Nisi Dominus aedificaverit domum, in vanum laborant qui aedificaverunt eam - "Unless the Lord has built the house, they labored in vain who built it" Psalm 127

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Slavery in Rationalia

An earlier version of this Worth Revisiting post was first published 16 October 2016 . To enjoy the work of other faithful Catholic bloggers see Worth Revisiting Wednesday, hosted by Elizabeth Reardon at and Allison Gingras at

I was in a small local fish store recently when a sign taped near the cash register caught my attention.  The notice assured us that the raw shrimp, a product of the U.S. Gulf Coast, was “slavery free”. The cooked cocktail shrimp, on the other hand, was from Indonesia, so there was a good chance that slave labor was part of the process that brought it to market.  The shop was donating all proceeds from the cooked shrimp to “a foundation that works to end slavery in that part of the world” (one wonders why they didn't simply cook American shrimp themselves, but that's a question for another day).

Burmese slaves rescued in Indonesia (AP photo)
I have to admit, I was a little taken aback by a business touting its product as "slavery free".  I shouldn’t have been too surprised, of course: in an abstract way I was aware that slavery still exists in many parts of the world, much as it has from the earliest times. I also knew that certain forms of it exist, albeit less visibly, even in places where legal slavery has been abolished, including here in the United States (something that I had actually addressed in a recent blogpost). It’s still a bit of a shock, however, to come upon so tangible a reminder that human slavery is not just an abstraction, but a very concrete, very ugly, reality.
The persistence of slavery points to a deeper truth: human nature doesn’t change.  This is something that secular “progressives” are at great pains to deny.  Recently, for instance, Neil DeGrasse Tyson (astrophysicist and all-around cool science dude) published an essay in which he longs for a Utopia he calls “Rationalia”, where human reason, unhindered by the chains of religious superstition and what not, orders all things for supreme human happiness.  Tyson seems blissfully unaware of the complete and often bloody failure that has befallen all attempts at establishing the Rule of Pure Reason here on earth, from small-scale projects like Robert Owen’s New Harmony in 1825-1827 to the colossal horrors of 20th century communist regimes (Marxist theory held that simply changing the economic order of society could change human nature, and create a "new man". No such luck).  Nor does he acknowledge that the very science to which he looks as a savior has increasingly been coming to the conclusion that much of what happens in the natural world is apparently random, or at the very least beyond our powers of prediction.

Skulls of victims of Marxist Khmer Rouge in Cambodia (Wikipedia)
Ironically enough, reason itself should tell us that a human regime such as Rationalia (Tyson envisions its constitution as reading simply: "All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence") is hopelessly impossible.  For one thing, because of our finite knowledge and capabilities, we very often can’t even begin to assess all the possible variables that go into a particular issue (one of the major flaws in planned economies).  Not only that, different people can reach different conclusions using the same data because they legitimately have different values and interests.  
An even greater difficulty than either of those, however, is our legacy of original sin.  This is a topic that I have touched on before; the short version of the story is that our conclusions are very often determined more by our desires (very often disordered desires) than they are by the data.  One of the benefits of healthy religion is that it provides a reliable authority greater than our desires that can help guide us to sound conclusions.
    Christians, of course, know even more than that.  We know that the authority provided by our faith has in fact been empirically tested by human experience over several millennia (unlike the schemes of secular social engineers). Not only that, we know that the Author of that Faith is Himself our creator, and knows exactly what we need to be happy.  We are also aware that we can never perfect ourselves through our own efforts alone.  Perfection can only come through the Grace of our Creator, who offered himself up on the Cross in the person of Jesus Christ in order to make that Grace available to us.
The interesting thing is, the evidence of the persistence of human nature, and of our limits and radical imperfection, is abundantly clear: the further our society moves away from God, the more the primeval ugliness of our race rises again to the surface.  We may try to disguise it with euphemisms, but is anybody really fooled, for instance, by whitewashing sexual slavery with terms such as “sex workers”?  Well, maybe some people.  Those who most identify themselves as citizens of “Rationalia” seem to ignore the mounting evidence (so much for "All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence"). Instead, they cling to the fantasy that, somehow, all we need to do is expel God from the Garden in order to achieve perfect human bliss here on Earth.  Reason, however, tells us otherwise: the rational thing is to follow Christ, and listen to the teachings of the Church he has given us.

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