I recently saw a show on PBS titled “Prohibition”. I’ve always had some interest in this era of history, with the crime and violence resulting from the attempt of the people to do “good”. What I did not know was that Prohibitionists helped usher in the Sixteenth Amendment, allowing the federal government to directly tax people, and avoid tax dependence on alcohol sales. I also did not realize that Prohibitionists encouraged hatred of Germans in WW1 so that German breweries such as Pabst and Schlitz could be demonized as evil on two fronts, being part of the German enemy, and producing alcohol that weakened the resolve and courage of “true” Americans.
If there is such a thing as ‘the purity trap” and societies behave in such a way as to suggest there is, then why do we focus on a system of laws and rules that are impossible to keep, venerate them, offer praise and sacrifice to them, and then regularly violate them?
Human society appears to live in contradiction to itself.
Western religion, mainly Christianity and Judaism, has focused on that very fact, the inability to live by the very standards we set as “absolute” or “perfect”, and then we declare it as a necessity to be “forgiven” so that we can avoid the eternal punishment that comes from trying to do what we cannot do in the first place!
This looks like a game where the dice are loaded, the dealer has stacked the deck, and there is no way to win but to surrender to the inevitable. Why make the rules at all if we know we can’t live up to them?
The main reason I see in terms of evolutionary significance, is that we need to know that there are basic standards that apply, and we must be aware that we aren’t perfect in the obedience to those standards. Why is this useful from an evolutionary perspective?
Because we have the ability, by looking at the desired standards, to know whether we are maintaining those standards both as individuals and as a group. This is basically why we have the Ten Commandments as a venerated set of rules, and why we originally held the US Constitution as the venerated set of rules by which individuals could remain free.
In an evolutionary sense, therefore, we have a way of looking at ourselves while not being dependent on how others view us. This, very idea, in itself, creates detachment from the group, because once we begin actually looking at specific standards, we have the ability to decide for ourselves, how those standards apply to us personally. Instead of following basic patterns of imitations provided by evolution in the form of “mirror neurons”, we can look at a detached code of conduct apart from those who seek to control us by their own standards. There is instantly a new, defineable reality apart from simply copying others.
If, for example, the law says ‘thou shalt not kill’, and I have killed no one, I do not need anyone else to judge whether or not I have killed anyone. In each of the Ten Commandments, whether they come from a supernatural entity or not, these laws give us the right and the power to say “prove I did this”. That is, we can maintain innocence by forcing others to demonstrate publicly that we have done anyone harm.
Whatever the law, or however strict it may be, once it becomes a law for all to see and understand, then all are responsible to see that it is upheld in the strictest possible form. In this sense, there are a few of the Ten Commandments that we can declare we have not violated in some sense. Most of us do not steal, most do not kill, most do not bear false witness or lie, most try to honor our parents, etc. As for the first two commandments, this may get a bit tricky, since in trying to define God in some human form, we tend to violate the second commandment.
As a result, we get caught in the “purity trap”, by which we try to perfectly identify ourselves with God, and see ourselves collectively as a group, being the agents of God. We know what happens when groups of people see themselves as agents of God. The Spanish Inquisition would be one example. The Roman Catholic Church would be an example of itself, along with the protestant churches that literally killed neighbors in the search for perfect obedience to God.
Prohibition, like many laws being passed now, are not based on actions in which any citizen can bring charges, but on acts in which no one is harmed, yet an individual can be punished by the state itself, acting as accuser and prosecutor.
Prohibition is the first example. Should any person be punished for simply taking a drink,(or taking a drug) even if he or she has harmed no one? Can the state itself act as witness, prosecutor, and judge of such an offense?
The original understanding from the biblical perspective is that everybody “sins”, everybody breaks the law in some way, so we should not rush to condemn the actions of another, especially when the other has done no harm to us. That is known as the presumption of innocence, and corresponds to Isaiah 54:17, and Isaiah 50:8.
That is, if the group begins to believe it acts collectively in the interests of “God”, then the group itself has chosen representatives to be a witness, prosecutor, and a judge. But Isaiah 50:8 specifically declares that the accused is allowed to challenge the accuser, under protection of God. This would mean that the state, as accuser, is acting as both protector and accuser, with its own interest being the guide in any decision. This means that the state has gone beyond the power to respect one’s right to believe in God, and has also declared itself AS God, on behalf of the people.
The people, seeking to protect society from itself, now sees itself as the humble servants of God, doing “right” for the betterment of society. As Eric Hoffer points out in “The True Believer”:
“The truth is that the surrendering and humbling of the self breed pride and arrogance. The true believer is apt to see himself as one of the chosen, the salt of the earth, the light of the world, a prince disguised in meekness. who is destined to inherit the earth and the kingdom of heaven…he who is not of his faith is evil: he who will not listen shall perish”.
This is where the “purity trap” absolves us of individual responsibility. We can secretly support it, while publicly saying, “What can I do? It’s the will of the people.”
I recently had a judge tell me this when I challenged the seat belt law, on clearly stated principles decided by the Supreme Court. In the interest of protection, he told me, “Your Constitutional rights now take second place to the compelling interest of the state”. He further explained to me that he “had no choice” but to decide as the legislature and higher courts told him. Apparently he had never read Jeremiah 5:26-31. Nor had he read Isaiah 29:21.
It is also apparent that the officer who gave me the ticket had not read Exodus 23:1-2. By the creation of laws, by acting as prosecutor, witness, and judge, the laws themselves are violated! They are violated because they are there for us to know, understand, and apply in our own interest. This is what the Pharisees in Jesus’ day did, and why he accused them of “shutting up the Kingdom of God to men” in Matthew 23:13.
When the state itself becomes both witness and prosecutor, the accused has no right to challenge the accuser, since he is held accountable ONLY to the state. As Hoffer explains:
“Even when men league themselves mightily together to promote tolerance and peace on earth, they are likely to be violently intolerable toward those not of a like mind….When we renounce the self and become part of a compact whole, we not only renounce personal advantage, but are also rid of personal responsibility…The hatred and cruelty which have their source in selfishness are ineffectual things compared with the venom and ruthlessness born of selflessness.”
The great evolutionary step of law was that every person, man or woman, can claim equality before the law, and have the right to face his or her accusers, and challenge them to prove the validity of their accusations.
Anyone who tells you that the law is to be controlled collectively for your own good, that you have no right to think and act in your own interests as long as you harm no other, is a liar.