Saturday, November 14, 2009

Love and sacrifice

In Catholic school as vicious as Roman rule
I got my knuckles brusied by a lady in black
And I held my toungue as she told me, "Son,
"fear is the heart of love"
So I never went back

I Will Follow You Into The Dark, Death Cab for Cutie

In his comment to Dagood's post God’s a Big Human, commenter OneSmallStep asserts that God's love does not "humanize" god. I'm not at all interested in whether anyone's imaginary friend is or is not human, or can or cannot be humanized. I'm much more interested (and appalled) by OneSmallStep's assertion that God's love expressed as the sacrifice of Jesus (presumably per John 3:16) "matches the definition of love we all have."

This assertion is arrant nonsense. OneSmallStep's definition certainly does not match the stated definition of love that atheists have, it does not match the stated definitions most non-Christians have (neither Islam, Buddhism nor Hinduism place much theological importance specifically on sacrifice, especially a deity's or supernatural power's sacrifice to humanity) and, if we look at people's actual behavior, does not match even Christians' definition of love, at least as applied to other human beings.

Love is of course a very complicated set of emotions, attitudes, beliefs, behaviors and ethical standards. But we can extract obvious commonality from observations of human behavior: love is characterized by trust, cooperation and mutual benefit. I've been married for almost six years now: I love my wife and she loves me. Before I met my present wife, I raised two children: I love them and they love me. Yet in any larger sense, I've sacrificed nothing to either my wife or my children. It is certainly the case that in every way, economically, materially, and emotionally, both my wife and I are much better off than we would be alone. To a certain extent, I made economic "sacrifices" to raise my children, but that sacrifice was not to them, it was a trade of a lesser value to a greater value of my own: my self-image and self-esteem. They certainly had no choice in the matter, and whatever I gave up for my own does not place any sort of obligation on them, not even for gratitude. Whatever love we feel for each other has nothing to do with what I sacrificed to raise them, and everything to do with the trust, cooperation and mutual benefit we gain from acting as a family.

Indeed most civilized, healthy people consider the connection between sacrifice and love in ordinary human life as at best creepy and neurotic (e.g. the stereotypical (and misogynist, racist and false) "Jewish mother" who manipulates her children with guilt) and at worst literally insane (e.g. people who commit suicide "for love"). Few think (and no one should think) that a battered wife sacrifices her own physical well-being for her "love" for her husband (she does so out of fear), and no one would or should admire her if she actually did so out of "love".

I suppose that under extraordinary circumstances, if my tail's in a crack, I would probably sacrifice my life to save my wife or children... I might even, out of "love" for humanity, sacrifice my life for a stranger. But such a sacrifice would be an act of desperation. It isn't love, not really, and it's certainly not the definition of love. As much as I love my wife, I don't want to sacrifice anything for her benefit. I could, in theory, make the "ultimate sacrifice" and commit suicide, but I don't think my wife would consider that an act of love: indeed she would be well-justified to consider it an act of hatred and violence towards her. Even if I made suicide look like an accident so she would gain considerable material benefit from my life insurance, she would consider it more loving for me (and better for her) to stay with her in poverty than kill myself for her wealth.

The narrative becomes even more absurd when we consider the "sacrifice" of Jesus in the context of the whole Bible. First, it's not really that much of a "sacrifice": death has no meaning for a deity. Secondly, the sacrifice was entirely gratuitous: an omnipotent deity by definition cannot act out of desperation. And the sacrifice was to "atone" for a "original" sin that's nothing more than a blatant frame-up. No, the resurrection of Jesus has to be seen even within the context of the Christian narrative (absent, of course, the "faith" a Christian must bring to that narrative) as nothing more than an opportunity for Yahweh to awe the masses with a cheap magic trick. OneSmallStep would have us belief that the definition of love that everyone has is exemplified by a deity sacrificing itself to itself to atone for a sin it itself engineered. This definition is not just perverse, it's completely ridiculous.

So why elevate sacrifice, at best a peripheral, accidental and extraordinary component of love, to its very definition? And why, as does OneSmallStep, blithely attribute this definition to everyone?

Guilt is a powerful human emotion, and one of the most powerful for manipulating others into doing what you want. If you can elevate sacrifice to the definition of love then you can on the one hand use sacrifice to create obligations, and on the other hand you can justify demanding other people sacrifice themselves: You're not working twelve hours a day and living in poverty? You must not love your employer.

In a follow-up comment, OneSmallStep tries to use war as a justification for his definition of love:
Our definition of love -- how we define love -- includes an aspect of sacrificing objects or even people of value (and I would say that we have instances where we do "sacrifice" people of value. Wars, for instance, if people encourage their family or friends to fight for a greater good). I'm not focusing on the morality or lack thereof of the parent sacrificing the child, I'm simply focusing on how the element of sacrifice ties to the definition of love.
(Notice how sacrifice becomes not the definition of love that everyone has, but an "aspect of" or "tied to" the definition.)

But more importantly, and more shockingly, the effect of this exposition is not to justify love in terms of war, but to justify war in terms of love. Wars are never fought "for the greater good", they are and have been from time immemorial fought to settle disputes between factions of the ruling class du jour. (We didn't, for example, fight the Germans in the Second Imperialist War because they were killing Jews, or the Japanese because they were massacring the Chinese. We fought them because they were trying to expand their colonial power at our expense. That we happened to rid the world of a few of the world's many nasty characters was just a bonus.)

We can see the fundamental and unavoidable danger of "moderate" religion. I've been reading OneSmallStep's commentary on Thoughts from a Sandwich for quite some time, and overall he (?) seems like a reasonably nice person, although — quelle suprise — somewhat fuzzy of thought. To be a "moderate" of any religion, one must buy in at least somehow to that religion's core narrative. But all religions are rotten to the core; a supernatural or "faith" justification for any principle is necessary and has any long-term legs only when that principle lacks rational support. And principles without rational support achieve persistence in any society only when those principles allow the ruling class to exploit, oppress and abuse the ruled class.

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