oseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness (the inspiration for the film Apocalypse Now) tells the story of Charles Marlow, a sailor hired by a Belgian trading company to skipper a river steamboat in Africa. His assignment is to wend his way down a river in the Congo, deep into the heart of the jungle, to pick up an employee named Mr. Kurtz who has fallen ill. Kurtz has a reputation as a fine fellow and “an emissary of pity, and science, and progress.” He is in charge of an important trading post, and it seems he does an excellent job because he turns in as much ivory as all the company’s other trading posts combined. But something has gone wrong. Kurtz has fallen under “the heavy, mute spell of the wilderness,” awakening in him “forgotten and brutal instincts, by the memory of gratified and monstrous passions.” He has come to be revered as a god by a group of natives. He leads his men on barbarous raids on surrounding villages in search of ivory. When Marlow finally meets him, he finds a man whose “intelligence was perfectly clear… but his soul was mad.” Marlow is eventually able to retrieve Kurtz. They journey back toward civilization, the sickly Kurtz lying on a couch in the pilot room. But Kurtz is too far gone to finish the journey. Marlow witnesses Kurtz’s final moment, and hears his famous final words:
I saw on that ivory face the expression of somber pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror—of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision,—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath—
‘The horror! The horror!’
The horrible secret about human nature that Marlow learns from his interaction with Kurtz is that it is all too easy for the veneer of civilization to be stripped away from a human being, and then that person is capable of really anything, including despicable acts of cruelty.
It is said that when Genghis Kahn conquered Beijing, the massacre that ensued left the streets greasy with human gore. It must have been a ghastly scene. History is littered with such scenes. From the last century, the Holocaust is the most famous act of genocide to us in the west, but it is not the only one. Let us not forget the brutal murder of Muslims by Christian Serbs in Bosnia (where, amongst other horrors, children walking down the street were shot by snipers); the butchering of Tutsis by Hutus with clubs and machetes in Rawanda; the atrocities of the Killing Fields of Cambodia; the blood bath known as “the Rape of Nanking” conducted by the Japanese in China; the starvation of Ukrainian farmers by Joseph Stalin, not to mention his Great Purge; and the massacre of Christian Armenians by Muslims in Turkey. For body count, no atrocity beats Mao Ze-Dong’s Cultural Revolution. For shocking depravity, the experiments conducted upon prisoners-of-war and the local population of Manchuria by the Japanese during World War II at (and around) the infamous Unit 731 take the cake. Then there was the invasion of Tibet by China, the purges by Kim Il-sung in North Korea, the Red Terror in Ethiopia, the persecution of Marsh Arabs by Saddam Hussein, and the list goes on and on.
Anyone who has studied the Holocaust or similar events in history knows that the premise of Heart of Darkness is true. There is no evil that can be imagined that a human being is incapable of enacting. Where people are permitted and encouraged by their in-group to steal, rape, torture, and murder, many of them do so, and with gusto. It is not that we lack a natural moral sense (though some of us do), but that, especially when our self-interests are involved, other forces in the human psyche can overpower or bypass the moral sense.
This bleak truth is partly why we form governments, not to mention religions. We do not want a world of serial killers and rapists. We acknowledge that society would fail if unchecked aggression were the norm, so we charge our government with enforcing social harmony. Governments make rules that apply (ideally) to everybody. There is an implied contract in civil society. I agree not to murder even when it’s in my self-interest, and in return I receive reasonable assurance that I won’t be murdered.
Suppose, though, that a time arose when a particular murder was in my self-interest and I saw that I could get away with it. I could commit this murder without endangering the assurance that I myself will not be murdered. Why not do it? What force is intimidating enough to deter me?
It need not even be the case that my moral sense fails. Perhaps my unique moral code is permissive of an occasional murder. What is there to enforce a common morality?
Here religion comes to the rescue with two important constructs: moral absolutism and a supernatural justice system. If we all follow the same moral code, let’s say the Ten Commandments, then we’ll all be on the same page that yes, murder is never acceptable. With an omniscient judge to try us in the hereafter, combined with an escape-proof supernatural prison, it is impossible to get away with breaking the rules. The Bible, God, and Hell. The combination of universal rules, perfect enforcement, and petrifying consequences should convince anybody not to transgress.
And that is why in the history of Judaism and Christianity there has never been a single murder.
Actually, the homicide rates in Christian countries tend to be relatively high. Astronomical, even.
While at first blush religion seems to have cobbled together a workable solution to the problem we’re trying to solve, the solution does not, in point of fact, work very well, at least in the case of Christianity (Islam is a more complex story). Perhaps the best piece of evidence that supernaturally-enforced morality does not dissuade dark hearts from their atrocities is the history of child rape by priests in the Catholic Church. Priests understand and buy into Catholic doctrine, and yet the doctrine does not deliver them from evil.
Additionally, absolutist morality introduces its own set of problems. Firstly, the rules do not change even after they stop making sense. The example I used in the section on the Bible is the rule in Deuteronomy that compels raped girls to marry their rapists. We have no use today for Deuteronomy’s attitudes toward rape.
Secondly, religious morality is manipulative and oppressive. It operates by instilling shame, guilt, and, above all, fear. We are coerced to believe in things that have no evidence, and threatened with death or damnation if we fail to comply. The brain becomes locked in a gunfight between common sense and ritualistic reality negation, with sanity caught in the crossfire. The intense pressure creates a state of desperation. The only way out is to drink the punch – to stamp out reason and embrace self-deception. (And then we are commanded to love – to love! – the tyrant responsible for this mental abuse.)
This sort of oppressive morality diminishes quality of life and it’s difficult to believe it is sustainable for our species over the very long term. There must be a better alternative.
Thirdly, religious morality frequently results in the abdication of moral reasoning, which, I would argue, is the very root of the Kurtz-like savagery that religion should stand against.
As I’m a vegetarian I immediately see one glaring example. The Bible contains no clear admonition against the kinds of abuses animals in human care now suffer. Factory farms hadn’t been invented yet in the time of Moses. In Exodus, God gives explicit instructions on what to do in case of goring by a bull but is silent on beak trimming, forced molting, or skinning live animals. If it’s not in the Bible then most Christians don’t care. They are convinced they are moral and so they do no moral reasoning, and this makes them capable of really anything.
Another glaring example, of course, is terrorism. Here, the peaceful religion of Islam shows its ugly side. The noble Koran states that the killing of one innocent is like killing all of mankind. Noting this, by my math and understanding of the Drake equation, the 9/11 hijackers murdered the moral equivalent of all human-like beings in 1,000 galaxies. If that doesn’t condemn you to Hell then what does? These criminals sincerely believed, though, that they served Allah and were en route to Paradise. They wished to literally fly to Heaven. They saw the gleaming towers of the World Trade Center as tantalizing ingresses through the Pearly Gates. If the Koran does not actually teach that mass slaughter of civilians – including elderly people, pregnant women, and young children – is the doorway to a better life, then it has a funny way of being repeatedly misunderstood by its adherents.
People of faith fear that secularism will lead to ruin in the long run. I don’t agree with them but I understand their point of view. If I am to be honest, I must acknowledge that if the only alternative to religion is cold reasoning from self-interest, I’m not sure we’d be better off. Rational selfishness would still produce a moral code, and the code would likely be better than Deuteronomy, but it would be inferior to, for example, the morality of Jesus. A society of rationally selfish people would still have laws, police, and jails. They might even produce a Golden Rule of sorts. But their Golden Rule might contain disturbing caveats. “Do to others as you want them to do to you, unless you can surreptitiously slit their throats and dump their bodies in dark alleys without getting caught.”
That nightmarish scenario, though, has not actually played out. A 2005 study found that amid prosperous democracies, secular nations had lower homicide rates, lower suicide rates, and less venereal disease than highly religious nations. Within America crime is lower in parts of the country that are more secular.
Why is it assumed that the fact of existential purposelessness, if faced honestly, must result in unalloyed selfishness? Selfishness is in us. But so is selflessness. Both are possibilities and we have the choice. Our hearts can tip in either direction: into the dark abyss or into the light.