“The essential principle of totalitarianism is to make laws that are impossible to obey. The resulting tyranny is even more impressive if it can be enforced by a privileged caste or party which is highly zealous in the detection of error. Most of humanity, throughout its history, has dwelt under a form of this stupefying dictatorship, and a large portion of it still does. Allow me to give a few examples of the rules that must, yet cannot, be followed.” (God is Not Great, p.212)
Hitchens then cites the biblical command forbidding people to even think about coveting goods. I’m not sure there is a command not to even think about it, but the principle is certainly there. The New Testament certainly echoes this with its injunction which says that to even look on a woman in the wrong way is to actually already have committed adultery.
There can only be two possible responses to such commands:
- “a continual scourging and mortification of the flesh, accompanied by incessant wrestling with “impure” thoughts which become actual as soon as they are named, or even imagined. From this come hysterical confessions of guilt, false promises of improvement, and loud, violent denunciations of other backsliders and sinners: a spiritual police state”
- “organized hypocrisy, where forbidden foods are rebaptized as something else, or where a donation to the religious authorities will purchase some wiggle-room, or where ostentatious orthodoxy will buy some time, or where money can be paid into one account and then paid back — with perhaps a slight percentage added in a non-usurious manner — into another. This we might term the spiritual banana republic”
“Many theocracies, from medieval Rome to modern Wahhabi Saudi Arabia, have managed to be spiritual police states and spiritual banana republics at the same time.
“This objection applies to even some of the noblest and some of the basest rules. The order to ‘love thy neighbor’ is mild yet stern: a reminder of one’s duty to others. The order to ‘love they neighbor as thyself‘ is too extreme and too strenuous to be obeyed, as is the hard-to-interpret instruction to love others ‘as I have loved you’. Humans are not so constituted as to care for others as much as themselves: the thing simply cannot be done (as any intelligent ‘creator’ would well understand from studying his own design.) Urging humans to be superhumans, on pain of death and torture, is the urging of terrible self-abasement at their repeated and inevitable failure to keep the rules.” (p.213)
Paul, the perfect illustration of tormented self-abasement
Hitchens gives no indication that he had Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 7, in mind when he wrote that. But surely there could not be a better underscoring of his point than this epistle. The torment Paul expresses over an impossible command has been emulated by millions since.
Paul had earlier written in Romans 2:14-15 that gentiles who do not have the (Jewish) law nevertheless do “by nature” the things contained in the law. The law is “written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness . . . .” Leaving aside here Elaine Pagels’ plausible gnostic interpretation that “gentiles” are Paul’s cipher for the “truly spiritual (pneumatic) converts”, the rest of the lay readers will have to take this at its surface meaning: gentiles know as well as Jews do that murder and adultery and stealing etc are wrong.
But by the time Paul comes to his 7th chapter (I know, Paul was not really writing “in chapters”) we read:
I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, “You shall not covet.”
In other words, he is honest enough to admit that the law against coveting is not an intuitive or natural one. It is not a crime that “gentiles” encode or draw on to judge themselves and their fellows.
There is no way he — or anyone — could possibly have written:
. . . . For I would not have known theft unless the law had said, “You shall not steal.”
The first time anyone ever knew “theft” was when they had something of theirs stolen, or when they secretly stole something themselves from another child and then instinctively had enough nous to lie about it. I suspect that most parents only ever told their toddlers “don’t steal” or “don’t lie” AFTER their beloved offspring felt the guilt of being sprung for what they instinctively already knew they should not do.
No, Paul selects a command that is, by Hitchens’ lights, something that would not be thought of as a “sin” or “immoral” unless some authority dictated it to be such.
That same authority also dictated:
- You shall have no other gods before me
- You shall not make for yourself any carved image
- Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy
There is no question that these are culturally specific injunctions. They are not human universals. They are the products of a particular culture. Only an affliction of cultural narcissism could compel one to demand that they be applied to all cultures, that all humanity must fall into line.
So what was the personal consequence of this cultural-specific injunction?
For apart from the law sin was dead. I was alive without the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died. . . . For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it killed me. (Romans 7:8-11)
This is as clear an admission as possible that this specific command is the product of an arbitrary authority. This poor hapless human is mortified over his belief that something he cannot help feeling is “immoral” in the eyes of his ultimate (culturally determined) Judge and will destine him for hell.
Had he been born in another culture at another time he might well have written:
. . . . For I would not have known bigendeggism unless the law had said, “You shall not cut open a boiled egg on its big end.”
I cannot help liking opening my hard boiled egg on the big end so I would go to hell. Many people like to set the toilet paper so the sheets hang over the roll rather than under it. Some boys and girls like to eat icecream and others like to touch themselves, and even each other, to enjoy the sensation.
Fair enough, I have mixed up ritualistic customs here with biology. Let’s try:
. . . . For I would not have known itchyscratchiness unless the law had said, “You shall not scratch an itch.”
But back to our poor Paul.
For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practise; but what I hate, that I do. . . . . If, then, I do what I will not to do . . . it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells. . . . But I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the person who wills to do good . . . . Oh wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
His struggle to do something that no human is made to do reduces the poor fellow to the torments of failure and self-loathing. A command forbidding something like scratching an itch has reduced him to psychological wreck robbed of all basic healthy self-esteem. He is now reduced to a fearful beggar before his authority — he thanks the very God who made the law that has ruined him for “saving” him. But he must maintain his torment to continue in that state of “salvation”.
I think most psychologists, and most reasonable people, would advise him of a better way. Hey, it doesn’t matter if you scratch an itch. No harm done. So long as you do it in moderation and seek medical advice if the problem continues.
A more blunt bit of advice might be: Get a life! Which is exactly what Paul says he does not have (“Who shall deliver me from this body of death?”) by attempting to be something he is not made to be.
“Urging humans to be superhumans, on pain of death and torture, is the urging of terrible self-abasement at their repeated and inevitable failure to keep the rules. ”
The Golden Rule
“The so-called Golden Rule . . . simply enjoins us to treat others as one would wish to be treated by them. This sober and rational precept, which one can teach to any child with its innate sense of fairness (and which predates all Jesus’s “beatitudes” and parables), is well within the compass of any atheist and does not require masochism and hysteria, or sadism and hysteria, when it is breached. It is gradually learned, as part of the painfully slow evolution of the species, and once grasped is never forgotten. Ordinary conscience will do, without any heavenly wrath behind it.” (pp.213-214)
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