The totalitarian temptation of faith.
It’s late here and I should be in bed. I fly out tomorrow on the first leg of a long trip that will eventually land me in Europe where I hope to take up residence. But sometimes my mind won’t let me sleep. I ponder on things and then find this compelling need to write it down. In the process I clarify my thoughts and and expand on ideas I’ve held.
And unless I write this down I won’t sleep no matter how badly I need it. So here are the ranting of a very tired man. Tonight I had dinner with about 20 friends, almost all atheists. There were one or two exceptions but not strong exceptions. And during the dinner I was thinking of why it is that I consider religion dangerous.
It is true that some faiths are far more dangerous than others. But all are dangerous to vary degrees. The least harmful as those religious ideas which are purely personal. They are least harmful because what harm they impose is imposed only upon the believer. The Christian Scientist who avoids medical care may die but it is self inflicted. It is another matter when they refuse medical care to their children.
This is the second level of harm. That is harm which religious folks inflict on their own friends and family. It can be mild in the form of pestering them about their faith to detrimental such as the case I just mentioned. It is more harmful than which is entirely personal as the circle of victims is larger.
The largest degree of harm that religion does is when it has theocratic goals. In this case the religious intend to inflict their faith on the entire society around them. In the US you hear the rubbish “this is a Christian nation”. Nations have no faith only people do. But they don’t mean the nation collectively holds a faith. What they really mean is that they intend to use the coercive, violent powers of the state to inflict their moral code and beliefs on everyone around them.
And this is where religion becomes most dangerous. It becomes an authoritarian ideology akin to communism or fascism. Its moral code is no different from both those barbaric faiths. Why do I say that? Because theocracy, fascism and communism all believe in using the heavy hand of state coercion in order to force society in a predetermined mould. None of the three can allow for individuality or dissent.
Religion, especially the monotheistic variety, is potentially susceptible to the totalitarian temptation. This is especially true when the believers have the urge to “save” people from themselves. They are motivated by the belief that they are actually helping others. That makes it very difficult for them to consider the idea that they could be wrong and that they are actually harming others.
And by what marker do they determine if they are harming or helping? The Inquisition killed people. You would think that was a clear example of harm. But not if you weigh in the sincere believe in an eternal soul. If one believes that there is another realm which is a higher realm and one of much greater importance then to pay the price on earth for eternal happiness is not hard to do or to inflict on others.
The Mormons believe in blood atonement. Some sins are so bad that one’s own blood must be shed into the ground in order to forgive sins. For this reason Utah will allow prisoners to be executed by firing squad --- so the blood is shed thus saving the soul. In older days the secretive Mormon militia, the Danites, inflicted blood atonement on faithful who had strayed from the path. The earthly death of the sinner, in this manner, saved their soul. So what appears bad in this world is good in the next.
The 9/11 Islamic terrorists believed that in dying they were guaranteed eternal life and happiness. It’s not so bad that they took their own lives but they believed that the process required they take the lives of thousands of others as well.
This higher realm makes all earthly values of no importance. The harm that may be caused here is but a small price to pay. And since the higher realm is found by faith, by the simple desire to believe it, there is little one can do to shake the faith of the true believer.
This is the second problem. The higher values that come from this belief in the after life are virtually arbitrary. From one true believer to the next they differ. All claim they are receiving wisdom from a god, a holy book, a divine spirit, a prophet, etc. But what these higher values are differ radically from Muslim to Jew to Baptist to Mormon to Catholic and on and one.
Religious folk have the unique ability to have insights into what the deity wants even if the deity doesn’t seem to tell them the same thing. They are convinced. But this is nothing more than the will to believe. They believe it because they want to believe it. They are not being guided by a god but they are creating their own gods justifying their own beliefs.
You really do end up with them believing anything they want to believe. And since there is the realm of higher values which we can’t see they are then able to impose their own whims on the rest of us and feel good in the process.
Again I don’t want to be misunderstood. Almost all these people honestly believe that what they are doing is for the good of others. They can’t see how their good intentions are tyrannical. How can they? They indulge the fantasy that they know the mind of a god. And they honestly believe that they have to save others from themselves.
It really doesn’t matter the faith. This thread runs through almost all of them to some degree. The Old Testament Hebrews, if that book has any validity, wanted to take the land of other people. So their god ordered them to steal what was not there’s and to kill everyone in sight in the process. The Hebrews had a revelation that they were the chosen people of some god. Not very impressive really. I would be far more impressed if they had the revelation that another group were the chosen people. It’s easy to believe such ideas when you are the one who gets to pillage everyone around you.
Islam wants to conquer the world for Allah. They have an entire history of military conquest, or conversion by the sword. So that this trend still exists is no surprise today.
Christianity has always faced the totalitarian temptation of theocracy. It’s not enough they believe in a saviour born of a virgin they want a day which all are basically required to honour the idea. There is a strong tendency for them to believe that if something is a sin for them then it is a sin for all and if it’s a sin then it’s a crime or ought to be. They campaigned for Prohibition because they said drinking was sinful. They believe in creationism so they want it taught as science. They want to pray so they feel they should be able to force all students to pray. They believe it is a sin for them them to be homosexual so they want to criminalise all homosexuals.
Now it is true that some “liberal” sects don’t feel this way. But that does not come from the history of Christianity nor from the Bible itself. That tolerance has secular origins. It is the watering down of faith with reason. But in any debate between two individuals of the same premises the more consistent of the two will win the argument. And that is what is happening. The more reasonable faiths are losing members. The more strident and fundamentalist grow.
The well-meaning faithful liberal is at a loss. His premises justify the fundamentalists conclusions even if he, the liberal, does not wish to adopt them. Liberal religion is a hybrid. It is the combination of secular reasoning and religious faith. It wants to make the unreasonable reasonable. It is mixing oil and water and it can stir and stir all it wants but the moment it rests for a second the two will separate again.
Faith is not reasonable and it can not be reasonable. It is faith. I firmly believe that faith is not a means of discerning some deity. A man’s god is not a deity that actually exists. It is a mirror that allows us to see the man’s soul reflected to us all. A vile, vicious man has a vile, vicious god. Each deity that an individual worships is an exaggerated image of himself. The Bible has it backwards. Man is not made in god’s image. God is made in man’s image.
And with faith as the foundation this allows each man to feel safe that his faith is the right one. And this sense of religious infallibility very easily and quickly leads one into controlling the lives of others and all for some higher good that only the faithful truly understand.
It’s now very late so if there are typos please forgive.