At the core of my disagreement with Sam Harris (and with our own Jason Rosenhouse) is the role of religion in making religious authoritarianism bad. I argue that authoritarianism (and extremism in general) is the issue, while others think that religion should be the focus. To bolster my argument, I’ve been quoting Reinhold Niebuhr’s comment that “Religion is a good thing for good people and a bad thing for bad people.”
I found that quotation in an interview with Chris Hedges. Hedges wrote War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, in which his discussion of war’s place in society verged on the religious. Though this passage refers to war, it could easily refer to many other things:
Even with its destruction and carnage it can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living. Only when we are in the midst of conflict does the shallowness and vapidness of much of our lives become apparent…. War makes the world understandable, a black and white tableau of them and us. It suspends thought, especially self-critical thought. All bow before the supreme effort. We are one.
I’m sure my cog. sci. colleagues here could explain how war, religion, supply side economics and Ayn Rand all serve similar psychological functions. And undoubtedly that explanation would illuminate the violent response to his anti-war speech at Rockford College in 2003.
But this excerpt from his latest book is really fascinating. The book is American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War On America. Try to contain your surprise when I inform you that it’s a look at the authoritarian strain in the religious right and culture wars in general. While Dr. Myers thinks the article is about “why religiosity has become such an epidemic in this country,” the first sentence is a tip that Hedges doesn’t actually think religiosity is the issue:
The engine that drives the radical Christian Right in the United States, the most dangerous mass movement in American history, is not religiosity, but despair. It is a movement built on the growing personal and economic despair of tens of millions of Americans, who watched helplessly as their communities were plunged into poverty by the flight of manufacturing jobs, their families and neighborhoods torn apart by neglect and indifference, and who eventually lost hope that America was a place where they had a future.
This despair crosses economic boundaries, of course, enveloping many in the middle class who live trapped in huge, soulless exurbs where, lacking any form of community rituals or centers, they also feel deeply isolated, vulnerable and lonely. Those in despair are the most easily manipulated by demagogues, who promise a fantastic utopia, whether it is a worker’s paradise, fraternite-egalite-liberte, or the second coming of Jesus Christ. Those in despair search desperately for a solution, the warm embrace of a community to replace the one they lost, a sense of purpose and meaning in life, the assurance they are protected, loved and worthwhile.
I had started this post before Dr. Myers argued that the article’s first sentence means the opposite of what it says, but his confusion feeds nicely into my broader point. The anti-religious have a peculiar blind spot that allows even statements like counterclaim to be presented as evidence against itself.
Many of the people who have spent the most time in the trenches, actually engaging the authoritarian right across its many battles (i.e., beyond the creationism conflict) do not feel that religion is the issue. Look at the range of forces arrayed against science in The Republican War on Science, the alliance of corporatist interests operating behind the culture wars in What’s the Matter with Kansas?, or the American fascism or pseudo-fascism that Hedges and Dave Neiwert have described.
There is a considerable literature on the authoritarian personality, both in terms of what might make a leader into an authoritarian, and in terms of what might make someone follow authoritarian leadership. It isn’t surprising that people attracted to the certainty of authoritarian politics and all-powerful political leaders might also be attracted the rigid hierarchy of some religions, and especially the promise of an omnipotent and omniscient leader.
Nor is it surprising that the despair that Hedges describes, or that Thomas Franks cataloged in Kansas, and that Neiwert has described in militiamen of the Pacific Northwest, would drive people to promises of certainty and perfect justice that can only be obtained on a cosmic scale. WIth that framework in hand, it’s easy to see how the promise of the Communist utopia and the promises of jihadists’ Paradise might be appealing to children in refugee camps of the Middle East, wartorn pseudostates like Afghanistan, Iraq or Somalia, and the disaffected there and in China, Cuba, post-colonial Africa or Vietnam.
Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins both proffer a worldview in which religion motivates al Qaeda’s soldiers, and I find that hypothesis less compelling than what I sketched out above. The hypothesis that religion is somehow causative of the cold culture war within the US, or the very hot conflict between cultures on the world stage leaves a lot of hanging threads. If religion – and when I say religion, I mean what Dawkins and Harris refer to in terms of faith in supernatural beings and causation – is causative of such harm, how could many of the greatest forces against such authoritarianism also have religious origins? How could Amnesty International and al Qaeda share a common cause? How could Benito Mussolini and Martin Luther King, Jr. have shared that vital causation?
It is clear how the Italian public, like the public in Germany and even the United States in the 1930s, could feel great despair. There was a global depression, and Europe was still recovering from a brutal war. In that context, it’s little wonder that people turned to the promises of strong leadership, even though those leaders were rarely (never, if you do not consider Roosevelt to have fit this mold) deserving of such trust.
I have felt since September 11, 2001, that the Islamist movement in the developing world bears more in common with international communism than with any religious movement. The same way that the Soviet Union could offer not just money and equipment, but a utopian ideology for those left behind by industrialization and modernization, radical Islam offers such promises today, as well as funds from Osama bin Laden’s family wealth and technical expertise from his entourage.
We could fit this into the Harris/Dawkins worldview by arguing that Communism itself was a de facto religion, and it certainly has elements which verged on the supernatural. But forcing political/economic movements like Communism or Fascism into the mold of religion seems to needlessly muddy the waters. There is already a simple unifying theme between the political and religious movements that we regard as harmful. And that theme is always and consistently, an authoritarian and absolutist attitude towards life. Authoritarianism and absolutism are handily defined by this post (which now lives only in the Wayback Machine).
Religious moderates do not, as Sam Harris claims, “tacitly support the religious divisions in our world.” Nor do they “refuse to deeply question the preposterous ideas of those who [‘fly planes into buildings, or organize their lives around apocalyptic prophecy’].” Indeed, they do the opposite. Their moderation is a rejection of such actions and ideas. If moderate Episcopalians – pro-science, gay marrying female bishops and all – are enabling al Qaeda simply by virtue of endorsing religion, why not claim that America was enabling Nazism by endorsing government over anarchy?
It may be the case that churchgoers are more susceptible to authoritarian politicians than non-churchgoers. I’m sure someone has attempted the study. I do know that fascism has tended to wrap itself in religion. But correlation does not imply causation, and I would argue that this is a case of common causation. Religion and authoritarian politics may well attract a common subset of the population, making religious venues an excellent place for authoritarians to recruit.
Both offer certainty and absolve their followers of responsibility for the ills that befall them. In times of despair, such certainty must become even more appealing, driving people simultaneously to the religious and the political authoritarian. The persistent mingling of authoritarian politics with authoritarian religions makes that combination dangerous and difficult to root out. But focusing on religion when we all agree that the political battles are where the problems manifest seems entirely pointless, to me.