Religion and Responsibility

A person’s belief system is the deep down way they look at the world. Their belief system is not necessarily what they think they believe. It’s the beliefs that motivate them and really determine their decisions and actions. When we speak of belief systems we’re talking about what a person believes whether he knows it or not. When I was doing some prison work in England I asked the guys what they believed. I said everyone has a belief system. One fellow spoke out, “I don’t believe in anything.” I nodded and said, “Then that’s your belief system. You don’t believe there are belief systems, you don’t believe there’s anything to believe in, and that in itself is a belief system called Nihilism.”

The problem of the two nations–those who earn and pay taxes and those who receive benefits and feel entitled–is that there are two underlying belief systems. One is that of personal responsibility. The second does not believe that personal responsibility is possible. The choice between these two world views is determined by many different factors, but at the foundational level the belief is a theological belief, and that belief determines the way a person behaves.

Christianity–and especially the Catholic expression of it–is the one belief system that fully endorses personal responsibility. All other religions and expressions of Christianity are, to a greater or lesser extent, either fatalistic or freewheeling. Religions like Islam and Calvinism so extol the providence of God that they negate or denigrate personal freedom. Religions like Hinduism and evolutionary atheism are ultimately fatalistic–your future is decided by your karma, by your genes, or by the chthonic forces of evolution. In all these belief system options there is a kind of fatalism. What will be will be. You can’t really do anything about it.

Fatalism on the one hand, freewheeling on the other. The religions that push God to the margins like Buddhism and Deism  grant man freedom, but remove the consequences of a God who judges them. God is uninvolved. He is a distant deity–a force without a face. Man can pretty much do as he likes, and the only consequences are built in to the choices. This, of course, means that might makes right, for the strong will ensure that the consequences of their actions bring benefits. The point is that there is no external judgement or objective external justice. Similarly, Atheism denies the afterlife, so there is also no judgement and no ultimate reward or punishment–therefore the sense of personal responsibility is deflated. You may do as you like. There is no hell to pay or heaven to win. With the first set of belief systems you don’t really have much choice. Your choice is pre determined in one way or another. In the second set of belief systems you have choice–but there are no real consequences so it doesn’t matter what you do.

Catholicism, on the other hand, insists that each individual has personal freedom. Free will is God’s gift of a little bit of his omnipotence to each one of us. We can do what we want. However, there are consequences. Each decision; each action has not only a consequence, but an eternal consequence. There is Hell to pay and Heaven to win. What you decide and what you do matters–not only to you as an individual, but to everyone else. Your decisions and actions reverberate throughout society and throughout eternity. This is because, while God has given you free will he is also the just and merciful judge. By all means do what you will, but be prepared to accept the consequences–for both good and ill.

This belief elevates man like no other religion. It is through this theological belief that Western man has made all the progress in every area of life that he has. When a man really believes that he can change things and really believes there is an ultimate just reward he is empowered to make positive and lasting choices for change. A genuine belief in personal choice and ultimate consequences is therefore the foundation for personal responsibility. It is only within a truly and fully Catholic world view that real personal responsibility can flourish.

I am speaking theoretically. I realize that in real life it is not so black and white. There are many complex reasons for individuals to lack personal drive, personal responsibility and the ability to take control of their lives. Many of those reasons are greater than their control at a given time. I realize that there are many who are truly needy and who wish to take personal responsibility, but life and it’s sorrows have caught up with them, and society and it’s injustices are weighing them down.

However, in saying this, there are significant numbers in our society on both sides of the socio-economic spectrum who do not live with a sense of personal responsibility. It is so easy to blame the scroungers and welfare cheats and deadbeats for being dependent and not taking responsibility for themselves, but let us not forget the fat cat financiers who commit legal fraud, the wealthy stock brokers who bankrupt a whole country for their own gain, the super rich scam artists who make millions out of conning other people. Let’s not forget the international corporate bankers and demagogues who wheel and deal in smoky back rooms manipulating politicians and world events–starting wars and bringing the poor to their knees. These people also function with no sense of personal responsibility. They think they will get away with it. They believe they will not have to pay for their crimes.

Their lack of personal awareness and personal responsibility for themselves and others is far worse than the layabout who refuses to work and will not or cannot get a job. Their criminal lack of responsibility is, as the Church teaches, a sin that cries to heaven for vengeance.

There are them, two sides to the question of religion and responsibility: the ability to act freely and the reality of final judgement on our actions.  When both aspects are fully affirmed mankind can be truly free and truly responsible, and where individuals are truly free and truly responsible a nation can prosper.