Saturday, May 16, 2009

"Everything is permitted."

a contrapuntal essay of speculations on a morality of "human dignity" based on conversations with my brother.

I mostly believe in this premise: If there is no God, then everything is permitted. It is not because without God there is no ultimate punishment/reward for our behavior (in which case morality would essentially be based on self-preservation); it is that if the universe and human existence exist strictly as a matter of hazard, then there is no inherent meaning in anything, and no inherent value in anything. We can assign meaning and value, of course (and do), but it would not exist inherently.

As a Christian, I believe each and every individual has inherent dignity, and must be treated as such. But why is it, then, that those with a primarily secular worldview (including atheists and agnostics) are more likely to share my beliefs on inherent human dignity than most Christian believers? On almost any social issue, I'm more likely to agree with a secular humanist than a Christian (such as, say, gay marriage). Particularly, on issues of violence (such as opposition to warfare, torture, capital punishment), my views are strongly connected to this belief in inherent human dignity. On these issues, secular humanists are more likely to share my views than Christians are.

What is going on? Am I actually a secular humanist who just also believes in God? It's possible, but I would like to propose another theory, not based on evidence but speculative possibility.

The beliefs that many have about human dignity (or, if you prefer, human rights) developed out of a Western cultural tradition that does include religious values. Of course this cultural tradition has not always given a fig about human dignity (slavery, oppression of women, etc.), but something in this tradition includes progress toward equal rights and human rights. Some of these values emerge from religious traditions. However, for many religious-minded people, these values come with the religion, but are not primary to the religion. For example, Christianity may come with values of nonviolence and compassion for the poor, but the primary concern of Christianity is personal salvation for the believer and God's ultimate plan of salvation for the world. Thus what matters to many Christians is the "ends," which may encourage a way of thinking that allows one to believe "The ends justify the means." It is partly that concern with the particular Christian ends allows one not to focus on the values/morals, because those are not the ends. But it is also a mental structure: thinking of the ends as a primary concern on a religious issue can make one think of the ends on other problems as the primary concern, and thus abhorrent means can be justified to achieve those ends.

So what happens if you are influenced from your environment--if you emerge from this cultural tradition--but leave behind the teleological framework? If a Christian worldview focuses on and endgame but has values that come with it, and you remove the belief in the endgame, you are left with the values.

This is my speculation: I share values with secular humanists because like them, I'm focused on the values, not the endgame.

But why, when it comes to values of "life," do many Christians (notably Catholics) make abortion the "trump" issue? Many will only vote for political candidates opposed to abortion, which does make them vote for candidates who may support the death penalty, support massive military spending, and oppose policies that might be justified from a Christian perspective (such as action on climate change, a demand of stewardship, or on economic justice, a major subject of Jesus' words). I do have a theory. I think that some forms of Christianity generally support the existing social order, the existing power structure. It is in the instincts of many of these voters to preserve the status quo, to resist change. They are lower c conservatives, and are inclined to support conservative candidates. Focusing on abortion as a life issue, and ignoring or diminishing other just as pressing life issues, allows them to justify voting for the candidates they want to vote for anyway--even candidates whose policies might be opposed to other Christian values.

Anyway, I think this is why I must call myself a Christian humanist. I am a Christian that primarily shares values with secular humanists.

(most of my contrapuntal essays don't start off intending to be that, but become something like that when I get writing and see tangents.)

1 comment:

  1. Interesting thoughts. In my view, the means and the ends of Christianity are the same: love. Our destiny is God, God is love, and we are commanded to love as Christ loved. Seems simple enough but Christians past and present will insist on looking for loopholes...

    I don't get the trumping either. The Canadian Catholic bishops issued an interesting statement during the last election advising Catholic voters to weigh all the issues (and even mentioned the environment!). So different from the one-issue debate among US Catholics.

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