Evolution, morality, and torture

What the Book of Genesis has to say about Guantanamo

Most of my friends on the reality-based side of the culture wars (the blue team) are genuinely puzzled by the anti-evolution fury evident among elements of the red team. If revealed religion has made its peace with Copernican astronomy, they say, why shouldn’t it be able to accommodate Darwinian biology?

There is, I think, a good answer to that question. It’s not the Origin of Species that so bothers most anti-evolutionists; it’s the Descent of Man.

The Book of Genesis says that human beings, male and female, were created by God in God’s own image. That’s not just a proposition in paleontology; it encompasses two important moral claims.

First, it implies that each human being is a Divine project, and therefore has obligations to act in certain ways that flow merely from being a human being. Behaving foolishly or cruelly isn’t, on this view, merely self-destructive or destructive, it’s blasphemous, because those bad actions are being performed by an Image of God.

Second, Genesis implies that each human being I confront is sacred, again merely as a human being and without any reference to his behavior, status, or appearance. He (or she) is sacred as the Image of God. (C.S. Lewis says in one of his essays that, aside from the consecrated wine and wafer, any individual human being that you meet is the most sacred object you will encounter that day, more sacred than any relic or image.)

Insofar as middle-school Darwinism asserts that each of us is merely an animal of a particular species, fundamentally like animals of other species, it undercuts both halves of that double-barreled moral proposition. If I’m merely an animal, why shouldn’t I act like one if I feel like it? And, if you’re merely an animal, why shouldn’t I beat you up, if I’m so inclined and bigger than you are?

The red team is, I am convinced, wrong to think that believing the account of human origins in Genesis is a necessary condition for behaving well. But red-teamers aren’t wrong to think of that account as providing a potentially powerful prop to moral behavior, and can’t, therefore, justly be faulted as unreasonable or superstitious for objecting to attempts to kick that prop out from under their children, and other children who are their future fellow-citizens.

The blue team shouldn’t back off on its insistence that children be taught accurate biology in biology class, but we should acknowledge that the larger argument isn’t really about biology, and cut the folks on the other side some slack rather than dismissing them as ignorant rustics.

The account in Genesis, whether believed literally or accepted as a morally relevant metaphor, provides a very direct and convincing argument in favor of universal human rights. Torture, for example, is on this view a desecration of the Image of God, and that remains true no matter how much the person tortured “had it coming.” Even Saddam Hussein and Pol Pot are, according to Genesis, Images of God. (One of the Lutheran pastors who was sent to a concentration camp for his opposition to Naziism recounted after the war his earlier meeting with Hitler. “He looked like any ordinary man,” said the pastor. “Like Christ, that is.”) On the Biblical view, that makes their crimes more horrible, but it also profoundly constrains what can legitimately be done to them in response.

One of Andrew Sullivan’s correspondents, a Christian theologian, raises this issue in connection with the torture at Guantanamo. “As a fellow Christian,” he writes, ” I am grieved and appalled at what is going on. It is an ambomination, a desecration of the image of God which no child of God should allow to be undertaken in the name of their self-defense.”

Of course, support for torture is strongest precisely where opposition to the teaching of evolution is most vehement, suggesting that what seems to me the obvious message of Genesis isn’t obvious to everyone who reads — or pretends to read — the Bible. (A recent poll found that, among those who say that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, a third can’t name its first book, and half can’t say who preached the Sermon on the Mount.) But that merely shows what we already knew: that Christianism as a political movement is as distinct from Christianity as a religion as Islamicism is from Islam.

Still, I’d love to hear someone ask one of the Bible-thumping defenders of the Gitmo horrors why he feels justified in approving the defacement of the Image of God.


Matt Yglesias and Kevin Drum are right to agree with Andrew Sullivan’s point: saying that the FBI’s description of prisoner maltreatment at Guantanamo sounds like the sort of things done by totalitarian regimes isn’t the same as saying that the the horrors at Guantanamo are comparable to the horrors of Auschwitz or the Gulag, and the attempt to change the subject from torture committed under our flag to Dick Durbin’s rhetorical skill is a pretty shabby tactic.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com