Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Homo ideologicus

The New Atheists have made waves by loudly insisting that religion and religious belief are inherently irrational, that they are unique in their capacity to make people do stupid and destructive things. Richard Dawkins is most famous for describing religion as a virus of the mind, infecting people's brains and clouding their judgment. Or take Steven Weinberg, who famously remarked that "With or without [religion], you'd have good people doing good things and evil people doing bad things, but for good people to do bad things, it takes religion."

But is religion alone in this regard? I am inclined to think that behind the seemingly inherent irrationality and destructiveness of religion lies an even deeper human impulse which is not unique to religion but can arise from all aspects of human experience: the impulse to ideology.

What is ideology? It is not simply a system of belief or a worldview. It refers to the process by which the human mind, individually or collectively, becomes fixated on a specific idea or institution as a source of value, meaning and security. Take German Nationalism, for example: Hitler because as powerful and popular as he did because he promised the Germans the things that they had been missing since World War I: economic prosperity and a reason to be proud of their country. And these were not just frustrated desires coming to the fore: they represented a deep chasm within the very soul of Germany, that had to be filled somehow. It went beyond just wanting to have more money or seeing their country rise to prominence again: the German people could not find meaning in their existence were it not for the restoration of these things. And so they turned to a monster who promised to give it to them and so turned a blind eye on the atrocities of the new regime. (See the excellent discussion of ideology in Hope in Troubled Times, pp.31-60)

Satan astutely remarks in the book of Job, "Skin for skin! All that a man has he will give for his life." (Job 2:4) In this simple statement we see the deepest roots of ideology: insecurity, physical or spiritual. When we are confronted with life and meaning-threatening circumstances, we are tempted to surrender power to something, anything that looks like it might save us from our predicament, regardless of the ultimate consequences for ourselves and others. That something becomes an ideology, which is then endlessly rationalized and defended with seemingly blind faith.

The important part of this process for our purposes is that ideologies are not confined to religions. To be sure, religion is very fertile ground for cultivating ideologies because it seems to promise eternal security to its adherents. But ideologies can also be found in politics (think conservatives vs. liberals, or people's adherence to revolutionary leaders), economics (Keynesians vs. neo-classicals), philosophy (think of the devotion which Marxists or Freudians shower on the writings of their founding fathers) and elsewhere. In each case we see adherents of ideology selectively read the evidence, refuse to back down in the face of critical challenge and write their opponents off as biased, irrational or even dangerous. There is no inherent difference between religious and other ideologies, with the possible difference that the consequences of being wrong in religion, as Sam Harris reminds us, are far more serious!

Ideology in any field is dangerous. The remedy for it is open-mindedness, critical thinking and in the monotheistic traditions the acknowledgment that you are not God, that the quest for truth, though it ends ultimately in God, is never ending from a human point of view.

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