• First published in 2004 as Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion (BNOR).

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Peter Oborne Mangles Religion

Daily Mail hack Peter Oborne provides what is perhaps the most preposterous opening to an article on the global financial crisis from a serious journalist:

Western civilisation was founded upon one astonishingly revolutionary idea: free will.  This doctrine, taught by Jesus Christ 2,000 years ago, held that all human beings are responsible for their actions.  Sinners went to Hell. Criminals were punished. Debtors were sent to prison.

This philosophy prevailed for centuries and did not come under serious challenge until Karl Marx made the compelling case that rather than being subject to free will, everyone was a victim of uncontrollable social forces.  Sigmund Freud had a similar message  –  undermining the idea of individuality by arguing that we are all driven by our subconscious, and therefore shaped by urges we cannot begin to understand.

As a result of these two great intellectual powerhouses, the idea of individual free will became subverted.

…And the upshot of that was that stigma surrounding debt collapsed in the 1960s, leading to reckless borrowing and now demands for bail outs.

Journalistic attempts at grandiose and sweeping openings are usually risible, but this has to be one of the worst examples I’ve ever seen. Firstly, where exactly does Jesus pronounce on the subject of “free will”? Secondly, “free will” was discussed and disputed by Greek philosophers centuries before Jesus, and the debate has continued ever since. And rather than teaching simply that “sinners went to Hell”, the traditional Christian view is that everyone is a sinner and that the only way to avoid damnation is through Christ’s Atonement – which is actually a cosmic-scale “bail-out plan” for the unworthy. And just because Oborne went to a posh Catholic school (Sherborne) doesn’t excuse ignorance of some strands in Protestant theology: Calvin on free will is a more complex subject than is often supposed, but the perception that he opposed it has been influential for a long time. And here’s Martin Luther:

So, if we believe that Satan is the Prince of this World…and that he does not let prisoners go unless he is driven out by the power of the Divine Spirit, it is again apparent that there can be no “free-will”…

One Response

  1. Also, isn’t the general Catholic position that people should use their free will to do precisely what they are told to do and virtually nothing else?

    This is some frighteningly simple religious philosophy he’s poking at.

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