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Virtue Without Law

[I just read this in Tao: The Watercourse Way by Alan Watts, pp. 83–4.]

The superior man [or woman] goes through his life without any one preconceived course of action or any taboo. He merely decides for the moment what is the right thing to do.… The goody-goodies are the thieves of virtue. [Li Chi 32, The Wisdom of China and India by Lin Yutang, p. 835]

In other words, a true human is not a model of righteousness, a prig or a prude, but recognizes that some failings are as necessary to genuine human nature as salt to stew. Merely righteous people are impossible to live with because the have no humor, do not allow the true human nature to be, and are dangerously unconscious of their own shadows.… It is an essential, then of political wu-wei that one does not try to enforce laws against human nature and send people to jail for “sins,” or crimes without unwilling victims. Trust in human nature is acceptance of the good-and-bad of it, and it is hard to trust those who do not admit their own weaknesses.

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Original Sin

[This was originally part of a comment on a post about original sin at The Slapdash Godliness of a Good Girl.]

We can blame Augustine of Hippo for the idea of original sin. As such, it is one of the most hellish inventions of mankind.

Let me recap. God wanted to show everyone how infinitely loving he is, so he created Adam and Eve and put them in a paradisaical garden knowing that they would break his rule about eating of the fruit one particular tree. When they broke his rule (just like he knew they would), he cast them out of paradise into a torture chamber inhabited by a malicious demon he refuses to rein in. Adam and Eve and all of their children suffer at this demon’s hands. He creates earthquakes, floods, plagues, famines, pestilences, and all manner of suffering to punish Adam and Eve’s family for the time back in paradise when their first parents dared to eat that fruit that God tempted them with. Before the demon can do this, however, he must get God’s approval to make sure that no one who believes in God’s love suffers more than necessary, such are the protocols of the heavenly bureaucracy. Satan is on God’s payroll, doing all the dirty work God doesn’t care to do.

Millions upon millions upon billions of people are tortured and killed in this torture chamber with God’s approval. God’s sense of justice demands that God punish all of humanity for Adam and Eve’s sin of which they had no part and for choosing evil themselves, just as he created them to do. He couldn’t show his love if people didn’t suffer, so his plan from the beginning was to create humanity in such a way that they would certainly sin, torture humanity when they sinned according to his plan, and come to their rescue.

Seeing his plan was going well (what with all the suffering and dying going on), it was time for God to show his love, so he took on a mortal body. After being tortured for a day or two, he gave up and died. (Or even worse, he tortured and killed his own Son to make up for his own actions.) This made God feel better about the suffering of all the billions of people who he’s banished to his torture chamber.

If God let all those tortured souls live forever in paradise, it would probably make up for all his hellish sadism. Yet he still put a condition on humanity’s relief from suffering. They had no choice to come to this nightmare chamber in the first place. He never asked them their preference beforehand, yet they bear the final responsibility for getting themselves out. They must first believe—while still being tortured—that he loves them. Not only that, they must love him in return. Anyone who can’t muster the credulity necessary to believe that, anyone who doubts his love in the face of all his sadism, anyone who doesn’t thank him for the chance to suffer and die at his behest will go on suffering forever in an even worse torture chamber reserved for the skeptical and the ignorant.

God sounds like one hell of a cult leader.

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Moral Compass

It was hot, unpleasant work in the middle of of a muggy upstate New York summer. My missionary companion and I had volunteered to help a family in the ward take down some old plaster. The plaster dust and real horsehair made the job even more unpleasant. The mother of the family introduced us to her daughter, a blue-eyed beauty just a few years older than we were.

I sensed instinctively that she had been one of the cool kids in high school. In all the strange circles I haunted in high school, I never got much respect from the cool kids. They relegated me to the periphery of social life. So when this woman was kind and friendly to me, it caught me off guard. It wasn’t long before I was smitten by her beauty and attention.

We learned that she had two sons and had been excommunicated from the Mormon church for giving birth to the first outside of marriage. She had wanted to remain a member of the church, but she found herself on the wrong end of a branch president who demanded too many details about her sexual experiences. Disgusted, she didn’t show up to her church court and the church leaders tried and excommunicated her in absentia. She had hard feelings because her father had maintained a temple recommend while sexually abusing his daughters. The inequity between the two situations pushed her farther from the church.

She became our project, to get her rebaptized.

We spent a lot of time with her and her family. We ate a lot of dinners there, mowed their huge back lawn, fixed problems with their house. I even bought the kids the Sonic and Knuckles expansion cartridge for their Sonic the Hedgehog 2 on the Sega Genesis.

Things started to get a little weird after a couple of months. She and my companion sat next to each other on the couch one night, sharing a blanket. “It’s cold.” I wasn’t sure, but I thought they might be holding hands underneath the blanket. Then there was the time they accidentally watched a movie which showed a topless woman. “Oops!” Or how often we sat next to her in church with him next to her.

It became more and more obvious—even to me, Captain Oblivious—that there was something going on between them. This has to stop, I thought. It should have been me that she liked.

Jealously, I contacted my mission president and told him what I thought was happening. He reassigned my companion elsewhere, she was heartbroken, I got a new companion, and we were banned from the home that we had spent so much time in. That was how our six month companionship ended.

The mission president gave me a pat on the back for doing the right thing. He told me my companion had confessed to sneaking out in the middle of the night to meet with her and make out. My former companion later thanked me for getting him back on the straight and narrow. I felt like a punk. I didn’t turn informant because it was the right thing to do. I did it because I wanted to get my companion out of the way, to take revenge on him for stealing her away from me.


How often have I done the right thing simply because it is the right thing? As I look back on my life, the answer I come to is never. The reason I do things is because I want to do them. It only happens that most of the time what I want coincides with the moral thing to do, as it did in this story.

Even when I do something primarily because its right to do it, I am really motivated because I want to feel good about myself; I want to avoid a guilty conscience, or I can’t bear feeling empathy for the suffering of another. It all comes down to what I want, mostly irrespective of any moral law.

If God came down tomorrow and told everyone that he rescinded his moral law, that we could sin as much as we want with no consequence in heaven or hell, would human civilization descend into perdition? Would we break the hearts of our family by abandoning them? Would we take advantage of children and the mentally retarded? Would we kill babies for the fun of it? What sins would we commit that we aren’t committing already?

I can’t think of any.

I behave the way I do largely for reasons other than the moral law as taught in our houses of worship. I always have. Becoming an atheist has freed me from all religious constraints of heaven or hell, yet my behavior is mostly the same. I don’t cheat on my wife because I don’t want to hurt her. I don’t take advantage of people because I hate injustice. I don’t kill babies because that is repugnant to me.

I’m beginning to live my life according to the Law of Thelema: Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law… Love is the law, love under will. I do what I want, like I always have. The only difference is that I am now unashamed of the actions that the pious would label as sin. I don’t sin more, just with a free conscience. My mental energies are now focused on real problems in my behavior, not petty stuff like drinking tea, or working on Sunday.

The moral law that I live didn’t come from above. I comes from within. It is the product of my true desires. I don’t need a fictitious deity to bully me into acting morally. It’s what I already want. You might want to give credit to God for creating me that way, for writing his law in my heart, but then he must also take the blame for all the sinning that I’ve done.

I prefer to take all the responsibility to myself.

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