Christopher Hitchens is fond of pointing out that Jesus convicted people of thoughtcrime, and I’ve used this line myself. After all, the gospel of Matthew records Jesus as saying:
You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment…
You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
One atheist author reacts:
No longer are we only responsible for what we can control- our actions. Suddenly, our very thoughts and feelings condemn us.
Responding to another commenter who leveled this charge against Jesus, Christian reader dgsinclair said this was an “Interesting reading of Jesus’ call for inner purity rather than just outward obedience to rules.”
That got me thinking.
One of my tools for testing my biases is this: When I hear a charge leveled against some view, especially when it’s a view I already disagree with, I check to see if the charge can be equally applied to my own view. This helps me to see more clearly whether the objection is valid.
So I asked myself: “Do non-religious theories of morality convinct people of ‘thoughtcrime’ in this sense?”
Yes, I think. Some of them do, anyway.
Jesus is hardly the only person to have said that people’s inner lives, not just their behaviors, are of moral concern. In fact, many theories – including desirism – argue that our inner character and motivations are of great moral importance. After all, our actions result from our inner character and motivations.
So perhaps it’s not fair to say Jesus convicted people of “thoughtcrime.” Or else, lots of moral theories convict people of “thoughtcrime.”
On second thought…
But maybe there is something special about Jesus and thoughtcrime. The Jesus of much Christian orthodoxy (especially Protestantism) condemns people to hell for having the wrong beliefs. According to large swaths of Christianity, the worst sin in the world is to lack certain propositional beliefs about Jesus and his role in salvation.
Right now, I can’t think of non-religious system that delivers such condemnation on people for having certain beliefs. Indeed, it’s not clear that beliefs are a matter of choice at all.1 Think about it. Can you choose, right now, to clap your hands? Yup. Can someone who wants to be a vegetarian train her desires away from wanting to eat meat by watching videos of animals being tortured in food processing plants every day? Yup.
But can you choose, right now, to believe you have a third hand? Nope.
We believe something according to how plausible it seems to us. We can’t choose to believe things that don’t seem plausible to us.
I could be wrong about that, and would love to see some research on the question. But either way, perhaps it is fair after all to say that the Jesus of much Christian orthodoxy convicts us of thoughtcrime in a way that no secular theory of morality I know of does.
What do you think?
- I mean to say it’s not clear that beliefs are a matter of choice under a compatibilist notion of free will. [↩]