Sunday, June 04, 2017

Sunday reflection - the highest good can be perverted to become the worst evil.

Professor Clive Staples Lewis (usually referred to as C.S. Lewis) is best known as the author of the "Narnia" stories but he was also a distinguished amateur theologian.

One of the most important moral insights in his writings is that the greater the potential of a person, an organisation or an idea for good, the greater it's potential for evil if it goes wrong.

As he rightly pointed out, all of the most powerful forces for evil in history had characteristics which in a better cause would have been called good, and all the worst human beings in history had strengths which in most people we would consider virtues.

It could hardly be otherwise: without strengths, be it courage, intelligence or charisma, the worst tyrants in history would never have been in a position to do much damage.

Lewis applied this argument both to those who wanted to improve society - in principle a good thing - and to religion as well as to individuals.

He argued that faith in God and a wish to do the will of God are normally a good thing, and prompt millions of people to try to be better human beings than they might otherwise be, but that when faith becomes corrupted it is one of the worst evils there is.

As Lewis argued, cynical egotists who inflict cruelty as a route to power, wealth or security will show mercy as soon as they believe it is in their interests to do so, while those who are cruel from sadism may occasionally show mercy when their lust for cruelty has been slaked. However, those who believe that their cruelty is part of the path to a better and more just society may regard it as their duty to continue being cruel even when they might prefer to stop, and those who believe that God Himself wants them to punish those who think differently will never show any mercy at all.

Hence, in spite of Lewis's strong Christian faith, he thought that among fallen human beings Theocracy - rule by the church - would be the worst possible form of government because when it fell into error it was least likely to show moderation.

It was not difficult for Lewis to point to examples from history of those who were led by the perversion of noble ideals into hideous crimes: he could (and did) point out the distinction between the noble ideas of communism and the murders carried out by Stalin's regime and the OGPU (a fore-runner of the KGB) and he could (and did) point to the Crusades, the Inquisition and other crimes committed in the name of God to build a very convincing case.

The likes of DA'ESH (the so-called "Islamic state") and the suicide attackers behind the acts of terrorism we have seen in London, Manchester and London again provide a fresh and still more terrible example of Lewis's point and of the evil to which human beings can sink precisely because they believe they are working for the highest possible cause.

In reality, of course, they disgrace that cause.

I do not believe for one moment that Jihadi extremists are representative of the faith of Islam as practiced by the vast majority of British Muslims. Most Muslims will be horrified by the attacks in London which has been condemned by Muslim leaders.

Harun Khan, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, said Muslims everywhere were "outraged and disgusted at these cowards who once again have destroyed the lives of our fellow Britons"
.
He added: "That this should happen in this month of Ramadan, when many Muslims were praying and fasting only goes to show that these people respect neither life nor faith."

None of this was, in Lewis's eyes or in mine an argument that either religion or the secular causes which extremists have chosen to serve are necessarily wrong in themselves. he argued that the higher the cause you are trying to serve, the more you need to watch out for the trap of believing that any action can be justified in the service of that cause.

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