1 MAY 1992, Page 21

Sir: John Patten, arguing for the social use- fulness of

a belief in damnation, thinks that it is 'self-evident that we are born with a sense of good and evil'. I can find no evi- dence, of any kind, for his assertion.

The human infant rapidly develops a sense of what is nice and what is nasty, and is quick to perceive the manipulative poten- tial of giving and denying pleasure. Feelings of guilt come later; and guilt, an emotional attitude as dishonest and destructive as jealousy, has less to do with conscience than with fear of reprisals when the risk of another's displeasure has been taken too far. Guilt is often taught, as a means of oppression: an act that is surely 'evil' rather than 'good'.

Instinctively self-interested behaviour is part of the survival kit of a social organism. Morality is much more sophisticated, and the enforcement of a particular moral code can function, like guilt, as a tyranny. Instead, what sacred and secular institu-


tions alike should be endorsing is the need for every individual to formulate a personal morality, based on learning that self-inter- est is (in the long term at any rate) less sat- isfying than cooperation, and that compas- sion is generally more constructive than returning pain for pain.

It is, to me, obvious — self-evident, even — that devising a personal morality is not inherent or instinctive. Moreover, it is often very difficult, and therefore not immediate- ly appealing. That a divine authority has been looked for to motivate and enforce it comes as no surprise. Nevertheless, all soci- eties have a better prospect of civilised sur- vival when each member's behaviour is grounded in a personally developed and humane conviction about life in this world, rather than in an imposed fear of damna- tion in the next. And zeal in asserting that others are damned is particularly offensive — as every act of sectarian violence, holy war and fatwah shows. Only a secular morality can hope to transcend, without insult, the natural prejudice attendant on commitment to a particular faith.

Margaret Melicharova

Stable Cottage, Creake Road, Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk