Gordon Livingston

Gordon S Livingston M.D.


Moral certainty and the true believer

Why not choose the story that damages others the least?

Posted Aug 14, 2010

     Growing up Catholic in the 1940s and 50s was an exercise in the management of fear. I felt controlled by the church with a promise of salvation based on a series of prohibitions and threatened punishments that insured that I remained tractable, anxious, and guilt-ridden.
     The idea that I found most intimidating was the oft-repeated equivalency of "thought, word, and deed." No allowance was made for the uncontrollable nature of fantasies and feelings. Instead, the failure to restrain them was seen as, not simply a precursor to sin, but as sin itself. The church's marketing genius was evident in its providing the only avenue of escape for our immortal souls through the sacrament of confession.
     Each week I sat outside the confessional, racking my brain for sins that would be convincing but not require a penance longer than a couple rosaries. I imagined that if I exposed the deplorable depths of my youthful imagination that nothing short of a public flogging would be required to expiate such sin. I regularly confessed to having inadvertently eaten meat on Friday, which had the advantage of being both a mortal sin and somehow erasable with a few Our Father's and Hail Mary's.
     Once a year in the Church of St. Paul the Apostle, the congregation was required to stand and recite the pledge of the "Legion of Decency," the arm of the church that decreed which books and movies were off limits to the faithful. It was on a Sunday at age 16 that I made what was to be a final break with the Catholic faith of my mother by refusing to rise and swear that I would abide the Legion's proscriptions.
     As it happened, I was, in my sex-crazed adolescent state, determined to see the recently released film, "The Outlaw" ("SENSATION Too Startling To Describe!") that featured a scene of Jane Russell climbing into bed, fully clothed, with Billy the Kid (Jack Beutel). In truth, it was the effect produced by the Howard Hughes-designed suspension-bridge bra worn by Miss Russell that seemed most interesting to me at the time.
     The desire to see a movie may seem a trivial reason to break with the faith in which one has been raised, but there it is. I think I was just tired of feeling guilty about thoughts and impulses that I knew were widely shared. (I, of course, never realized then, how much they were shared-and sometimes acted on-by the priests who so controlled our spiritual lives.)
     When I went to West Point, church on Sunday was a required event so I chose to march to the Protestant Chapel, where the music was better, no one recited Latin, and "Onward Christian Soldiers" had literal relevance. A few years later I found myself in Vietnam.
     I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised that the Chaplains Corps, like the Medical Corps, was a wholly owned subsidiary of the military and concerned itself with providing a kind of theological justification for the task at hand instead of simply ministering to the souls of the soldiers. It was customary to close each evening's briefing with a prayer. One night, our commanding officer turned to the Chaplain and asked him, "What shall we pray for tonight, Chaplain? How about a big body count?" The Chaplain obliged as follows, "Help us, O Lord, to fulfill the standing order of the regiment. Let us find the bastards, then pile on."

     Of all the stories with which to regulate our lives, why not choose the one that inflicts the least damage on other people? The problem with most deeply held faith is that it requires of its adherents that they view their particular solution to the puzzle of life as the only valid one. Apart from the arrogance of such an assumption there is an implied belief that one therefore has the right to impose one's answers on others.
It its most joyful form this urge to proselytize becomes an effort to "share the good news" of salvation. The advantage of this approach from the point of view of society at large is that those not interested can change the channel; no one is required to listen. Unfortunately, people who are filled with the Holy Spirit are often not satisfied simply to persuade. Sooner or later the need to coerce others into listening begins to surface. Thus they have the need to inflict public, sectarian prayer on students; or the requirement to begin athletic contests and graduations by invoking Jesus; or the absolute necessity of having "under God" included in the great secular religion that is patriotism.
     Even if we all were only bullied into listening to the public prayers of the faithful (Why, one wonders, does an omnipotent God require such frequent praise?) things would not be intolerable. But, of course, words are not enough. If one is privy to the revealed truth, those who will not listen must be forced to conform to the word of God. It is not enough that the benighted lose their souls and their chance at eternal life, they must first lose the right to live in this world according to their own lights.
     The theme that runs through any coercive fundamentalist belief, whether it is in the God of Islam or the God of the Old Testament, is that ultimately we must correspond our social and governmental structures to the precepts of the Koran or the Bible (as interpreted by the true believers). The Taliban in Afghanistan and the mullahs in Iran have given us a glimpse of what such a society, one in which the church IS the state, looks like. It is not a pretty picture and resembles, interestingly, the social structure of atheistic Communism as interpreted by the Soviet leadership in the twentieth century.
The element that all such societies have in common is the rule of fear and a fondness for the death penalty to deal with heretics and unbelievers. They are, in fact, fond of punishment generally. If you view the Christian fundamentalist view of such diverse topics as abortion, gay marriage, gun control, capital and corporal punishment, stem-cell research, contraception, creationism, end of life issues, and school prayer, you find the same thing: those who disagree with fundamentalist doctrine deserve to be punished. This includes people who have sex outside of marriage, especially unwed mothers and gay people, those who do not believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ, those who suffer from illnesses (juvenile diabetes, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's) that might benefit from stem-cell research, and, finally, those unfortunate enough to have their brains die before their bodies. I find it hard to believe that a Christian theocracy would be any more palatable than an Islamic one.
     The essence of democracy (and, coincidentally, of mental health) is freedom of choice, the choice to live one's life as one pleases as long as it does not intrude on the rights of others. The core of fundamentalist belief, however, is limitation of choice ("Thou shalt not....."). Not for the faithful are the gray areas of moral relativism that they deplore in "secular humanism." They insist on the moral absolutes expressed in their particular interpretation of the Bible.
     Deeply religious people are, by definition, certain that they are right about the fundamental questions of human existence. It is in the nature of those imbued with faith to have complete confidence about the (unprovable) reality of a particular deity and assurance in a specific interpretation of some set of religious writings that purport to reveal God's will.
     For some reason, perhaps the human love of a good story, it also appears necessary to create a metaphysical adversary for our chosen divinity, an embodiment of evil that, out of pure, unexplained corruption, competes for our allegiance and immortal souls. It is this cosmic conflict that gives rise to the two-alternative view of human events that has such destructive implications for relationships between people and nations in a diverse, ambiguous world.
     This is, as much as anything, the "lesson of 9/11": The defining belief of the suicide bombers was that they were engaged in a profoundly religious act, striking at the secular heart of the infidels. Their degree of certitude cannot be doubted and their last words almost certainly were Allah Akbar, God is great. They saw themselves as "chosen."

     There is at the moment a "culture war" being waged for the soul of this country. On the one side are people who would confer personhood on a microscopic collection of cells while endorsing preemptive war and capital punishment, that sees morality in terms of prohibitions, that would have us all worship the same vengeful (yet compassionate) God. They are people who have a clear view of heaven and hell and who know who belongs where. They like, above all, to keep things simple.
Of all the rights guaranteed us by our constitution and laws, the one that is seldom discussed but universally enjoyed is the right to be left alone. The exercise of this entitlement requires not just freedom of religion, but also freedom from religion. Is it not warning enough that the fundamentalists gave us the most bellicose (Bring ‘em on!") president in memory, someone who has taken us on a "crusade" against the "evildoers"-who, unsurprisingly, turn out to be fundamentalists of a different stripe?

     The spirit of democracy rests on the conviction that no one has a corner on the truth. We are all fallible human beings, struggling to create a world in which we respect the right of others to frame their own beliefs about life's large questions in the way that seems best to them. If there is an existence beyond this one, it cannot be in a place that admits a tiny fraction of humanity based on an accident of birth or faith. If heaven required us to live with these self-satisfied, rapture-awaiting, idol-worshipping theocrats, many of us might just opt for the alternative.
     In the long history of mankind there have been many stories to explain the origin and purpose of life, to comfort us in the face of the misfortune and unfairness that surround us, and to give us hope in the face of the death that is our common fate. One longs for a story that would promote the idea that our conceptions of God and his role in our lives are varied and culturally determined, that it arrogant to assume that one faith is superior to another. Whatever one's conception of heaven, hell on earth is created by attempts to coercively promote one set of beliefs over another. I long for the emergence of a faith whose core doctrine endorses humility and tolerance. The principal idea behind such a church would be that God values good works over piety. And the essential commandment would be "Thou shalt keep thy religion to thyself."

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