Knowledge, Conviction, and Belief

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,  neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Paul’s letter to the Romans 8:38-39 (NIV)

How did Paul know that? Why was he so convinced?

According to psychology and neuroscience, he didn’t know it, he was convinced of it. The difference reflects Cartesian dualism:  the belief that we can know things about the natural world through scientific inquiry, but in the supernatural world, truth is a matter of conviction.

Academics draw distinctions between these and other terms,[1] but in actual experience, the essence seems to be emotional content. Scientific knowledge is thought to be emotionally detached — it wears a lab coat, pours over data, expresses conclusions intellectually. It believes its conclusions, but questioning them is hardwired into scientific inquiry; science therefore must hold its truth in an open hand — all of which establish a reliable sense of what is “real.” Conviction, on the other hand, comes with heart, with a compelling sense of certainty. The emotional strength of conviction makes questioning its truth — especially religious convictions — something to be discouraged or punished.

Further, while knowledge may come with a Eureka! moment — that satisfying flash of suddenly seeing clearly — but conviction often comes with a sense of being overtaken by an authority greater than ourselves — of being apprehended and humbled, left frightened and grateful for a second chance.

Consider the etymologies of conviction and convince:

conviction (n.)

mid-15c., “the proving or finding of guilt of an offense charged,” from Late Latin convictionem(nominative convictio) “proof, refutation,” noun of action from past-participle stem of convincere “to overcome decisively,” from com-, here probably an intensive prefix (see com-), + vincere “to conquer” (from nasalized form of PIE root *weik- (3) “to fight, conquer”).

Meaning “mental state of being convinced or fully persuaded” is from 1690s; that of “firm belief, a belief held as proven” is from 1841. In a religious sense, “state of being convinced one has acted in opposition to conscience, admonition of the conscience,” from 1670s.

convince (v.)

1520s, “to overcome in argument,” from Latin convincere “to overcome decisively,” from assimilated form of com-, here probably an intensive prefix (see com-), + vincere “to conquer” (from nasalized form of PIE root *weik- (3) “to fight, conquer”). Meaning “to firmly persuade or satisfy by argument or evidence” is from c. 1600. Related: Convincedconvincingconvincingly.

To convince a person is to satisfy his understanding as to the truth of a certain statement; to persuade him is, by derivation, to affect his will by motives; but it has long been used also for convince, as in Luke xx. 6, “they be persuaded that John was a prophet.” There is a marked tendency now to confine persuade to its own distinctive meaning. [Century Dictionary, 1897]

Both knowledge and conviction, and the needs they serve, are evolutionary survival skills:  we need what they give us to be safe, individually and collectively. Knowledge satisfies our need to be rational, to think clearly and logically, to distinguish this from that, to put things into dependable categories. Conviction satisfies the need to be moved, and also to be justified — to feel as though you are in good standing in the cosmology of how life is organized.

Culturally, conviction is often the source of embarrassment, guilt, and shame, all of which have a key social function — they are part of the glue that holds society together. Becoming aware that we have transgressed societal laws or behavioral norms (the “conviction of sin”) often brings not just chastisement but also remorse and relief — to ourselves and to others in our community:  we’ve been arrested, apprehended, overtaken by a corrective authority, and saved from doing further harm to ourselves and others.

Knowledge and conviction also have something else in common:  both originate in the brain’s complex tangle of neural networks:

“It is unlikely that beliefs as wide-ranging as justice, religion, prejudice or politics are simply waiting to be found in the brain as discrete networks of neurons, each encoding for something different. ‘There’s probably a whole combination of things that go together,’ says [Peter Halligan, a psychologist at Cardiff University].

“And depending on the level of significance of a belief, there could be several networks at play. Someone with strong religious beliefs, for example, might find that they are more emotionally drawn into certain discussions because they have a large number of neural networks feeding into that belief.”

Where Belief Is Born, The Guardian (June 30,2005).

And thus protected by the knowledge and convictions wired into our neural pathways, we make our way through this precarious thing called “life.”

More next time.

[1] Consider also the differences between terms like conviction and belief, and fact, opinion, belief, and prejudice.

Who’s In Charge Here?

Edelweiss mit Blüten,Wallis, Schweiz.
© Michael Peuckert

Edelweiss, edelweiss
Every morning you greet me

Small and white
Clean and bright
You look happy to meet me

(A little exercise in anthropomorphism
from The Sound of Music)

This hierarchy of consciousness we looked at last time — ours is higher than the rest of creation, angels’ is higher than ours, God’s is highest — is an exercise in what philosophy calls teleology:   “the explanation of phenomena in terms of the purpose they serve.” Teleology is about cause and effect — it looks for design and purpose, and its holy grail is what psychologists call agency:  who or what is causing things we can’t control or explain.

“This agency-detection system is so deeply ingrained that it causes us to attribute agency in all kinds of natural phenomena, such as anger in a thunderclap or voices in the wind, resulting in our universal tendency for anthropomorphism.

“Stewart Guthrie, author of Faces in the Clouds:  A New Theory of Religion, argues that ‘anthropomorphism may best be explained as the result of an attempt to see not what we want to see or what is easy to see, but what is important to see:  what may affect us, for better or worse.’ Because of our powerful anthropomorphic tendency, ‘we search everywhere, involuntarily and unknowingly, for human form and results of human action, and often seem to find them where they do not exist.’”

The Patterning Instinct:  A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, Jeremy Lent (2017)

Teleological thinking is a characteristic feature of religious, magical, and supernatural thinking:

“Academic research shows that religious and supernatural thinking leads people to believe that almost no big life events are accidental or random. As the authors of some recent cognitive-science studies at Yale put it, ‘Individuals’ explicit religious and paranormal beliefs are the best predictors of their perception of purpose in life events’—their tendency ‘to view the world in terms of agency, purpose, and design.”

How American Lost its Mind, The Atlantic (Sept. 2017)

Psychology prof Clay Routledge describes how science debunks teleology, but also acknowledges why it’s a comfortable way of thinking:

“From a scientific point of view, we were not created or designed but instead are the product of evolution. The natural events that shaped our world and our own existence were not purposeful. In other words, life is objectively meaningless. From this perspective, the only way to find meaning is to create your own, because the universe has no meaning or purpose. The universe just is. Though there are certainly a small percentage of people who appear to accept this notion, much of the world’s population rejects it.

“For most humans, the idea that life is inherently meaningless simply will not do.

“Instead, people latch onto what I call teleological thinking. Teleological thinking is when people perceive phenomena in terms of purpose. When applied to natural phenomena, this type of thinking is generally considered to be flawed because it imposes design where there is no evidence for it.  To impose purpose and design where there is none is what researchers refer to as a teleological error.”

Supernatural: Death, Meaning, and the Power of the Invisible World, Clay Routledge (2018)

It’s one thing to recognize “teleological error,” it’s another to resist it — even for those who pride themselves on their rationality:

“Even atheists who reject the supernatural and scientists who are trained not to rely on teleological explanations of the world do, in fact, engage in teleological thinking.

“Many people who reject the supernatural do so through thoughtful reasoning. … However, when these people are making teleological judgments, they are not fully deploying their rational thinking abilities.

“Teleological meaning comes more from an intuitive feeling than it does from a rational decision-making process.”

Supernatural: Death, Meaning, and the Power of the Invisible World

Teleological thinking may be understandable, but scientist and medical doctor Paul Singh comes down hard on the side of science as the only way to truly “know” something:

“All scientists know that the methods we use to prove or disprove theories are the only dependable methods of understanding our universe. All other methodologies of learning, while appropriate to employ in situations when science cannot guide us, are inherently flawed. Reasoning alone — even the reasoning of great intellects — is not enough. It must be combined with the scientific method if it is to yield genuine knowledge about the universe.”

The Great Illusion:  The Myth of Free Will, Consciousness, and the Self, Paul Singh (2016)

After admitting that “evidence shows that the human brain is universally delusional in many ways,” Singh makes his case that “the use of logic and scientific skepticism is a skill that can be used to overcome the limitations of our own brains.”

Next time, we’ll look more into the differences in how science and religion “know” things to be “true.”

A Little Lower Than the Angels

“When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
The moon and the stars, which You have ordained,
What is man that You are mindful of him,
And the son of man that You visit him?
For You have made him a little lower than [b]the angels,
And You have crowned him with glory and honor.
You have made him to have dominion over the works of Your hands;
You have put all things under his feet.”

Psalm 8:3-6 (NKJV)

Anthropocentrism is the belief that humans are the apex of creation. The belief is so common that the mere suggestion we might not be throws us into cognitive dissonance — “the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioural decisions and attitude change.”

Cognitive dissonance runs especially hot when science threatens religious paradigms like the anthropocentric one in the Biblical passage above.[1] Biologist David Barash wrote his book to bring it on — this is from the Amazon promo:

 “Noted scientist David P. Barash explores the process by which science has, throughout time, cut humanity “down to size,” and how humanity has responded. A good paradigm is a tough thing to lose, especially when its replacement leaves us feeling more vulnerable and less special. And yet, as science has progressed, we find ourselves–like it or not–bereft of many of our most cherished beliefs, confronting an array of paradigms lost… Barash models his argument around a set of ‘old’ and ‘new’ paradigms that define humanity’s place in the universe.”

Through a Glass Brightly:  Using Science to See Our Species as We Really Are

Here’s his old/new paradigm summary re: anthropocentrism:

Old:  Human beings are fundamentally important to the cosmos.
New:  We aren’t.

Old:  We are literally central to the universe, not only astronomically, but in other ways, too.
New:  We occupy a very small and peripheral place in a not terribly consequential galaxy, tucked away in just one insignificant corner of an unimaginably large universe.

Cognitive dissonance is  why non- anthropocentric paradigms come across as just plain weird — like Robert Lanza’s biocentrism:

“Every now and then, a simple yet radical idea shakes the very foundations of knowledge. The startling discovery that the world was not flat challenged and ultimately changed the way people perceived themselves and their relationships with the world.

“The whole of Western natural philosophy is undergoing a sea change again, forced upon us by the experimental findings of quantum theory. At the same time, these findings have increased our doubt and uncertainty about traditional physical explanations of the universe’s genesis and structure.

“Biocentrism completes this shift in worldview, turning the planet upside down again with the revolutionary view that life creates the universe instead of the other way around. In this new paradigm, life is not just an accidental byproduct of the laws of physics.

“Biocentrism shatters the reader’s ideas of life, time and space, and even death. At the same time, it releases us from the dull worldview that life is merely the activity of an admixture of carbon and a few other elements; it suggests the exhilarating possibility that life is fundamentally immortal.”

Anthropocentrism works closely with another human-centered belief practice:  “anthropomorphism,” which is “the attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities” — for example those angels we’re just a little lower than, and God, who put the God-angels-us-the rest of creation hierarchy in place. The human trait we attribute to God and the angels is the same one we believe sets us apart from the rest of creation:  consciousness.

“When our anthropomorphism is applied to religious thought, it’s notably the mind, rather than the body, that’s universally applied to spirits and gods. In the diverse cultures of the world, gods come in all shapes and sizes, but one thing they always share is a mind with the ability to think symbolically just like a human. This makes sense in light of the critical importance of theory of mind in the development of our social intelligence:  if other people have minds like ours, wouldn’t that be true of other agents we perceive to act intentionally in the world?”

The Patterning Instinct:  A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, Jeremy Lent (2017)

Anthropocentrism puts us in charge as far as our consciousness can reach. Anthropomorphism puts beings with higher consciousness in  charge of the rest. Both practices are truly anthropo- (human) centered; the beliefs they generate start and end with our own human consciousness. Which means our attempts to think beyond our range are inescapably idolatrous:  we create God and the angels in our image, and they return the favor.

There’s a philosophical term that describes what’s behind all this, called “teleology” — the search for explanation and design, purpose and meaning. We’ll look at that next time.

[1] The case for anthropocentrism starts in the first chapter of the Bible:  “Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals,[a] and over all the creatures that move along the ground. So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them;    male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground. Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” Genesis 1: 26-30.The post-deluge version removed the vegetarian requirement:  “Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.” Genesis 9: 1-3.

“Fearfully and Wonderfully Made”

da vinci

We are starting this series on Consciousness and the Self by looking at some of the religious and secular foundations of the belief that humans are a dualist entity consisting of body and soul, and the associated belief that the two elements are best understood by different forms of inquiry — religion and the humanities for the soul, and science for the body. As we’ll see, current neuro-biological thinking defies these beliefs and threatens their ancient intellectual, cultural, and historical dominance.

This article[1] is typical in its conclusion that one of the things that makes human beings unique is our “higher consciousness.”

“[Home sapiens] sits on top of the food chain, has extended its habitats to the entire planet, and in recent centuries, experienced an explosion of technological, societal, and artistic advancements.

“The very fact that we as human beings can write and read articles like this one and contemplate the unique nature of our mental abilities is awe-inspiring.

“Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran said it best: ‘Here is this three-pound mass of jelly you can hold in the palm of your hand…it can contemplate the meaning of infinity, and it can contemplate itself contemplating the meaning of infinity.’

“Such self-reflective consciousness or ‘meta-wondering’ boosts our ability for self-transformation, both as individuals and as a species. It contributes to our abilities for self-monitoring, self-recognition and self-identification.”

The author of the following Biblical passage agrees, and affirms that his “soul knows it very well” — i.e., not only does he know he’s special, but he knows that he knows it:

For you formed my inward parts;
    you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
    my soul knows it very well.

Psalm 139: 13-16 (ESV)

Judging from worldwide religious practice, the “I” that is “fearfully and wonderfully made” is limited to the soul, not the body:  the former feels the love, while the latter is assaulted with unrelenting, vicious, sometimes horrific verbal and physical abuse. “Mortification of the flesh” indeed –as if the body needs help being mortal.

Science apparently concurs with this dismal assessment. The following is from the book blurb for Through a Glass Brightly:  Using Science to See Our Species as We Really Are, by evolutionary biologist and psychologist David P. Barash (2018):

“In Through a Glass Brightly, noted scientist David P. Barash explores the process by which science has, throughout time, cut humanity ‘down to size,’ and how humanity has responded. A good paradigm is a tough thing to lose, especially when its replacement leaves us feeling more vulnerable and less special. And yet, as science has progressed, we find ourselves–like it or not–bereft of many of our most cherished beliefs, confronting an array of paradigms lost.

“Barash models his argument around a set of “old” and “new” paradigms that define humanity’s place in the universe. This new set of paradigms [includes] provocative revelations [such as] whether human beings are well designed… Rather than seeing ourselves through a glass darkly, science enables us to perceive our strengths and weaknesses brightly and accurately at last, so that paradigms lost becomes wisdom gained. The result is a bracing, remarkably hopeful view of who we really are.”

Barash’s old and new paradigms about the body are as follows:

“Old paradigm:  The human body is a wonderfully well constructed thing, testimony to the wisdom of an intelligent designer.

“New paradigm:  Although there is much in our anatomy and physiology to admire, we are in fact jerry-rigged and imperfect, testimony to the limitations of a process that is nothing but natural and that in no way reflects supernatural wisdom or benevolence.”

Okay, so maybe the body has issues, but the old paradigm belief that human-level consciousness justifies lording it over the rest of creation is as old as the first chapter of the Bible:

And God blessed them. And God said to them,
“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it
and have dominion over the fish of the sea
 and over the birds of the heavens
 and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

Genesis 1:28  (ESV)

The Biblical mandate to “subdue” the earth explains a lot about how we approach the rest of creation — something people seem to be questioning more and more these days. Psychiatrist, essayist, and Oxford Fellow Neel Burton includes our superiority complex in his list of self-deceptions:

“Most people see themselves in a much more positive light than others do them, and possess an unduly rose-tinted perspective on their attributes, circumstances, and possibilities. Such positive illusions, as they are called, are of three broad kinds, an inflated sense of one’s qualities and abilities, an illusion of control over things that are mostly or entirely out of one’s control, and an unrealistic optimism about the future.” [2]

Humans as the apex of creation? More on that next time.

[1] What is it That Makes Humans Unique? Singularity Hub, Dec. 28, 2017.

[2] Hide and Seek:  The Psychology of Self-Deception (Acheron Press, 2012).

“Before You Were Born I Knew You”

The_Summoner_-_Ellesmere_Chaucer-300x282The Summoner in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales,
Ellesmere MSS, circa 1400

Last time we looked at the common dualistic paradigm of consciousness, which is based on (a) the belief that humans are made in two parts — an ethereal self housed in a physical body — and (b) the corollary belief that religion and the humanities understand the self best, while science is the proper lens for the body.

Current neuroscience theorizes instead that consciousness arises from brain, body, and environment — all part of the physical, natural world, and therefore best understood by scientific inquiry.

We looked at the origins of the dualistic paradigm last time. This week, we’ll look at an example of how it works in the world of jobs and careers —  particularly the notion of being “called” to a “vocation.”

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the notion of “calling” entered the English language around Chaucer’s time, originating from Old Norse kalla — “to cry loudly, summon in a loud voice; name, call by name.” Being legally summoned wasn’t a happy thing in Chaucer’s day (it still isn’t), and summoners were generally wicked, corrupt, and otherwise worthy of Chaucer’s pillory in The Friar’s Tale.

“Calling” got an image upgrade a century and a half later, in the 1550’s, when the term acquired the connotation of “vocation, profession, trade, occupation.” Meanwhile, “vocation” took on the meaning of “spiritual calling,” from Old French vocacio, meaning “call, consecration; calling, profession,” and Latin vocationem — “a calling, a being called” to “one’s occupation or profession.”

“Calling” and “vocation” together support the common dream of being able to do the work we were born to do, and the related belief that this would make our work significant and us happy. The idea of vocational calling is distinctly Biblical:[1]

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

Jeremiah 1:5 (ESV

Something in us — an evolutionary survival instinct, I would guess — wants to be known, especially by those in power. Vocational calling invokes power at the highest level:  never mind your parents’ hormones, you were a gleam in God’s eye; and never mind the genes you inherited, God coded vocational identity and purpose into your soul.

2600 years after Jeremiah, we’re still looking for the same kind of affirmation.

“Amy Wrzesniewski, a professor at Yale School of Management and a leading scholar on meaning at work, told me that she senses a great deal of anxiety among her students and clients. ‘They think their calling is under a rock,’ she said, ‘and that if they turn over enough rocks, they will find it.’ If they do not find their one true calling, she went on to say, they feel like something is missing from their lives and that they will never find a job that will satisfy them. And yet only about one third to one half of people whom researchers have surveyed see their work as a calling. Does that mean the rest will not find meaning and purpose in their careers?”

The Power of Meaning:  Crafting a Life That Matters, Emily Esfahani Smith

If only one-third to one-half of us feel like we’re living our vocational calling, then why do we hang onto the dream? Maybe the problem is what Romantic Era poet William Wordsworth wrote about in his Ode:  Intimations of Immortality:

“Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

“Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.”

I.e., maybe something tragic happens when an immortal self comes to live in a mortal body. This, too, is a common corollary belief to body/soul dualism — religion’s distrust of “the flesh” is standard issue.

Cognitive neuroscientist Christian Jarrett offers career advice to the afflicted:  you might be able to turn the job you already have into a calling if you invest enough in it, or failing that, you might find your source of energy and determination somewhere else than in your work. This Forbes article reaches a similar conclusion:

“Years ago, I read a very thought-provoking article by Michael Lewis … about the difference between a calling and a job. He had some powerful insights. What struck me most were two intriguing concepts:

‘There’s a direct relationship between risk and reward. A fantastically rewarding career usually requires you to take fantastic risks.’

‘A calling is an activity that you find so compelling that you wind up organizing your entire self around it — often to the detriment of your life outside of it.’”

I.e., maybe career satisfaction isn’t heaven-sent; maybe instead it’s developed in the unglamorous daily grind of life in the flesh.

More on historical roots and related beliefs coming up.

[1] For more Biblical examples, see Isaiah 44:24:  Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, who formed you from the womb: Galatians 1:15:  But when he who had set me apart before I was born; Psalm 139:13, 16:  13  For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb; your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.

Selling Utopia

for sale sign

We’ve been looking at journalist and social commentator Chris Hedges’ belief that secular and religious fundamentalists are out of touch with “sin that clings so closely” (Hebrews 12: 1), which explains why their utopian visions sour into dystopias. The same dynamic infects how they evangelize their utopias:  the pitch starts out hopeful and uplifting, but their missionary methods inevitably degenerate.

According to his website, high-tech superstar Guy Kawasaki “did not invent secular evangelism, but he popularized it.” Robert Katai has also made a career of brand evangelism. He describes what he does by quoting a seminal Bible passage re: Christian evangelism:

And He said to them,
“Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.”

Mark 16:15

But it’s not just about getting out there and telling people, he says:

“For some people ‘evangelism marketing’ means a combination of jobs from marketing, social media, PR, customer service, sales, etc. Of course, they could be right, but the reality is that having a role of ‘evangelist’ doesn’t stop at 8-10-12 hours of work. We could instead say that ‘Evangelist’ is more than a job, it’s simply a lifestyle.”

I.e., you don’t peddle utopia, you own it, become it, make it your lifestyle, your world. As a new recruit, you take your cues from your beatified leader — the utopia’s original evangelist. And why wouldn’t you become an evangelist for the cause? Utopia is good news, so why not share it? Besides, neuro-psychological research says sharing good news is good for you. [1]

The pitch for both secular and religious utopia is remarkably the same. Here’s a distillation:

We’ve lost our way. Things used to be perfect, but right now they aren’t, and neither are we. Something happened to us. We fell. We lost our way. We were duped. We’re falling short, missing the mark.

BUT the good news is, we can get it back. We can reclaim and restore what we’ve lost. We need to stop doing what we’ve been doing and go back to our origins — where we came from, what we began with, the ideals we were divinely endowed with, what we were destined for before we lost our way and let THEM take it away from us.

None of us can do this alone. It takes commitment, loyalty, and faith. We need to believe, we need to band together, and we need to get to work. There is a way back, things can get better — like they used to be, like they were intended to be — and we can get there together.

And so it goes. Any of that sound familiar?

What the pitch doesn’t mention is that the path to restoring perfection is backed up by a human institution seeded with the flaws of human nature. To join the cause means to become part of a community of like-minded believers and a supportive leadership and social structure designed to keep members in step and on track. As an institution grows, leadership power and the mandate of conformity increase as individual self-efficacy decreases. The institution and its ideals sweep along, gathering momentum through the sheer weight and inertia of neuro-cultural evolution. The institution’s cultural icons become sacred as the individual becomes more subservient and duty-bound. Authority figures at first offer mostly the carrot — incentivize, encourage, reward — but increasingly use the stick as well — chastise, shame, punish. Zeal that’s out of touch with its own fallibility is a set up for a slide down moral failure, bureaucratic corruption, abuse and brutality, until war — terror, torturing, maiming, murdering — is part of the package and the transition into dystopia is complete.

These dynamics apply to any offered utopia, whether secular or religious, and to the institutions that support it, whether religious, political, national, or otherwise. None of that makes it into the evangelizing sales pitch. And despite encyclopedic historical evidence and first-hand eyewitness experience, we keep responding to evangelists’ utopian altar calls:

We are like sheep without a shepherd
We don’t know how to be alone
So we wander ’round this desert
And wind up following the wrong gods home
But the flock cries out for another
And they keep answering that bell
And one more starry-eyed messiah
Meets a violent farewell-.

The Eagles

Coming upWe talked about cultural conflict before. The ultimate cultural conflict is war. Now that the topic has come up again in the context of this examination of fundamentalism, we’ll look next at war as a cultural institution..

[1] See this article about sharing good grades, and this one, about sharing on social media.

The Dark Side of Perfection

dark side

Photo by Krzysztof Niewolny on Unsplash

“The Enlightenment was a curse and a blessing.” Chris Hedges writes in  I Don’t Believe in Atheists,

“Its proponents championed human dignity and condemned tyranny, superstition, ignorance and injustice.

“But there was a dark side to the Enlightenment. Philosophers insisted that the universe and human nature could be understood and controlled by the rational mind. The human species, elevated above animals because it  possessed the capacity to reason, would break free of its animal nature and, through reason, understand itself and the world. It would make wise and informed decisions for the betterment of humanity.

“The disparity between the rational person  and the instinctive, irrational person, these philosophers argued, would be solved through education and knowledge.”

Sounds exalted, but we know better. Neuro-psychology — including Nobel-prize winning research in behavioral economics[1] –shows that we rarely reason our way to informed decisions. Instead, we rationalize our choices and behaviors after the fact to ensure that they line up with what we were individually and culturally predisposed to decide and do in the first place.

“Rationalization happens in two steps: A decision, action, judgement is made for a given reason, or no (known) reason at all. A rationalization is performed, constructing a seemingly good or logical reason, as an attempt to justify the act after the fact (for oneself or others).”

Then, once we are full of rationalized belief in the rightness, truthfulness, fate, destiny, inevitability, divine initiation  of our belief and actions — and therefore ourselves and our place in the world and in history —  we believe what we believe to a fault, which makes us capable of all sorts of evil in the name of good.

“If we see ourselves as the culmination of a long, historical process toward perfectibility, rather than a tragic reflection of what went before, then we are likely to think the ends justify the means. …

“Fascists and communists combined violent, revolutionary fervor with the Christian millenarian dream of a heaven on earth. They adopted the pseudoscientific doctrine that it was possible to have complete knowledge and complete mastery of the human species. It was that fusion of utopian violence and industrial and bureaucratic power that marked the birth of totalitarianism.”

Once we get rolling on the path to perfection, we can pick up unlikely allies along the way, as has been the case with the radical secular and religious fundamentalists:

“The liberal church also usually buys into the myth that we can morally progress as a species.

“It is this naïve belief in our goodness and decency — this inability to face the dark reality of human nature, our capacity for evil and the morally neutral universe we inhabit — that is the most disturbing aspect of all these belief systems.

“There is nothing in human nature or human history to support the idea that we are morally advancing as a species or that we will overcome the flaws of human nature.

“We are not advancing toward a glorious utopia.”

After his unrelenting excoriation of rational and religious fundamentalists and their allies, Hedges identifies one kind of belief system that seems to have opted out of the rush to dystopia.

“An atheist who accepts an irredeemable and flawed human nature, as well as a morally neutral universe, who does not think the world can be perfected by human beings, who is not steeped in cultural arrogance and feelings of superiority … is intellectually honest. These atheists may not like the word sin, but they have accepted its reality. They hold an honored place in a pluralistic and diverse human community.

“Atheists, including those wo brought us the Enlightenment, have often been a beneficial force in the history of human thought and religion. They have forced societies to examine empty religions platitudes and hollow religious concepts. They have courageously challenged the moral hypocrisy of religious institutions. The humanistic values of the Enlightenment were a response to the abuses of organized religion, including the attempts by religious authorities to stifle intellectual and scientific freedom. Religious authorities, bought off by the elite, championed a dogmatism that sanctified the privileges and power of the ruling class. But there were always religious figures who defied their own. Many, such as the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, were branded as heretics and atheists.

“The pain of living has also turned honest and compassionate men and women against God. These atheists do not believe in collective moral progress or science and reason as our ticket to salvation. They are not trying to perfect the human race. Rather, they cannot reconcile human suffering with the concept of God. This is an honest struggle. This disbelief is a form of despair, not self-exaltation.”

I found this short and surprising passage the most hopeful and personally affirming in the book.

[1] Richard H. Thaler is an economist at the University of Chicago, and Cass R. Sunstein is a Harvard Law School Professor. Together, they wrote Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (2009). See also The Nobel In Economics Rewards A Pioneer Of “Nudges” — Richard Thaler becomes one of very few behavioural economists to receive the discipline’s highest honour, The Economist, October 9, 2017 and This Headline Is A Nudge To Get You To Read About Nobel Economist Richard Thaler — Okay, it’s not a very good nudge, but his work is really important! Vox, October 9, 2017.

Life in Paradise (You Don’t Want It)

commune family

It’s just another day in paradise 
As you stumble to your bed 
You’d give anything to silence 
Those voices ringing in your head 
You thought you could find happiness 
Just over that green hill 
You thought you would be satisfied 
But you never will- 

The Eagles

A couple posts back, we heard award-winning journalist and ex-war correspondence Chris Hedges say that,

“The utopian dream of a perfect society and a perfect human being, the idea that we are moving toward collective salvation, is one of the most dangerous legacies of the Christian faith and the Enlightenment.”

Belief in the perfectibility of human beings and human society, he says, turns religious zealots and rationalist diehards alike into fundamentalists — a mindset that spawns all kinds of evils. The problem isn’t that one believes in God but the other doesn’t, but that neither of them actually believes in sin:

“We have nothing to fear from those who do or do not believe in God; we have much to fear from those who do not believe in sin. The concept of sin is a stark acknowledgement that we can never be omnipotent, that we are bound and limited by human flaws and self-interest. The concept of sin is a check on the utopian dreams of a perfect world. It prevents us from believing in our own perfectibility or the illusion that the material advances of science and technology equal an intrinsic moral improvement in our species. To turn away from God is harmless. Saints have been trying to do it for centuries. To turn away from sin is catastrophic. Religious fundamentalists, who believe they know and can carry out the will of God, disregard their severe human limitations. They act as if they are free from sin. The secular utopians of the twenty-first century have also forgotten they are human. These two groups peddle absolutes. Those who do not see as they see, speak as they speak, and act as they act are worthy only of conversion or eradication.

“We discard the wisdom of sin at our peril. Sin reminds us that all human beings are flawed — though not equally flawed. Sin is the acceptance that there will never be  a final victory over evil, that the struggle for amorality is a battle that will always have to be fought. Studies in cognitive behavior illustrate the accuracy and wisdom of this Biblical concept. Human beings are frequently irrational. They are governed by unconscious forces, many of them self-destructive. This understanding of innate human corruptibility and human limitations, whether explained by the theologian Augustine or the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, has been humankind’s most potent check on utopian visions. It has forced human beings to accept their own myopia and irrationality, to acknowledge that no act, even one defined as moral or virtuous, is free from the taint of self-interest and corruption. We are bound by our animal nature.”

Hedges, I Don’t Believe in Atheists

“Sin” in this context is not a doctrinal concept, it’s an acceptance that human beliefs and institutions are all imperiled because… well, because they’re human:  we’re not perfect; our belief systems and the institutions aren’t either. Sin means our utopian visions blind us to our shadow side:

“James Luther Adams, my ethics professor at Harvard Divinity School, spoke of the “old triumvirate of tyrants of the human soul, the libido sciendi, the libido sentiendi, and the libido dominandi. [The lust of the mind, the lust of the flesh, and the lush for power.] Adams, who worked with the anti-Nazi church leader Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1935 and 1936 in Germany, warned us that these lusts are universal and intractable. They lurk beneath the surface of the most refined cultures and civilizations. ‘We may call these tendencies by any name we wish,’ he said, ‘but we do not escape their destructive influence by a conspiracy of silence concerning them.’

“The belief that science or religion can eradicate these lusts leads to the worship of human potential and human power. These lusts are woven into our genetic map. We can ameliorate them, but they are always with us’ we will never ultimately defeat them. The attempt to deny the lusts within us empowers this triumvirate. They surface, unexamined and unheeded, to commit evil in the name of good. We are not saved by reason. We are not saved by religion. We are saved by turning away from projects that tempt us to become God, and by accepting our own contamination and the limitations of being human.”

Hedges, I Don’t Believe in Atheists

Sin explains why so communes and other “intentional communities” usually fail:  they begin with visions of utopia, but end up “reproduc[ing] many of the same tyrannies that people were trying to escape: egoism, power struggles, envy, mistrust and fear.” “Utopia, Inc.,”. Aeon Magazine (Feb. 28, 2017)

Sin also explains cognitive neuroscientist turned science writer Christian Jarrett’s “evidence-based … 10 dispiriting findings that reveal the darker and less impressive aspects of human nature.” The Bad News On Human Nature, In 10 Findings From Psychology,” Aeon Magazine (Dec. 5, 2018).

More coming up on the dangers of the perfection myth.

Dying To Win and the United States of Jihad

This week’s post is a digression from this blog’s main focus, but I stumbled across two books on terrorism and suicide bombing that expand on some of the themes we looked at last time, and decided to share them for anyone who wants to dig further. Both books are written by authors with impressive credentials, and are spaced a decade apart, which offers a useful comparison of what we knew then and what we know now. Next week we’ll return to our discussion of religious and secular fundamentalism and its dangerous roots in utopian visions.

Dyiing to WinDying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, by Robert Pape (2006). This is from the book blurb:

“One of the world’s foremost authorities on the subject, Professor Pape has created the first comprehensive database of every suicide terrorist attack in the world from 1980 until today. With striking clarity and precision, Professor Pape uses this unprecedented research to debunk widely held misconceptions about the nature of suicide terrorism and provide a new lens that makes sense of the threat we face.

“FACT: Suicide terrorism is not primarily a product of Islamic fundamentalism.

“FACT: The world’s leading practitioners of suicide terrorism are the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka–a secular, Marxist-Leninist group drawn from Hindu families.

“FACT: Ninety-five percent of suicide terrorist attacks occur as part of coherent campaigns organized by large militant organizations with significant public support.

“FACT: Every suicide terrorist campaign has had a clear goal that is secular and political: to compel a modern democracy to withdraw military forces from the territory that the terrorists view as their homeland.

“In this wide-ranging analysis, Professor Pape offers the essential tools to forecast when some groups are likely to resort to suicide terrorism and when they are not. He also provides the first comprehensive demographic profile of modern suicide terrorist attackers. With data from more than 460 such attackers–including the names of 333–we now know that these individuals are not mainly poor, desperate criminals or uneducated religious fanatics but are often well-educated, middle-class political activists.

“More than simply advancing new theory and facts, these pages also answer key questions about the war on terror:

  • Are we safer now than we were before September 11?
  • Was the invasion of Iraq a good counterterrorist move?
  • Is al-Qaeda stronger now than it was before September 11?

“For both policy makers and the general public, Dying to Win transcends speculation with systematic scholarship, making it one of the most important political studies of recent time.”

The United States of JihadUnited States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists, by Peter Bergen ( 2016). Again, from the book blurb:

“Since 9/11, more than three hundred Americans—born and raised in Minnesota, Alabama, New Jersey, and elsewhere—have been indicted or convicted of terrorism charges. Some have taken the fight abroad: an American was among those who planned the attacks in Mumbai, and more than eighty U.S. citizens have been charged with ISIS-related crimes. Others have acted on American soil, as with the attacks at Fort Hood, the Boston Marathon, and in San Bernardino. What motivates them, how are they trained, and what do we sacrifice in our efforts to track them?

“Paced like a detective story, United States of Jihad tells the entwined stories of the key actors on the American front. Among the perpetrators are Anwar al-Awlaki, the New Mexico-born radical cleric who became the first American citizen killed by a CIA drone and who mentored the Charlie Hebdo shooters; Samir Khan, whose Inspire webzine has rallied terrorists around the world, including the Tsarnaev brothers; and Omar Hammami, an Alabama native and hip hop fan who became a fixture in al Shabaab’s propaganda videos until fatally displeasing his superiors.

“Drawing on his extensive network of intelligence contacts, from the National Counterterrorism Center and the FBI to the NYPD, Peter Bergen also offers an inside look at the controversial tactics of the agencies tracking potential terrorists—from infiltrating mosques to massive surveillance; at the bias experienced by innocent observant Muslims at the hands of law enforcement; at the critics and defenders of U.S. policies on terrorism; and at how social media has revolutionized terrorism.

“Lucid and rigorously researched, United States of Jihad is an essential new analysis of the Americans who have embraced militant Islam both here and abroad.”

Next week we’ll be looking at the fatal flaw that turns utopian dreams into dystopian nightmares.

The Price of Paradise

The Price of Paradise

We looked last week at war correspondent and journalist Chris Hedges’ book I Don’t Believe in Atheists, in which he argues that the “new atheists” and religious believers share the same flawed fundamentalist zeal for utopia that leads inevitably to dystopia.

That post enjoyed some prescient timing — a new book taking the same position came out about the time I was writing it:   The Price of Paradise by Iain Overton, scholar, journalist, Executive Director of Action On Armed Violence, and Expert Member of the Forum on Arms Trade. The latter published a book release interview entitled “Understanding and Beginning to Address Suicide Bombing– An Interview With Iain Overton on “the Price of Paradise,” (Apr. 8, 2019) in which Mr. Overton said this:

“The most notable fact – and the reason I wrote the book – has been that of a major shift towards suicide bombing use, especially in the last decade both in terms of attacks and casualties. More than 40% of all people killed by suicide bombers since their first use against the Tsar of Russia in 1881 have happened in the last five years.

“This is in large part because of a major spike in attacks by Salafist jihadists. Such a dark trend has, though, deep historical roots.  In the book I argue that ISIS is, effectively, the sum of the parts of previous suicide bomb campaigns.  It has elements of the utopianism of the Russia revolutionaries of the 19th century; the militarism of the Japanese kamikaze; the Islamic notion of sacrifice as developed in Iran under the Ayatollah Khomenei; the strategic logic of Lebanese terror groups; the targeting of civilians as seen by Hamas; the cult of the leadership as seen under the Tamil Tigers; and the millenarianism and global conflict as summed up by Al Qaeda.

“In addition to this, though, modern day Salafist jihadist suicide bombers have a profound sense of ‘end of days’ – a millenarian logic that means, to those bombers, death is loved more than life and their sacrifice is integral to the creation of a glittering Islamic future.

A review in the Evening Standard said this:

“In his sweeping survey of suicide bombings — from the first documented modern suicide bomber, Ignaty Grinevitsky, a revolutionary who murdered Tsar Alexandar II in St Petersburg in 1881, to today’s jihadists — veteran journalist and human rights activist Iain Overton sees a vision of utopia as a common thread.

“Despite the different national, ideological and historical contexts of suicide bombers in countries as disparate as Russia, Japan, Iran, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Somalia, Syria, America, Europe and beyond, all are driven, we are told, by religious messianism and zealotry. A wish for paradise and an all-consuming religious sentiment unites nearly all of them, including secular revolutionaries, Marxists, insurrectionists and jihadis.

The reviewer wasn’t convinced:

“Overton’s overarching and parsimonious argument erases core differences in motivation and ideologies between suicide bombers across time and space. Surely, the drivers behind their actions are more complex and multi-varied than a single cause?”

On the other hand, the reviewer commended the book’s analysis of what happens when one utopian vision clashes with another — in this case, the impact of the USA’s War on Terror:

“Where Overton’s book excels is in explaining the consequences of the US’s (and Europe’s) overreaction to suicide bombers, particularly after 9/11. America’s global war on terror was costly in blood and treasure, as well as counterproductive.

“In November 2018 Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs released the Costs of War study in which it was calculated that the US will have spent $5.9 trillion on activities related to the global war on terror from 2001 until October 2019.

“Despite this staggering sum, not to mention that incalculable human cost, the number of jihadist fighters only multiplied in the same period from about 37,000 to 66,000 fighters in 2001 to about 100,000 to 230,000 in 2018 (according to a report by the Washington Center for Strategic and International Studies).

“Overton also underscores the corrosive effects of the global counter-terrorism campaign on the rule of law and open society in Western democracies.”

Hedges made a similar point in I Don’t Believe in Atheists:

“Terrorists support acts of indiscriminate violence not because of direct, personal affronts to their dignity, but more often for lofty, abstract ideas of national, ethnic, or religious pride, with the goal of a utopian, harmonious world purged of evil. The longer the United States occupies Afghanistan and Iraq, the more these feelings of collective humiliation are aggravated, the greater the number of jihadists willing to attack American targets. The strident support of some of the new atheists for a worldwide war against “Islamofascism” is a public relations bonanza and potent recruiting tool for Islamic terrorists. It fuels the collective humiliation and rage we should be trying to thwart.”

I.e., utopian visions are fatally flawed, and so is fighting one utopian vision with another.

More to come..