A common claim I’ve come across is that, all-in-all, the major religions, and the major non-religious bodies of thought, preach the same ethical message.
That if you push beyond the superficialities, and focus on ethics rather than on metaphysics, we get a very similar message coming from all of them (and, it is suggested, that message is quite a good one that ‘we’ the modern sceptical observers should accept).
In certain senses this is true (i.e., if you select the right sources to make them agree) but in certain senses I often think it’s the opposite of the truth. I want to supply one of the supporting documents for this latter case.
Most people are familiar with ‘the Seven Deadly Sins’, a list of character traits that would lead to damnation, which circulated in various forms for much of Christian history.
A notable feature of this meme is the relative importance it accords to the sins. In almost every version Pride is considered the original and most serious of the seven deadly sins, and indeed the ultimate source from which the others arise (this parallels the association of pride with Lucifer, from whose actions other sins came).
This isn’t a particular unfortunate action that can be hand-waved away. This is a cultural item that was developed and preserved over centuries and remains widely recognised. It can probably claim more widespread assent than most other non-obvious Christian ethical claims.
That seems to be partly a psychological claim (that when people act wrongly, it usually stems ultimately from an over-high opinion of themselves), and partly an ethical claim (that this is what is most objectionable in a human being).
Note, this is not just the (perfectly reasonable, and obviously correct) awareness that sometimes, and in certain senses, pride is a major failing, a vice, and a source for other vices. It is explicitly an over-all claim: that, all-in-all, esteeming oneself too highly is the single biggest cause of vice, and the single most serious vice.
Is the psychological claim true? I don’t think so; I happen to think it’s the opposite of the truth. Of course there are more than one meanings that one can give to ‘thinking highly of oneself’, but all-in-all I think that wrong acts and personal failings more often stem from a lack of self-esteem, a sense of emptiness, inferiority, weakness and worthlessness. All-in-all I think that people who feel better about themselves are more likely to act rightly, to have strength of will, to make sacrifices for others. I also think that this is the belief of many of the most influential figures in the history of psychology.
Perhaps I’m wrong. But there is at least a substantial difference here.
What about the directly ethical claim: that pride is more objectionable than other vices? Again, I don’t believe that, and I doubt I’m alone in that. I see nothing obviously worse about pride than, say, habitual violent anger, cruelty, apathy, wilful ignorance, or other vices.
Of course, that might be a result of me having a particularly high opinion of myself (to quote Blackadder, ‘I try not to fly in the face of popular opinion’), which might blind me to recognising its seriousness – indeed, the opinion might even be cited as evidence of my vice.
But this runs both ways. If a tolerant attitude towards pride might be a result of vice, so too might be a severe attitude. Someone might hate pride because they are so invested in degrading themselves before something, so emotionally bound up with self-hatred that they are unhappy seeing others not bowing down.
We might find ourselves wondering which way to go. Maybe our understanding of this Christian meme will be improved by looking at its expression in popular culture. Hence I submit for consideration: Cenodoxus.
In this extremely popular 17th-century play, we are introduced to a polymathic doctor who, to all appearances, is the sort of person that everyone should aspire to be: kind, learned, restrained, wise, generous, who has devoted his life to helping others, and is respected and loved by all who know him.
This man dies, and during the saying of the last rites his corpse is heard to cry out. Each of the three times the priest says ‘Cenodoxus was a good man’, the body exclaims: first that he has been accused, then that he has been found guilty, then that he has been damned, and is to be tortured. Why? For the sin of pride. For how long? For a billion years, and then billions more after that.
I won’t say much about this, except to say that it sounds like it should be satire, and that it clearly illustrates that to a certain religious mindset, there seems to be quite literally nothing that can be imagined so appalling and barbaric that God might not do it and be praised for doing it.
Should we give the benefit of the doubt to this sort of Christian civilisation? Should we presume that when it says what appear to be false and loathsome things, and what will clearly be interpreted as such by a naive listener, it actually has an unobjectionable and intelligent meaning in mind? Should we, that is, resolve that no matter what the words we read are, we shall presume good faith and virtue on the part of the person or culture that wrote them?
We could if we want, but wouldn’t it be more efficient to just not read the words in the first place?
If we take it that over centuries, the Christian church had a chance to express what it actually meant, and that when it says that the worst failing is to respect yourself too much, and doing so may earn you trillions of trillions of years of dismemberment, however much you help others and improve yourself, they meant that – then there’s a distinctive ethical position here which is diametrically opposed to an alternative ethical position which, thankfully, many people subscribe to.
Of course, that position isn’t “The Christian Position’. There are many ways to extract a message from Christianity, and many standards to judge which is most reasonable.
But the fact that what is arguably the historically most significant of the Christian cultures has so reliably promoted this view of pride as the worst sin, does at least make it impossible for any contrasting view to be presented as ‘the Christian message’ or Christian ethics’ in any simple way.