Not sure how much of this story I've posted here before, but let me give you a little rundown on what's been happening so that the rest of this post can be put into the proper context. I met someone I really, really like... unfortunately, among the many potential problems with the relationship: I'm an atheist but he's a Christian. (Throw in the fact that I'm seven years his senior and it's a big mess.) Fortunately, he's brilliant, pro-science and a liberal Christian, so all is not lost... there is also that matter that I think he thinks of me only as a friend, or else he's afraid of another relationship, very mixed signals on that score, but that's another story. We haven't really talked that much about religion. I think he's actually been avoiding it on purpose. However, the other day we got into a big discussion over email about it. (You gotta love people who try to explain religion by an allusion to science fiction... you just do.) It was a very cordial discussion, but he said something at the end of one email that caught my attention:
I do wrong and I do it often in fact I am tempted to do wrong right now...
I was a bit puzzled by this comment. He was trying to explain, I think, how he feels that god's love helps him through hard times, but the "tempted to do wrong right now" part really struck me. What is he tempted to do? Is is objectively wrong? Or only "wrong" by Christian standards? I'm not tempted to "do wrong" most of the time. What's going on?
I spent a lot of time thinking about it while I was supposed to be listening to Nehemiah. When I got back last night, I sent him the following response (any too personal references editted out):
I was thinking about this a lot on the drive back from PA today (family reunion), and I've always been frankly a little puzzled by the Christian concept of temptation. I mean, believers often like to tell atheists that they can't possibly be moral without god because if there was no god, the believer would have no restraints on their behaviour and would simply go around behaving like a complete sociopath. Therefore, they reason, atheists must be just like them, and so, without god, they must be complete sociopaths, too. (IF you can call this reasoning.)
Assuming that we are not talking about an agentive temptation, I'm of course familiar with the idea. I have a personal battle with depression (and overeating to "medicate" it), and I struggle with that kind of personal temptation all the time. Not every day, but sometimes for days on end. But that hurts only myself. The kind of temptation that would hurt other people, that I don't really experience on a regular basis. In fact, hardly ever in the last 7-8 years. When I was in my early 20s and I was in a lot more emotional pain, a lot more depressed, and much more immature, I did lash out in ways that were not socially acceptable, mostly lying and stealing in a very passive-aggressive way, often at anyone near me whether they deserved it or not. But I never worried about the "temptation" part of it. I worried about the outcome of it. And when I finally dealt with some of the problems through my own analysis and in therapy, I was concerned about the outcome, that I do the right thing, not the struggle to resist temptation. So this emphasis on temptation, to me, is fundamentally quite puzzling.
As I look at my life at this moment, when it comes to dealing with other people, with social behaviour, I don't really experience temptation at all. (Let's set aside for a moment my long-term personal battle with depression and its consequences.) As I go through some of the really important social virtues in the person of the last 5-6 biblical commandments (ignoring all the church-related ones, which I obviously don't care about, and setting aside the honouring parents thing). I mean, there is the problem of the number of rules one has to follow. I mean, I have three principles I try to live by: know myself and be true to it; consider the consequences of my actions; always do for others what I'd hope they'd do for me. Easy. When you start throwing in not eating shellfish or wearing blended fabrics, you're gonna be tempted an awful lot more often because you run into the rules so often, and a lot of them don't make any sense. Not to mention I've never been really big on just doing what I was told without a damn good reason (will have to tell you about my 2nd-grade self sometime). But for the sake of argument, let's start with not bearing false witness. Lying is not something that comes naturally to me. In fact, I have a much bigger problem with social niceties that *require* me to lie than most people. I prefer truth. I want others to tell me the truth. It's impossible to deal with the real world if everyone is afraid to speak the truth. (A serious weakness in really mastering Japanese, that's for sure! Not to mention diplomacy.) Of course, part of the issue with lying, it seems to me, is the concept of shame. People lie to avoid being shamed by something they did (or more broadly, to manipulate others). Christianity promotes the concept of shame. But I feel no shame (or very little). There are things that I've done that I regret, but in order to do right by them, I have to be honest, and promoting shame makes me want to hide what I've done. When I was really in a deep emotional hell in my late teens and early 20s, shame was a big problem for me. My dad treated me like a failure; and I felt like a failure. I *was* hiding something and lying to cover it up only came naturally. Shame feeds the lie. And then the lie creates more shame. It's a vicious cycle. But facing the truth at all times means there is no room for shame. If you know you will have to be honest about it later, you are less likely to do something you will find shameful. And if you do mess up, as we are wont to do, since we aren't perfect, regret and real consequences together with complete honesty motivates one not to make the same mistake again. So where is the temptation to lie?
Suppose we look at not killing people... okay, I've never killed anyone. And I can't say, other than wanting to kill myself as a teenager, that I've ever really *wanted* to kill someone. I did have a temper problem when I was younger, but usually just reminding myself that I don't want to clean up the mess was enough to keep me from breaking things. (Laziness is a virtue!) And while I'm sure I could hurt someone if I really needed to, to defend myself, I have no particular desire to hurt people. So I have no temptation whatsoever to hurt anyone physically. When I was younger and more immature I did tend to go off on people verbally, and sometimes people take my truth-telling that way, but again, I don't concern myself with the wanting to say something... I concern myself with did I say it or not. But is there a particular temptation to violence in general? I don't think so. I'm not that mean-spirited.
Suppose we look at coveting property... When I was younger and stole things, it was a passive-aggressive way of "punishing" people for perceived wrongs. But now that I am older and more emotionally stable, I have no particular inclination to steal anything, even when I was pretty poor in grad school. I don't ever think about breaking into some place to walk off with goods I haven't purchased, or anything of the sort. I don't shoplift. I'm not even tempted to do these things. It doesn't cross my mind. Do I want things that other people have? Sometimes, but so what? I buy them, or add them to my wish list.
And then there is the adultery one... well, Christianity--and a lot of other patriarchal religions--have made a big mess of sex in general. But again, I feel no particular temptation here. I don't feel like I have to sleep with every beautiful man or woman that crosses my path. And even if I contemplate it for half a second, there is no desire to compel it. When it comes to relationships, I demand two things, the same two things I've always demanded: high intelligence, and love. Period. Nothing else will do. No compromise can be had. I have often been told that my standards are too high, and that I should consider letting them down a bit. Maybe expressing more interest in people who like me but who fall short in the brains area, or maybe just going out and accepting casual sex as a stop gap release. But I have never compromised on this. And I have never felt particularly tempted to do so either (except on one particular occasion). I've had occasion to test this from time to time, and I have always walked away from situations that fell short of my standards. This comes from a combination of self-respect, and knowing myself extremely well. I cannot separate sex from love as some would have me do. I can't do it, and I don't want to learn. It would hurt far too much. And I won't settle for coming home to someone I can't have a real conversation with just because they think they love me (such a scenario would inevitably wind up with me having nothing but contempt for them, and probably hating myself). *cut* So, I'm not running around having great hedonistic sex as atheists are often portrayed. I feel neither shame nor temptation on this score. I will meet someone one day or I won't. When I am interested in someone, that’s a good thing, not a bad thing to be suppressed. But like I said, tempted.... not really.
So, I don't really get this whole temptation thing. Temptation is either not something I experience anymore with a certain level of emotional maturity, or else it's not something that I consider terribly important. I can't change the thoughts that flit across my brain at any moment; I can only control my actions, and to a lesser extent, my emotions, not the random neural activiations of a handful of brain cells. Actions and emotions are things I care about. But temptation... I mean, it's like the Catholic Church used to tell me that if I thought about doing something bad, it was as bad as doing it, and that's just complete nonsense. This is just another way of controlling people.
But having said all this, when I think about times that I was not only tempted to do bad things, but actually did them to some extent... I was a very unhappy person then. I was emotionally wounded, and very immature, even emotionally stunted. And I did do things and think things that were essentially sociopathic (I didn't have a lot of empathy for my perceived "enemies", for instance). When I think about what I was like then, and Christians tell me that without their god, without the threat of eternal damnation, or his love or whatever, that they would behave this way, I have to think about the way that I was feeling back then. (Of course, even with religion, a great many people still behave quite badly, and just use their religion as a rationalization for lashing out at others anyway, but I digress.) I am forced to come to two conclusions: that the believer (in the abstract) is emotionally immature, or in a great deal of pain and probably feeling a lot of self-loathing. I have little sympathy for those with only the former problem, but I feel a great swell of pity for those in the latter camp. Maybe their belief is necessary to make them functioning members of society, but it also seems terribly codependent. The idea that there are that many people out there, especially in the US, that are really among the walking wounded... wow. Maybe there is also another alternative: therapy.
It just seems that the focus on temptation appears to be self-destructive from my perspective and promotes a kind of dependence that is unhealthy.
Don't misunderstand me. I'm not trying to attack your beliefs or anything. It's just that I guess I feel a level of "peace" (if that's the right word) that I don't think your offhand comment implies. I'm just trying to understand what's behind that. You don't strike me as a raging homicidal maniac.
This morning it occurred to me... maybe there really are that many walking wounded in America, and the obesity epidemic is caused not by a culture of excess, but by emotional eating?
I haven't received a reply yet, and frankly, I expect that I won't. Now, though, if I could just deal with the temptation of procrastination!
Oh, I may have also gotten myself into a close reading of the New Testament. I did insist that it had to be in the original Greek. :) But that will take FOREVER. I'll post my translation as I go, but don't expect that any time soon. I'll have to dig out the first six lines of John I already did. Don't worry. I'm quite comfortable in my atheism. No book is going to convince me to believe in god, especially one with as many problems as I already know the New Testament has. Nothing wrong with becoming an amateur biblical scholar is there? Too bad I don't know ancient Hebrew. :) (just kidding)