Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Religious authority vs. primacy of conscience (Part III)

Part I covered the problem of having an authoritative doctrinal body in the devastating wake of the primacy of individual conscience. Part II concerned itself with building up the need for religious authority.

When we left off, we were at a fork in the road: We are either following Christ or we’re simply co-opting some of his teachings for our own. If novelty is all you crave in a philosophy or religion, you should perhaps be a follower of Nietzsche or Rand, or a New Age devoté … not a Christian. By its very nature, Christianity can’t be “new”; people can only say new things about it, or find new applications for 2,000-year-old tenets. By the same rule, you can’t simultaneously hold that Christianity is true and that anything older than 1980 is defective or false; if you’re going to be a chronological snob, your snootiness should at least be consistent.

So I’ve spent the last two posts building up the position of religious authority. However, outside of the occasional sniping comment, I haven’t really said what’s so bloody wrong with the primacy of the individual conscience. After all, isn’t your conscience your best guide? Isn’t handing over your conscience to an Outside Authority immoral … the root of such horrific acts as were seen in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union?


Here is an opportunity to clear away some misconceptions and misunderstandings:

As I’ve said before, the primacy of conscience can’t mean anything more than that we’re all responsible for our own acts, and that we can’t fully evade or deny our responsibility by blaming others. However, within those limits, it’s still a pretty powerful concept.

We make fun of the contention “Society is to blame”; at most, we believe it mitigates the retributive action needed and refuse to give it complete exculpatory weight, because our common sense tells us that “Society didn’t pull the trigger — you did”. For the insane and the mentally challenged we allow diminished responsibility but not complete evasion of accountability.

Why, then, do we try to shove the blame for the Holocaust, the purges and other such atrocities completely on the shoulders of the leaders? If our model of personal responsibility is correct, then the concentration-camp worker and the KGB interrogator still incurred blame for carrying out their horrific orders. (In fact, the Nuremburg Charter specifically forbade the defense, “I was only following orders.”) We can fault such leaders for having created social milieus that damaged the consciences of such people, but the people who carried out the orders did so freely, while handfuls of others actively resisted.

In common-sense terms, then, we can’t “hand over our consciences”, not because it’s immoral but because it’s impossible. If there’s no free will, then there’s no true responsibility for any action, good or evil: we’re just acting out our programming. But if there’s any sense in speaking of accountability, then its primary bearer is the primary actor — the torturer with his whips and irons, the rapist who actually commits the outrage, the murderer with the gun, knife or club in his hand. The Outside Authority may at worst be a psychopathic, charismatic manipulator, but he can’t be a true puppeteer except by strained metaphor because a real marionette can’t cut its own strings.

If there’s any point where the accusation of “handing over one’s conscience” makes sense, it’s where Outside Authority plays a role in the formation of the conscience in our youth. But to place too much emphasis on this role is again to adopt a determinism at odds with our model of personal responsibility; it assumes the child is open to no other influence save that of that Malignant Institution we presume is filling her with distorted notions of right and wrong, and is incapable of choosing between the evil principle taught by Them and its good opposite taught by Someone Else (parents, experience, perhaps reading a forbidden book).

Put differently: Even when the Catholic Church was the only game in town and the Inquisition in full swing, there were rapes, murders, perjuries, infidelities, blasphemies, secret heretics, secret atheists — people who either cowardly gave in to peer pressure or consciously abjured the morality the Church taught, who either ignored their own consciences or acted from different principles. Again, freedom doesn’t only work in one direction: if I’m free to go, I’m free to stay; if I’m free to turn left, I must be free not to turn; If I’m free to disagree with the Church, why, then I’m free to agree with her whole-heartedly. Otherwise, my so-called “freedom” is merely a slavery or pre-programming in a different direction than my presumed servitude.

Where the primacy of individual conscience goes wrong, if anywhere, is when “I must always obey my conscience” is taken to mean “My conscience is by definition well-formed and morally perfect; I can’t simultaneously obey my conscience and do evil”. Not even St. Thomas Aquinas would have gone so far; yet this is what primacy of conscience has come to mean in substance, if not always said in so many words.

Here then is where the demands of theology conflict with the demands of psychology: where the individual conscience refuses to accept any definition of “good” that conflicts with that person’s self-image. For if I pride myself as a “player” and keep track of my conquests as a fighter pilot keeps track of the enemy fighters he’s shot down, then how can I accept as “good” a set of doctrines which restricts sex to the nuptial bed and even goes so far as to praise occasional celibacy? No, these doctrines must have been a later addition, a human tradition that interferes with the loving goodness of Christ Jesus.

However, we’re again thrust against the demands of intellectual honesty. If Jesus and the disciples did in fact teach chastity and fidelity, then you must either accept Christianity and attempt to modify your lifestyle or reject it in favor of some system that allows you to be less restrained. You may retain some respect for the rest of its teachings, and perhaps find echoes or parallels in whatever system you eventually adopt. Yet to vary your path by even one degree is to stop following in Christ’s footsteps.