, atheists must seek all salvation within the limited framework of a short human life. There will be few who feel called to sacrifice or risk that unique life out of sheer charity, as so many known and unknown saints have done.
A deep religious conviction naturally leads to a great respect for life and acceptance of the pains and difficulties that come with it. A convinced Christian may be expected not only to cherish reverent gratitude for the life obtained, but also to show it in words and deeds. This makes him/herself worthy to receive eternal life. A Christian is called to oppose the legalization of all acts that detract from that fundamental respect. Politicians, such as current US President Biden, who allow or support legalization of abortion, cannot be considered authentic Catholic believers, even if they are received by the Pope for diplomatic reasons on audience.
It is very encouraging to learn that an atheist like Kevin Yuill has much in common with Christianity, but unfortunately that doesn’t mean that his attitude is typical of a significant part of the atheist establishment, with its dominant position in the Western world. His personal attitude also undoubtedly encounters limits to unconditional respect for human life. He starts from the fact that modern medicine has more than enough means to largely ease the physical pains. But what if some pains are difficult to combat? Can euthanasia be the ultimate “analgesic” remedy? If pain is meaningless, then the inevitable answer is “yes”, and that point is reached quickly for some atheists.
For a believing Christian it is different. It is both his human and his religious mission to fight pain and suffering. Since modern medicine not only stretches life, but also the possible pains, even convinced Christian caregivers are sometimes faced with heavy dilemmas. In these sometimes-inevitable confrontations, they must never lose the awareness that the duty to fight suffering does not mean that it is completely meaningless, but that it is an integral part of the road to our ultimate salvation (*). Christ taught us that suffering, and death, do not have the last word, and that the joys of eternal communion with God will amply and forever compensate the earthly pains.
(*) For Christianity, pain and suffering are not merely negative, but circumstances that can also have positive effects. This resulted in a rich tradition of pilgrimages, fasting periods, penances, etc. Ascetic monks use self-flagellation, among other things to learn to control physical temptations. In other cultures, too, there are strong traditions in which people seek to attain a higher form of perfection through the control of self-imposed pains. This is more or less comparable to hardening soldiers for battle or sportsmen for competition. Christianity adds to self-imposed suffering or not the spiritual dimension of sacrifices that we can dedicate as personal participation in Christ’s redemptive work.