Sunday, June 2, 2013

Human nature? Or 'sinful' nature?

After taking about nine months to complete Eric Foner's Reconstruction I have finished Barack Obama: The Story (David Maraniss) and moved on to Taylor Branch's three volume look at America In the King Years, the first of which is Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954 - 63.  I'll possibly post something about the Obama story but for now I want to address something that I read two nights ago.

King studied theology and philosophy at Crozer (a seminary in Pennsylvania) and at Boston U., which is where he earned his doctorate.  He read and was impressed by the writings of Reinhold Niebuhr during this time. 

Quoting, from page 81:

King already was aiming for further graduate study when he first read Reinhold Niebuhr during his last year at Crozer.  The experience did not change his plans, but it appears to have changed nearly everything else, including his fundamental outlook on religion.

Apparently what Niebuhr did for King was not steer him toward a particular philosophy of religion, but rather away from any one, including Niebuhr's.   Niebuhr, in 1932's Moral Man and Immoral Society anyway, attacked "classical liberalism" in American theology.  (p. 82)

This is the bit that I will comment on (still page 82):

His chief target was the eminent John Dewey, the last American philosopher to have a large popular following.  Niebuhr ridiculed Dewey's notion that ignorance was the principal cause of injustice, stating instead that it was "our predatory self-interest."

If he stops here I agree.  He goes on:

There was no evidence, said Niebuhr, that human beings became less selfish or less predatory as they became better educated.  War, cruelty and injustice survived because people were by nature sinful.

This is where I begin disagreeing.  He had it, then he went past it.  He was a theologian so I understand why he did it, but I disagree. 

Essentially, I agree with Niebuhr that war, cruelty and injustice survive because of predatory self-interest.  He and I agree that predatory self-interest is in the nature of humans.  He goes on, though, to brand it as 'sinful.'  This I see no use for.  What does the word tell us about human nature?  Anything?   Nothing that we can use, I suggest.  What does he mean?  That those behaviors are contrary to what 'God' demands from us.  So the idea is that 'God' created us and made us a particular way (our nature) and then demands (I won't say expects because he must know we won't) that we behave in a manner contrary to our nature.  Under threat of eternal punishment in 'the next life,' or at least denial of some eternal reward.  

This clearly had little mitigating effect on the course of human civilization.  The very 'Bible' itself is rife with stories of 'God's chosen people' slaughtering their enemies and acting in a very selfish manner regarding land and resources. 

Classical liberalism then, came along and 'freed' men from thralldom to Church and King.  We can create a better society, they said.  We will first recognize that all men are created as equals, with equal rights.  Then we will set up institutions to guard those rights from 'predatory self-interest.'  We will create a better society. 

Liberals, in fact, went so far as to expound on the 'perfectibility of man.'  All men, even those that have been slaves since birth, can be lifted up and made, if not perfect, nearly so.  It just requires opportunity and part of that opportunity was education. 

Naturally many of these liberals were still theists and needed, of course, to factor 'God' in.  Only 'God' is perfect, therefore, to approach perfection one must draw nearer to 'God.'  Unfortunately this only drags them back into the old trap of trying to determine the will of an almost certainly imaginary (at the very least inscrutable) being and setting up societal rules accordingly.  Which can only be argued over endlessly.  Whose ancient writings actually are 'God-inspired' and whose are blasphemous 'forgeries'?  (I'm quite convinced that none of them are even 'inspired,' much less 'God-inspired.')  

So if religion isn't the answer and education is not either (I believe Niebuhr had that right.  Lot's of very educated people practice predatory self-interest.) then what is?  The best answer, I believe, is western liberal society.  Democratic institutions.  People know what they 'should' do, almost always, but they're selfish.  So our institutions are set up to protect us from 'predatory self-interest,' from 'war, cruelty and injustice.'  Or, as the Constitution states it, 'to establish Justice, to ensure Domestic Tranquility, to provide for the Common Defense and to promote the General Welfare.'  And goes on to establish a legislature, an executive branch and a judiciary to promote those goals.
Classical liberals essentially walked away from the idea of man as perfectible and started on society as perfectible.  Or at least, constantly improvable.  If we could just get people to accept religion as a personal set of choices and not a philosophy around which to organize human society I think we might even have a chance.     


  1. Wow, I was drifting a bit until the last paragraph you reeled me back in. I'll have another cup of coffee and come back again. Niebuhr huh, I will look into this.
    History or philosophy, which was your major?

    1. History major but my poli sci almost second major delved into philosophy a good bit. And we read some Niebuhr in my History of American Thought class. He had quite a bit of influence on American thought from WWI through the early Cold War years.

  2. Like Yellow Fringe, I had to read the last paragraph a couple of times. Completely agree with your premise. If people are willing to accept individual religious beliefs and tolerate those beliefs without forcing them upon others, we wouldn't have half the conflicts the world currently suffers. But you can't convince the believers to keep their particular beliefs to themselves, because the very basis of most organized religions is to proselytize and spread that particular strain of the virus. I know of no religion that advises its adherents to "keep it to yourself and mind your own business"... but I might simply be ignorant to a religion that does just that.

    If a society could be based upon the best philosophies of the various religions, maybe I could get my head around the need for organized religion in modern life. But any attempt to actually form a government or society based on religion turns theocrats loose on the rest of us, always to the detriment of us all.

    I just don't think we need the "opiate of the masses" to improve our lot in life, as individuals or as a society.

    Until we throw off the shackles of superstition and religious myths we'll never become a truly enlightened species.

    1. I don't know that much about eastern religions, squatlo, but they strike me as being more or less non-proselytizing. I believe we agree on western religions and their perniciousness.

      Many of the people involved have their 'hearts in the right place' but the basic premise is horribly flawed.

      People demand justice in this world and telling them to be meek and they shall be first in the next life is bullshit that most people refuse to accept. So they pay lip service to the tenets of their religion but don't actually practice it.

      If religion was meant to be a civilizing force (I believe it was) it can't work unless people actually practice it. All of it. Every last bit of it. Turning the other cheek and everything. But people can't. Time to move into the modern world.

  3. Kevin,
    The problem is that the evangelical fundalmentalist cannot separate religion and reality. And, as I have posted before - taking from the poor in order to reward the rich is not what Jesus preached.

    Simply put, you cannot be conservative and be a Christian both.

    Grisham has a new series of novelettes out called, "Theodore Boone" - I am starting on them - $5 at Sam's.

    See blog for medical update ...

    Good post!



  4. You need to update us on the local view of the Wisc. GOP making it illegal for UW professors to work with journalist???? What' it?

  5. Probably not going through ...

    More tomorrow.