Attempting to clarify Catholic doctrine back in the fifth century, St. Augustine wrote: “Insofar as human nature is concerned, there is nothing better than mind and reason.” If he’d left it at that, we could applaud his insight at that early time. Unfortunately, he went on: “and yet the person who wants to live happily should not live in accordance with this. Our mind should not be self-contented but should be subjected to God.”
The happiness St. Augustine prescribed is the contentment of not having to ask or answer questions. The belief that human beings should subdue their greatest asset to some outside power—that they should disown the quality that distinguishes them from other living things—is essentially a denial of humanity. If this belief had been rejected fifteen hundred years ago, and humans had instead accepted the mind’s potential for ultimate responsibility, we might by now have attained a happiness of quite another dimension.
Avoidance of responsibility, linked to a desire for dependent innocence, is core to the Christian tradition and is shared by the other Abrahamic religions—Judaism and Islam—both also based on belief in one all-powerful, controlling deity. The originators of the Adam and Eve myth posited a creator who condemned the attainment of critical knowledge—the knowledge of good and evil—as the worst of sins. In reality, the human capacity for moral judgment is the pinnacle of evolution. Knowledge of the concepts of “good” and “evil” changed humanity’s relationship to nature. Continuing to exist as constituents of the natural world in which they had evolved, humans now took on a role not attained by any other beings: they became responsible for their actions. What was to happen to them and to the world around them was no longer completely up to nature.
This attainment of rational, decision-making thought was essentially the birth of human potentiality, of freedom. To label it “the Fall” may be one of the great mistakes in all of human history.
Christianity has never accepted the existential fact that a return to irresponsible innocence is simply impossible, just as we cannot unlearn how to split the atom. Rather than responsibly facing the consequences of our choices between good and evil, Christianity and other religions focus on a need to somehow get right with an offended deity, which must provide salvation and restore innocence. This urge to escape responsibility has come to pervade what is accepted as normal in the United States. Even our monetary declaration that “In God We Trust” and the ubiquitous political call for God to bless America exemplify the desire for innocent dependency. They nudge us further toward irresponsibility, away from critical thinking, and away from the acknowledgment that distinguishing between good and evil is entirely up to us. Where Christianity undertakes social action, the action is based on supposed instructions from the supernatural rather than human judgment.
Almost two hundred years ago, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s dramatic poem “Prometheus Unbound” gave us a stellar literary treatment of the potential power of human thought. As personification of the human mind, Prometheus makes a momentous choice of empathy over vengeful self-interest, and thereby creates a radically rejuvenated social order based on love and community. Embodying the power of independent thought, Prometheus overcomes the oppressive constraints of religion—represented by the god Jupiter. The process in Shelley’s poem is quite the opposite of the subjugation demanded by St. Augustine.
Religion’s insistence that human beings cannot bear to be responsible has suppressed human potential, much as Jupiter kept Prometheus chained to a mountain through the ages. It’s hard to imagine how many wars would have been avoided, how much narrower the gap between wealth and poverty would be, and how thoroughly racism and other prejudices might now be rejected if the challenge to the mind had not been thus blunted—if free, original, and uninhibited thinking had always been the essential aim of education and social policy.
There is an alarming worldwide trend (as exemplified by Trumpism in the US) toward repression, ignorance, and crudely capitalistic selfishness—which, whatever the present state of religion in the world, has been fostered by doctrine such as St. Augustine’s disdain for free thought. The stakes are profound: democracy, human compassion, and our survival on the planet are at risk. Humanism provides our best hope for redemption by applying scientific, responsible methods combined with far-reaching empathy.
To be a true humanist is to take on the challenge and the responsibility of choosing good over evil, not just in our personal lives but in empathizing and identifying with all people. Humanists must now take the lead in moving humanity to responsible action.