‘Byjerkerno mysterium tremendum et fascinans’

[part two of The Road to Economic Triage and Mercenary Sexuality]

Lying on my lounge room floor, I watch a random cartoon show that’s an endless cycle of stories revolving around anxiety, fear, shock, disgust and flippancy (1aa)—all dressed up with a cast of distorted zombies, disfigured werewolves, and witches who look a bit like the friendly little emo- kids (they are actually friendly, nice, sort of kids I’ve discovered) down at the mall. I’m not the one who’s chosen to watch this, by the way—one of my offspring has—and I’m wondering how on earth I’m going to politely explain to them that this is rampant nihilism. That the thinking behind this is what inspired 21st century thinker Richard Rorty to challenge the idea that human rights are universal.

Rorty points out that this was a completely novel concept ushered in by Christianity, and that it rests on the biblical teaching that “all human beings are created in the image of God.” Because of Darwin, Rorty argues, we no longer accept creation. Therefore we no longer need to maintain that everyone who is biologically human has equal dignity. We are free to revert to the pre-Christian attitude that only certain groups qualify for human rights.(1b)

His thinking is supported by many others (like Adrian Woolfson) who says, “We are on the cusp of a new Enlightenment … we can finally entertain the possibility of modifying our own nature and creating artificial life.”(3) But the use of the word ‘Enlightenment’ sets alarm bells ringing for anyone who knows anything about some of the darker gifts of the previous bold and brazen ‘Enlightenment (4)’: 60million people killed by the Soviet Communists; 35 million by the Chinese communists; 21 million by the Nazis not to mention one quarter of the population of Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge. (5)

And it doesn’t stop there, out of nihilism comes ‘personhood theory’, which according to Pearcey, states that ‘just being part of the human race is not morally relevant. Individuals must earn the status of personhood by meeting an additional set of criteria: the ability to make decisions, self-awareness and so on … many ethicists have argued that non-persons may be used for utilitarian purposes such as research and harvesting organs. Wesley Smith(7) describes this as a proposal for “human strip-mining”.’ (7a)

So—here we are in our lounge room ‘swimming in’ it—lightened-up of course with double- meanings, a harmless-sounding nerd vocabulary and occasionally references to ‘normal-life’ motifs like family, housing markets and mothers. Finally I make my ‘comment’ and we get talking about nihilism, which—I explain to my daughter—is the idea that life is meaningless, and not just meaningless: stupid in fact, a horrible joke.

She turns the telly off and starts talking about something happier and I’m feeling like a kill-joy for bringing a word like ‘nihilism’ into an after-school cartoon—although I don’t know that she cared all that much for the show anyway.


1aa ‘But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour- plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practice it … ‘ [letter 12 Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis]

1b Richard Rorty, “Moral Universalism and Economic Triage,” paper presented at the second UNESCO Philosophy Forum, Paris, 1996. Reprinted in Diogenes, vil.44, issue 173 (1996) – quoted by Pearcy N. Saving Leonardo p.60

3 Adrian Woolfson, An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Genetics (New York: Overlook Press, 2006), preface

4 ( the Enlightenment )a European intellectual movement of the late 17th and 18th centuries emphasizing reason and individualism rather than tradition. It was heavily influenced by 17th-century philosophers such as Descartes, Locke, and Newton, and its prominent exponents include Kant, Goethe, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Adam Smith.

5 Statistics cited in Saving Leonardo by Pearcey N. p.238, 2010 – B&H Publishers

7 Author of Culture of Death
7a cited in Saving Leonardo by Pearcey N. p.58, 2010 – B&H Publishers