Sunday, March 11, 2012

Success, Pride and Evil

Why does adherence to religion decline as we advance economically? Why has Christianity weakened as society has grown more affluent. A recent study announced Feb. 27 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences might shed some light:

·        As an individual’s wealth and status rise, so does their tendency to be unethical, concludes a new study of the relationship between socioeconomics and ethics.

Psychologist Paul Piff of the University of California, Berkeley concluded,

·        “Occupying privileged positions in society has this natural psychological effect of insulating you from others…You’re less likely to perceive the impact your behavior has on others. As a result, at least in this paper, you’re more likely to break the rules.”

·        “When pursuit of self-interest is allowed to run unchecked, it can lead to socially pernicious outcomes…The same rules apply to liberals and conservatives. We always control for political persuasion.”

These conclusions are not new. We have often heard that “Absolute power [or success] corrupts absolutely.” But why would we become less sensitive to the needs of others and more inclined to violate the dictates of our conscience? Certainly, the extensive findings of this study fly in the face of contemporary wisdom that tells us that as we become more fulfilled, we also become more ethical and loving; as our needs are met, we can better attend to the needs of others.

These findings also contrast with other observations. College students, most of whom come from more stable homes where the values of diligence and honesty (as opposed to cheating one’s way through school) have been successfully inculcated, tend also to be more ethical than drop-outs. If this is the case, then what happens to them as they climb their professional and monetary ladders? Why the dramatic turn-around from idealistism to self-centered-ism? (Perhaps we don’t know what’s good for us? Perhaps success kills?)

It is also obvious that as we abandon the dictates of conscience, we also abandon the dictates of church. As we insulate ourselves against conscience, it stands to reason that we would also shield ourselves against the demands of religion. Why?

Perhaps, we become a “religion” unto ourselves? Through success, we have “proved” our own adequacy, worthiness, personhood, significance, self-sufficiency and self-righteousness. With these issues “settled,” well, who cares what my conscience has to say, or even society! We now have the leverage to defy the conscience. These other sources of self-definition – society, church and conscience - are banished into irrelevancy: “I am the captain of my own ship, and don’t you dare tell me how to navigate it!”
It is therefore unsurprising that the writer of Proverbs would pray:

·        Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, 'Who is the Lord?' Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God. (Proverbs 30:8-9) 

Through the wisdom of God, we are protected from this evil of moral hardening. We are reminded in so many ways that, apart from God, we are nothing:

·        Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things--and the things that are not--to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. (1 Cor. 1:26-29)

Our Lord reminds us of the dangers of a success-fed boasting heart, guarding us against this great evil. It therefore becomes very difficult to believe in our superiority as God continues to remind us of our humble beginnings, and even present condition.

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