I read the following in C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity the other day:
[S]urely the reason we do not execute witches is that we do not believe there are such things. If we did—if we really thought that there were people going about who had sold themselves to the devil and received supernatural powers from him in return and were using these powers to kill their neighbours or drive them mad or bring bad weather, surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, then these filthy quislings did.
I admit I had never really given much thought to the reality that those responsible for the persecution and execution of witches were to some degree motivated by a sincere belief that these women posed a serious threat to their society. We can look back on the witch trials that took place in Europe and the United States and determine, without hesitation, that the people responsible for murdering those accused of witchery were absolutely wrong and, despite their motives, were guilty of murder in the first degree. Evaluating such blights on human history retrospectively affords us the advantage of 20/20 hindsight, as the saying goes, and from our position in history we are able to condemn outright the actions of those involved, even if we take into consideration the sincerely-held beliefs that drove those actions. As Lewis observed, if what they believed were true, then their actions would have been justifiable (and, clearly, Lewis is not trying to justify those actions). But their beliefs were not true, and even though they (perhaps) acted in ignorance, our witch-hunting ancestors were still completely wrong and completely culpable.
Sadly, our history is rife with instances when sincerely-held, wrong beliefs led to atrocities against human beings, many of them all-too recent. Consider the belief set responsible for the legalization of slavery in the United States. In 1857, the United States Supreme Court, that great arbiter of right and wrong, officially ruled that slaves were subhuman property that did not have the rights of American citizens.1 This ruling was actually a step in reverse from the decision handed down 70 years prior that slaves were to be regarded as 3/5 of a person.2 Both of these pronouncements reflected what the society of that day already believed. If the people being enslaved were not really “people” or “humans” in the same way as was everyone else, then who is to say anyone was wrong in enslaving them? What else were those who held this belief to do with 3/5 of a person, or a “subhuman animal” from another continent? Well, if their beliefs were true, then I suppose they could do whatever they liked with them. They could employ them as animals kept around for their usefulness on the plantation; they could keep them locked up and deprived of basic human rights; and they could dispose of them once their usefulness was exhausted. If their beliefs about the African people were true, then their actions were, on the whole, justifiable. But their beliefs were not true. Despite the commonly-held sentiment to the contrary, those people were human beings, worthy of the same respect and dignity as any other person.
What of the masterminds behind the atrocities in Nazi Germany? Do we acquit the Nazis because many, Hitler chief among them, genuinely believed the Jewish race was inferior to the rest of the human population? Hitler stated in Mein Kampf that “the personification of the devil as the symbol of all evil assumes the living shape of the Jew.” If he really believed they were the devil, then was he not right in taking the steps he took to try to eliminate them? Can we give Franz Stangl, who oversaw the horrors at Treblinka, a bit of a break because, when asked about the open pits filled with the bodies of thousands of recently-exterminated Jews, he remarked that “It had nothing to do with humanity. It could not have. They were cargo.”3 If the Jews were a genuine threat to the German people and were truly an inferior race, then perhaps we could find some justification for the 6 millions murders the Nazis committed during the Holocaust. But we cannot. Despite the fact that many truly believed in what Hitler and the Nazis were trying to accomplish (evidenced by the fact that so many continued to defend Hitler and persecute Jews even after the war was over), their actions cannot be justified. Looking back less than a century removed from it, we can clearly condemn as evil the extermination of so many during Hitler’s reign, despite the fact that it was motivated by deeply- and widely-held beliefs.
So how are we to judge those who are pro-choice and (quite logically and consistently) even pro-abortion? If what we are being told is true, and the only thing present in a woman’s womb is a lump of tissue, incapable of feeling pain and undeserving of the rights and privileges of those outside the womb, then do we dare call abortion wrong? Is abortion just another medical procedure that, while perhaps difficult to talk about, is no different than a heart operation or a liver transplant? If that born-alive fetus whose heart is still beating is not a human person, then what is inherently wrong with cutting through its face in order to extract its brain? And is there not a “greater good” at work here? Does not all this ill treatment of fetuses inside and outside the womb have the potential to someday lead to a better world for the rest of us? Sadly, ours is not the first society to ask these kinds of questions.
I do not believe history will side with the abortion industry or those who defend and empower it. I do not believe the loudly-spouted notion that unborn children are not people and therefore do not have the same right to life as human beings outside the womb will evoke sympathy from those who look back with horror on the atrocities of this era of abortion and the 50 million+ lives that have been taken in the names of convenience and reproductive freedom. (And the fact that there are some who believe fetuses are babies and still have no problem killing them makes the hope of such sympathy even less likely.) The society that disparages and destroys its members will be looked upon with contempt by future generations, and I believe the ones who follow us will feel little sympathy toward those whose sincerely-held and sincerely-wrong beliefs are now driving the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of unborn children each year.
1 “James Buchanan and the Dred Scott Decision,” http://billofrightsinstitute.org/educate/educator-resources/lessons-plans/presidents-constitution/james-buchanan-dred-scott/.
2 “Three-Fifths Compromise,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three-Fifths_Compromise.
3 From the documentary Death Camp Treblinka: Survivor Stories, BBC, 2012.