The False God of Conscience

by J.B. Phillips


The following is a couple of pages from a book by J.B. Phillips entitled, Your God Is Too Small, published by Macmillan Press.

To many people, conscience is almost all that they have by way of knowledge of God. This still small voice which makes them feel guilty and unhappy before, during, or after wrong-doing, is God speaking to them. It is this which, to some extent at least, controls their conduct. It is this which impels them to shoulder the irksome duty and choose the harder path.
Now no serious advocate of real adult religion would deny the function of conscience, or deny that its voice may at least give some inkling of the moral order that lies behind the obvious world in which we live. Yet to make conscience into God is a highly dangerous thing to do. For one thing, as we shall see in a moment, conscience is by no means an infallible guide; and for another it is extremely unlikely that we shall ever be moved to worship, love, and serve, a nagging inner voice that at worst spoils our pleasure and at best keeps us rather negatively on the path of virtue.
Conscience can be so easily perverted or morbidly developed in the sensitive person, and so easily ignored and silenced by the insensitive, that it makes a very unsatisfactory god. For while it is probably true that every normal person has an embryo moral sense by which he can distinguish right from wrong, the development, non-development, or perversion of that sense is largely a question of upbringing, training, and propaganda.
As an example of the first, we may suppose a child to be brought up by extremely strict vegetarian parents. If the child, now grown adolescent, attempts to eat meat he will in all probability suffer an extremely bad attack of "conscience." If he is brought up to regard certain legitimate pleasures as "worldly" and reprehensible he will similarly suffer pangs of conscience if he seeks the forbidden springs of recreation. The voice will no doubt sound like the voice of God; but it is only the voice of the early upbringing which has conditioned his moral sense.
As an example of the second influence on the moral sense, we may take a "sportsman" who has been trained from his youth that it is "wrong" to shoot a sitting bird. Should he do so, even accidentally, he will undoubtedly feel a sense of shame and wrongdoing; though to shoot a bird flying twenty yards in from of the muzzle of his gun will not produce any sense of guilt. His conscience has been artificially trained, and it is thus that "taboos" are maintained among the civilized and uncivilized alike.
Any sport, and indeed many professions, can provide abundant instances of the moral sense trained to feel that certain things are "not done." The feeling of guilt and failure produced by doing the forbidden thing may be quite false, and is in many cases quite disproportionate to the actual moral wrong, if indeed there be any.
As an example of the third way in which the moral sense may be conditioned, we may take the way in which public propaganda influenced those of sensitive conscience during the last World War. It was perfectly possible for an extreme sense of guilt to be aroused if paper were burned (because propaganda had said that it should be salvaged), or if a journey by rail were undertaken (did not propaganda shout on every hand, "Is your journey really necessary?").
In Nazi Germany, of course, propaganda as a weapon to pervert the moral sense became a fine art. It soon seemed, for example, a positive duty to hate Jews, and a good Nazi would doubtless have suffered pangs of conscience if he had been kind to one of the despised race.
These examples may be enough to show the unwisdom of calling conscience, God. Obviously this invaluable moral sense can be rightly trained and even rightly influenced by propaganda, provided we can be sure what we mean by right. But to define that word, we need to discover God--for without God no one has any authority to advance in support of his ideas of "right," except his own moral sense. Unless there is a God by whom "right" and "wrong" can be reliably assessed, moral judgments can be no more than opinion, influenced by upbringing, training, and propaganda...
...There are many, even among professing Christians, who are made miserable by a morbidly developed conscience, which they quite wrongly consider to be the voice of God. Many a housewife overdrives herself to please some inner voice that demands perfection. The voice may be her own demands or the relics of childhood training, but it certainly is not likely to be the voice of the Power behind the Universe.
On the other hand, the middle-aged business man who has long ago taught his conscience to come to heel may persuade himself that he is a good-living man. He may even say, with some pride, that he would never do anything against his conscience. But it is impossible to believe that the feeble voice of the half-blind thing which he calls a conscience is in any real sense the voice of God.
Surely neither the hectically over-developed nor the falsely-trained, nor the moribund conscience can ever be regarded as God, or even part of Him. For if it is, God can be made to appear to the sensitive an over-exacting tyrant, and to the insensitive a comfortable accommodating "Voice Within" which would never interfere with a man's pleasure.


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