Confessions of an Anonymous Coward

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Deadly Sin #3

As I said before, when I made my post entitled "Deadly Sin #1", I had not originally intended it to be the first of a series. However, once the thought occurred to me, it quickly became clear that indeed there was something to be said for just about all the "Seven Deadly Sins" in connection with religious motivation. (The exception, so far, is Gluttony. Though I now do intend to write a full series consisting of a post on each of the deadly sins, I haven't figured out what I'm going to write about when I get to Gluttony yet. Well, it'll be a while before I get to it anyway.)

Today, I'd like to write about Sloth.

Like Pride and Wrath, Sloth is something that I agree can easily lead to undesireable results, and is in general to be avoided. Heck, I've got a bit of a problem with it myself; I'd get a lot more done if I weren't so prone to procrastination. So, sure, let's go ahead and call it a "sin", whatever that may mean.

But, also like Pride and Wrath, it's a sin that goes down to the foundations of religion. Sloth is a big motivator for religious belief.

How so? Well, in at least two ways. First, the firm believer is freed from the necessity of deciding on matters for himself. He knows the Truth because God said so. He doesn't need any evidence, and he certainly doesn't need to strain his mind trying to figure out for himself what's right and what's wrong.

That doesn't stop said firm believers from coming up with justifications for their beliefs. The Intelligent Design movement desperately tries to come up with grounds for claiming that divine creation has scientific evidence behind it. Opponents of gay marriage make weird assertions that allowing it would undermine the "sanctity of marriage", or come up with even more contrived and distasteful arguments against it. And, of course, just today George W. Bush was obliging enough to give me another convenient example to cite in this post by vetoing a bill that would have funded embryonic stem cell research on the bizarre pretext that using clumps of cells for medical research that were going to be disposed of anyway would somehow equate to "the taking of innocent human life".

Why do they feel the need to try to justify what they think are mandates from God? Well, I have my ideas as to that, but they'll wait till I get to writing about Envy (that's the next Deadly Sin on my list). But couldn't one argue that if they're going to such lengths to conconct often byzantine rationalizations for their beliefs, that can't very well be considered an indication of Sloth? Well, no. I think it is. Because, while they might devote a lot of thought toward how to make their beliefs sound as reasonable as possible, they're still never questioning their premise. Coming up with arguments to try to support a conclusion you've already decided on is a lot easier than actually really examining the arguments on both sides and making a decision. They may be performing some mental gymnastics to support their position, but it's an empty and, yes, lazy exercise if they're never considering even the possibility that there might be some validity to another point of view.

(As an aside, I want to once again stress two points about these posts. First, when I refer to religion in these posts, I mean mostly Christianity, since that's what I'm most familiar with--some of what I say may apply to other religions as well, but I don't pretend to be sure that it all applies to all of them. Second, I'm certainly not saying that every religious person, or even every Christian, acts all the time in the way I'm describing. I'm speaking primarily of the most closed-minded fundamentalists--who, however, are the ones who are seriously trying now to dominate U.S. politics. This concludes the disclaimers; we now return to our regularly scheduled post.)

The Sloth of letting "God" make your decisions for you takes two aspects, both of which are represented in the examples above. There's trusting religion for matters of fact--e.g., ID--and trusting religion for matters of morality--e.g., anti-gay-rights. Now, sometimes there's talk of keeping science and religion separate by letting the former handle matters of fact and the latter matters of morality. Stephen Jay Gould called this the NOMA principle, for "Non-Overlapping Magisteria", and claimed it "follows a strong consensus accepted for decades by leading scientific and religious thinkers alike"--which, as much as I respect Gould and enjoy his writing in general, I have to say is utter rubbish. He cites Pope John Paul II as a prominent ecclesiastical supporter of NOMA, based on the fact that he proclaimed that there were allegorical elements to the Biblical creation story and that the theory of evolution was not incompatible with Catholic doctrine. But it's one thing to say that a particular story is partly or wholly metaphorical; it's quite another thing to disavow all historical or factual claims in one's religious doctrine, and John Paul II certainly didn't do the latter--I'm pretty sure that he still would have asserted, if asked, that Jesus was born of a virgin, that saints hear prayers, that the Eucharist in some meaningful sense transforms into the flesh and blood of Christ, et cetera. Religion deals in matters of fact. The existence or non-existence of God is a fact. Whether or not Jesus Christ rose from the dead is a fact. These are not claims that can be lightly tossed aside; they're central to Christianity, and without them it becomes nothing more than a vague philosophy. It is perhaps regrettable but nevertheless inescapable that the magisteria of science and religion do indeed overlap. This was obvious to me even I still considered myself a faithful Mormon, and it remains obvious to me now that I've come to terms with my unbelief.

But all that aside, is it really a good idea to let people rely on religious dogma for their ideas of morality? One thing that I've been surprised about in the blogs I've been reading lately is the repeated claims by the religious that atheists have no basis for morality, that without God there's no reason to be a good person, and no way to distinguish between right and wrong. I had heard these arguments before, when I still considered myself a believer, but I had no idea they were as widespread as they apparently are. But even when I did consider me a believer, they struck me as absurd. Whether or not you believe in God, you've got a conscience, fer cryin' out loud. Now, one can debate the reason behind one's conscience, and how it may have arisen through evolution, but regardless of why it's there I think it's pretty obvious to anyone with even a shred of introspection that they generally know some actions are right and some actions are wrong without having to look up what God said about the matter. The "Golden Rule", after all, long predates Christianity, and I don't think it's something atheists are any less likely to subscribe to than Christians, even if they may not formulate it in the same terms. If atheists don't generally go around robbing and murdering--and, of course, they don't--it's not just because they're afraid of being caught and punished. It's because they're perfectly aware that robbing and murdering are wrong, and they don't need God to tell them so. And they don't want to go around robbing and murdering, any more than Christians do.

But not only is it not necessary to rely on God for morality, rather than thinking for yourself, it could even be dangerous. First, because religions can ossify outdated practices into supposed "moral issues" with no real moral basis. Why, for example, is homosexuality supposedly "morally wrong"? Sure, as mentioned above, the believers come up with post hoc rationalizations, but what it all comes down to is because the Bible says it's wrong (and/or, in the case of the LDS Church, the prophet and "modern revelation"), and as far as they're concerned that settles the matter--and so they fight to deprive homosexuals of certain rights on the basis of their own divinely decreed "morality", without giving any serious consideration to the question of whether there might not really be anything morally wrong in what they're fighting in the first place.

I suppose it may be to my credit that I can cite at least one instance, even when I still considered myself a faithful Mormon, of my refusing to go along with a command by a church leader that didn't feel right to me. One day, when I was an undergraduate, the bishop of the student ward I was a member of asked me to call around and remind ward members to go out and vote against a proposed state bill allowing gay marriage. I told the bishop I was very busy with schoolwork, and didn't have time to make all those phone calls over the next few days--but the truth was, I didn't want to do it because I didn't really feel comfortable with the idea. The church may have come out firmly against gay marriage, but I wasn't sure how I felt about the matter myself, and I guess even back then, even though I wasn't quite ready to face up to the fact that I didn't really have any good reason to believe in the church, I wasn't willing to let the church do all my thinking for me, either. I know there are other people out there like I was, who may follow a religion but do think for themselves about its precepts, and do on occasion find themselves in disagreement with the church's dictates. Unfortunately, there also seem to be a lot of people out there--or at least a few very visible ones--who go along unquestioningly with everything their church decrees, and never seem to make any attempt to come to their own conclusions about anything...

I'll have more to say on this subject when I get to Lust--for the moment, on to the other problem with letting God mandate your morality: If you don't really have a sense for yourself of something being wrong, it's far too easy to make justifications of why it isn't, of why, even though there's a commandment against it, well, this time is an exception. So if you're relying on God for all your moral decisions, and never think matters through for yourself, if you never develop your own moral compass, or if you let it atrophy, well then, pretty soon you may end up going against what God supposedly says, too, because if you want to do something badly enough, and you don't yourself have any qualms against it, it's not hard to come up with rationales for why this time God would be okay with it, because this time it's different.

Let's take the most obvious example. Murder. The Bible's pretty clear on this--well, the New Testament is, anyway; there's an awful lot in the Old Testament of what looks not too different from murder to me; but let's let that pass for now. Christianity, anyway, certainly comes out against murder--most all religions do, after all, just as most all religions preach some form of the Golden Rule (and ditto non-psychopathic unbelievers). Yet there have been many times throughout history that Christians have wantonly slaughtered other people, Christian and otherwise. The Crusades, the Inquisition--heck, in the modern era, the murderous KKK has claimed to be a Christian organization. (Of course this happens in other religions as well--Muslim terrorists being an obvious contemporary example--but, again, I'm mostly discussing Christianity here because it's the religion I'm most familiar with. And obviously I'm not denying that atheists have done terrible things too, but that doesn't really have any bearing on the subject under discussion.) Now, I'm not going to go so far, as many antireligionists do, as to say that every one of those incidents of murder was caused by religion. Some of them were, no doubt, but many of them were committed for other reasons, and the religious justification was just an excuse. Still, even if they weren't actually caused by religion, they weren't prevented by religion, either. The perpetrators have found ways to reconcile these particular murders with their Christian beliefs, to justify to themselves that this time murder was okay, and even divinely ordained. Now, murder being probably the direst sin in most Christian theologies, if people can get away with rationalizing committing it and still telling themselves they're being faithful to God's will, it should be even easier to handwave away lesser sins.

Heck, I can cite an example from my own experience again. Mormons who have been through an "endowment ceremony" in the temple are supposed to wear special garments under their clothing constantly. This doesn't mean while showering, swimming, working out, or in any other such impractical circumstances, but any time in which it would be reasonable to wear ordinary underwear. The garments comprise an undershirt and shorts that end just above the knee, and, well, I never much liked wearing the danged things. So eventually, I got out of the habit of wearing them at home. I still wore them when I went out in public, but at home alone I'd take them off, even though I knew I wasn't supposed to. But I'd justify it to myself--after all, it wasn't that there was anything physically gained by wearing the garments; it was just symbolic, and as long as I understood and kept in mind the symbolism God wouldn't really care if I wore them or not, right? Oh, sure, he may constantly say, through the prophets, that we're supposed to wear them at all times, but he's just saying that for the benefit of the people who don't understand the real meaning; once you've figured that one, you're free to ignore it. That's what I told myself, anyway, because I didn't want to wear the garments, and because, although it was supposedly a commandment, it wasn't something I had any personal moral scruples about. I had church doctrine telling me I was supposed to wear the garments at all times, but I had no personal feeling that I ought to do so, so it wasn't hard to come up with reasons why the commandment didn't apply to me. Now, the other commandments I did have at least some personal scruples about, or at least I didn't have such personal motivation not to follow them (I just really hated wearing the garments), and this is the only one I rationalized away--but the point is that I did rationalize it away, and if you don't want to follow a commandment that isn't backed up by your own personal morality, that's not hard to do.

The fact is that religious commandment is not necessarily a barrier to performing an evil act unless you also believe for yourself, deep down, that the act in question is wrong. Fortunately, most people, religious and otherwise, do have that feeling deep down; I'm pretty sure even most Christians who say that God is the basis for all morality have enough of a conscience to know for themselves that murder is wrong, whether or not they're consciously aware of it. I wonder, though, how long that conscience will last if it's never exercised, if a person never bothers to look to his own moral principles and just blindly trusts his church for all his decisions. I suspect that a conscience thus ignored may lose its strength, to the point that eventually a person may have no moral principles of his own...and then, again, it'll become all too easy for him to rationalize away a "sin" that he finds convenient. Again, I'm not saying this is something that's likely to happen to most Christians, because I think most Christians do pay some attention to their own conscience--maybe not as much as they should, but I don't think most Christians actually go so far as to let their church do all their thinking for them. But those who do...well, they may be an extreme case, but they may also be very dangerous.

Anyway. That's about all I'll say for now on the first aspect of Sloth in religion, the Sloth of relying on the church unquestioningly for all one's beliefs. But there's another aspect of Sloth that I think has some subconscious appeal to the believer, as well, when he does go astray. After all, nobody's perfect, and even a person who does have a firm moral compass and knows what's right and wrong may make the occasional misstep. Fortunately for him, if he's religious he can count on the help of his good old imaginary friend.

No, not God. His other imaginary friend. The Devil.

The Devil, the Deceiver, the Adversary...the ultimate scapegoat. The Devil serves the marvelous purpose of, if not absolving a sinner of guilt entirely, at least mitigating its effects. It's not entirely my fault I did that. The Devil made me do it. If the believer has an idea or desire that at some level he considers abhorrent, he doesn't have to conclude that that unpleasant thought was his own doing, that it originated in his own brain. No, the Devil put it there. He was being tempted. And that, yes, is another manifestation of Sloth. The believer isn't taking responsibility for his own actions. He's taking the easy way out; he's saying that what he did was really, at least in part, someone else's fault.

The Devil is blamed not only for wrongdoing, but sometimes for failures in other spheres than the moral as well. Last month, a Utah congressional candidate said the Devil was behind the financial difficulties that had stopped him from running an effective campaign. See, it wasn't his fault he was having so much trouble with his campaign. The Devil didn't want him to win. Of course, this serves the dual purpose of also implying that he should win--clearly, if the Devil is working against him, he must be in the right! But I think the Sloth of wanting to evade responsibility plays a role here as well.

Still, it's more usually in the context of moral failings that the Devil gets invoked. He's much more often blamed for a sin than he is a business failure. Either way, though, blaming some unseen entity for one's failings isn't really a constructive thing to do.

So, yeah. That's why I think Sloth has a role in the underpinnings of Christianity. Because Christian dogma lets people avoid thinking things through and making decisions for themselves, and when they do manage to screw up they have a convenient scapegoat to pin the blame on.

"For my yoke is easy," Christ supposedly said, "and my burden is light."

Yes. Yes it is. Which is part of what makes it so gosh-darned appealing.