Category Archives: Ethics & Human Nature

To be decided

Why Certain Ideas — True and False — Persuade Us

I think most of us can relate to this point:

There are many reasons why we find pseudoscience persuasive, according to Dr Micah Goldwater, a cognitive scientist at the University of Sydney.

It is often simpler for us to add knowledge than subtract it, he said.

“It’s actually much easier to add things to your mental model of how things work than to take things away.”

That quote, and the ones following, are from

This principle sounds like what happens when we have a gut-rejection of a new idea we hear for the first time simply because it is one that does not fit our current framework of understanding.

If we are already convinced of, or suspect, something to be true then we are likely to be partial to any thought that reinforces our leanings. It’s more satisfying to “find answers” or explanations for what we understand about how things are than it is to keep finding reasons to knock anything we think we know out of left field. Think confirmation bias. Do we naturally prefer to find ways to fill our cup than to look for excuses to keep spilling its contents?

There’s also the ‘illusory truth effect’, where the more familiar something sounds, the more likely you are to believe it’s true.

As a rule we tend to prefer to believe our “own media” than that of a foreign country. Does not an American prefer to believe the New York Times or Fox News than the China Daily? If one spends a lot of time listening to conspiracy theories then any subsequent suggestion that something behind a government statement is problematic or unclear will be interpreted in a way to reinforce the idea of a conspiracy theory. If one is brought up in a fundamentalist Christian household and community then one is surely more likely to believe anything that tends to reinforce what was has been taught all one’s life about one’s faith and to be suspicious of contradictory ideas.

As a journalist who reports on online misinformation, I’ve spent plenty of time in anti-vaccination Facebook groups or in internet forums that suggest herbal remedies protect against the coronavirus.

In those groups, it’s easy to observe the seductive nature of personal stories. A friend’s nephew whose case of the measles was cured by tea tree oil is more engaging than a dozen dry public health announcements.

The personal anecdote. The personal drama. It’s always going to have an emotional appeal that will tend to be lacking in mere dry statistics.

One study conducted by Dr Goldwater, which has so far been presented at a conference, attempted to understand the power of positive and negative anecdotes.

Participants in the study were assessed on how stories about the impact of medical treatments on ‘Jamie’ (a fictional person) affected whether they would use the same treatment.

Even though they were told that the treatment worked for most people, knowing one negative personal story — about Jamie’s symptoms failing to improve — often made study participants report that they would not want to take that treatment.

“When you are affected by an anecdote, what you are potentially doing is generalising from a single case to your life,” he said. “But it’s possible that it just made you feel icky [about the treatment].”

The appeal of the personal anecdote is probably also why we like to indulge in and be swayed by the ad hominem personal attack on someone saying something we don’t favour. I guess the personal anecdote’s power is also why it features so prominently in evangelical efforts. It’s not just in the world of religion, either.

Humans like explanations that help them predict how the world works.

We are constantly thinking about cause and effect. That can lead us to a bias called ‘illusory causation’, where we interpret a causal effect when there really isn’t one.

If you take herbal medication for a cold and then get better two days later, you might assume the medicine did the trick.

“The bias people have is they don’t think, ‘wait, what would have happened if I didn’t take that herbal medication?’,” Dr Goldwater said.

“Well, you probably would have gotten better in two days just the same.”

The antidote:

“If you are constantly sceptical of your own thinking, that is potentially the best way to vet yourself,” he said.

But this is a struggle, even if it’s your life’s work.

I try. Or at least I like to think I try.

Religious Belief: “A Moment of Rest” from Reality

Religions can fuel humane ideals, transform and support individuals performing good deeds, and stimulate creative urges and artistic expressions. At the same time, throughout history people have initiated unspeakable human suffering in the name of religion. Religion per se, then, is neutral. Religions can heal or poison individuals, depending upon specific psychological make-up and group influence. . . . . 

* Winnicott [link is to pdf] saw the foundations of religious feeling as present in the normal emotional development process of the child, of which he understood the “transitional object” — the blanket that the “Peanuts” cartoon character Linus carries everywhere is an example of a transitional object — to be a universal element. (p. 128)

If the child’s development is normal, he or she eventually develops an acceptance of the “not-me” world, the indifference of the universe, and, accordingly, to logical thinking. However, people also need “moments of rest,” if you will, during which they do not need to differentiate between what is real and what is illusion, in which logical thinking need not be maintained, and it is in these moments that the relation to the transitional object* echoes throughout a lifetime. At moments of “rest,” then, a Christian might know that it is biologically impossible for a woman to have a baby without the semen of a man, but also believe in the virgin birth. Rationally, we might know that no one really sees angels, but we may behave as if they exist. In other words, the function of the transitional object remains available to us for the rest of our lives, in support of the religious beliefs given to the growing child by family members and other adults in the child’s environment. The need for what I am calling “moments of rest” varies from individual to individual, and from social subgroup to subgroup. Some people declare that they do not require such religious moments of rest, but perhaps they refer to the same function by different names. For example, they may “play” the game of linking magical and real in astrology, or paint abstract paintings that represent a mixture of illusion and reality. 

Volkan, Vamik. 2004. Blind Trust: Large Groups and Their Leaders in Times of Crisis and Terror. Charlottesville, Va: Pitchstone Publishing. pp. 124, 129 (my highlighting)

Dangerous Charisma, Cults and Trump

Hypotheses:

“in times of crisis, individuals regress to a state of delegated omnipotence and demand a leader (who will rescue them, take care of them)”

and that

“individuals susceptible to (the hypnotic attraction of) charismatic leadership have themselves fragmented or weak ego structures.”

Jerrold Post believes the above hypotheses find support in clinical studies of persons who join charismatic religious groups, those with narcissistic personality disorders, and “psychodynamic observations of group phenomena”. Post and Doucette in Dangerous Charisma

describe the consequences of the wounded self on adult personality development and emphasize how narcissistically wounded individuals are attracted to charismatic leader-follower relationships, both as leaders and as followers.

As I read Dangerous Charisma I was regularly reminded of the time I joined a religious cult years ago and the stories that were regularly shared among members of “how God called us into his church”: certainly most, if not all, of the personal narratives involved tales of some kind of crisis each of us experienced and how “God rescued us” through leading us to encounter his “end-time Apostle”. After I left the cult I attended several other churches for a time and found the same sorts of experiences being “witnessed” even among less extreme fundamentalists or evangelical type Christians. Another perception that hit me, disturbingly, after having left the cult was seeing many of the same vulnerabilities, errors in thinking and willingness to rationalize the irrational and unprovable in society generally. Indeed, Post and Doucette make the point that the model they describe can work for good as well as evil: in times of crisis many turned to the charismatic Churchill, but that after the crisis was over the need for that sort of leader also passed and he was voted out. Other positive instances of such relationships involved Martin Luther King Jr and Mahatma Gandhi. But we all know there are weeds in the garden as well as fruit.

Two types of personality are described:

The mirror-hungry personality

This is the cult leader, whether religious (Herbert W. Armstrong) or political (Donald J. Trump)

The first personality pattern resulting from “the injured self” is the mirror-hungry personality. These individuals, whose basic psychological constellation is the grandiose self, hunger for confirming and admiring responses to counteract their inner sense of worthlessness and lack of self-esteem. To nourish their famished self, they are compelled to display themselves in order to evoke the attention of others. No matter how positive the response, they cannot be satisfied, but continue seeking new audiences from whom to elicit the attention and recognition they crave.

The ideal-hungry personality

This is the follower who is nourished by the above leader and who in turn nourishes that same leader:

The second personality type resulting from “the wounded self” is the ideal-hungry personality. These individuals can experience themselves as worthwhile only so long as they can relate to individuals whom they can admire for their prestige, power, beauty, intelligence, or moral stature. They forever search for such idealized figures. Again, the inner void cannot be filled. Inevitably, the ideal-hungry individual finds that their god is merely human, that their hero has feet of clay. Disappointed by discovery of defects in their previously idealized object, they cast him aside and searches for a new hero, to whom they attach themself in the hope that they will not be disappointed again.

The wounded self can arise from social, economic, personality crises. Job and economic and health insecurities, fears of one’s neighbours and newcomers and of conspiracies of powerful forces in government.

Post and Doucette emphasize that this model does not tell the whole story of Trump or political movements arising from the dynamics of the two types feeding off each other, but it does offer some insight into “charismatic leader-follower relationships.”

The charismatic leader as the mirror-hungry personality

The mirror-hungry leader requires a continuing flow of admiration from his audience in order to nourish his famished self. Central to his ability to elicit that admiration is his ability to convey a sense of grandeur, omnipotence, and strength. These individuals who have had feelings of grandiose omnipotence awakened within them are particularly attractive to individuals seeking idealized sources of strength. They convey a sense of conviction and certainty to those who are consumed by doubt and uncertainty. This mask of certainty is no mere pose. In truth, so profound is the inner doubt that a wall of dogmatic certainty is necessary to ward it off. For them, preserving grandiose feelings of strength and omniscience does not allow acknowledgment of weakness and doubt.

The leaders love the adulation of the crowds and can often speak for hours basking in their admiration; and the crowds love to be there, feeding and feeding off them.

The Language of Splitting is the Rhetoric of Absolutism

Central to the rhetoric is the “us-them”, the “me-not me”, the “good versus evil”, “strength versus weakness”, you are “with us or against us”. There’s nothing new here:

Maximilien Robespierre: “There are but two kinds of men, the kind that is corrupt and the kind that is virtuous.”

Hitler dwelt on the themes of strength and weakness, purity and impurity, the chosen (Germans) and the not chosen (Jews). The world is divided and one must conquer the other or be conquered.

We see this mindset in leaders who are convinced, and whose followers are also convinced, they are called on a religious mission. Followers often see the power of God behind them and the entire world of Satan is their opposition. read more »

Identity Fusion, Cults and Trump

“Why do we do destructive things—to others, and to ourselves? Why do we so often act against our own interests?”

I’ve been catching up on a number of research articles exploring the psychology of Trump followers and am surprised how closely some of the ideas cohere with what I have experienced and learned about the reasons people get mixed up in religious cults. One book I have started and that has me totally in its thrall at the moment is Dangerous Charisma: The Political Psychology of Donald Trump and His Followers by Post and Doucette. I will be sure to write more about that work before too long. But for now, I am keeping it simple and will address just one idea that in part has an overlap with what I have read so far in Dangerous Charisma. What follows is from an article in a September 2019 issue of The Atlantic, “The Most Dangerous Way to Lose Yourself: ‘Identity fusion’ might explain why people act against their own interests.”

The main idea is

that people are always striving to create a world in which their ideas of themselves make sense. We are motivated, sometimes above any sense of morality or personal gain, simply to hold our views of ourselves constant. This allows us to maintain a coherent sense of order, even if it means doing things the rest of the world would see as counterproductive.

William Swann

It has been developed by Professor William Swann and claims that

we tend to prefer to be seen by others as we see ourselves, even in areas where we see ourselves negatively. As opposed to cognitive dissonance — the psychological unease that drives people to alter their interpretation of the world to create a sense of consistency — self-verification says that we try to bring reality into harmony with our long-standing beliefs about ourselves.

Think of those who tend to sabotage their relationships and withdraw from others who genuinely appreciate them. Their view of themselves is negative and they find it unbearable that others should not agree. That sounds crazy (maybe because it is) but Swann suggests that such behaviour

might actually be part of a fundamental “desire to be known and understood by others.”

That makes sense to me. Maybe it’s not so crazy.

We naturally form bonds with others, whether with family or a religion. Others in this context can be extremely important to us but we don’t generally “identify” with them to the extent that we lose our own separate identity.

Sometimes (and that’s the word that will need to be understood) people do lose their identities to the group, though. Swann posits that the 9/11 terrorists totally lost their personal identities to a group identity that enabled them to die and kill on a horrendous scale. The concept Swann talks about is identity fusion.

The phenomenon is sometimes described as a visceral feeling of oneness with a group or person, and sometimes as an expansion of the self.

“When people are fused, your personal identity is now subsumed under something larger,” says Jack Dovidio, a psychology professor at Yale. One way researchers test for fusion is to ask people to draw a circle that represents themselves, and a circle that represents another person (or group). Usually people draw overlapping circles, Dovidio explains. In fusion, people draw themselves entirely inside the other circle.

“This isn’t the normal way most people think about identity,” says Jonas Kunst, a psychology researcher at the University of Oslo.

Rational discussion that challenges the views of someone whose identity is so fused with a collective or another is impossible. Most people (surely) are open to accepting and debating challenges to their groups’ identities but someone whose personal identity is so fused and lost wholly within the group will see such questions as threats to their identity, a personal threat to themselves.

Arguments about climate change, for example, might not actually be about climate change, and instead about people protecting their basic sense of order and consistency.

Identity fusion is not merely blind obedience to group expectations or submission out of fear, but something much more dangerous:

Fusion is not a bunch of individuals contorting their way of thinking, but a bunch of individuals suspending their way of thinking. “It makes us more likely to do extreme things that aren’t consistent with our normal identity,” Kunst says. “It allows you to do things you couldn’t conceive of doing.”

Oh yes. I bitterly recall some cruel and hurtful things I did, even life-threatening things, when I was totally one {fused) with a religious cult years ago. I think of the pain I hurt my parents, and how I almost allowed a child to die from refusing medical treatment.

Does identity fusion help explain Trump supporters? A set of studies that used an “identity fusion scale” found that

Americans who fused with Trump — as opposed to simply agreeing with or supporting him — were more willing to engage in various extreme behaviors, such as personally .ghting to protect the U.S. border from an “immigrant caravan,” persecuting Muslims, or violently challenging election results.

Why do people who stridently oppose “big government” suddenly find themselves cheering on acts of “extreme authoritarianism”? No problem, according to identity fusion theory:

Value systems are only contradictory if they’re both activated, and “once you step into the fusion mind-set, there is no contradiction.”

Enter the charismatic leader

read more »

Challenging Steven Pinker’s Better Angels View of Human Nature and the History of War

So by this measure too, states are far less violent than traditional bands and tribes. Modern Western countries, even in their most war-torn centuries, suffered no more than around a quarter of the average death rate of nonstate societies, and less than a tenth of that for the most violent one.

Thus concludes Stephen Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2012). He supplies tables to illustrate his point (click on the images to read larger text):

Pinker concludes from the above statistics that concerning warfare there has been a historical “retreat from violence”. Over millennia our species has transitioned

from the anarchy of the hunting, gathering, and horticultural societies in which our species spent most of its evolutionary history to the first agricultural civilizations with cities and governments, beginning around five thousand years ago. With that change came a reduction in the chronic raiding and feuding that characterized life in a state of nature and a more or less fivefold decrease in rates of violent death. I call this imposition of peace the Pacification Process.

But there is a problem.

Still, there are many ways to look at the data—and quantifying the definition of a violent society. A study in Current Anthropology published online October 13 acknowledges the percentage of a population suffering violent war-related deaths—fatalities due to intentional conflict between differing communities—does decrease as a population grows. At the same time, though, the absolute numbers increase more than would be expected from just population growth. In fact, it appears, the data suggest, the overall battle-death toll in modern organized societies is exponentially higher than in hunter–gatherer societies surveyed during the past 200 years. 

Stetka, Bret. 2017. “Steven Pinker: This Is History’s Most Peaceful Time–New Study: ‘Not So Fast.’” Scientific American. November 9, 2017. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/steven-pinker-this-is-historys-most-peaceful-time-new-study-not-so-fast/.  (Bolded highlighting is my own in all quotations.)

Here is some detail from that Current Anthropology study by Dean Falk and Charles Hildebot.

The objection raised by Stetka above is that Pinker overlooks the scaling factor when he interprets the raw statistics.

Psychologist Steven Pinker suggests that humans “started off nasty and . . . the artifices of civilization have moved us in a noble direction” (Pinker 2011:xxii). Figure 1 [Figure 2-2 above], reproduced from Pinker, illustrates his main evidence for asserting that states are less violent than small-scale “hunting, gathering, and horticultural societies in which our species spent most of its evolutionary history” (Pinker 2011:xxiv); however, because this figure depicts annual rates of war deaths suffered per 100,000 people, these ratios are blind to actual population sizes. (Falk and Hildebot)

By factoring in population sizes, F&H observe that the numbers of war deaths have increased exponentially as populations increase. Their studies were based on direct war or inter-group conflict deaths relative to population sizes of

  • 11 chimpanzee communities,
  • 24 human nonstates,
  • 19 and 22 countries that fought in World War I and World War II.

Clicking on the following F&H image will enlarge it to allow for clearer detail:

The chimpanzees make an interesting comparison. Chimpanzee communities engage in deadly violence against one another but the numbers of absolute deaths suffered are unrelated to the sizes of their communities.

A Cochran-Armitage trend test indicates that, as mean chimpanzee population sizes increase, the percentages of mean annual deaths from external aggressors that are observed, inferred, or suspected decrease . . . . A reduced major axis regression . . . shows that the absolute number of annual deaths suffered by a population is unrelated to its size . . . . 

Image by Jack Mobley

To come full circle, assertions that humans living in states have become less violent than those living in nonstates, with the assertions being based on blind ratios of annual war deaths relative to population sizes (e.g., war deaths per 100,000 people), are parallel to the untenable assertion that squirrel monkeys are smarter than humans because they have relatively large (blind) ratios of brain sizes divided by body sizes. (F&H)

Are state societies less war-mongering than nonstate societies?

[N]onstates should be viewed as neither more nor less fundamentally violent than the countries that fought in World War I and World War II, because severity of war deaths scales nearly identically with population sizes in all three groups.

The more severe the anticipated casualties in a war the less frequent war occurs.

. . . thus, in 97 interstate wars that occurred between 1820 and 1997, “a 10-fold increase in war severity [war casualties] decrease[d] the probability of war by a factor of 2.6” (Cederman 2003:136; fig. 3). Importantly, wars causing relatively few absolute numbers of deaths occurred frequently; those with moderate deaths occurred less often; and highly disastrous wars (e.g., World War I and World War II) occurred rarely (fig. 3). . . . .

F&H cite other studies that conclude the likelihood of a third “rare” world war is “a distinct possibility” (because decisions to wage war are found to “[depend largely] on innovations in military technology and logistics and alterations in contextual conditions”) . . .

This is especially so because the onerous liability of weapons of mass destruction has failed to obviate further developments in war technology

The relative periods of peace between “rare major wars” is a sign of how extremely severe the next such war will be rather than a hopeful sign that we have become less violent somehow.

. . . not that larger populations are less prone to violence than smaller ones; rather, larger communities are less vulnerable to having large portions of their populations killed by (or entirely wiped out by) external enemies compared with smaller ones (i.e., there is safety in numbers). . . . 

. . . people living in small-scale societies are not inherently more violent that those living in “civilized” states. Our analyses demonstrate that war deaths scale similarly with population sizes across all levels of human society. 

Other scholars have uncovered the same results:

Based on our results, we conclude that trends in proportions of war group size or casualties in relationship to population are, in fact, described by deeper scaling laws driving group social organization subject to contingencies, such as logistical constraints, expedient needs, and technology. . . . 

Indeed, while the probability of being involved in conflict as a member of a war group or as a casualty of conflict in large and/or contemporary societies is lower than in small-scale societies, it might not be driven by any better or worse angels of our nature. This probability might merely be an emergent outcome of differential logistical constraints and group populations. This probability may also change rapidly based on group conflict needs, expedience, and contingency. The demographic investment of any society in its own conflict issues or the lethality of any conflict then is not a matter of proportions but of scale. (Oka et al.)

Prehistoric Warfare?

read more »

Who Knows How to Handle Jerks?

In a former life many years ago I learned was taught a great lesson by a junior girl in another part of our work area who had to process some of our work outputs. She was obviously being driven mad by our failure to follow some simple procedures we’d no doubt been told to apply many times before, so she sent us all an email that began, “Naughty cataloguers,  . . . ” That introduction was so disarming, it set us all in a positive frame of mind to meekly accept the “blasting” that came our way in a form of collegial correction.

We weren’t trolls or vicious jerks but that lesson came to mind again when I read the following news item: Twitch viewers harassed Aussie streamer PaladinAmber. She clapped back in the best way

The first time she called someone out happened by accident.

“Everyone just went crazy. They were like ‘this is exactly what we want on the news’. And I was like, we can absolutely do this every time,” she said.

“Comedy is the best way to deal with this because people will really prefer a slap on the wrist better if it comes with a giggle.”

There’s proof in the pudding too. Wadham says some of the trolls have even apologised after being called out.

. . . .

“I didn’t think people would appreciate somebody being so outspoken and obnoxiously loud about it,” she said.

“It’s [trolling] such a common occurrence. To have so many people going ‘oh yeah me too, but I wouldn’t say anything so thank you’, it’s just a little bit humbling.”

While it’s worked for her, Wadham is adamant no-one should have to confront online harassment like this if they don’t feel equipped to do so.

Dr Raynes-Goldie agreed, and highlighted how tricky it can be to push back.

“How do you make change in the world but also take care of yourself? Because it’s quite exhausting,” she said.

For Wadham, it’s by shining a light on the worst behaviour on the internet, one fake infomercial or breaking news segment at a time.

And all of that leads to this:

How to Beat Donald Trump

read more »

Love of Enemies in Antiquity

Quotations from an article I followed up for some reason I can’t quite recall. For those interested, and at the cost of misleading readers into thinking the author’s article was overly complimentary of pre-Christian thought …..

On the other hand there is a thought which can be found in the tradition of the Roman Stoics Musonius, Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius which leads the reader in the direction of this ethic. Musonius maintains that a true philosopher would never take someone to court for slander. He doesn’t mind being abused, beaten or spat at because he realizes ‘that human beings commit most sins as a result of ignorance or lacking knowledge [namely of the real good and evil]; they stop as soon as they have been taught otherwise’. The Stoa and the whole of pagan antiquity doesn’t know of original sin. Musonius overlooks the phenomenon of the weakness of human will too. So he arrives at a naive anthropological simplicity like that. But because of this conviction the philosopher as Musonius sees him is constantly ready to practise forbearance (συγγνώμη) and regards retaliation (άντιποιεΐν κακώς) and ‘biting back’ (άντιδάκνειν) to be beneath contempt. It is not suffering injustice that is humiliating in his view, but doing injustice.44 Epictetus goes a step further than Musonius when he declares that it is part of the life of a true cynic that while being beaten like a donkey, he does not cease loving the person beating him, as if he were his father or brother.45

44 Muson. Io (see O. Hense 52-7. Here there are parallels, too.) We find these thoughts also in Marcus Aurelius’s writings, e.g. 6.6; 7.22.26; 8.51; 9.13; 18.15-18. The word in 7.22 is often wrongly translated: here it is not a question of loving those who have sinned against us, but of loving those who have fallen (τούς πταίοντας). Seneca and Epictetus only deal with variations on the thoughts of Musonius. Cf. John Piper, ‘Love your enemies‘ (SNTSMS 38; Cambridge, 1979) 21-7.

45 Arr. Epict. diss. 3.22.53f.

. . . .

In Plato’s dialogue Crito Socrates puts forward a principle and from it deduces two conclusions which signify a revolution in fundamental Greek convictions. The principle is: One may never commit injustice (ούδαμώς δει άδικεΐν).’ The conclusions: so one may not repay injustice with injustice either (άνταδικείν) or evil with evil (άντικακουργείν).47

47 Pl. Cri. 49b/c.

Reiser, Marius. 2001. “Love of Enemies in the Context of Antiquity.” New Testament Studies 47 (04).

Here’s an idea: Treat Believers with Kindness, not Contempt

Another one well worth thinking about from Valerie Tarico:

Decent people don’t jeer at others who are functioning poorly in some part of life.

With religious belief holding such an outsized influence on our society, it is reasonable that atheists, humanists and other freethinkers push back against religious superstitions, outdated social scripts and archaic rules. But one way we often do this is by ridiculing believers themselves, which is less reasonable. . . . . 

The post is on Valerie Tarico’s blog: Treat Believers with Kindness, not Contempt

The Righteousness and the Woke – Why Evangelicals and Social Justice Warriors Trigger Me in the Same Way

Yes, indeed. Not only Social Justice Warriors, but I am sure I am not the only one who has experienced the same in other political, social and religious groups, too…

The Righteousness and the Woke – Why Evangelicals and Social Justice Warriors Trigger Me in the Same Way / Valerie Tarico

It occurred to me recently that my time in Evangelicalism and subsequent journey out have a lot to do with why I find myself reactive to the spread of Woke culture among colleagues, political soulmates, and friends. Christianity takes many forms, with Evangelicalism being one of the more single-minded, dogmatic, groupish and enthusiastic among them. The Woke—meaning progressives who have “awoken” to the idea that oppression is the key conceptexplaining the structure of society, the flow of history, and virtually all of humanity’s woes—share these qualities.

To a former Evangelical, something feels too familiar—or better said, a bunch of somethings feel too familiar.

. . . .

Reaction points:

Two kinds of people, black and white thinking, shaming and shunning, evangelism, hypocrisy, . . . . and the list grows.

Conclusion:

Even so, social movements and religions—including those that are misguided—usually emerge from an impulse that is deeply good, the desire to foster wellbeing in world that is more kind and just, one that brings us closer to humanity’s multi-millennial dream of broad enduring peace and bounty. This, too, is something that the Righteous and the Woke have in common. Both genuinely aspire to societal justice—small s, small j—meaning not the brand but the real deal. Given that they often see themselves at opposite ends of the spectrum, perhaps that is grounds for a little hope.

Bob Price — Did you really read Marx?

I like Robert M. Price’s academic works on themes related to Christian origins but after that we have little to discuss, sadly. I have had a long term interest in various aspects of the topic of “alienation”, and continue to harbour vivid memories of my post-graduate student days reading and discussing writings by Marx and others heavily indebted to Marx. I also enjoyed reading another work Bob Price references, Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality. So I got carried away and read a non-biblical post of his, Alienated (21/01/2019). Until I came to this howler …..

The alienation here is quite similar to that at stake in the crisis of sacrifice. In both, what the individual offers/produces is no longer really his own. A hidden, vital link has been severed. And because of it, the individual’s efforts are empty. But is Socialism any better? In the Socialist Iron Curtain countries, the work ethic was vitiated by the realization that one’s work, done well or badly, would not increase one’s wealth but would only vanish down the bottomless toilet of the “collective good.” Is this alienation really any different from or better than that produced by industrial Capitalism?

Oh Bob, oh Bob! Why do you, you who intimate libertarian sentiments elsewhere, fall hook, line and sinker for the propaganda line your government backed by Big Business has fed you ever since, well, probably since 1917.

Marxist Socialism 101: the workers have control of the means of production. Their labour is directly related to outputs. Communes. Soviets. Today we see them in worker-run-and-controlled factories or other businesses. That’s socialism. When Marx spoke of alienation he was not proposing an alternative alienating structure that emerged in the Soviet Union. We know that one of the first things Lenin did was to suppress local soviets or communes — he suppressed the efforts towards true socialism. Lenin stripped worker control away from the means of production and (I assume) falsely called it “socialism”.

Oh, and one more thing. My university education was paid for by national taxes. I invested a lot of time and energy into acquiring what was paid for by others. I have always been grateful for the privilege I was given by society. I feel I owe something to society in return. This blog, perhaps, is one small back-payment. Bob, not everyone who gets something “for free” or without personal “cost” (though I did pay a cost in late nights, sweat and hard work) tosses it aside as nothing to be appreciated.

Damn right wing politics!

 

Can one prove a negative?

R.G. Price argues that you can: Is it really impossible to “prove a negative”?

I think you can, too. Anyone who is innocent of a crime they are standing trial for sure as hell wants a negative proved, too.

The Manichean View of the World, and Others

Sometimes I am reminded that not everyone thinks the same way as I do; sometimes I am reminded that some others believe I think the “West” (including Israel) is bad or evil; that I support or sympathize with antisemites and terrorists; that I am soft on religion, especially when inhumane abuses are associated with religion; and so forth. I have been accused of all of these things and more (one forum even found some way to accuse me of being homophobic) and I would like to think that I do try to keep the conversation cordial, though I think I have kept finding room for more improvement over the years in that regard. The criticism sometimes extends even to academic topics such as Christian origins: then I am accused of being bitterly anti-Christian or bigoted against alternative explanations like astrotheology, and so forth.

Sometimes such perceptions remind me of what I once read of the Manichean mindset quite some time ago. I have copied the section below.

Re-reading it now I can’t help but associate the same analysis with political attitudes on the right, but the more I think about it I see some on the left falling into the same dark box. I also wonder if it’s possible for the two sides to have any common ground for discussion of who and what falls into the Manichean category. Would not the “essentially Manichean” minds reflexively accuse the “moderates” and “compromisers” of being the Manicheans, thinking that if X is not unequivocally and totally against Y then X must really be deceptively all but totally with Y?

One reason why the political intelligence of our time is so incredulous and uncomprehending in the presence of the right-wing mind is that it does not reckon fully with the essentially theological concern that underlies right-wing views of the world. Characteristically, the political intelligence, if it is to operate at all as a kind of civic force rather than as a mere set of maneuvers to advance this or that special interest, must have its own way of handling the facts of life and of forming strategies. It accepts conflict as a central and enduring reality and understands human society as a form of equipoise based upon the continuing process of compromise. It shuns ultimate show downs and looks upon the ideal of total partisan victory as unattainable, as merely another variety of threat to the kind of balance with which it is familiar. It is sensitive to nuances and sees things in degrees. It is essentially relativist and skeptical, but at the same time circumspect and humane.

The fundamentalist mind will have nothing to do with all this: it is essentially Manichean; it looks upon the world as an arena for conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, and accordingly it scorns compromises (who would compromise with Satan?) and can tolerate no ambiguities. It cannot find serious importance in what it believes to be trifling degrees of difference: liberals support measures that are for all practical purposes socialistic, and socialism is nothing more than a variant of Communism, which, as everyone knows, is atheism. Whereas the distinctively political intelligence begins with the political world, and attempts to make an assessment of how far a given set of goals can in fact be realized in the face of a certain balance of opposing forces, the secularized fundamentalist mind begins with a definition of that which is absolutely right, and looks upon politics as an arena in which that right must be realized. It cannot think, for example, of the cold war as a question of mundane politics—that is to say, as a conflict between two systems of power that are compelled in some degree to accommodate each other in order to survive—but only as a clash of faiths. It is not concerned with the realities of power—with the fact, say, that the Soviets have the bomb—but with the spiritual battle with the Communist, preferably the domestic Communist, whose reality does not consist in what he does, or even in the fact that he exists, but who represents, rather, an archetypal opponent in a spiritual wrestling match. He has not one whit less reality because the fundamentalists have never met him in the flesh.

Hofstadter, Richard. 1966. Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. New York: Vintage. pp. 134f

 

Speaking of us little devils…

After reading and posting a comment on Greta Christina’s 9 Questions Asked of Atheists… I have just caught up with Mano Singham’s The Morality of Atheists. And Mano’s post is about another post, How a Huguenot philosopher realised that atheists could be virtuous, by an assistant professor of philosophy, Michael Hickson. I’m a history lover so Hickson’s opener grabbed me:

For centuries in the West, the idea of a morally good atheist struck people as contradictory. Moral goodness was understood primarily in terms of possessing a good conscience, and good conscience was understood in terms of Christian theology. Being a good person meant hearing and intentionally following God’s voice (conscience). Since an atheist cannot knowingly recognise the voice of God, he is deaf to God’s moral commands, fundamentally and essentially lawless and immoral. But today, it is widely – if not completely – understood that an atheist can indeed be morally good. How did this assumption change? And who helped to change it?

One of the most important figures in this history is the Huguenot philosopher and historian, Pierre Bayle (1647-1706). His Various Thoughts on the Occasion of a Comet (1682), nominally dedicated towards taking down erroneous and popular opinions about comets, was a controversial bestseller, and a foundational work for the French Enlightenment. In it, Bayle launches a battery of arguments for the possibility of a virtuous atheist.

So if the same interests you and is new to you then you have the links above.

One more from Hickson’s article:

Moral action, which concerns outward behaviour and not inward belief, is motivated by passions, not theories. Pride, self-love, the desire for honour, the pursuit of a good reputation, the fear of punishment, and a thousand customs picked up in one’s family and country, are far more effective springs of action than any theoretical beliefs about a self-created being called God, or the First Cause argument. Bayle writes:

Thus we see that from the fact that a man has no religion it does not follow necessarily that he will be led to every sort of crime or to every sort of pleasure. It follows only that he will be led to the things to which his temperament and his turn of mind make him sensitive.

 

Towards Understanding Religious Fundamentalism and Extremism (and atheist in-fighting, too?)

I began this series about religion and religious extremism with the post, Atheists Do Not Understand Religion

As I was thinking through the sequel to that post I came up with another application of the principles (essentialism, coalitional behaviour): Atheist Hostility to Jesus Mythicism … making sense of it

Let’s recap with the point with which I began:

As one researcher put it:

The very fact that people in a group share this religious ideology and perform important rituals together sharpens their perception that they are indeed a group with clearly marked boundaries. Worshiping the same gods creates a community and by implication gives that extra edge to the feeling that people with different gods or spirits really are potential enemies. Indeed, people who become deeply involved in religion, for whom it is a matter of vital importance that their doctrine is the only source of truth, will not hesitate to massacre the ones who seem not to acknowledge this obvious fact or whose commitment is too lukewarm. The most heinous crimes will be a celebration of the True Faith. This is how gods and spirits lead to group cohesion, which leads to xenophobia, which leads to fanatical hatred.

Does that sound about right?

The same researcher added

Practically everything in this scenario is misguided.

I will conclude this series with this post. To do so I will refer to both the essentialist perspectives and coalitional behaviours characterized by religious groups and those who see themselves as some sort of atheist community.

I will quote sections of Boyer’s Religion Explained and add comments attempting to explain how I think they can be applied to each group.

People describe themselves as “members” of this or that religious group, with important and often tragic consequences for their interaction with other groups. (p. 285)

Agreed. People do.

These groups are explicitly construed as based on natural qualities—the people in question are thought to be essentially different from the rest, by virtue of some inherited, internal quality. (p. 287)

The internal quality we had when I was part of one group in particular was the holy spirit. We were called by God and given his spirit. That was not a personally inherited quality, but the group was defined as being a kind of “biological”, certainly “spiritual body” that had been in existence since the original day of Pentecost.

One of the most solid and famous findings of social psychology is that it is trivially easy to create strong feelings of group membership and solidarity between arbitrarily chosen group members. All it takes is to divide a set of participants and assign them to, say, the Blue group and the Red group. Once membership is clearly established, get them to perform some trivial task (any task will do) with members of their team. In a very short time, people are better disposed toward members of their group than toward the others. They also begin to perceive a difference, naturally in their group’s favor, in terms of attractiveness, honesty or intelligence. They are far more willing to cheat or indeed inflict violence on members of the other group. Even when all participants are fully aware that the division is arbitrary, even when that is demonstrated to them, it seems difficult for them not to develop such feelings, together with the notion that there is some essential feature underlying group membership.13 (pp. 287f)

We all know that to be true.

Our naive view of social interaction around us is that we are often dealing with people with whom we share some essential features — lineage, tribe, religious practices and so on. But I think we can get a better sense of how such interaction is actually built if we realize that many of these groups are in fact coalitional arrangements in which a calculation of cost and benefit makes membership more desirable than defection, and which are therefore stable. (p. 288 — my emphasis in all quotations)

Ah yes. When about to join a fringe religion we are certainly required to first “count the cost”. There is less of a cost with other more mainstream religions and groups, very often. read more »