Monday, September 03, 2007

On human sinfullness

(Cross posted at God is for Suckers!)

Christopher Hitchens once said that "The essential principle of totalitarianism is to make laws that are impossible to obey." Not too long ago I relayed this quote to a friend in the aftermath of a philosophy club meeting, and his response was along the lines of "Well of course--then they can do whatever they want to you." It struck me as strange how detached his "of course" was from the original context of the quote: it's from Hitchens' most recent book, God is not Great, attacking religion.

2000 years of cultural conditioning has gotten us to speak in dignified tones about impossible rules, so long as they occur in the context of religion. To give only the most recent example I know of, when Hitchens and Bill Donohue sparred over Mother Teresa's doubts, and Donohue made a sarcastic comment along the lines of "well, yeah, she was also a sinner." In that context, the gut reaction is to say Donohue had a point, even for someone like me who shakes his head at it a half-second later.

Remove the insubstantial religious trappings, however, and my friend's "of course" becomes the only possible response. Can you imagine an actual government writing laws to guarantee that everyone will wind up guilty, and then making pardons conditional on loyalty to the leaders? Such a government sounds horrific, yet that is exactly the program that has been a major strand of Christian theology since Paul.

A healthy contrast to such dogmas comes in the coda of Bertrand Russell's essay "On the Value of Scepticism," published as the introduction to his anthology Sceptical Essays:
Only a large measure of scepticism can tear away the veils which hide this truth from us. Having achieved that, we could begin to build a new morality, not based on envy and restriction, but on the wish for a full life and the realisation of that other human beings are a help and not a hinderance when once then madness of envy has been cured. This is not a Utopian hope; it was partially realised in Elizabethan England. It could be realised tomorrow if men would learn to pursue their own happiness rather than the misery of others. This is no impossibly austere morality yet its adoption would turn our earth into a paradise.
Notice that none of what Russell says is premised on the claim that humans have no tendency whatever to behave badly. Indeed, Russell knew that they do, and he knew it more keenly than most people have, because he saw through the webs of lies used to tell people that selfish or downright insane behavior is noble. Still, Russell hoped for change. The key difference is that for Russell, behaving badly meant making fellow humans miserable. For orthodox Christian thinkers, to refrain from doing so and to guard against the tendencies that lead people to do so is not enough. If you stare at a woman's chest, you deserve eternal damnation, though of course you can be let off by being a true Christian, whatever that means. This view deserves our contempt, and we must be vigilant in not allowing it to disguise itself as an honest look at human nature. Honestly looking at ourselves can only make the world a better place, but the orthodox doctrine of sin was never good for anything other than controlling people.

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