Whence Cometh Conscience

The human conscience is a constellation of beliefs, values, principles, ethical constructs and social norms that have been learned and internalized. Rather than existing as a biological entity within us, it is a constellation of non- physical attributes organized by the brain.

All humans have at least a remnant of a conscience; some are rigid, some flexible and some are distorted beyond imagination. These variations are a result of the influences of formal teachings, identification with significant others (parents, teachers, authority figures) and positive and negative life experiences.

It has been a staple of Christian teaching that the conscience is ”God given”. That is, God implants the constellation of principles, values, beliefs, etc.    If we take a close look at this premise it does not hold up well when viewed in the light of logic and reason or when compared to other Christian teachings, other cultures and to common observations.

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. They feel compelled to obey the conscience; it is, to them, the voice of God.  Yet, no two people in the world have exactly the same content of conscience. 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, assuming that he determines the content of the conscience. 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? The church knows 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? Did God error in giving him his first conscience?

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 their members to conform to established beliefs and values.  All the while they undercut their teaching efforts by deifying the conscience, positing that God implants its contents.  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; and here, by holding the doctrine of a God given conscience while simultaneously trying to create one independently, is a particularly pernicious psychotic state.

Modern day examples of the perniciousness of this doctrine are abundant.

  1. Public service cab drivers can refuse to transport a person because he has alcohol in his luggage because it violates his conscience.
  2. Pharmacists can refuse to sell birth control products because it violates his/her conscience.
  3. Doctors and hospitals can refuse to recognize a woman’s right to choose regarding birth control or abortion.
  4. 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.
  5. 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?

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