Morality and blame

I have been thinking recently about a particularly irritating article by Roy Hattersley on religion and morality (see http://www.guardian.co.uk/Columnists/Column/0,,1969058,00.html). He complains that in a TV discussion about AIDS in the Third World, a Christian panellist, Anne Atkins, said that the problem would not have arisen if people had followed Catholic teaching on sexual behaviour. Hattersley goes on:

But it is not the sheer stupidity of the comment that should offend us. It is what it reveals about the workings of one sort of Christian mind. By all means succour the needy, but first point out the moral of their plight. The wages of sin is death.

We must hope that, in this particular at least, Ms Atkins’s views are not representative of modern Christian thought. But she did demonstrate a universal truth. Religious convictions have a hard edge. Those who break God’s laws must accept the consequences. It is no good people of the Atkins persuasion saying that they help as well as judge the sinners. Once there is the idea – even at the back of the censorious mind – that the victims have brought it on themselves, the relationship between helper and the helped changes.

I will say right away that I don’t like Anne Atkins or share her views and I don’t agree with the Catholic church’s stance on contraception. But Hattersley’s idea that it is censorious ever to think that people might be partially responsible for some of their own suffering is ridiculous. ‘Actions have consequences’ as L’s (non-religious) grandmother puts it. If a drunk driver injures himself in a crash, is it wrong for the paramedic cutting him out of the wreckage to judge him? Christianity doesn’t teach either that particular individual suffering is necessarily deserved or that wrongdoing will necessarily be punished on earth by God, but sins (in the sense of wrongful acts), do normally harm in some way either the sinner or his/her neighbour. Abstinence and faithfulness are part of the solution to dealing with HIV infection, as well as condom use.

Hattersley can argue that the ‘victims’ of HIV infection mustn’t be blamed for their sins because he doesn’t believe that unmarried sex is a sin. That is fair enough; he doesn’t have to believe that, as anon-Christian. But to claim:

It is no more reasonable to expect the people of Aids-ravaged areas to enter into formal unions than it is to argue that Bangladeshis on the Ganges delta could avoid flood and famine by migrating to higher ground.

is to say that people in South Africa, for example, are incapable of faithful monogamy, and to imply that for men in such areas to practice polygamy, to use prostitutes, even to rape young women in an attempt to ‘cure’ their HIV status must be accepted as blameless activities. In the specific case of the AIDS epidemic, I have some sympathy with Hattersley; I don’t think a focus on ‘innocent’ and ‘guilty’ acquisition of the HIV virus is productive. But his wider belief that an ‘arbitrary moral code, which goes beyond care and compassion’ must be rejected threatens to make moral imbeciles of us all.

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