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.