Musings on Religion (x-posted to my tumblr)

There’s an old quote from the Christian author and apologist C.S. Lewis that a lot of folks–Christians and conservatives, sure, but others as well–seem to like. I think it’s this one:

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

I wonder, though, if Mr. Lewis ever thought more deeply about this. If he had, he might have concluded that a theocracy, or even any form of governance without strict separation of church and state, would be more nightmarish than any other. If a man blessed by his own conscience is a cruel tyrant, would not a man blessed by God be the cruelest yet? He would inflict upon us the most exquisite torments–the rack, the stake, the cat o’ nine tails–all with the blessing of not only his conscience but his God as well.

After all, would not the misery our theocrat spreads be justified in the name of faith? Would not burning an “infidel” alive be worth saving the faithless from an eternity of hellfire? Would not the destruction of books and the burning of libraries be excused if it stopped a seed of doubt from growing in even one innocent heart? Would not the slaughter of entire populations, the spilling of oceans of blood, leave only the faintest trace on the conscience of a ‘Godly’ ruler, if committed in the name of the Greater Good–everyone’s Good, in fact–called evangelization?

If Mr. Lewis ever gave this some consideration, I wonder if he might have understood why many people–religious and non-religious alike–have viewed even minor extensions of religion into public life with such a jaundiced eye.

Now, don’t go thinking I’m hardcore anti-religion or anything. And it’d be simplistic to condemn *too* much the ‘extension of religion into public life’–the role of the black church in the Civil Rights movement was one such extension, and that worked out pretty well. But at the same time, I hope you can see why many (including Baptists, by the by) have been so enthusiastic about the separation of church and state.

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2 comments

  1. “If a man blessed by his own conscience is a cruel tyrant, would not a man blessed by God be the cruelest yet? He would inflict upon us the most exquisite torments–the rack, the stake, the cat o’ nine tails–all with the blessing of not only his conscience but his God as well.”

    Brilliant refutation of the Lewis position. I’ve met many who would think his thoughts on the “tyranny” of caring for others are insightful, but his “thoughts” are superficial at best. It all goes into how one defines “tyranny” as we see today in those who define any taxation as tyrannical. The issue in debate is always about the role of governance in given societies.

    “It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies.”

    His characterizing “Robber Barons” as sort of “off and on” rulers, is juxtaposed with the “omnipotence” he wold ascribe to “moralists”, setting up a false logical position. Are those who rule through rapacity any less harmful, than those who rule from their conception of morality? We are all capable of self-defining those we disagree with in absolutist terms and some like Lewis have the skill to make their definitions appear as wisdom, rather than the subjectivity of a closed mind.

    1. We are all capable of self-defining those we disagree with in absolutist terms and some like Lewis have the skill to make their definitions appear as wisdom, rather than the subjectivity of a closed mind.

      Yes, very good point. I’m not entirely unsympathetic to Lewis’ position; even well-intentioned projects and rulers can have effects opposite to their intentions. But as pithy as Lewis’s quote may be, it’s a bit sanguine when it comes to the ‘robber-barons.’ Pessimistic as it may sound, I’ve seen precious little evidence that cupidity and rapacity ever sleep, or can ever be sated.

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