I discussed how the halo effect, which causes people to see all positive characteristics as correlated—for example, more attractive individuals are also perceived as more kindly, honest, and intelligent—causes us to admire heroes more if they’re super-strong and immune to bullets. Even though, logically, it takes much more courage to be a hero if you’re not immune to bullets. Furthermore, it reveals more virtue to act courageously to save one life than to save the world. (Although if you have to do one or the other, of course you should save the world.)
But let’s be more specific.
John Perry was a New York City police officer who also happened to be an Extropian and transhumanist, which is how I come to know his name. John Perry was due to retire shortly and start his own law practice, when word came that a plane had slammed into the World Trade Center. He died when the north tower fell. I didn’t know John Perry personally, so I cannot attest to this of direct knowledge; but very few Extropians believe in God, and I expect that Perry was likewise an atheist.
Which is to say that Perry knew he was risking his very existence, every week on the job. And it’s not, like most people in history, that he knew he had only a choice of how to die, and chose to make it matter—because Perry was a transhumanist; he had genuine hope. And Perry went out there and put his life on the line anyway. Not because he expected any divine reward. Not because he expected to experience anything at all, if he died. But because there were other people in danger, and they didn’t have immortal souls either, and his hope of life was worth no more than theirs.
I did not know John Perry. I do not know if he saw the world this way. But the fact that an atheist and a transhumanist can still be a police officer, can still run into the lobby of a burning building, says more about the human spirit than all the martyrs who ever hoped of heaven.
So that is one specific police officer…
… and now for the superhero.
As the Christians tell the story, Jesus Christ could walk on water, calm storms, drive out demons with a word. It must have made for a comfortable life. Starvation a problem? Xerox some bread. Don’t like a tree? Curse it. Romans a problem? Sic your Dad on them. Eventually this charmed life ended, when Jesus voluntarily presented himself for crucifixion. Being nailed to a cross is not a comfortable way to die. But as the Christians tell the story, Jesus did this knowing he would come back to life three days later, and then go to Heaven. What was the threat that moved Jesus to face this temporary suffering followed by eternity in Heaven? Was it the life of a single person? Was it the corruption of the church of Judea, or the oppression of Rome? No: as the Christians tell the story, the eternal fate of every human went on the line before Jesus suffered himself to be temporarily nailed to a cross.
But I do not wish to condemn a man who is not truly so guilty. What if Jesus—no, let’s pronounce his name correctly: Yeishu—what if Yeishu of Nazareth never walked on water, and nonetheless defied the church of Judea established by the powers of Rome?
Would that not deserve greater honor than that which adheres to Jesus Christ, who was a mere messiah?
Alas, somehow it seems greater for a hero to have steel skin and godlike powers. Somehow it seems to reveal more virtue to die temporarily to save the whole world, than to die permanently confronting a corrupt church. It seems so common, as if many other people through history had done the same.
Comfortably ensconced two thousand years in the future, we can levy all sorts of criticisms at Yeishu, but Yeishu did what he believed to be right, confronted a church he believed to be corrupt, and died for it. Without benefit of hindsight, he could hardly be expected to predict the true impact of his life upon the world. Relative to most other prophets of his day, he was probably relatively more honest, relatively less violent, and relatively more courageous. If you strip away the unintended consequences, the worst that can be said of Yeishu is that others in history did better. (Epicurus, Buddha, and Marcus Aurelius all come to mind.) Yeishu died forever, and—from one perspective—he did it for the sake of honesty. Fifteen hundred years before science, religious honesty was not an oxymoron.
As Sam Harris said:1
It is not enough that Jesus was a man who transformed himself to such a degree that the Sermon on the Mount could be his heart’s confession. He also had to be the Son of God, born of a virgin, and destined to return to earth trailing clouds of glory. The effect of such dogma is to place the example of Jesus forever out of reach. His teaching ceases to become a set of empirical claims about the linkage between ethics and spiritual insight and instead becomes a gratuitous, and rather gruesome, fairy tale. According to the dogma of Christianity, becoming just like Jesus is impossible. One can only enumerate one’s sins, believe the unbelievable, and await the end of the world.
I severely doubt that Yeishu ever spoke the Sermon on the Mount. Nonetheless, Yeishu deserves honor. He deserves more honor than the Christians would grant him.
But since Yeishu probably anticipated his soul would survive, he doesn’t deserve more honor than John Perry.
Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (WW Norton & Company, 2005).