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..

Heaven: A Clear and Present Danger

1939, THE WIZARD OF OZ

Religion’s endgame is perfection:  bliss, rapture, Heaven, life everlasting, enlightenment, Nirvana, mystical union. Perfection is your reward — in this life and the one to come — for practicing what your religion preaches.

The Age of Enlightenment is also after perfection:  Utopia, the march of civilization, the triumph of human progress, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It puts its faith in reason, science, technology, humanism.

Historically, religion and the Enlightenment have been sometimes friends or at least respectful adversaries, but nowadays they are — like everything else — polarized, wary, distrustful, disrespectful, and often vicious adversaries. But their shared endgame makes them barely distinguishable in their attitudes and agendas says Chris Hedges in his book I Don’t Believe in Atheists, which he wrote after debating Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens — two of the “four horsemen” of the “new atheism.”[1]

The book’s title might be too clever for its own good — a later version adds the subtitle “The Dangerous Rise of the Secular Fundamentalist.”  Hedges doesn’t have anything against atheists in general, but he has a lot against the new atheists, likening them to religious fundamentalists:

“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.

“We prefer to think we are the culmination of a process, the result of centuries of human advancement, rather than creatures unable to escape from the irrevocable follies and blunders of human nature. The idea of inevitable progress allows us to place ourselves at the center of creation, to exalt ourselves. It translates our narrow self-interest into a universal good. But it is irresponsible. It permits us to avert our eyes from reality and trust in an absurdist faith.

“These atheists and Christian radicals have built squalid little belief systems that are in the service of themselves and their own power. They urge us forward into a non-reality-based world,  one where force and violence, self-exaltation and blind nationalism are unquestioned goods. They seek to make us afraid of what we do not know or understand. They use this fear to justify cruelty and war. They ask us to kneel before little idols that look and act like them, telling us that one day, if we trust enough in God or reason, we will have everything we desire.

“Fundamentalism is a mind-set. The iconography and language it employs can be either religious or secular or both, but because it dismisses all alternative viewpoints as inferior and unworthy of consideration it is anti-thought. This is part of its attraction. It fills a human desire for self-importance, for hope and the dream of finally attaining paradise. It creates a binary world of absolutes, of good and evil. It provides a comforting emotional certitude. It is used to elevate our cultural, social, and economic systems above others. It is used to justify imperial hubris, war, intolerance and repression as a regrettable necessity in the march of human progress. The fundamentalist murders, plunders and subjugates in the name of humankind’s most exalted ideals. Those who oppose the fundamentalists are dismissed as savages, condemned as lesser breeds of human beings, miscreants led astray by Satan or on the wrong side of Western civilization. The nation is endowed with power and military prowess, fundamentalists argue, because God or our higher form of civilization makes us superior. It is our right to dominate and rule. The core belief systems of these secular and religious antagonists are identical.”

And that’s just a taste. The whole book is like that. It’s like reading the Prophet Amos — it thunders.

Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!
Why do you want the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, not light;
19     as if someone fled from a lion,
and was met by a bear;
or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall,
and was bitten by a snake.
20 Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?

21 I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Amos 5:  18-24 NRSV

I Don’t Believe in Atheists has the most wildly polarized reviews I’ve ever seen. People love it or hate it, and the ones who hate it, hate it savagely — beginning with the book’s title, which apparently commits the unpardonable sin of not making it instantly clear whose side it’s on. Hedges, for his part, believes that the fatal flaw of both religious and secular fundamentalism is that neither actually believes in sin.

There’s a lot to talk about here. More coming up.

[1] For more on the new atheists, you might investigate the Closer to Truth video series “Is Atheism a New Faith?”.