We All Need Philosophy
I wrote this a year ago as a Facebook post. For background, I was raised Catholic, went to a Baptist-run elementary school, and now I don’t consider myself religious (or spiritual!). It’s fascinating to still be part of these communities online, though, and see how “outsiders” are perceived, often negatively.
Many of these same issues — consent, the legitimacy of political authority, who exactly counts as our “neighbor”— are still just as pertinent a year later.
And, as an extra enticement, I promise there are no blockchains involved.
Can I talk about something? Someone I admire said this about Louis C.K.’s statement: “I took it as a good *pagan* apology, for someone raised on the idea that consent is the highest good.”
This makes me furious. For one, it’s incredibly insulting. “Pagan” is a slur, whether you realize it or not. “That’s pretty good morals for a pagan, but ya know, that’s a low bar” is what it implies. It says that anyone who doesn’t fully agree with you on *whether God exists* is automatically a less moral human being. The arrogance is astounding, especially given the current revelations that being Christian doesn’t seem to prevent some people from molesting children.
Second, for Christians and non-Christians alike, consent should be the baseline. That’s why people care so much about consent. Every single nonconsensual sexual encounter is monstrous and a violation of human dignity. This “highest good” crap confuses the point that consent is *necessary* for sex to be moral with the idea that consent is *sufficient* for sex to be moral. Granted, some people do make the terrible argument that consensual sex is always good for both parties no matter what. But it’s not just a “pagan” idea. It’s the same idea that made millions of American Christians up until the 1970s (and for some, beyond) think that marital rape was ok because it had a veneer of consent.
Christianity is under-determinate. By that, I mean it doesn’t tell you how to act in every circumstance, in your everyday life. That’s how you get some Christians proclaiming Christianity means personal poverty, and others claiming it means being a good, albeit wealthy, member of the community. That’s how you get people who think that Christianity means putting away criminals for life in order to protect future victims, and others who think it means forgiving them immediately.
Because Christianity is under-determinate, Christians need philosophy. They need ethics. We all do. I’ve had people tell me that “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and “Neither slave nor free, woman or man, one in the Lord” covers it all. But it doesn’t.
Who are “the others”? Does an illegal immigrant count as “the other”? Many Christians say no.
Does “one in the Lord” mean you have equal rights under the law? For most of history, many Christians thought not.
The idea of equality under the law is not a Christian invention. It’s a philosophical one that comes from the Enlightenment, and it’s a historical fact that many of its largest proponents were outside of the norms of Christians of their time. (Take a look at Thomas Paine, a founding father, a feminist, an abolitionist, and… an atheist (or deist, if you prefer). “I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish Church, by the Roman Church, by the Greek Church, by the Turkish Church, by the Protestant Church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church,” he said.)
Over time, our legal institutions have moved from the idea of “Status” to the idea of “Contract.” Sir Henry Maine said in 1864, “The movement of the progressive societies has been uniform in one respect. Through all its course it has been distinguished by the gradual dissolution of family dependency and the growth of individual obligation in its place. The individual is steadily substituted for the Family, as the unit of which civil laws take account… Starting, as from one terminus of history, from a condition of society in which all the relations of Persons are summed up in the relations of Family, we seem to have steadily moved towards a phase of social order in which all these relations arise from the free agreement of individuals.”
Before I get people yelling at me about the “downfall of the family,” let me point out that we are only talking about the family as the unit of law. If the family is the atomic unit of law, then living within the family is tyranny. Then parents own their children and children have no rights. Then husbands own their wives and wives have no rights. We look back and say that this period was horrific, but we forget that nothing in Christianity specifically precludes it. In fact, the Old Testament specifically enforces it, in law, again and again.
The New Testament is better, people tell me. Yet in the New Testament, we have Romans 13, which is really astounding in its similarity to arguments for fascism:
“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.”
You know who Roy Moore was, for most of his life? A governing authority.
Compare Romans 13 to the political philosophy of the Declaration of Independence: “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” In Romans 13, the apostle Paul states the authority of government comes directly from God. The founding principles of our country are the exact opposite: the authority of government comes directly from the consent of the governed. There’s the word “consent” again. It’s not a coincidence that the idea of consent was the turning point of both our political and moral philosophy. Consent matters.
It is astounding to me that American Christians think Christianity alone is responsible for 1) America’s founding, 2) equality under the law, and 3) morality in total! In many cases, the Bible was either silent or against the philosophy now held by many Christians. Moreover, the people who came up with the ideas that we now hold sacrosanct were not very Christian for their time.
Don’t get me wrong, I think many Christians are good people. But their goodness does not come just from Christianity; much of it is imported from secular philosophy. The ideas of self-control, courage, sacrifice are all virtues that were recognized prior to Christianity. The recognition of the consent of the governed doesn’t come from Christianity. The idea that racial minorities and women should be equal with men under the law doesn’t come from Christianity. If you think Christians have a monopoly on morality, you are offensive and unfortunately ignorant.
Christianity does has one major contribution to philosophy that can’t be overlooked: forgiveness. But many Christians have wrongly turned this into a requirement of good Christians. Forgiveness is a gift that must be freely given, and absolutely no one has a right to be forgiven. Otherwise, it’s just a tool for people to use to cover up sexual predation and other evil.
What we need as a society is more philosophy, more ethics, and better morality. We should be able to work towards that without denigrating people simply because they are different than us. And more than that, we should not be denigrating the very same types of people who are truly responsible for developing the morality we attribute to Christians! It’s unbelievable.