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Thoughts on "The Shawshank Redemption"

Authoritarianism, Heaven, Hell, Punishment and the Myth of Human Depravity

by Johnny Reb, August 2014


Most of what we understand about the universe, our planet and its inhabitants has been discovered in the past four or five centuries. The impetus for this scientific understanding, including any moral progress, has been the Humanist Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution. Almost all of what has been discovered by science is incompatible with and corrosive of long standing religious doctrines still believed by billions. The universe is estimated to be 13.7 billion years old, our earth about 4.5 billion years and the emergence of single cell life occurred about 3.5 billion years ago.

Contrary to claims of the faithful, the earth and all its life forms were not created in their present form less than ten thousand years ago, disease is not the result of demonic possession and humans are not born into a state of moral depravation and "sin". With regard to the Christian doctrine of the  innate wickedness of humankind, which I will discuss below, there is no good reason to believe any of it. The notion that we are "born bad" and can only be redeemed and saved by faith in a god man who Christians claim "died for our sins" is little more than a convenient myth invented to coerce and control.

The credulous Adam and Eve fable explains nothing other than the adoption of undemocratic authoritarian social and political models that have unfortunately dominated Western thought for two thousand years and more. What we have learned in the past several decades in genetics and microbiology about our evolution through natural selection has had profound implications for our views on human health, behavior and well-being. These discoveries are entirely at odds with Christian views of sin, vice, weakness of will, human depravity and the mystical transmission of an insidious self-reproach and moral guilt complex throughout the past 2000 years.

Moral sentiments, including compassion, caring and good will, have their origins in evolutionary history and are widespread across the animal kingdom. Many harmful behaviors, such as those of psychopaths, can be traced to complex neurological and biological disorders. Aberrations such as this can be explained by biological and psychological research that undermines facile and oversimplified, generally religiously based, notions about humanity's innate moral depravity and proclivity to corruption and evil.

This persistent anti-scientific closed system of thought and the values that are induced by it, as with most other religious superstitious notions*, have a profound impact on all of us - moral, social, educational, environmental and political. To cite just a few, it influences support for political office from school boards to Prime Minister, existing socio-economic ideologies and models, war, draconian ideas about crime and punishment, scientific research, contraception, abortion, homosexuality and same-sex marriage, health care and social policies. As history has decidedly revealed, mixing politics and religion is a toxic brew. To cite one of countless examples, in this case the gross ignorance of certain American Christian politicians during debates of global warming in the US Congress:


* According to recent Gallup Polls, a large percentage (80%) of Americans who claim to be Christians believe in supernatural phenomena, miracles such as the resurrection (70% of Americans believe that Jesus was resurrected from the dead, 74% believe in the self-contradiction of "life after death" and 33% believe that the Bible is "the word of God"), angels and the second coming of the Christ. Paranormal beliefs are also prevalent in the United States. The Baylor Religion Survey recently informed us that 41% believe in the Lost City of Atlantis, 78% believe in alternative medicine (quackery - 34% of American claim to have witnessed a "divine healing"), 28% believe in telekinesis, 32% in haunted houses, 49% believe in prescient dreams, 29% in UFOs and 28% has consulted a horoscope (one of Ronald Reagan's sources for advice) for guidance about the course of their lives.

Christianity and the Metaphysics of Tyranny and Terror

Christian notions of prisons and punishment are a form of Dante-like hell on earth and ought to have been abolished by any government with minimal moral sensibilities and that makes claims about social justice and civilized society. The same can be said for the opaque supernatural conceptions of heaven and hell described by John Lennon in his song  "Imagine". It's depressing to think that visions of eternal torment in hell could possibly act as a deterrent even on the most gullible and their imaginations. But since the vast majority of humanity combine extreme credulity with an overactive imagination and a refusal to think critically, the silly notions of heaven and hell have been a useful fiction of social control.

The carrot and stick rule driven bribery of the "good book" is saturated with stories of original sin, eternal damnation, torture and unjust punishments underwritten by an egotistical, tyrannical vindictive deity. The claim that his mystical son Jesus was sacrificed to "die for the sins of mankind" can only be perceived as  immoral and contemptible by any reasonable thinking person, flying in the face of personal and societal ethical norms of responsibility. Surely such a celestial authority cannot be deemed worthy of reverence, or even admiration, by any reflective ethically inclined person?* One needs to ask oneself what kind of love is motivated by fear of punishment or expectation of reward? What kind of love is generated by fear of death? What is the value of a love that is not freely given? What is virtue and goodness if not from purity of heart?

*Christians need to read their blessed book more diligently. From my personal experience I find many who claim to be Christians clearly have never seriously read the book they consider to be "the word of God", but rather have had their understanding filtered and sanitized by their pastors and priests. Those who dissent from orthodoxy and the infallibility of the church's absolute power over life and death are a menace to their community and must be dealt with harshly. Christian virtue demands sheepish conformity and obedience that unavoidably influences their beliefs and behavior in other aspects of their lives such as politics and war that have a profound effect on the rest of us.

As in Shawshank prison, the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century were equally preoccupied with control over both behavior and thought. But in comparison to their Christian antecedents, they were rank amateurs. Salvation cannot be attained by earthly utopian notions of a sharing, caring and a just egalitarian society but rather only by faith in your masters, whether religious or secular. The most basic axiom of  Christianity is that humans are born into the wickedness and  depravity of "original sin" and cannot be redeemed or reformed, only controlled and coerced. Jesus proclaims in Luke 11:23 that "all those who are not with me are against me." How many times has this despicable dichotomous dictum been invoked throughout history?

But faith and hope, it would seem, provide many with a sense of purpose in angst ridden lives of quiet desperation. For others, like purchasing a lottery ticket, it keeps many in a positive state of anticipation of the next delusional pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, a new sunrise of joy rather than the endless violence, wars and other doom and gloom we hear about every day on our television news. Rather than doing something about the dismal state of affairs of pervasive corruption, authoritarianism and war-mongering by our conservative masters by taking political action, what do we do? For many, it's a waiting game, anticipating the return of the Messiah who will rectify and remedy all past and present wrongs and injustices. For the religious, what need is there for political dissent and action to correct the gross inequalities of a culture of greed and narcissism? Throughout history, the powerful have always promoted faith and hope for those they subjugate and exploit. They have done everything in their power, from propaganda through the mass media that they control to, if necessary, the power of police and military. This has been the state of affairs throughout history. Any serious study of the labor, women and civil rights movements provides ample testimony.

For others faith and hope in a non-religious sense tempered with a good dose of skepticism can, I suppose, sustain ideals, projects and direction. Hope in this secular sense is sus­tained by the confidence we have in our knowledge of a situation, although the possibility of being deceived, by others or ourselves, can often easily be undermined. Still, hope promises a time or place where things will be better, even if it seems we're stuck in perpetual hell. For the religious, our earthy existence (hell on earth for most) is just a testing ground and prep course for an infinite afterlife in an abstruse opaque blissful heaven. For the skeptics and heretics, the alternative is not so promising. Accounts through the millennia depict the Christian hell alternative as a realm of endless barbaric torment, pain and torture complete with ghastly demons and eternal lakes of fire. It's all sanctioned by a wrathful vindictive unforgiving God ruling with egotistical tyrannical intolerance where hope of escape or redemption is impossible for any transgressing skeptic or unbeliever. Such unimaginable accounts of arbitrary injustice seem as if they belong to another world. I guess since God resides in a supernatural domain called heaven, they surely are. The long standing Christian preoccupation with coercion, torture and eternal punishment casts a dark shadow on a religion that claims to be based on love.

The Shawshank Redemption

The Shawshank Redemption (1994) is a film that portrays a worldly dimension of Hades. The prison resembles a medieval cathedral complete with  torture chambers designed by the Inquisition where punishment and salvation are served up without the audience knowing the difference. Based on the short novel Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King, the film takes place in the state of Maine in 1947. A young, successful banker named Andy Dufresne played by Tim Robbins has been convicted murdering his wife and her golf-pro lover. Having motive, opportunity, and no credible alibi, Andy neverthe­less insists on his innocence throughout his trial and subsequent incarceration. When he enters Shawshank Prison Andy's protestations of innocence fall on deaf ears from both inmates and guards. Every other convict in the prison claims that he has been betrayed by a biased jury, cor­rupt judge or incompetent lawyer. One exception is a man named Red (played by Morgan Freeman), a long-time inmate who admits, and regrets, the murder he committed when young and foolish.

Red is also the narrator of the movie, and through his eyes the audience gains insight into Jean Paul Sartre's infamous remark in his 1946 play No Exit, "hell is other people". At the same time, there are moments in Red's story about Shawshank and Andy that illuminate the deficiencies of Sartre's vision of earthly hell.

Sartre's notion that "'hell is other people"' perhaps begins with his analysis of "the look"' in his magnum opus  Being and Nothingness (1943), where individuals are struggling to retain their freedom against others'  piercing and probing glances. In Sartre's aforementioned play, the assertion is preceded by the notion that the eyes of others are like a judgmental  inquisitor or a deity that operates like an endless surveillance police state. In the play, the characters Garcin and Estelle are romantically attracted to one another; but Inez, trapped in the same room, maintains a persistent gaze upon the couple. Despite Garcin's objections, Inez insists that privacy and intimacy will never happen for the potential lovers and that she will always be watching them. It is her continual gaze that condemns the potential lovers to endless surveillance. In light of the notions of an omniscient Christian God that forever watches us and the Edward Snowden revelations about the endless spying of the state, we are facing a reality that makes Orwell's novel "1984" more prophetic than ever.

As a Christian god-fearing man, the Shawshank prison warden intro­duces all new convicts to a two-in-one categorical rule: "Respect the Lord and never take his name in vain". After invoking his commandment regarding unconditional reverence coupled with the sin of blasphemy, the warden continues, "the Lord looks after your soul, but your ass belongs to me." But not so fast about the "ass" thing belonging exclusively to the pious warden. Within the prison there are inmates referred to as "sisters" and "bull queers", sexual predators who enjoy violent force with their perversity. This includes a coterie of "sisters" who periodically sexually assault Andy.

Like an arbitrary deity evaluating what constitutes "sin", the warden determines which convicts receive favors, unpleasant tasks and severe penalties. Notwithstanding his innumerable citations of the Bible, the warden refuses to entertain any general law with a modicum of earthly justice. He becomes rather a law unto  himself by mirroring the behavior of the autocratic Christian God he worships and reveres: arbitrariness, unpredictability, vindictiveness, and cruel, pernicious and uncompromising punish­ment for sinful transgressors. When Andy discovers that there is a witness who can confirm his innocence of the double murder, the warden has the wit­ness murdered and punishes Andy with a month of solitary confinement. And when Andy threatens to stop using his banking acumen to assist the warden in laundering prison funds that are funneled into his own bank account, the war­den adds another month of solitary.

Solitary confinement is still one of the most widely used forms of prison punishment today, although in terms of its effects on the victim, "tor­ture" might be a more accurate term. Like the punishments, real and imagined, of our three infamous monotheisms, surely it meets the legal criterion of "cruel and unusual punishment". Solitary is usually induced within a dark space in which the experience disrupts and disorients a convict's sense of time and space, as the victim senses nothing but his own breathing and heartbeat. Being released from solitary and rejoining the other prisoners conveys an uncanny sense of freedom.

Red is not fooled by this grim irony. He points out that after many years in jail, the walls begin to define ones existence: "These walls are funny. First you hate them, then you get used to them. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them." Such resignation echoes Sartre's central themes in his well-known lec­ture Existentialism and Humanism (1946), where he describes freedom as a project that demands on-going and resilient attention to one's life choices. Without such attention, one can quickly lapse into letting others, the church, institu­tions, capitalist culture or your vocation define who you are.

An example of uplifting resilience motivated by art occurs when Andy, who is eventually granted access to the administrative offices, broadcasts a Mozart aria over the intercom. Red, like other inmates, is spellbound by the surprise and euphoria of the blissful voices permeating the prison: "It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage, and made those walls dissolve away. For the briefest of moments, every last man in the bleak Shawshank prison felt free."

For this sinful indiscretion Andy is confined for two weeks in solitary. Upon release his buddies are startled that he seems so relaxed, knowing the unique horror of no contact with the world for days on end. Andy reminds them of Mozart's music, and how something so stimulatingly beautiful helps maintain an inner sense of peace and hope. Most of all, as he reminds them, you can't let the guards, warden, parole board, even other prisoners, destroy this inner sense of tranquility. Beauty, art and hope, it seems, are interconnected.

After this experience, Andy uses his consider­able skills to expand and redecorate the library, process the tax returns of the guards, intervene when old-timer Brooks threatens to stab an inmate and even men­tor a young convict so he can earn his high school diploma. Andy finally confides to Red how he has funneled some of the war­den's ill-gotten booty into private funds under a fictitious name, passport and social security, known only to himself. Red surely could have earned immediate parole by relaying this information to the warden. But Red's only response is joyful laughter at the situation's absurdity and his friend's brilliant tour de force. However, Andy does not tell Red about the tunnel he has been digging for the last twenty years. He is possibly doing his friend a favor while improving his own chances for escape. After all, it will require plodding through five hundred yards of sewage to get outside the prison walls, and Red is probably not up to it physically. Instead, after Andy's escape, Red finally earns parole. He travels to a tree in a New England meadow where Andy told Red he would bury a package. Red finds it and, true to his word, Andy has left an envelope of cash and letter of encouragement for Red to join him in Mexico, which he proceeds to do.


Many apologists for Christianity have tried to deflect the autocratic horrors of the religion from Jesus onto the Church and its endless corruptions and violence. But for anyone who has seriously read the Bible, this cannot be done. The immodesty, intolerance and vindictiveness of Jesus' words cannot be separated from the barbarous history of the Church and its long record of persecution of Jews, Moslems, women, heretics, scientists and freethinkers. Organized religions by their very nature have always been authoritarian and undemocratic.

The intrusion of both Christianity and Islam into politics has only invited retrogressive disaster throughout the free world as it is doing now in both Europe and North America. Welcome the new Shawshank World. Once in positions of power, Christians cannot resist using the coercive mechanisms of the state for their own authoritarian agendas and reactionary doctrines grounded in scripture that are invariably void of moderation or restraint. For example, observe the behavior and policies of George W Bush and Stephen Harper. At the heart of the matter is the assumption that there is an incurable conflict between base human instincts and morality. By nature man is nothing more than a "naked ape", a wild savage and dangerous animal that needs to be subdued, tamed and controlled. Terror and brutality are necessary to "civilize" him and make him fit for the rulers and hierarchy of the ruling Christian capitalist oligarchy. As is generally the case, no evidence or argument is provided to believe such a cynical thesis. But throughout history it has convinced the vast majority of peasants and working classes to accept their fate. No one, however, seems to ever question the moral compass and political legitimacy of those religious and secular conservative elites in power and control at the top of the heap.

Even Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, certainly no liberal, admits that the extreme pessimism that his religion holds regarding human nature inclines toward reticence and submission to authoritarianism and tyranny, inferring that the tyranny of Hitler's Third Reich can be traced to the emergence of Martin Luther and Reformation Christianity in Germany. Certainly no one can deny the role played by Christianity in the 500 year history of European colonialism with its theft of land and resources and subsequent enslavement and genocide of indigenous peoples.

In the Gospels, Jesus informs us, "Think not that I come to send peace on earth, but a sword"( Mathew 10:24) and "He that believeth in the Son hath everlasting life; and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God." (John 3:36). The most vocal among today's Christians are those belonging to the conservative political far right who embrace the harshest features of Christian doctrine. They combine these features with the neo-conservative ideology of self-interest, opportunism and greed promoted by people as varied as atheist Ayn Rand and jet set televangelist Joel Osteen. They champion the mythology of the self-made man and the meritocracy. Perhaps even more than their mythological God, they worship and idolize the rich and famous, on the basis of their foresight and industriousness, sobriety and self-imposed austerity Simultaneously they denigrate the working classes and poor who deserve their poverty because of their slothfulness, indigence and imprudence. When that wears thin they appeal to scripture which, while never providing an explanation, informs them that "the poor shall always be with you" (John 12:8, Mark 14:7, Mathew 26:11, Deuteronomy 15:11).

I think is fair to say that the worst atrocities throughout history are grounded in a faith in the zealous pursuit of some sublime ideal and all-encompassing world view that is perceived to be so grand, majestic, magnificent and beyond criticism that it justifies every adversity, sacrifice, misery and atrocity. No amount of pain, suffering, or even torture is deemed illegal or immoral. The language of George W Bush* and Stephen Harper reflect this dualistic Manichean sensibility. To men such as these, the world loses all complexity in which ambiguity, diplomacy, democracy and compromise are anathema. There are no grey regions of human life and ethics, only black and white, God and Satan, good and evil, us v them. If no enemy exists, it is conveniently invented. Fear - real or imagined- has, and continues to be, one of the most effective mechanisms of control by both religion and the state.

*The obtuse Bush went to far as to describe the invasion of Iraq in 2003 as a "crusade".

Sadly, the source of most of these supercilious ideals are entrenched in some unassailable body of superstitious religious dogma. One of the great critics of religion was Sigmund Freud who astutely observed that the masses long for the great man as a surrogate substitute for the heavenly father. Christianity and Islam he depicted as a "childhood neuroses". People have typically found what they need in the Machiavellian strongman - the law and order autocratic tyrannical leader who controls, represses and terrorizes. It explains why political life has invariably been the monopoly of force, coercion and the instruments of violence. The Christian paean to acquiescence, resignation and docility became aggressive when it co-opted coercive power of the state to serve its own ends during the Roman Empire of the 4th century CE.

Social life and community, the striving for equality, compassion, caring and kindness are the hallmarks of real democracy of the people by the people and for the people. But the reality of our representative forms of democracy are farcical. The religious model and world view, the authoritarian ideal has prevented us from escaping from the mindset of sovereign and subject, a notion antithetical to real bottom-up democracy.

Over the past three decades the regression of our collective psyche has expressed itself in a resurgence of a callous reactionary political conservatism and fundamentalist non-inclusive monotheist religions accompanied by a preference for the tyrannical strong man. This journey back to the darkness of deified leadership, dogmatism, magical thinking, ignorance, eternal conflict and rejection of notions of a common good would have been puzzling and distressing to the Enlightenment philosophers such as Rousseau, Locke, Voltaire, Thomas Paine, David Hume and Adam Smith.

Were he alive today, Canada's greatest Canadian Tommy Douglas (who died in 1986) would be horrified by the events of the past 30 years. He certainly would not have acquiesced to the status quo as those now running his once vibrant social democratic party, the CCF/NDP, have currently done.

September 2014



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