Cats and Theories
a blog by coticheque
a blog by coticheque

Theothanatology. How to survive in the world that buried God

Since the Age of Enlightenment most of the adequate people have more or less accepted the fact that Christian doctrines are perhaps not the most trustworthy source of information about the world. In the best case they’re just a collection of parables that were supposed to teach ancient people good morals. In the worst case – a rudimentary set of Jewish fairytales that humanity has been dragging along by inertia. In the 21st century, we don’t need a set of old myths to teach us how to behave – we’re smart enough to figure out what’s good and bad on our own, and we’re civilized enough to follow the rules. But… are we?

This week the Russian journalist Ksenia Sobchak released an hour-long interview with Viktor Mokhov – a man who in the year 2000 kidnapped 2 teenage girls, and kept them in the basement for 4 years, raping them daily. One of the girls gave birth twice while being captured – right in the basement. After being caught, Mokhov spent 17 years in prison, and was recently released. He agreed to give an honest interview to Sobchak, where admitted that he doesn’t consider himself a bad man and claims he didn’t have any evil intentions. In fact, he treated the girls in a more or less humane way: buying them things and performing no other physical violence apart from a daily intercourse in a missionary pose. Mokhov also mentioned that he’s an atheist. ‘I have my own God. There’s no Hell or Heaven. Nothing awaits us after death.’

The interview raises a question: in the 21st century, when morals are no longer considered dogmatic, what prevents people from committing immoral acts – like kidnapping others and keeping them in a basement – apart from a mere fear of juridical punishment?

Throughout centuries people have been terrified by the ideas of Hell, eternal tortures and the Last Judgement that God is supposed to perform on all sinners upon the Doomsday. Looking at it rationally, these ideas were quite effective in keeping people under control, forcing them to behave neatly and respect the Ten Commandments. Moreover, Christianity had definitely succeeded in planting the idea of guilt into people’s minds, forcing them not only to behave properly out of the fear of Hell, but to actually feel bad after misbehaving. The Ten Commandments were a pretty amazing instrument for communicating morals to uncivilized tribes that wouldn’t have comprehended rational arguments in favour of ethical behaviour, but were easily influenced by the powerful myths and scary stories.

Fast forward to the 20th century, the break of the 21st one. God is dead. Theology turned into theothanatology. People are liberated from the ancient religious dogmas. What’s even more scary, people come close to realization that there’s essentially nothing that would tell you that murdering other people is inherently bad. Or keeping them as hostages in your basement.

No doubt, the legislation system and criminal laws that enact social contract are quite efficient in keeping society under control. Do not do things that break the social contract – or you will be punished. Viktor Mokhov clearly knew that he’s trading his years of keeping hostage girls for his own pleasure for many more years that await him in prison. Was it still worth it? Mokhov had clearly concluded it was. After all, he had never been successful among women. At the age of 50, he realized that his life was not likely to improve going forward, unless he comes up with a definitive plan. After all, nothing awaits us after death. Unfortunate people won’t be rewarded with a harem of virgins in Heaven – as there’s simply no Heaven.

When juridical system fails to discourage people from committing immoral acts, what else can?

Indeed, is there anything that has come to replace the Christian moral doctrines? Some people are saying that the Christian legacy is rooted so deep in Western culture that even non-Christian people now have a moral intuition and a sense of what’s good and bad. Each of us probably has a feeling that humanism is something to respect and torturing others is inherently wrong. Perhaps, this feeling is somewhat too subtle in people with a lower level of empathy and a poorer degree of cultural or social exposure.

Certain philosophers have tried to come up with a rational foundation for conventional morals. For instance, Kant came up with the idea of categorical imperative: a theory that all ethics essentially boils down to the two rules of behavior. First, do not perform actions that you wouldn’t wish to raise into the rang of universally applicable rules of conduct. Second, do not treat other people as means, but only as ends in themselves (since they’re also agents of a similar ethical judgement). Sounds legit. However, would such a fully rational justification of morals appeal to people who only have a few classes of school education and whose time is predominantly spent by working at an automobile assembly factory? Perhaps, the idea of eternal suffering in Hell would be a bit more convincing in discouraging ordinary people from wrongdoings than Kant’s moral law.

Nietzsche was saying that a true Ubermensch would have a superior ability to create his own moral laws. According to this line of thinking, can Viktor Mokhov then be considered a superior man who came to realization that all morals are arbitrary and chose to ascend them? For better or worse, we live in a society, so any morals we invent on our own will involuntarily affect other people and their freedom. A real-life Ubermensch thus has no choice but to comply with Kant’s moral imperative as a starting point – at least if he happens to live in a liberal democracy. And that already sounds like a bit too much of a topic to comprehend for an ordinary person from a small village near Ryazan.

Is there anything that can be done to prevent people like Viktor Mokhov from conducting similar crimes – or at least feeling worse about the idea of conducting them? Perhaps, we should be more careful about spreading the ideas of New Atheism, and be more mindful of the social benefits of conventional religious moral standards, at least in the social groups that need them the most. Having said that, the fact that the Russian government has been extensively investing into building new churches in the past years doesn’t sound that unreasonable anymore. We claim that we’re way too rational and smart to believe in retrogressive myths based on ancient BS, but maybe extrapolating the same attitude to others is simply wrong – life never fails to show that there’re many people in the world whose way of thinking is still disturbingly similar to the one of ancient tribes.

William Gibson is famous for saying that the future is already here, it’s just not distributed evenly. Perhaps we can say the same about the post-Christian ethics – it’s already here, it just hasn’t penetrated all areas of the world yet – civilization is like a spectrum, and some social groups still lean to the barbarian end of it. Hobbes was closer to the truth than Locke. Only social conventions keep people from hurting each other. But juridical systems can be faulty too. So if we want to be truly rational, we should incorporate into our world-view the fact that there’re currently people in the world that feel no guilt about keeping someone in the basement for 4 years, and like the idea of potentially repeating it again. If we agree for a living in a moral desert, we should accept the fact that there’re simply no objective tools that could allow us to call such people evil, and there are ultimately no instruments that would force them to conduct themselves otherwise.

PS: as expected, the interview has triggered a huge public backlash, with people complaining that the journalist dared to do an unacceptable thing by giving a public media platform to a sick man and a dangerous criminal. They request YouTube to delete the interview, and beg media to cancel the journalist forever. It’s unbelievable how much people desire to subject themselves to censorship these days, and how much of a despicable thing the freedom of speech has become.

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