Sunday, April 15, 2012

An atheist on the thing of sin

From Elizabeth Scalia at First Things:

Terry Pratchett and the Thing of Sin
Sep 6, 2011
Elizabeth Scalia
Having announced several years ago that he is dealing with early-onset dementia, Terry Pratchett, the celebrated author of scores of fantasy titles, most notably the marvelously wise and entertaining Disc World series, has—despite rumors to the contrary—staunchly maintained his atheist’s stance. Last year he declared that, having compared Genesis to Darwin, he found the latter to be by far the more interesting story and, taken all-in-all, he would “rather be a rising ape than a fallen angel.”
That betrays what is probably a willful misunderstanding on Pratchett’s part; Genesis tells us we are the broken consequences of Original Sin, not supernatural beings of prideful darkness (although in our brokenness we can easily trip into those shadows and seem their equal).
For all of Patchett’s puckish posturing, though, his characters have a knack for plumbing surprising depths. His book, Carpe Jugulum, gives us an excellent definition of sin in this exchange between the Omnian priest, Mightily Oats, and the rather contemplative witch, Granny Weatherwax:
There is a very interesting debate raging at the moment about the nature of sin, for example,” said Oats.
“And what do they think? Against it, are they?” said Granny Weatherwax.
“It’s not as simple as that. It’s not a black and white issue. There are so many shades of gray.”
“There’s no grays, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.
“It’s a lot more complicated than that –”
“No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.”
“Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes –”
“But they starts with thinking about people as things …”

A very deep insight.  The essence of interpersonal sin is treating people as things. We are by nature reluctant to harm people who we recognize as like ourselves. The prerequisite for most serious interpersonal sin is the denial that we are dealing with a full person. We objectify-- thing-ify-- those we would harm. Abortion, murder, racism, fraud, population control, genocide all are predicated on the assertion of inhumanity of the victim.

... Weatherwax is certainly right—the impetus of our sins so often begins with converting humanness into thing-ness, and this is true in the macro and the micro: I once received an email from a woman of progressive instincts that contained the subject header, “you are not human to me”; that’s the big picture, the macro—the wholesale dehumanization of entire swaths of people who hold opinions different from one’s own, and who are therefore “dangerous” and ultimately either imprisonable or expendable. We saw the macro played out on a grand scale in the twentieth century, as both Communists and National Socialists first imprisoned and then slaughtered humans who had been thing-nified because of their race, their mental capacities, their lack of vigor, their faiths and, eventually, their simple refusals to conform.

For that correspondent, my extendability was rooted in my belief that life is better than death—that allowed to flourish, new life brings new love into the world, which (since God is love) instructs and enlarges us, particularly if the life, and the love, is embraced in its fullness, despite our fears.

In a sense, that is the micro: thing-nifying the very bud of new life within oneself, or its culmination in those who nurtured your own budded-ness, so you can more easily kill it, while maintaining an illusion of compassion and control.

Thing-nification plays out in other ways, of course. In the objectification of porn, the dismissal or exploitation of youth, the every day swindles and politicizations, large and small, perpetrated against trusting others.

Pratchett's deep insight is, ironically, a Christian insight. All men are created in God's image. We are spiritual, as well as material, beings. The acknowledgement of that fact about man is essential in the battle for human dignity and human rights.  The lie that man is just an evolved animal or a sentient meat machine is at the root of the heinous rise of interpersonal sin-- from Auschwitz to the Gulag to the Killing Fields-- in our era.


  1. Voltaire said: "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities."

    Well, there's nothing more absurd than believing the mythology of Genesis actually happened, or that a "just and loving God" would doom the entire human race because some guy ate an apple. "Original Sin" is the sort of blame-the-victim rationalization that would be right at home in a Goebbels-written speech.

    Auschwitz was the result of a Christian population acting on nearly 2000 years of Christian antisemitism utilizing methods and symbolism originally devised by popes. Stop trying to rewrite history to bolster your frothing rants against anyone who has the temerity to believe that natural phenomena have natural causes.

    1. RickK,
      ""Original Sin" is the sort of blame-the-victim rationalization that would be right at home in a Goebbels-written speech."

      Are you actually saying the first book of the Torah is akin to Nazi propaganda? o.0
      You are! Wow...
      Can you not see THAT is a way 'to blame the victim'. I don't think that is your intent, RickK - but you should perhaps reconsider your comparisons.

      "Auschwitz was the result of a Christian population acting on nearly 2000 years of Christian antisemitism utilizing methods and symbolism originally devised by popes.
      A) The original Christians were mostly Jews.
      B) Anti-Semitism is a sentiment - the Nazi and Soviet genocides were a modern a clinical, scientific approach to annihilation. One is a latent bigotry, the other was an act of unprecedented (ie without precedent) inhumanity.
      C) The 'popes' you claim invented the means to publicly identify the Jewish population did not come up with the idea.In AD 807 the Persian Abbassid Caliph Harun al-Rashid came up with the first - the yellow belt. In 815 Caliph Al-Mutavallil issued the first 'yellow badge' decree that forced Jews to wear a badge on their arm and head/hat, as well as a lead pendant with the word 'dhimmi' (infidel who pays tribute to for safety) on it. Iran - NOT Italy, Greece, Germany, the USA, England or Israel is the single place these is STILL seen to have merit as a means of marginalizing Jews.

      "Stop trying to rewrite history to bolster your frothing rants against anyone who has the temerity to believe that natural phenomena have natural causes."

      Anti-Semitism is much older than the Church or Christianity. That is history. No rewrite required.
      What is required for such a bigotry to be 'excusable' and actually give rise to action is a catalyst. That catalyst was not the Nazi or Soviet love of the Gospels. That much is obvious. Nor do I think the Torah / OT was instrumental.
      Dehumanization / De-personification played a major role - as it always does - and THIS time it was science, NOT religion, that was the tool of choice.
      Racial purity is not a religious idea. Sub-human classes is not the teachings of our faith.

  2. "Original Sin" is not in Genesis - it is a later rationalization that blames humans for their own misery so as to avoid the implication that God intentionally created a world filled with suffering. So the priests and prophets could stand in front of their congregations and say: "you are suffering because of your own sinfulness, and those of you who are relatively good are suffering for Adam's sinfulness."

    Tell me this has no resonance with the rationalizations used to subjugate blacks, Jews or any other oppressed ethnic group.

    As for the history lesson regarding the labeling of Jews - thanks, I did not know that. Now I know the Nazis copied from Pope Paul IV who in turn copied from Persians.

    How about the creation of Jewish ghettos - who gave the Pope that idea? And who gave Pius V the idea that Jews lured people away with incantations and witchcraft? That was a particularly important idea, I guess, because Pius was made a saint.

    As for the rest of your post, you are correct. Unlike so many that came before, the Nazi and Communist genocides were not done in the name of Yahweh. I never claimed they were. I merely pointed out that the Christian populations of Germany, France and Eastern Europe had a wealth of historical anti-Semitic ideas and practices to draw from, many of which can be found codified in some Papal Bull.

    And it is still true that the only book in my house that portrays genocide in a positive light is my Bible.

    When it comes to treating others as "things", as less than human, Christian hands are no cleaner than anybody else's.

    And note, I'm not attacking Christianity - as always I'm just kicking away the moral pedestal that Michael keeps trying to step upon.