Nearly once a day I experience a sort of emotional flood that is constituted by the absolute immensity of the world’s problems and my utter inadequacy at even beginning to deal with them. When I experience these feelings, which might be brought on by climate change, cruelty to animals, blind consumerism, discrimination against the homeless, etc., I invariably also reflect on the consistency or inconsistency of these feelings. Have I always been like this?
The short answer is no, because in the past I had a life filter. This filter made it much easier to pursue day-to-day existence because I could justify my place in the world. I was a lowly and insignificant sinner that nonetheless God found valuable enough to preserve for eternity. I never thought much about the practical implications of this scenario; I was too focused on the supernatural ones. But the practical ones are much more important.
This filter drastically limited my concern in a few ways. By focusing my primary concern on my own insignificance and God’s paradoxical fascination with my individuality, my beliefs implicitly assured me that everyone was as self-focused as I was and that this was the way it was. It was not desirable by any means, but it kept shaping the sense of personal guilt that necessitated the existence of a divine being to solve.
It also shaped everything else in the world that wasn’t “me.” First, it told me that these things weren’t fundamentally my problem. Disasters, pollution, deforestation, and factory farming among others were not things in my power to change, and God had them in control anyway, so why duplicate the worry? Any problem in the world was up for negotiation based on this paradigm, but the anthropocentrism of Christian belief removed most non-human concerns from the picture.
The problems of humanity were indeed problems, but as I’ve mentioned before the problems were not poverty or hunger or preventable disease but unaccounted sin. Therefore the Christian diagnoses only one primary problem, sin, with myriad different faces. Once it has diagnosed, it prescribes, and the prescription is as uniform as the diagnosis: salvation.
Here’s the interesting thing, though. I’m come to believe that it’s not the sense of guilt that is wrong. That guilt really isn’t imposed by religion; religion just capitalizes on it, controls it and then promises to dull the pain. That guilt, that primordial “sin” is a constitutive part of being alive.
On this view, institutional religion has the problem fundamentally backwards. In its efficient manner, the institution notes that it is much more practical, effective, and satisfying (to the individual) to treat the symptoms than to perform the endless labor of searching for causes and addressing root economic, political, and social problems. But alleviating the pain of “sin” through the tantalizing promise of eternal existence removes the consistent invariable link we have to the world, that sense of guilt, of accountability for the injustice we face.
We are cowards in that regard, and often justifiably so. But we have an addiction that justifies our cowardice. One cannot expect the religious adherent to behave according to the interests of broader secular society. Why? Because the believer faces the constant concern of their drug being diluted. Follow this process. The individual experiences feelings of helplessness, aloneness, inadequacy, fear, inability, etc., and seeks a remedy. The religious tradition diagnoses these as problems that can and should be remedied and provides a “pill” for it. This pill, however, comes with a long list of instructions and counter indications, one of which is that the accommodation of other treatment frameworks, or even less alternative understandings of the nature of the problem, will lessen the effect of the pill, or perhaps prevent it from working entirely. Fear of withdrawals from addiction are strong, usually strong enough to override external concerns or alternate ways of thinking. If one drug solves all your problems, then it should solve everyone else’s as well.
It is an uncomfortable thing to recognize the extent to which you are not only inextricable from the world in which you live, but accountable for its ills. When I teach ethics, I find that student beliefs about the world are not really motivated by a sense of right and wrong, even though they will profess maxims and truths as if they are the source of their ethical behavior. Rather, their views are often shaped by their perceived ability to do something about the issue. The more distant they feel from an issue, the less able to grasp it, the more students are likely to utter phrases such as, “That’s just the way it is,” or, “It’s our nature.”
When dealing with poverty and the question of social supports like welfare, the concern invariably arises that there are those who take advantage of the system. It is difficult for us to imagine how those, when provided with some modicum of financial and/or social support, don’t immediately throw away their addictions and coping strategies and throw themselves wholeheartedly into becoming productive citizens like the rest of us know we are. Yet we are abusers too. We abuse in a much more socially acceptable way. Comparatively we may do no great harm, but few do, on their own. The system does not brook dissent or difference well. The difference between the lower and the upper echelons of society is that the latter have elaborate and well-established institutional means to mask their exploitation of societal norms, and the former do not.
We are intolerant of substance abuse in impoverished communities because it has no veil to hide behind. You earn the right to alter your consciousness only to the extent that you can lie to yourself about what it is and convince society to go along with the ruse. Which is a more powerful drug, the one that allows you to escape your problems for a day, or the one that rearranges the entire world in your image and eliminates your concern for things beyond yourself? Perhaps in the end, they all perform the same function.
I note this all because if we hadn’t the institutional support of a conflation of symptom and cause, more would be able, in the rawness of pain and obligation, to encounter contemporary issues and work toward effective solutions. Not only would we understand symptoms and causes appropriately, we would not be side-tracked with protecting our own addictions, and mistaking them for the solutions.