Monday, August 16, 2010

Justice and faith

I recently went to a 15 year high school reunion. I had a great time. At one point, my feet were sore, my back was achy, my stomach felt a little uneasy -- the night was just wearing on -- and even though I tend to be quite social, at some point I need to cease being an active participant, step back and enjoy the event as it unfolds around me. (I am an introvert by nature.)

So I was sitting there, and getting to a point where I'd kind of like some company, but not feeling up to finding company of my own. I said to myself, "I'd like someone to see me sitting here, then sit down near me and talk to me."

A few seconds later that is exactly what happened. More than that I knew that the person that sat down would eventually try to proselytize. I knew it when he sat down. It is what he does. We talked shop for a few minutes, and right on course he ends up going there. I had a good time talking with him. It was fun.

A key point in his argument seemed to be that his god's laws are imprinted on our hearts, and that all the good that humans do is an act of grace on God's part. If it weren't for this "restraining grace" we would be unable to restrain our carnal desires.

At one point he brought up the fact that if he were right, I was going to hell. I have problems with various aspects of Christianity -- particularly the bit about it being the only path to the Divine. I responded with this: Any god that would punish men who were good, honest men regardless of what was in their hearts(*) and minds but simply because they never heard about Jesus isn't so nice. "In an unjust society, the only place for a just man is in prison." If you are right I will gladly go to hell. (I'd forgotten who said the quote at the time, but it was Thoreau.)

This was, in part, my humanist tendencies showing themselves. I believe that a person can be good and can have never heard of Jesus. The Reciprocal Ethic -- what Christians call the "Golden Rule" -- exists in virtually all cultures though it is worded differently. Caring for the elderly and infirm is a trait common to all cultures regardless of religion.

We treat people with dignity and respect because we are human and this is a human trait. I don't see our social behavior as particularly unique to us, so much as it just a product of our being social animals. Other social animals have behavior that are unique to their species -- or in the really interesting cases unique to a specific culture. We can, of course, become better at being humane to each other, though if we really want it to stick it should not be out of fear of punishment but out of a desire to improve the world and make it better for everyone.

You can see evidence of the reverse at work. To commit atrocities against our fellow humans the targets must first be dehumanized. It is intrinsically repugnant to butcher humans like so many animals, but if you mentally turn the humans in to animals first it can become just another job.

The first job of all bigotry, then, is to take a wonderfully unique human individual and transform him or her in to a pest animal. There are different levels of success, of course, and only in the extreme cases is the transition complete enough in a person's mind to allow them to commit atrocities without remorse.

Anything that degrades the individual into a generalization is bigotry and is the starting point for full dehumanization. If you realize this early, you can nip it in the bud. You need to be aware of this both for yourself and your community, as any group can become the target of a lynching if tensions are allowed to be driven toward a generalized group of people.

Anyway, back to the reunion, the bar, and the interesting fellow preaching of his thoughts of Jesus.

I was being asked to believe that the only reason there is a sense of justice in the human soul is because of the Christian deity. More than that, I was told that since He created everything, He can take a group of humans and use them to kill other humans. We're effectively His playthings and He can do with us as He wishes. (Which sort of reminded me of an earlier post.)

If I was given a sense of justice because of this deity, why then is that sense of justice so offended by this behavior?

I was told that it is better for a Christian to have Jesus in mind than in heart. I was told that Christians should do or believe things that don't seem self-evident, things that are right because they are Godly, even though they don't feel right to a person's heart.

I'll be honest, at one point I felt particularly tired and felt like conceding the argument. During that time of weakness, the thought came to me, "What about the cats? He discounts their gods completely." That gave me strength to keep on. (Bless the cat gods!)

There I was, sitting in one of my gods (for aren't most bars masculine?), feeling the presence of the Divine deep within my being. My senses expanding, feeling the floor and room around me. Knowing my place in the room, in so many senses of those words.

Here he was telling me to discount everything I had ever experienced, telling me that -- literally -- I should think about whether I might be influenced by demonic forces. I felt honored that he felt the need to go "there" to argue with me.

The "demonic influence" argument was on par with my asking him if he ever considered that if you look at the Bible objectively, without the implicit assumption that it is True, it looks like the sort of BS you'd see in an abusive relationship. (I didn't go there with him.) "No one loves you like I do." "You're a worthless wretch, your lucky my son -- my son! -- gave his life to protect you." "Anyone that says I am not telling you the truth is a liar. You just tell me who they are so I can 'talk' to them."

The last of those reasons is why I never really try to convert people. They're in a bad relationship with a god that admits he is the jealous type. I have no need to get in the middle of that. I am a polytheist, so it isn't like I don't believe in their god, I just think he isn't all he claims to be.

Ultimately, I shouldn't have to subjugate my sense of justice to my faith. They should stand strong and proud beside each other, both of them supporting the other as need be. This would be one of the reasons I support social justice initiatives like marriage equality, intactivism, prison reform, etc. These things are demanded by both my sense of justice and my faith.

If you need to subjugate your sense of justice to your faith, maybe -- just maybe -- you have an unjust faith.

Footnote (*): I wanted to make sure I was framing the opposing viewpoint correctly, so I ran by the post by the person I was talking to before making it live. His response was that the Bible states that all hearts are deceitful and wicked, so there is no question as to what is in a non-Christian's heart. (No one is truly good except for God.) This also means it would be inaccurate to say he believes that non-Christians are punished regardless of what is in their hearts. I -- unsurprisingly -- do not believe that everyone has a wicked or deceitful heart. In my mind the evidence simply does not back up this assertion.

His argument is not concerned with the contents of a person's heart, as he believes he knows what is there. My argument is concerned with the contents of a person's heart. What I'm left with is such a fundamental difference in perspective that it seemed more accurate to annotate the reference than to try to change my statement.


  1. It's interesting that I read this in your archive today, of all days. I've just finished writing a rambly response to what I felt was a racist email from a family member. There's a lot there about atrocity and what's in peoples' hearts. Not that I expect to be understood.

  2. Alas, I started a comment for this and it was lost.

    It is important to speak, even if you are not understood. At least by speaking out folks know there is a differing opinion out there. It is the silence that causes people to believe everyone is silently agreeing with them. When someone else questions the accuracy it empowers the person's own quiet voice of doubt.