Even today, the public discussion about moral and political issues is no longer framed in an explicitly religious context, but the change in terminology only conceals the all-pervasive influence of the unexamined theological ideas underlying it. Our vocabulary has changed, of course: We no longer speak about the soul but about the psyche; we have exchanged original sin for inherited, psychological guilt. But the cultural soil on which these ideas flourish has remained the same, and all too often our worldview is inherently religious without our even realizing it.…Christianity is the religion of the suffering God. Christ was made flesh and had to die, to be tortured to death, thus allowing God the Creator to forgive humanity for its wickedness. Holbach and Diderot wrote all there is to be written about the perversity of this argument, but even the most irreligious of Westerners still believe in the positive, transformative value of suffering. We have all internalized the Romantic stereotype of the solitary, suffering genius (a figure almost singlehandedly invented by Rousseau in his Confessions). We love stories in which people triumph over adversity, in which they are almost crushed by wickedness or misfortune, only to emerge again, to be resurrected. This kind of story is found in many cultures, but not in all. The ancient Greeks attached no moral value to suffering. After journeying around the Mediterranean for twenty years and surviving many dangers, Homer’s Odysseus is older—but not a wiser or better man.
I’m liking this book a lot already. The desire to root out “unexamined theological ideas” underlying supposedly non-religious principles, at least for examination if not eradication, has been one of my own personal little missions. Souls, afterlives, moral significance permeating the universe, a teleological progression to existence, apocalyptic/utopian thinking, and so many other manifestations of an essentially religious frame of mind are very common even among people who complacently pride themselves on not taking direct orders from preachers and holy books.