Yes, yes, the New Atheists can be annoyingly smug and snitty, but have you met their brethren, the Anti-Natalists? Sacrificing civility, logic and evidence to defend ideological certainties is now almost de rigueur among a lot of digital communities, and not just the ones that that embrace absurd beliefs such as climate denialism or North Korean Juche. But beware the ferocity of the Anti-Natalists.

a pregnant earth carried by a motherTo enter the digital spaces populated by those who condemn human procreation risks encounters not just with proponents of a rather joyless Utilitarianism but with surprisingly bitter individuals who describe parents with the pejorative “breeders” and deride parents of large families for “breeding like rabbits” who ought to be “arrested” for “littering” That is troubling because we know how easily dehumanizing language may become exterminationist language, and action. What’s more, the comments and memes about harming children or “returning them to the void” intended to be amusing suggest there may be something profoundly unhealthy brewing among the Anti-Natalists. That such ‘transgressive humor’ goes unchallenged puts the lie to the philosophic moralizing about avoiding harm to those who cannot consent to their birth.

Across all social media platforms, echoes of New Atheism can be heard in Anti-Natalism, though not the scientific curiosity about the natural world that inspires many who disbelieve in an afterlife. If the world outside their or their parents’ homes interests them little, Anti-Natalists will still gush over puppies and kittens, life forms that also suffer but impose lesser degrees of moral and legal responsibility.

Environmental catastrophism is popular in Anti-Natalism. Neo-Malthusian is an article of faith. Evidence to the contrary that birthrates are actually falling across wealthy is elided by asserting another article of faith: that people in wealthy countries are more responsible for climate change than people in poorer countries. That the solutions to climate change might come from people living in the wealthy countries in some form other than their local extinction is treated as a dangerous heresy. Hope in any guise would drain the crusading spirit of this mass movement.

Digital spaces constructed around cranky ideas inevitably attract cranks, people who enjoy the momentary attention they receive by espousing unconventional ideas and enjoy a sense of community from the affirmation they receive from like-minded. Like the True Believers of other mass movements, Anti-Natalists appear to need that mutual support more than most. Much of the messaging by Anti-Natalists reflects individual despair. Giving birth is disparaged as creating a sentient individual who must endure an undignified and painful animal existence. Entitled adult children express bitter resentment of what one suspects are bemused parents for giving birth to them in a ‘hellscape’ of ‘suffering’ without their consent. That puerile “I didn’t ask to be born” complaint is often coupled with confessions of depression, social isolation and curiosity about suicide.

No crying babies logoThe immediate problem with the positive feedback in digital communities is that it leads to more than just rhetorical outbidding. It leads to radicalization, the activist sucker bet in which more intelligent ideologues dupe less intelligent ideologues into criminal violence. Despair combined with belief that one’s own life is as a narrative of pointless suffering is likely to inspire suicide. That is tragic enough, but despair plus belief that all human life consists of pointless suffering is an invitation to mass murder. After all, to kill someone capable of reproducing is to spare their potential descendants lifetimes of suffering. Given joking about murdering children, we know who they would target.

The longer term problem is that Anti-Natalism is inevitably demobilizing. If all animal life is a hellscape of suffering made even more horrific for humans by sentience, then there is scarcely any reason for political engagement. Why join with others in demand action on climate change when one can devote one’s ultimately pointless life to anything other than avoiding one’s own individual suffering? Who cares if the end is nigh if existence is suffering?

For that matter, of course, why bother sharing the Bad News with others? Part of the answer is that online evangelization for any cause is low cost and low risk. Another part of the answer is that misery loves company. And therein lies the betrayal of their beliefs. To find pleasure in the mutual affirmation that life is nothing but suffering means that life is more than suffering.

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Image Credit: feature image of the crowd is an image from a Rolling Stones concert in 1976 at Knebworth House taken Sérgio Valle Duarte via flicker/Creative Commons; the illustration of a pregnant earth carried by a mother is from the Open University – we have searched for the copyright holder, but so far unsuccessful (we'd be happy to attribute, link, attempt to license or take down should the copyright holder be found) - we believe that is it promotional and consider it fair use; the crying baby image is from Facebook/Childfree India (promotional/fair use).
John Hickman

John Hickman

John Hickman is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College in Rome, Georgia, where he teaches courses on war crimes, comparative politics, and research methods. He holds both a PH.D. in political science from the University of Iowa and a J.D. from Washington University, St. Louis. Hickman is the author of the 2013 Florida University Press book Selling Guantanamo.