The Human Lesson

In Larry Niven’s Known Space Universe, humanity finds itself, early in its exploration of space, under attack by the Kzinti, a race of carnivorous felinoids. Far more advanced than the humans at the beginning, the Kzinti are nevertheless defeated in the Man-Kzin wars. Partly, they defeat themselves, due to their own insistence that attack is the only proper military tactic and their disdain for subtlety in any form. But in the very first encounter with humans, the starship Angel’s Pencil, an entirely unarmed colony ship, slices its Kzinti attacker in two with its photon drive. Their use of reaction drives throughout the subsequent wars against the Kzinti as weapons becomes known to the Kzinti as “The Human Lesson:” A reaction drive is a weapon in direct proportion to its efficiency as a drive. Variants on the Human Lesson have been used throughout science fiction. It seems to be popular now to use this essential point to argue against the idea that space travel will ever be the province of privately-owned spacecraft. After all, an interplanetary, let alone interstellar, drive would seem to put, by definition, the functional equivalent of a massive nuclear weapon in the hands of its pilots and owners. But we are still in such early days of space travel that I don’t care to speculate on that. Instead I will speculate about something that I have studied far more, and may understand far less, but that’s always a risk when one writes about theology.

I hope that my readers will forgive me by starting with the extraordinarily obvious observation that religion is one of the most powerful forces in human society throughout history. Theists like myself will say that religion – usually ours particularly – has served humanity well, by encouraging them to love one another, by bringing together people of different backgrounds, by encouraging science and the arts (and yes, the Catholic Church, among other large religious institutions, used to encourage both of these things when no other institutions did) and by setting standards of behavior that encouraged social cohesion. Atheists and anti-theists point out (just as correctly) that religious institutions have also fostered hatred of the other, the suppression of science and the arts, and rigid codes of conduct intended to control people against their will. So I would like to discuss this odd duality, and as an example, I will use a point of controversy surrounding my own faith, Christianity. As an aside, I must beg my readers’ indulgence if I seem to focus on Christianity in these columns when I discuss religion. While many of the issues I discuss would certainly impact followers of other faiths, the Christian theology is the one I know best, and it seems wisest to me to write about what I do know rather than get someone else’s theology disastrously wrong.

Most recently, it has become fashionable to attack Christianity directly on the grounds that the Christian doctrine of salvation by grace necessarily leads to an unconcern and a carelessness about the world. This charge seems to particularly antagonize those who are convinced that climate change is a human-caused and imminent threat to humanity on the planet. Essentially, the argument goes that the Christian idea that one can simply ask for forgiveness and receive it, thereby attaining eternal salvation, is far too dangerous. That this necessarily leads to the conclusion that one may sin as much as one pleases and feel no concern for the consequences because Earth is temporary and Heaven is eternal.

In order to meet this argument fairly, two things must be admitted from the outset. The first is that there are undoubtedly Christians who think that way. There have been from the beginning, and we know this because the New Testament contains polemics against this position. Both Paul in Romans and James in his epistle rail against the conclusion that, because salvation is by faith and all sins can be forgiven, the conduct of Christians in this life does not matter. In fact, Jesus himself elevates the treatment of the poor, in the parable of the sheep and the goats, to the deciding factor between those who are saved and those who are damned.

The idea of salvation by grace – of a personal relationship with a loving God – was a truly revolutionary one in its day. And while the idea of the “dying god” whose resurrection brought renewed life was already old when Jesus walked the Earth, the idea that God would sacrifice himself for the well-being of individual humans, no matter how poor and lowly, was something new and compelling, as we can see by the rapid spread of the faith throughout the Roman Empire. It was powerful. But it is in the nature of powerful things to be dangerous, especially when they are perverted. And this is what I would call “The God Lesson:” Any religion is a weapon of destruction and oppression in direct proportion to its power to inspire its followers to do good.

In fact, I would argue that this lesson applies to pretty much any system of human thought. The point of Marxism was never to place millions of humans in gulags. Karl Marx was inspired to formalize his economic theories precisely because people were starving and oppressed. And yet it was followers of Marx who caused the famine known as the Holodomor to destroy their political and ethnic targets in the Ukraine during the 1930s, killing somewhere in the neighborhood of five million people. Less dramatically, Plato feared the institution of pure democracy because it led to chaotic mob rule. Again, it was dangerous because it was powerful, and neither of these were religious doctrines.

I know of no way to avoid this potential for evil in religion, aside from dedication to first principles: to treat others as we would wish to be treated and to remember, if one believes in God, that ourselves and others are God’s beloved children and must be treated that way. In the end, it is not the principles that must be considered first, but the people. Lois McMaster Bujold’s hero Miles Vorkosigan put it brilliantly in this conversation:

“Surely it’s more important to be loyal to a person than to a principle.”

Galeni raised his eyebrows. “I suppose that shouldn’t surprise me, coming from a Barrayaran. From a society that traditionally organizes itself by internal oaths of fealty instead of an external framework of abstract law – is that your father’s politics showing?”

“My mother’s theology, actually. From two completely different starting points they arrive at this odd intersection in their views. Her theory is that principles come and go, but that human souls are immortal, and you should therefore throw in your lot with the greater part. My mother tends to be extremely logical.”

Correctly understood, this is where theology ought to take us: to an affirmation of the eternal soul and a dedication to use our own power to affect other souls, not as a weapon, but as a drive to a union with the infinite.

About the Author

G. Scott Huggins makes his money by teaching history at a private school, proving that he knows more about history than making money. He loves writing fiction, both serious and humorous. If you want serious, Writers of the Future XV features “Bearing the Pattern.” If you like to laugh, “Phoenix For The Amateur Chef” is coming out in Sword and Sorceress 30. When he is not teaching or writing, he devotes himself to his wife, their three children, and his cat. He loves good bourbon, bacon, and pie. If you have any recipes featuring one or more of these things, Mr. Huggins will be pleased to review them, if accompanied by a sample.

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  1. What you have called ‘the human lesson’ and ‘the God lesson’ can also be found in Aristotle, and might be called ‘the political lesson’. Aristotle ranked the political systems according to whether the government is controlled by one, few, or many people. He also analyzed them by whether the system is ‘pure’, where the government is doing the best for society, or ‘corrupted’, because the government prioritizes the selfish goals of those who rule. Hence there were six forms of government in Aristotle’s system. His conclusions about the best and worst systems are striking. The good rule of one person (a monarchy) has most capacity to do good, but its perverted form (tyranny) will do most harm. In contrast, the rule of many, whether called a polity or democracy, is the most constrained, so can do least good and least harm. So we might say that a government is a weapon of oppression in direct proportion to its power to do good.
    There is a valuable lesson here for conservatives and classic liberals, though often ignored by those with more extreme political views, or those guided more by immediate emotion than by concern for how a system works. It is understandable that people would like governments to improve the quality of life, and so they naturally prefer governments that play an active role in improving society. However, as more power is vested in government, there is an inevitable and proportionate rise in the threat of corruption and oppression.

  2. Thanks for the stimulating article.
    With its written constitution and its founding by men who were philosophically aware, the U.S. scores very high on principle and low on personal–and yet has a long history of sound government, with a high capacity for self-correction (as with the issue of slavery). So I’m not sure I agree with you–and yet, the offices defined by the Constitution are always occupied by flesh & blood people, so I wouldn’t argue the opposite side either.
    With Christianity, we have an infinite, numinous God who is nevertheless personal and, in Christ, even human. Seems like it strikes a balance between the abstract and the personal.

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