by Peter Wells

Jesus is reported to have critiqued the seventh commandment as follows: 

You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Mt 5:27-28, New Revised Standard Version).

The principle seems clear. It’s not enough to avoid the act of adultery. You have to avoid wishing to do it. Not in the sense of never being tempted, but in the sense that ‘you would if you could.’ To persist in wishing to do a bad thing is as immoral as to do it. So, when Jesus came to comment on the sixth commandment, you’d assume he’d say something parallel, like this:

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder,” and, “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that … everyone who looks at someone with murder in his heart has already committed murder.

However, what Jesus is actually reported to have said at this point is this:

if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool,” you will be liable to the hell of fire.

In other words, insulting someone, or calling them a fool, is the equivalent of murder.

Whether you are a Christian or not, it’s a thought that deserves to be reflected upon.

Calling people ‘stupid’ is a common move in arguments, personal, political or religious. It was immensely popular when we (in the UK) were discussing Brexit. As for religion, it seems to appear in the Quran, but not as often as I had thought, and it’s in the Old Testament (The fool hath said in his heart, ‘There is no god’) and the New (‘O foolish Galatians’). The word can be, and sometimes is, an exhortation to the faithful (‘You’re not foolish, of course’), or a cry from the heart of a loving friend (‘Please don’t be so foolish’). But it is most commonly used as a put-down, and liberals are no less guilty of this than members of religious groups (possibly more guilty, but that may be because they can’t deploy threats of eternal damnation). The Logical Positivists tried to dignify the process when they characterised all metaphysical statements as ‘non-sense,’ but what they really meant was nonsense without the hyphen: rubbish.

To treat the opposition with lofty disdain, implying that their views are so unintelligent that they are simply unworthy of any sort of respect or response, may seem impressive, if there’s an impressionable audience around, but in fact it is almost invariably counterproductive. If it does not hurt the victims, it makes them angry, and causes them to respect the views of the insulter less, rather than more. There is no chance that the insult will move their position closer to that of the insulter (quite the contrary), and it is extremely unlikely to change the opinion of a neutral, rational or fair-minded audience. No one likes a bully.

So why is it done?

It seems that most people believe that their value system is an overarching vantage-point from which other systems can be judged. Liberalism, the value-system I inherited from my father, is no exception to this general principle, not only in that it arrogates the right to judge other value systems, but also in the fact that it has no more right to do so than any other. Like adherents of religious systems, liberals cannot, in general, make the leap of imagination involved in realising that their value system is just one of many, and that there is no vantage point from which liberalism can be compared with religions, or religions with each other, or non-religious systems with each other.

So other people’s views can be challenging, and force liberals as much as religious people onto the defensive. This is when we sometimes say ‘You fool.’ Is it anger,  – frustration at not winning the argument? Fear at the thought the opposition might be right? We should be grateful that we live in a society where debaters can do no worse than shout insults.  Jesus, for making perceptive but challenging remarks like those quoted above, was crucified, and Socrates, for challenging the orthodoxy of his time was forced to drink hemlock.

Fortunately, this does not mean that it is impossible for people in different religious or ideological groups to communicate with each other. In the first place, there is clearly a good deal of porosity between ideologies. There are many similarities in their moral codes. Also, there are different types and sub-types of Christian, Moslem, Marxist or Liberal – the groups are not monolithic. People can belong to more than one group; for example, a good many Christians in the West are also liberals (or Liberals), and according to the Oxford Dictionary of Islam there are or have been Islamic Marxists. What is more, we are also divided in terms of other criteria, such as gender, or age.

This is worth mentioning because faiths, including secular faiths, such as Communism or Liberalism, are not just collections of metaphysical statements. The philosophical or theological systems are only part of a general cultural identity and not all the adherents understand or care about the relevant philosophy or theology. Christianity, like other faiths, is not so much about what you believe, as what you are. Few Christians could explain the doctrine of the Trinity, and even fewer could explain why Arianism was a threat to orthodoxy (and not many would be worried by this). The ‘Protestants’ and ‘Catholics’ in Northern Ireland were not in conflict over the status of the Virgin Mary or the infallibility of the Pope; their conflict was (is)  between two cultural groups, identified by race, language, history and locality. Similarly, few of the middle-class Westerners who live by the code of 21st century Liberalism could identify past or even present exponents of the philosophy.

So it seems to me that it makes sense sometimes to treat religions and ideological groups, in the same way as gender or age groups. This way of looking at groups helps me to understand why it is that adherents of a faith so often fail to live up to its scriptural demands. Christians do not always love each other, or their enemies; Buddhists are not always compassionate, and Moslems do not always follow the example of their Prophet, who is described in their literature as a peacemaker, slow to anger, tolerant, and sympathetic to the weak and vulnerable. But if members of a religion are a community comparable to, say, the population of Los Angeles, or all red-haired people, there is no reason to expect them to be more virtuous than any other group. Women are not nicer than men, nor vice versa, and ditto the young and the old. And Christians, no matter how much I would like them to be, are not always very nice.

It also helps me to understand, to come back to my original point, why words like ‘foolish’ and ‘silly’ (and worse) are so often deployed in various types of arguments. (‘Worse’ is the suggestion that ‘because you don’t believe the same things as me you must be insane, or psychologically troubled’). As a move in a serious argument, debate or discussion this is so obviously worse than useless that it seems odd that the strategy is used at all – unless, that is, the participants are not conducting a discussion, but a sort of war. The aim of most arguments in the real world seems not to be to decide upon the truth of an issue but simply to humiliate, browbeat, and generally damage members of the opposing group. Arguments between different religious groups, or between religious and non-religious people, strongly resemble the endless trench warfare between men and women, or the young and the old, in which the real aim cannot possibly be to decide which group is more virtuous, or more intelligent, because that is impossible in principle. Similarly the efforts of racists to prove that people of other races are inferior to members of their own race.

However, the fact that people live in communities bound together by features which those in other communities don’t fully understand is not a reason for despair. Not only are the boundaries flexible and porous, but people belong to multiple communities. Jewish women and Muslim women are both women; an old Christian and an old atheist are both old.

This situation opens up all sorts of channels of communication. Not only are we not doomed to silence and incomprehension; it could be said that the meaning and purpose of life lies in exploring the complex and fascinating universes inhabited by other people. The ultimate adventure is exploring the complex and fascinating mystery that is another human being. And not dismissing them as ‘stupid,’ or ‘fools.’