Click here if you don’t see subscription options
"La Piéta des Roms," by Johann Walter Bantz/Unsplash

In 2019 a businessman in India named Raphael Samuel filed suit against his own parents. The plaintiff’s complaint? His parents brought him into this world without his consent. The sheer immensity of life’s suffering, Mr. Samuel argued, makes any parental decision to bring children into this world nothing short of a cruel imposition, equivalent to kidnapping or slavery. While Mr. Samuel did not expect his case to go very far (both his parents are lawyers), his goal was accomplished simply by spreading awareness of the worldview undergirding this symbolic suit: the philosophy known as antinatalism.

Put briefly, antinatalists believe that the experience of life for humans is so replete with suffering that life is just not worth living. Accordingly, the only moral thing for us to do is to stop reproducing, to cease inflicting unmerited and uninvited pain on the vulnerable beings we summon into existence. Upon learning of antinatalism, most people express amused disbelief—can anyone actually entertain such a worldview? Yet if we reflect on our own lives, we may find ourselves becoming more sympathetic to the position. Who, after all, has not in moments of great anguish and sorrow wondered whether it would have been better not to have been born?

Put briefly, antinatalists believe that the experience of life for humans is so replete with suffering that life is just not worth living.

Antinatalist sentiments, in fact, can be found throughout history, and they even appear throughout Scripture. Both Jeremiah and Job curse the day they were born, and the author of Ecclesiastes—when considering the eternal fact of humans oppressing other humans—judges that the one who is never born to see such things is better off than both the oppressor and the oppressed (4:3). The novelty of antinatalism, therefore, lies not in the feelings and ideas it expresses but in its more recent philosophical expansion (as in the work of David Benatar) and its growth as a movement.

Suffering and Selfhood

But how did we get here? The instinct for life is so strong that a phenomenon like antinatalism requires some explanation. Two important threads tie together its ethical knot, and only by untangling them can we see the inner logic of antinatalism. The first is the centrality of consent. As Mr. Samuel insisted, his parents brought him into this world without his permission. Of course, such a prerequisite is by definition impossible, but the point can be formulated in a way that is generally recognized as legitimate: It is immoral to inflict suffering on others without their consent.

If this is the case, what is more immoral than burdening a person with a lifetime of suffering, with the fragility and openness to trauma that constitute human selfhood? The problem antinatalists identify here is what philosophers have called the “thrownness” of existence, the existential vertigo we experience as a result of being creatures and not gods.

The second thread is Western culture’s newer openness to the reality of unmerited suffering. For much of the church’s history, suffering has been understood as the direct result of God’s will, either as a punishment for original or personal sins, or as a redemptive participation in the mystery of Christ’s own sufferings. Today, most people, including religious believers, are less likely to ascribe the origin of their sufferings to God’s direct punishment. And it goes without saying that those outside the household of faith will not locate their pain within Christ’s cross. Still, the point is that a shift has occurred (this is especially true with the church’s embrace of liberation theology as a legitimate part of its deposit of faith). As a result, we desire to alleviate suffering as much as possible and consider its very immensity an affront to human dignity.

Those who engage regularly in debates surrounding abortion and euthanasia will immediately recognize these two threads and their potent cultural force. What is unique about antinatalism is how it ties them together into a coherent worldview. One could even call this worldview a religious one, insofar as it maintains its own ethics and eschatology: the moral imperative to cease reproduction so as to trigger the peopleless eschaton, a genuine “after life.”

Antinatalism perfectly encapsulates the meaninglessness so many of our contemporaries feel when they confess the “chance” nature of our universe and the random, brute fact of their own existence. There is no God and no one asked to be here; but now that we are, we must deal with our suffering, not the least of which is the very knowledge of our own mortality and of life’s meaninglessness. Whatever fleeting pleasure life offers—for, after all, everything we love dies—represents little more than minor, distracting comfort in the face of the enormity of our predicament.

Today, most people, including religious believers, are less likely to ascribe the origin of their sufferings to God’s direct punishment.

The Dignity of Human Life

Catholics would do well to understand this new movement, for antinatalism questions the very foundation of Catholic social teaching: the infinite dignity and worth of human life. That is not to say that antinatalists are misanthropes at their core. On the contrary, it is arguable that some vision of the dignity of conscious life animates their desire to free humans (and, for some antinatalists, other sentient species) from the burden inflicted on them by existence. Nonetheless, for antinatalists, the value of a human life has its limits: Pushed to the point of extreme suffering, whatever private values one might find in life dissipate as existence becomes a mere stage for physical and psychic torment.

To offer an adequate response to this worldview, Catholics would have to challenge the two core elements of antinatalism: the idea that consent is uniquely determinative in the moral evaluation of unintentionally inflicted suffering and the understanding of suffering as intrinsically irredeemable. This latter view is intimately connected to the absence of a belief in God or an afterlife.

In their insistence that some forms of suffering can rob human life of its value, antinatalists echo an idea that crops up within the Christian tradition itself.

Suffering and the Afterlife

It is not my interest, however, to pursue these lines of thought. Rather, I want to highlight a meeting point between antinatalist and Christian thought, for in their insistence that some forms of suffering can rob human life of its value, antinatalists echo an idea that, perhaps surprisingly, crops up within the Christian tradition itself. I do not have in mind those biblical antinatalist sentiments cited above that give voice to human dismay at the vast suffering of earthly life, but instead an idea connected with Christian theology of the afterlife and the meaning of suffering there. It is here, on the ground of eschatology, that antinatalism and Christian faith can surprisingly converge, even while Christian eschatology has resources to resolve at least some of antinatalists’ concerns about the immensity of suffering.

When encouraging the first Christian believers to maintain their faith in the face of persecution, St. Paul wrote that the sufferings of the present time are not to be compared with the joy that awaits us (Rom 8:18). The author of the Letter to the Hebrews penned something similar, this time speaking of Jesus’ own embrace of pain: “For the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame” (12:2). And Jesus himself could speak of the sufferings that awaited his disciples upon his departure as resembling the birth pangs of a woman in labor who forgets her anguish with the dawning of maternal joy (Jn 16:21).

What all these texts have in common is the idea that the significance of suffering cannot be wholly grasped from within the experience of suffering. Only the joy following upon pain can allow us to come to terms with our suffering and make its sorrow seem to disappear in the presence of our desired object. Seven years were as nothing for the patriarch Jacob, who worked for his beloved Rachel, and none of us now rues the day our parents took us to the doctor’s office to secure our immunity from measles.

It becomes difficult to be consistently pro-life when the future of that life appears to be not just temporary but rather permanent and irremediable suffering.

An Eternity of Separation

Yet if the sufferings of the present time are always contextualized by what comes after them, the problem antinatalism poses becomes more vexing in view of traditional Christian understandings of the afterlife. The church has traditionally taught that the life of the age to come will see the human race divided into two: those who enter into the kingdom of God and those who remain in outer darkness. While speculation about the ratio of the redeemed to the lost has altered in the course of the church’s history—with most recent decades seeing a rise in “hopeful universalism” inspired by the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar and Pope Benedict XVI—church teaching still maintains that eternal hell is a real possibility for human souls. If we accept that our evaluation of the meaning of suffering and the morality of inflicting it dependson the future redemption of that suffering, then antinatalist concerns appear doubly pressing in light of the possibility of an eternal hell.

Consider the problem from the antinatalist perspective. God, by his sovereign will, summoned us into existence so that we might have the chance to come to know and to love him. In this life we will face tragedies and sorrows, many unmerited, with a host of moral temptations besides. In humanity’s earthly sojourn, some will reach the happy end God intends while others will not. For the latter group, their recompense is not just the loss of temporal life; they also will face an eternity of separation from God in the most extreme suffering imaginable (we need not entertain literalist interpretations of hellfire passages to understand that this condition remains the worst possible for the human person). So is it not unjust of God to inflict existence on them if he knows, from all eternity, that this will be their final outcome?

This exact line of reasoning appears in the works of Isaac of Nineveh, a seventh-century Syrian bishop and theologian celebrated as a saint in multiple Christian communions, including the Chaldean Catholic Church. In his Ascetical Homilies, Isaac wrote the following: “It is not the way of the compassionate Maker to create rational beings in order to deliver them over mercilessly to unending affliction in punishment for things of which He knew even before they were fashioned, aware how they would turn out when He created them—and whom nonetheless He created.”

Trusting that the divine grace revealed in Christ would lead to the eventual reconciliation of all creatures with God, Isaac discerned the troubling implications of believing that God could create eternal souls with the possibility that they might be lost to an eternity of suffering. No compassionate maker—no father, as Jesus instructs us to call our God—could countenance such a fate for his children. Indeed, as the Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart argues in his recent book, That All Shall Be Saved, it would be better for no earthly parents to reproduce if eternal perdition for our children is a genuine possibility. It becomes difficult to be consistently pro-life when the future of that life appears to be not just temporary but rather permanent and irremediable suffering.

If any soul’s final fate does in fact prove to be permanent separation from God, antinatalist logic suddenly becomes very cogent.

Faith as Antidote

The fundamental question of secular antinatalist thought is at its core a religious one: Is our life, in the final analysis, truly a gift? In the midst of life’s pain and despair, all of us, secular and believing alike, ponder this question, just as Job did in his moment of great trial. In our doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, or creation from nothing, Christians affirm that God created freely, out of God’s goodness and in order to share that goodness, and so everything God created was “very good” (Gn 1:31). This is a truth difficult to see at times—when our bodies fall apart, when the human heart turns against its neighbor or when God’s own church becomes an instrument of abuse against God’s children. But the gift of faith allows us to trust that life remains a gift and that the good Giver will redeem our suffering, if not here then in the life to come.

For those who lack this faith, it is a natural response to wish to eradicate suffering by eradicating life itself. Religious faith provides an antidote against such despairing measures. As “Evangelium Vitae” puts it, a religious outlook provides a “positive understanding of the mystery of suffering” and so frees us from the need to assert control over all suffering and gravely injure human dignity in the process. But this positive understanding of suffering sits in tension with the possibility of eternal loss, as St. Isaac of Nineveh reminds us. If any soul’s final fate does in fact prove to be permanent separation from God, antinatalist logic suddenly becomes very cogent.

Like all doctrines, Catholic teachings on hell and on the purpose of punishment have seen significant development over the centuries, most especially in the Second Vatican Council, Pope Benedict XVI’s “Spe Salvi” and Pope Francis’ recent proclamation that the death penalty is inadmissible. It remains to be seen whether these changes will lead, in time, to a more confident affirmation that God created all his children with the destiny of eternal redemption. But in the meantime, antinatalist philosophy issues a challenge to Catholics and their pro-life commitment: Can the truth of the intrinsic dignity of human life be coherently reconciled with the prospect of unending suffering?

More from America: 

The latest from america

A woman raises a cross as people wait for the start of an ecumenical prayer service attended by Pope Francis at the John Garang Mausoleum in Juba, South Sudan, Feb. 4, 2023. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Pope Francis repeated his pressing call for an end to the violence that has forced millions into camps for refugees or the internally displaced in South Sudan.
Gerard O’ConnellFebruary 04, 2023
Memorial of Saint Paul Miki and Companions, Martyrs, by Jill Rice
Jill RiceFebruary 03, 2023
A Reflection for Saturday of the Fourth Week of Ordinary Time, by J.D. Long-García
J.D. Long-GarcíaFebruary 03, 2023
Pope Francis is on an ecumenical pilgrimage for reconciliation and peace with Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury; and Iain Greenshields, the moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.
Gerard O’ConnellFebruary 03, 2023