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Certainties

By Leila Marie Lawler (articles ) | May 11, 2005

An axiom of modern belief holds that some things about human nature improve with time, and these improvements take place in defiance of the repressive effects of Christianity – thus proving religion wrong, or at least not really necessary.

When a Catholic tries to advance the doctrine of Original Sin and doubts the perfectibility of man, he can be sure to be met with a couple of examples of how, once the shackles of his benighted faith were overthrown, things definitely got better. The abolition of slavery, for instance, represents for humanists the noblest argument for history's march through progress. Another case might be how the mentally ill now receive the humane treatment that only enlightened scientific practice can bestow.

This certainty of moral progress achieves its status in part by particular identification. Once we associate slavery with slavery of a particular people at a particular time, we no longer recognize it when it occurs in other circumstances – it's actually been defined away.

The same thing happens when injustice to the insane brings up images of men in straightjackets drooling in dank medieval hospitals, or when genocide is equated with the attempt to exterminate a certain race. Having made the specific association, we are unable to locate an abstraction in another time, another place, happening to other people.

You may occasionally read about wretched women who are forced by economics to leave their children and homes – to be beaten hopelessly at the hands of their masters in another land ; or the insane who find themselves in cold prisons, alone with their tormented minds.

Somehow one can't, these days, categorize these tragedies as the result of our fallen condition, to be fought against by the fight of virtue as of old. Far less does one notice any suggestion that the increase, even ubiquity, of such occurrences may be the direct consequence of the prevailing ideology.

Just as identifying slavery exclusively with what happened in colonial America makes it invisible today, so ascribing it to religion makes it impossible to imagine another motive for one person to enslave another. Yet it must be clear that slavery can't be caused by Christianity, since the slave-trade flourishes in this post-Christian world.

No, the injustices, where acknowledged at all, are simply to be seen as the unintended double effects of a society pursuing important goals: the comfort of those liberated from the imperatives of old moralities, and the enriching of the insatiably rich.

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  • Posted by: - May. 11, 2005 11:38 AM ET USA

    The injustices are accepted because they are thoroughly infused with a "Messiah" complex, the neocon ideology. If only someone will give them and their leader, the latest incarnation of the Messiah, all secular power to kill off the few recalcitrants, they will do what God couldn't do: make this world perfect!

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