The Broken System: When the Greater Good and Harm Don’t Exist

The Broken System: When the Greater Good and Harm Don’t Exist January 15, 2016

Last time, we began talking about broken social systems–starting with the most dangerous question someone in one of these systems can possibly ask: Why is this system not working out in reality the way everyone says it’s supposed to be working out? Today we’ll be talking about the start of the answer to that question.

Time is the ultimate reality. (Credit: Steve Wilde, CC-NoDerivs license.)
Time is the ultimate reality. (Credit: Steve Wilde, CC-NoDerivs license.)

That’s quite a dangerous question because it leads people to start asking a lot of other questions about the design of the system itself. Here are some variations on that question, as applied to Christianity (especially extremist, right-wing forms of it):

* Why does this religion not make Christians better people than non-Christians are?

* Why does this religion need so much dishonesty and exaggeration to prop itself up and make its claims sound credible?

* Why do so many people in this system seem to have so much trouble following their own religion’s rules and dictates?

* Why do so many scandals and atrocities seem to erupt around the practitioners and leaders of this religion, while so few seem to come out of less extreme versions of Christianity and in non-religious organizations?

Versions of these questions were ones that I asked when I began deconverting–especially the first and second of these–but they were questions I couldn’t even ask until I’d been immersed in the culture for a long time and had time to get buffeted by the glaring problems I experienced in that culture.

I had plenty of reason to avoid seeing those problems for a long time. Some people will look at the extremist form of Christianity I got involved with and see those problems immediately. Others will persist in that system for years, even their whole lives, by turning a blind eye to the inconsistencies and issues inherent in its practices.

Outsiders see that self-delusion and ask how people can simply not see what’s happening. How can Christians not notice that their system doesn’t do a thing it promises to do?

How can they not see that their system is broken beyond all hope of repair?

Here is part of the answer:

Christians think that they’re pursuing a greater good and avoiding a greater harm than exists in reality.

The Greater Good (The Greater Good).

In the movie Hot Fuzz, policemanofficer Nicholas Angel investigates a series of strange “accidents” taking place in a little English village called Sandford. (There’ll be some spoilers here, but the movie’s almost 10 years old, so hopefully I’m not wrecking anybody’s day. If you haven’t seen this movie already, hie thee to a streaming service and git ‘er done.) Sandford is run by a powerful cabal of elders who are willing to go to any length to preserve what they keep calling “the greater good.” This idea of “the greater good” is so important to Sandford’s elders that they have a kneejerk reaction whenever the phrase is said: they all repeat the phrase in unison whenever anybody says it–even if Nicholas Angel is the one who says it.

The “the greater good” is Sandford winning the title of Best Village every year. In service to that goal, they are willing to commit atrocities for the stupidest reasons. One of the movie’s funniest aspects is that Nicholas Angel figures out exactly who’s doing what, but his reasoning is actually quite coherent while the elders’ reasons are beyond lame. He works out this huge conspiracy to prevent land being developed, but the real reasons for all these “accidents” are petty and retaliatory: one woman is killed for her silly laugh, while one man is killed for having too ostentatious a house. “The greater good” is so important that the elders will kill over the smallest infractions–and they’ve racked up an impressive body count by the time they’re stopped.

Sandford’s elders overlook the very real harm they’re doing in reality because they’re after a purely imaginary benefit, which in this case is gloating rights for having the nicest village in the country. It’s like an equation in their heads, this weighing-out of the damage they’re doing versus the good they think they’re accomplishing.

I don’t see a whole lot of difference between the equation Sandford’s elders are calculating and what I see happening in fundagelical Christianity these days.

The weighing-out itself, the idea that we must balance real harm with sometimes-intangible good, isn’t the issue in and of itself. Most people are aware of the old saying about shouting “FIRE!” in a crowded movie theater and how that idea applies to any suppression of free speech. We have to carefully consider, as a society, the effects of legislating against free speech–to weigh out the dampening impact this legislation has versus the public good we want to accomplish by not allowing people to freak others out and cause riots or panics.

Sometimes we fail grandly at this balancing act. Fifty years ago, comedian Lenny Bruce was arrested for saying naughty words in public. In some parts of the world, people can still be arrested for simply criticizing their country’s rulers or regime, but in most enlightened countries we’re well aware that naughty words and criticism are part of the necessary give-and-take of a free society and even often form the grease on the wheels of much-needed change. We’re also a lot more aware of how anti-blasphemy and other anti-free speech laws are often used by those in power to suppress all criticism and prevent that change from ever happening.

In all cases, we have to carefully weigh the damage we’re doing with the public good we want to achieve. We have to be able to demonstrate that this public good is so important that the damage becomes acceptable–or at least an acceptable risk.

What I’m talking about isn’t just something governments and religious bodies worry about. Every one of us has to do this balancing act in our everyday lives. Is the good you’ll get from calling in sick today worth the risk of being fired over absenteeism? Is the fun you’ll get out of buying that video game worth the risk of running short on bills later this month? Are the downsides you avoid by skipping that flu vaccination (time, expense, side effects) worth the risk of getting the flu?

If the risks or benefit are either so nebulous as to be inconsequential in the real world or else out of balance with the action being considered or taken, then we are rightly skeptical of the person urging that action.

That’s the main reason why Christian efforts to suppress equal marriage are failing so grandly. When we ask them to demonstrate the very real harm we’re risking in allowing equal marriage to happen, about all Christians can come up with are purely imaginary if not ludicrous threats: predictions of “a fireball from space” hitting the earth if same-sex couples are allowed to access their right to marry, nebulous (and largely debunked) concerns about same-sex couples’ parenting skills, preposterous concerns about the meltdown of American society or the persecution of Christian bigots-for-Jesus who continue to oppose this right, and a drumbeat of (largely erroneous) claims about how opposite-sex marriage is the only kind of marriage their despotic tyrant of a god approves of. They can’t come up with any real reasons to suppress this right–and one can’t help but think that the reason for their inability is that there really aren’t any.

To the Christian bigots in question, though, these imaginary reasons, even if they are totally debunked and don’t play out in reality at all, trump the risks of suppressing the civil rights of a whole swathe of American citizens. These imaginary risks are so scary to them, and the theoretical good they think they’d do is so compelling to them, that they’re totally willing to bully and persecute many thousands of Americans and destroy every foundation of our nation.

And that’s exactly the problem with most of the agendas and platforms of the Religious Right.

The Adherents of A Broken System Don’t Care About Reality.

Last time we talked, I shared the question that a Baptist minister asked about the near-constant eruption of sex scandals out of his end of Christianity:

So when I heard about Joe [Raleigh], was I surprised? No, but I was sickened. Just like when I heard about Timothy Thompson. How do we get to this place, where this stuff happens?

Here’s the first part of his answer:

Because the behavioral model his religious leaders have set up for their followers was created because those leaders care more about nebulous, imaginary risks and rewards than they do about the very real harm they’re doing by endorsing that model.

Ever hear the saying “too heavenly-minded to be any earthly good”? My mom used to say that. It means to be so focused on the future that one doesn’t care about the present. Now, obviously we should be planning for our futures and not just focusing on the present. Mom was all about denying herself short-term rewards if it meant very real long-term benefits. What she objected to–and what I myself object to–is the idea of doing harm or denying good to oneself or one’s neighbors in the present because of an idea of the future that has not been credibly established as a sure thing that’s really going to happen.

Christians are doing all this terrible stuff to themselves and their neighbors because they think it’s going to make their god happy and help everyone get to Heaven (especially themselves, because ultimately screw everyone else as long as they get theirs). They justify doing all manner of harm because they’re acting out of a care for “the greater good” (the greater good). But nobody’s ever credibly established that this god exists, much less that there’s any kind of afterlife at all. Nobody knows if there are any supernatural beings watching us or caring what we do, much less what such beings want out of us–if anything at all. There’s no reason to suppose that Christians’ conceptualization of the afterlife is more correct than anybody else’s just because they seem certain of theirs.

When the terrible things Christians do backfire on them, their response is usually to do more of it, harder, because they refuse to make that connection between what they’re doing and what happens as a result. They consider it a laudable personal goal to be no earthly good–something to which they should aspire. One of the most popular hymns my church used to sing was “This World Is Not My Home”, for chrissakes. I was taught–and see Christians similarly being taught today–that whatever good people think they’re accomplishing in the here and now in their lives is totally meaningless because they’ve got an eternity staring them in the face after they die. The only meaning there can possibly be in this life is found by doing stuff to ensure that someone will go to Heaven and by creating more followers (through birth/childrearing or evangelism) who will in turn go to Heaven: by perpetuating the system, in other words.

And the end-goal of that system, a blissful eternity of stuffing one’s face, jeering at those being tortured in Hell, and praising Dear Leader, isn’t something that even the most die-hard believer could ever credibly support with evidence.

Stripping Away Reality.

Christians are thus encouraged to look only at a future that is not only intangible but also impossible to credibly say for sure is coming at all. Any time anything happens to threaten their participation and belief in the system, they are discouraged from using reality and evidence to evaluate what they’re seeing and experiencing and to keep their focus on the unproven future they are told is in store for them. They cannot be allowed to consult or even trust reality, because that might lead them to start asking all sorts of uncomfortable questions!

Reality itself is not only stripped away but denigrated as a source for use in critically assessing how effective the system is and how much good or harm it’s doing. Christians like Pam Stenzel, the screaming prophet of abstinence-only miseducation, declared to a crowd of fundagelicals in 2013 that she literally doesn’t care if what she’s teaching lying about to kids works to stop them from having non-marital sex because she only cares about perpetuating the system that she thinks her god will like best. She and Christians like her feel that they can go hog-wild doing as much harm as they like by appealing to that unknown, unproven supernatural being’s approval as a rationalization for their behavior.

When someone’s dealing with a future containing an impossibly-huge risk, then any action, no matter how harmful, can be rationalized away. Christians themselves rationalize their harm constantly with quips like “oh but but but what if a bus was bearing down on you?” They know that we view what they’re doing as harmful, but their strategy is to convince us that they’re doing this harm for our own good. Yes, it’s all very sad that they must be our Designated Parents because gosh darn it, no child likes being spanked or denied candy for dinner by their parents (which is an analogy I have literally heard them use, often), but we’ll thank them one day when we finally see the risks they see.

And when we pooh-pooh their visions of harm–their fireballs from space, their OMG WON’T SOMEONE THINK OF THE CHILDREN, their out-of-control buses, the fury of their Dear Leader, the fires of their horrific Hell–and slap their hands away from our rights, then they are genuinely shocked that we aren’t afraid of the same things they’re afraid of.

What I want you to notice, however, is that their goal at that point becomes to find a way to phrase their threats in a way that sounds more frightening and to figure out some sneaky way of gaining the control they want to wield over us, not to find evidence that their threats are really something that a reality-based society should take seriously.

And let me tell you: they really don’t like it when the rest of us short-circuit their Pretendy Funtime Game by intruding on their fantasy with reality.

Tethering to Reality.

If someone thinks that a system produces real-world good or real-world harm, then that person needs to produce real-world evidence to support that idea. If someone wants others to change their behavior in the real world, then that person needs to provide compelling evidence from the real world that this change is needed.

When evaluating a social system or proposed idea, we look not at the unproven maybe-one-day future or what it should be doing, but at what it actually is doing in the here and now.

When we’re talking about how real people behave in the real world, then yes, reality matters. What people actually do matters more than what they feel, what they think, what their motivations might be, and what their fears and hopes are. Those things certainly influence what people do, but at all times we must be tethered by reality or else we can go seriously astray by trusting stuff that cannot be proven.

Real-world claims need real-world evidence for themselves or they will be dismissed.

Someone who can’t manage to find real-world evidence for claims is someone to watch out for, because that person is going to be able to justify and rationalize pretty much anything. Systems that similarly rely on unproven, unverified claims will similarly encourage their most extreme followers to do pretty much anything in service to their goals.

By tethering our systems to reality, by demanding evidence in support of claims, by refusing to entertain threats that cannot be demonstrated as credible with real-world observations, we’ll avoid a lot of trouble–and get ourselves out of trouble if we fall into any.

But Christianity can’t do any of that, and so its adherents are free to run wild causing harm without worrying about being stopped. There’s no real way for their fellow adherents to criticize them or to pull them back, because nothing in the religion is based on reality. Who’s to say that a mild, compassionate, liberal Christian’s version of the religion is “better” than the wild-eyed fundagelical bigot-for-Jesus’ version of it? You and I have our own opinions there, but to Christians, there is literally no way to correct or guide anybody else except through emotional manipulation and appeals to authority.

Christianity, therefore, is based on a very faulty premise–and that makes the whole rest of it suspect. Next time we’ll tackle why its adherents seem so categorically incapable of behaving the way the religion says they should. You didn’t think that was an accident, I hope! Hypocrisy is a feature and not a bug in this religion, but the problem goes a lot deeper and causes more trouble than I’d initially suspected.

BONUS KITTENS:

I totally did not pose them. They were just sleeping like this. If you're wondering, I took a dozen photos of them and eventually the flash woke Bother up, at which point she began chewing on Bumble's ears. (Bumble is on the left; you can tell because his nose is filthy.)
They sleep like this. (Bumble is on the left; you can tell because his nose is filthy.)

See you Sunday.

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