And the Lord spake unto the philosopher, "I am the Lord thy God, and I command thee to sacrifice thy only son."
The philosopher replied, "There's something not right here. Your commandments say, "Thou shalt not kill."
"The Lord giveth the rules and the Lord taketh away," replied God.
"But how do I know you are God?" insisted the philosopher. "Perhaps you are the devil trying to fool me?"
"You must have faith," replied God.
"Faith — or insanity? Perhaps my mind is playing tricks? Or maybe you're testing me in a cunning way. You want to see if I have so little moral fibre that at the command of a deep voice booming through the clouds, I commit infanticide."
"Me almighty!" exclaimed the Lord. "What you're saying is that it is reasonable for you, a mere mortal, to refuse to do what I, the Lord thy God, commands."
"I guess so," said the philosopher, "and you've given me no good reasons to change my mind."
Source: Fear and Trembling by Søren Kierkegaard, 1843.
Baggini, J., The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten, 2005, p. 172.
In Kierkegaard's original text on this topic, the Danish philosopher was actually trying "to understand the anxiety that must have been present in Abraham when God tested him." Scholars think Kierkegaard may have been trying to work his way through the loss of his fiancee, whom he abandoned after a tortured decision-making process that he later often regretted. Perhaps, as a means of justifying his own uncertain decision after the fact, Kierkegaard used the parable of Abraham to develop his own idea of the need for a "leap of faith." As I pointed out in my blog post on Kierkegaard, "Perhaps the most oft-quoted aphorism from Kierkegaard's journals, and a key quote for existentialist studies, is: "The thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die.”
Readers of this blog will already be well aware of the dangers of such faith. It is the motto of the suicide bomber, as well as the potential child sacrificer. This is all obvious to Baggini too, who said in his own comments on this thought experiment:
"Before you say that God could never command such wicked things, remember that the God of the three Abrahamic faiths not only ordered the sacrifice of Isaac, but also condoned the rape of a wife as punishment to the husband (2 Samuel 12), ordered the killing of followers of other religions (Deuteronomy 13), and sentenced blasphemers to death by stoning (Leviticus 24). It seems there are no limits to what God might ask, and some people of faith will do."
Rather than continue to harp on about the clear winners and losers in this reason vs. faith debate, however, Baggini instead puts a twist on the Abraham story. He may have done so by turning to a theory about the difference between right and wrong that Kierkegaard wrote about at the end of his work, Either/Or. In that book, Kierkegaard wrote:
"If a person is sometimes in the right, sometimes in the wrong, to some degree in the right, to some degree in the wrong, who, then, is the one who makes that decision except the person himself, but in the decision may he not again be to some degree in the right and to some degree in the wrong? Or is he a different person when he judges his act then when he acts? Is doubt to rule, then, continually to discover new difficulties, and is care to accompany the anguished soul and drum past experiences into it? Or would we prefer continually to be in the right in the way irrational creatures are?"
So, Kierkegaard clearly recognises the doubt and skepticism that any philosopher would bring to a discussion with God about an obviously horrific command. But then why didn't Abraham express such doubts? Where did he get his certainty from? It's easy to see why his blind obedience is held up by the priests, rabbis, and imams as a paragon of virtue, but why do so many followers actually, you know, follow? This, to me, is what Baggini is really asking us to look at.
The answer to that may actually be on display this week at the Republican National Convention where Donald Trump (who is more of a burning dumpster fire than a burning bush) has ignited a sizeable and passionate following of people who are willing to back him for the presidency even though he has no political experience, a terrible track record in business, and is a lying bully with a terrible personal history by almost any measure. Just like a booming voice out of the wilderness though, he does have certainty. And that's something that appeals strongly to some kinds of people.
In psychology, the authoritarian personality is "a state of mind or attitude characterised by belief in absolute obedience or submission to one's own authority, as well as the administration of that belief through the oppression of one's subordinates." According to the original theory behind the description of this trait, personal insecurities can result in an adherence to externally imposed rules of convention. During childhood, the formation of this personality trait can occur within the first few years of a person's life whenever "hierarchical, authoritarian, exploitative parent-child relationships" are common in the family life. "Parents who have a need for domination, and who dominate and threaten the child harshly, and demand obedience to conventional behaviors with threats, foster the characteristics of this personality." In evolutionary terms, children are born with the ability to adapt to their social environments. Humans have the flexibility to be highly competitive or highly cooperative depending on what is required of them. So when environments are filled with harsh adults who are unable or unwilling to explain themselves, children learn to obey to survive. This can easily lead to a perpetual cycle as these children also learn to dominate when they can, and they don't learn to think clearly on their own. This sounds a lot Abraham's relationship with his God. It sounds a lot like the abusive police making headlines lately. And it also sounds a lot like Donald Trump.
In an excellent article titled, The One Weird Trait That Predicts Whether You’re a Trump Supporter, a doctoral student of political science explains that: "While its causes are still debated, the political behavior of authoritarians is not. Authoritarians obey. They rally to and follow strong leaders. And they respond aggressively to outsiders, especially when they feel threatened. From pledging to “make America great again” by building a wall on the border to promising to close mosques and ban Muslims from visiting the United States, Trump is playing directly to authoritarian inclinations."
Currently, the most effective way to spot an authoritarian is to ask him or her four quick questions about their actual or potential parenting style. (This is in agreement with the theory about where authoritarianism comes from.) The four questions are:
Is it more important to have a child who is:
1) respectful or independent?
2) obedient or self-reliant?
3) well-behaved or considerate?
4) well-mannered or curious?
Now that you know what we are talking about, it's easy to see that people who lean towards the first option in each of these questions are the ones who lean towards authoritarianism. As the author said, causes for these parenting behaviours haven't been determined, but I have to think they come from several sources: a population that hasn't been taught philosophical skills of logic and argumentation; a lack of any good reasons for many traditional beliefs; a lack of working traditions at all; the expediency of "because I said so" when dealing with children who are often very illogical; the peace and harmony (on the surface anyway) of living in a group that behaves similarly; and several other causes I'm sure you can think of. Scientists may not say that this authoritarian personality trait is "good" or "bad", but even though we can't all be leaders without some followers, an emphasis on leading by authoritarianism is clearly causing situations where "might makes right," and that is definitely not good.
So the authoritarianism that runs through humanity is problematic to say the least, but it is not necessarily a permanent problem. We are flexible creatures, and what can be learned from the environment can also be unlearned through subsequent training. Perhaps this is why educated citizens who have gone through the experience of college and university are much more likely to see through Trump (or Brexit, or religion) and not just fall in line behind such damaging styles of leadership. We should learn from all of this and teach better parenting skills to pass this on to everyone. Maybe then we'd have fewer Trumps, suicide bombers, and religious extremists. And wouldn't that really make America (and the world) great.