4 years ago: Still in Hell

March 5, 2009, on this blog: Still in Hell

The world seems wrong and we want to see it made or remade right.

Every religion worth anything addresses this dilemma in two ways. First by requiring that its adherents practice both charity and justice here in this life. And second by extending the hope that such unfairness will ultimately be rectified, if not in this world, then in the next.

… When religion goes awry or becomes corrupt, it often results from or results in an emphasis on one of those two aspects to the neglect of the other. Corruption A: Emphasize the hope for eschatological justice to the neglect of justice in this world and you end up with the “pie in the sky when you die” opiate used to justify every oppressive caste system from Bombay to Alabama. Corruption B: Emphasize justice in this world to the neglect of the hope for eschatological justice and you begin thinking that you can impose perfect, infallible justice here in the temporal realm — an idea that quickly gallops off into oppressive theocracy of one form or another.

Our history books and newspapers are so full of examples of both of those errors that it can be tempting to think that maybe religion itself is the problem. If we could just stamp out religion, we could end oppression and establish perfect justice. See again Corruption B above.

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  • I mean, I try not to be “this guy,” but this snippet really makes me think, “hey, maybe science & ethics are better than religion?”  I mean, if the downside of focusing too much on justice in the real world is…theocracy, when you use religion?  Maybe this is an “everything looks like a nail when all you have is a hammer” sort of problem.

  • Nirrti

    What about those who seem to do both? From what I gather, that’s the whole point of the Dominionists’ strain of theocratic rule. They get to oppress people with the rules while promising pie-in-sky for keeping them.

  • The problem isn’t so much focusing too much on justice as it is “thinking that you can impose perfect, infallible justice here in the temporal realm”. That’s a problem with non-religious ethics too, and can just as easily lead to oppression.

  • Carstonio

    Fred seems to be saying that belief in more justice in this world requires belief in an ultimate justice. I might be reading him wrong. I would think that the former can be balanced simply by recognizing human limitations. Justice isn’t something that can be imposed from top down. Very often it’s lateral, where humans inspire each other to work toward justice in small ways.

    In my experience, the hope for eschatological justice often ends up rationalizing indifference more often than oppression. Most people who use that rationalization may not even believe in that type of justice, but instead might believe that the world is already just.

  • SergeantHeretic

    I think what Freddo is saying is that using arbitrary religion as a cudjel to impose an arbitrary standard of secular justice according to religious rules is epic fail.

  • I’m not sure that I agree; I think that oppression often claims justice as its motive, but I don’t think that justice actually IS the motive, you know? I guess I’m a dreamer, but I think a rational system of justice IS something to strive for. The fact that it can be perverted is something to be aware of & build in, but I don’t think that “balancing” it with a notion of an otherworldly reward or punishment is the solution.

  • SergeantHeretic

    For me rational justice is a laudable goal but this goal can only be acchieved IRRESPECTIVE of any arbitrary and by definion sectarian and subjective religious agenda.

    The minute the would be justice seeker says or writes “God says, God thinks, God wants, God knows” that person has gone off the rails.

    Because my first and most important question is as follows?

    “Izzat so, so did he come down and tell you personal-like, or did you get it in a candy-gram or what? how do you know, who told YOU what god wants or doesn’t want or says or doesn’t say? and what makes you more or less of an authority than that OTHER fellah what says the same thing only different?”

  • Dmoore970

    This would imply that Communism was a sort of religion, an extreme form of Corruption B.

  • Random_Lurker

    Dispute A: This argument isn’t restricted to religion.  A consequence of atheism (or many other secular philosophies, such as humanism) is that there is no hereafter, better make the best we can in the here and now.  This is a natural consequence of the opening statement of the discussion (life here sucks), and the second (this is the only life we get).  It also has the benefit of avoiding both corruptions because it doesn’t contain absolutist thinking; this kind of thinking can be added later, but it doesn’t follow from the two preliminary statements.

    Contrast to the hope of justice in the hereafter; the religion in question usually states that such justice WILL happen.  After all, justice that MAY happen is not fulfilling, and not really justice anyway.  A misbehaving Buddhist might be reincarnated as a cockroach, or as a squirrel, or something else altogether, but it WILL be something less admired then a human.  This is much closer to an absolutist position then the secular argument requires, and must be tempered by having both sides of the argument balanced, as Fred points out.  The secular rationale doesn’t require this, and stands on it’s own.

    Dispute B: It’s not so much a case of stamping out religion and establishing perfect justice.  It’s more a case of stamping out religion and eliminating a chronic source of injustice.  The usefulness or truth of that statement is questionable, but the difference in motives (establishing perfection vs. eliminating a known flaw) is important.  The first is irrational and thus dangerous if given power, the second can be reasoned with.

  • Fred, your post seems to suggest that any worldview that doesn’t assume perfect justice will happen automatically*, in some way on its own, by nature must only create injustice.

    As an atheist with a humanistish morality, I, rather expectedly, disagree.

    *Yes, I realize this must be in balance with the imperfect attempts to increase justice in the meantime, but that doesn’t eliminate that you’re suggesting this to be a necessity in the first place.

  • MaryKaye

    “Any religion worth its salt” teaches that injustice not rectified in this world will be rectified in the next?

    Rules out an awful lot of religions, or at least issues a blanket dismissal.  Greek religion didn’t hold out any hope of the afterlife, nor of a future Golden Age (theirs was in the past).  Norse religion did have an afterlife but didn’t see it as a locus of justice.  Some branches of Buddhism, if I understand them correctly, see the wheel of karma and its “payback” qualities as something to get away from, not a future good but an ongoing oppression.  Modern Wicca, I would say, has little or no coherent view of the afterlife except possibly as a place of rest between rebirths.  I don’t know how much emphasis Judaism places on the afterlife but I’m told it’s not much at all (though one could argue that the Messianic Age is the same idea playing out in the future of the world rather than that of an individual).

  • Not all religions- Judaism has no afterlife.  None.  Wicca doesn’t have an afterlife as far as I know.  Shinto and Confucianism don’t have afterlives.  Most spiritualist/animist religions don’t have afterlives.  

  • Diona the Lurker

    I’d heard that that Judaism does have a concept of an afterlife, but that it’s much more concerned with this life than what may happen after death. And everything I’ve heard about Wicca says that it does have an afterlife (but see what MaryKaye about has to say about that).

  • Not in my experience (raised Jewish, entire family Jewish, sister Orthodox now).  There’s sorta kinda maybe an idea of one, but it’s pretty clearly a cultural import from Christian Europe, and no one takes it seriously.  There’s certainly no meaning to it, no promise of Heaven or threat of Hell, and it’s not a motivating force for anything nor is it a way to rectify the injustices of this world.  We have one life, we do good or bad in it and are rewarded or punished accordingly, and then we die.  And then we’re dead.  That’s the Jewish take on mortality.  Heaven/Hell are useful plot devices in stories and fairy tales, but they’re not real to Jews like a lot of Christians seem to think they are.

    I obviously have to do more research on Wicca.  One of my close friends is Wiccan, but she doesn’t practice very much anymore.  I know Wicca is pretty  individualistic on a lot of things, so it could very well have an afterlife belief that only some practitioners follow.  MaryKaye certainly knows more than I do about it!