“There is but one way to know the truth, and that is not a golden one. It is fraught with toil and sacrifice and perhaps ridicule. The seeker of the truth must be fearless, he must not be afraid to enter the innermost holies of holies, and to tear down the veils of superstition that hang about any human and so-called divine institution. It is the truth that makes men free. If the truth tears down every church and government under the sun, let the truth be known and this truth only will be known when men cease to swallow the capsules of ancient doctors of divinities and politics; and when men begin to seek the truth in the records of history, politics, religion, and science.”
Charles Austin Beard, 1898
Whence Cometh Conscience
It has been a staple of Christian teaching that the conscience is ”God given”. If we take a close look at this premise it does not hold up well when compared to logic, reason or other Christian teachings.
If the conscience were of divine origin would it not be the same with all peoples–God not favoring one person over another. Yet, we see that people of different cultures have different content in their conscience. For example, the primitive woman in Africa who throws her oldest child to the crocodiles because her conscience tells her it is her obligation to do so. How many mothers in America or other modern civilized countries would even consider such a thing? Another example: Muslims have a strong conscience that tells them to do things Christians would not do because their conscience tells them something else. Is God the author of confusion?
Is it not reasonable that the conscience is made up of the things we learn? Otherwise why teach what is right and wrong? In doing so perhaps one may be tinkering with God’s perfect work. The Catholic Church says that if they can teach a child until he is 5-6 years old he will always be a Catholic. Why can the church make this statement? They know the conscience is formed during those years and that it is with difficulty that it changes later in life—especially when there is a prohibition against the person changing it. By teaching a prohibition against change we build in a protection mechanism; the prohibition becomes part of the conscience itself.
The conscience is nothing but a constellation of beliefs based on what we are taught. The Apostle Paul understood this when he spoke of his followers growing. He expected them to develop and change; and knowledge, experience and observations were the bases of that change. He said he had lived in good conscience always. What? Even while persecuting Christians? Yes, but when he learned something different he changed his conscience—he changed his belief/value system. Was it a God given conscience that he changed?
Thus, the conscience can be terribly wrong, but it can change. The institutions of our world (churches, schools, families) work very hard to shape the consciences of its members to conform to their beliefs and values.
All the while they undercut their teaching efforts by deifying the conscience; positing that its contents are implanted by God. Implicit in this internal inconsistency is the message that the efforts of humans to teach other humans a value system is useless; God has already taken care of that.
The Christian doctrine of a God given, rigid, inflexible, closed system conscience is internally inconsistent, illogical, and without reason or evidence. Psychosis has been defined as the simultaneous presence of conflicting ideas without resulting tension. We have often recognized that certain aspects of our society are psychotic/schizophrenic and here is another one; and a particularly pernicious one.
Modern day examples of the perniciousness of this doctrine are abundant.
- Public service cab drivers can refuse to transport a person because he has alcohol in his luggage because it violates his conscience,
- Pharmacists can refuse to sell birth control products because it violates his/her conscience.
- Doctors and hospitals can refuse to recognize a woman’s right to choose regarding birth control or abortion.
- The U.S. Federal government can reject a woman’s right to choose on grounds based in an archaic and flawed belief system rather than on scientific grounds.
- A United States president can stop funding for life saving research because it troubles his conscience.
Can it be that many of us in this age of enlightenment rely on an archaic belief system rather than on reason, knowledge, experience or scientific evidence?
Don C. Marler