15 Lies at the Basis of Our Culture

Each of these lies, on examination, denies or violates a principle of reason or a fact of science

A culture is a complex composition of the manners, rites, language, laws, ideas, and customs of a people. These sources describe what a given people hold to be true, or at least valid. How they act to one another, how they build things, how and what they punish and reward, how they think of birth and death—all these make up the outlines of a given culture.

Some thinkers want to say that truth and falsity are relative to a culture (multi-culturalism). Whatever the culture does or holds becomes its own absolute in that domain. Any outside revelation or philosophy must accommodate itself to the culture, not vice versa. No such thing as a natural law or universal philosophy, whereby one might judge the content of a culture, is acknowledged.

Catholicism has long held that its essential revelation is directed to all “cultures.” Whatever is good can be accepted. If anything is found that is alien to revelation, it would need to be modified in light of universal truths. The supposed “neutrality” or autonomy of any culture, however, makes it almost impossible to judge real differences between good and evil, truth and falsity. If such differences do not objectively exist as the same for all cultures, it does not make much difference what we hold or what culture we belong to. In effect, they are all—Western, Muslim, Chinese, Hindu, Byzantine, Japanese, African, Latino, modern, ancient—meaningless.

For those who hold universal principles of reason and revelation, current Western culture, in which the American polity participates, is, in many fundamental things, based on lies. The devil, interestingly enough, is said to be the “father of lies.” This attribution indicates that the devil bases his own life on the lie of his own self-worth. It also means that he can convince human beings—who can imitate him—that the lies they live by are “true.” They are not to be challenged or repented. This “kingdom of lies” is not divided within itself. One lie follows from another. All converge to deny what man and creation are about.

What are these “lies” on which our present culture is based? Each one of them, on examination, denies or violates a principle of reason or a fact of science. But they are all strenuously adhered to as “truth” because they allow us to do what we want. They enable us to avoid responsibilities for our chosen actions. We insist that they are our “rights,” our “privileges,” or our “liberties.”

The first and most obvious lie embedded in our culture is that abortion does not kill a specific, actual human being. All evidence shows that this killing is true. To hold the lie in our souls, we must and do call it a “right” or a “choice” that allows us to pretend that we know not what we do.

The next lie is that marriage does not necessarily consist in the permanent, legal bond of this man and this woman who form one flesh, a home in which they beget and raise their own children. Any legislation that defines marriage as merely a civil contract between members of the same sex or other arrangements is based on a lie. It denies what marriage is. It denies what is owed to the child, both a mother and a father.

The third lie is that euthanasia is a “right” to kill oneself or have others do so for us. It is made legitimate by the civil law. Euthanasia is self-inflicted suicide, not an act of compassion or autonomy over ourselves.

The fourth lie is that war is always immoral and never has any legitimate justification. War is never without its evils but never to allow war’s legitimacy in any circumstances whatsoever is to ensure tyranny and ignore the need to defend human good and dignity against those who would destroy it.

The fifth lie is that the poor are poor because the rich are rich. The only way for anyone to become not-poor is for him to learn from those who have learned how to produce wealth sufficient for human needs and well-being.

The sixth lie is that man himself is the chief threat to the well-being of the planet earth. Man’s presence on this planet is at least as natural as that of any other being. The well-being of the earth is not more important than the well-being of man. The purpose of the earth is to provide for this well-being, a well-being that knows what the earth is and needs.

The seventh lie is that the earth is over-populated and must drastically reduce its numbers by millions or even billions. The earth, because of human intelligence and enterprise, can take care of the population of the earth. Human well-being is, in fact, more threatened by population decline than over-population.

The eighth lie is that there is no truth. Everything is relative to our individual preferences. Relativism is always self-contradictory. It is a lie to maintain that man cannot know any truth about himself, the cosmos, or God.

The ninth lie is that democracy is always the best form of government. Democracy is that form of government based on a concept of liberty that allows man to do whatever he wants. It generally becomes a form of tyranny of the majority in which whatever the people want is the law and is identified with what is right.

The tenth lie is that the purpose of government is to protect human “rights.” As they are used, “rights” are not a description of what is due to man. Rather they are rooted in Hobbes’ claim that we can do whatever we want to keep alive and protect what we claim. “Rights” become what the state says and enforces. No reason can be found why they do not become tomorrow the opposite of what they are today.

Lie number eleven is that Islam is only a religion of peace. Islam, however, mostly expanded by war. Those who die in its wars are considered martyrs. It is considered to be blasphemy to deny any element of Islam’s holy book or tradition. Islam does not tolerate what it does not believe. The Trinity and Incarnation are specifically denied in the Koran.

Lie number twelve is that Jesus Christ is not who He said He was, that is, the Incarnate Word of God. All presumed evidence that denies this truth does not bear careful examination.

Lie number thirteen is that Christianity is another religion like all other religions. It has reasonable basis for its truths. “Religion” is technically an aspect of the virtue of justice. It attempts to define what, by using only his natural powers, man owes to his gods. Christianity is a revelation of a divine Person about who God is and what is necessary for salvation. What it contains is addressed to human reason and does not contradict it.

Lie number fourteen is that sin does not exist, that it can be explained by psychology, determinism, sociology, or myth. It need not be forgiven. The consequences of sin go on whether we like it or not. They become present in both the lives of the sinners and those against whom they sin. Sin is often a major aspect of a culture that determines its configurations.

Lie number fifteen is that no final judgment is possible. This position means that nothing we do makes any ultimate difference. Our lives are hence basically meaningless and of no ultimate worth. But that a final judgment exists is the truth. Since we are free and intelligent, we must give an account and be judged for how we used these gifts.

In suggesting that the culture is founded on these fifteen lies, I do not want to suggest that there are no other ones, or that the culture does not also contain aspects of virtue and good. Many people recognize and seek to counteract each of these lies. But in putting them together, I do intimate that lies are connected with each other. One will lead to the other once we embrace and live by one or the other. We will find ourselves “being led on,” whether we like it or not.

Yet, we need not accept these lies. Eric Voegelin once wisely remarked that “no one needs to participate in the aberrations of his time.” But the temptation to do so, to be politically and culturally correct—and it is a temptation—is very great. As C. S. Lewis noted in The Screwtape Letters, our deviation from the good usually does not begin with the big aberrations but with the small ones.

Josef Pieper rightly told us that it is not the “lie” that is the real basis of culture but “leisure.” Leisure is the Aristotelian word used to describe what we do when all else that we “need” to do is completed. The implication is that the most important things are not really the economic or political ones that have to do with just living and not living well. But to live well, we must think and think about what is, about what we did not make or establish. The things that are contain their own order that we are to discover lest we deceive ourselves and see only what we want to see. We read in Plato’s Timaeus: “Now while it is true that anything that is bound is liable to being undone, still only one who is evil would consent to the undoing of what has been well-fitted” (41b).

The “lies” that are found basic in our culture in fact “undo what has been well-made.” We do not acknowledge this disorder because we too often “consent” to the “undoing” of what we are and ought to be.

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About James V. Schall, S.J. 180 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of over thirty books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His of his last books included On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018) and The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Ignatius, 2020).