Tuesday, September 2, 2008


Hell is empty, and all the devils are here. William Shakespeare,
The Tempest, 1. 2

It is fashionable in some circles to blame religion for the evil that men do. Hitchens, Dawkins and others are leading a new resurgence of aggressive atheism that seeks to vilify all religions as the source of a large part of the chaos and misery in the world. They specifically negate the value of all religions and blame them for most of the violence and misery of the human race.

This bothers me, partly because I have a strong personal religious inclination, but it also bothers me because it is totally illogical. Ironically, I love reading Hitchens on most subjects and find his style, logic and command of fact and history impressive on just about everything with the exception of religion and Israel. I think it possible that his blindness on these two issues is a combination of negative personal history with religion, a vestigial (and erroneous) leftist belief that Israel is a colonialist enterprise and an unfortunate inability to see Israel apart from his prejudice against religion. More about Hitchens later because he is the exception that proves the rule.

I ran across an article about the French philosopher Rene Girard on the blog CUANAS a while ago that got me thinking about this. Since then I have read a lot of his work and I have been inspired by a couple of very clear and original insights, For one thing, Girard saw that it was not that religion caused the evils of human sacrifice but that religion evolved to govern and channel the natural competition for resources, jealousy and fear inherent in the human condition that led to the violence and horror of sacrifice. Girard exposes an important and much denied view of human nature. CUANAS writer Jaco Pastorius quoted this from Girard, “"When we describe human relations, we lie. We describe them as normally good, peaceful and so forth, whereas in reality they are competitive, in a war-like fashion."

Of course religion is not the only “culprit”, if you don’t happen to have strong religious faith, don’t worry, whatever cultural institutions you respect and depend on in this world, there is likely some nut-job who thinks your positive values are the cause of mayhem, madness and destruction. There is someone out there who will be happy to tell you that the fault lies with (pick one or more-) government, marriage, society, money (capital), science or some mixture of these. They make passionate cases for their allegations but can they all be right?

Without becoming involved in the numbingly arcane objections, squabbles about definitions, speculations about theology, theories of economics and hair splitting about psychology into which discussions about these matters tend to degenerate, allow me, please, one general anthropological observation. All of the above mentioned supposed causes of evil (and any others of which I am aware) have one thing in common- they are all systems or conceptual frameworks that were created by people.

Think about that. Leave aside the obvious question of how several different systems could be The Source(s) of All Evil; could any single one (or combination) of them actually be The Source(s) of Evil? Does it not stand to reason that any evil that is in the systems ultimately derives from the people who created and inhabit these systems?

Like the old comedy routine in which someone floating in a small boat notices a bit of water in the bottom of the boat and essays to let the water out of the boat by drilling a hole in the bottom so it can run out, it is a curious and quixotic spectacle when we see these attacks on western institutions and culture by people who under any other known system on earth would be outcasts, imprisoned as traitors or burned in the streets as heretics. In the West they are educated, protected and given a platform by the very same institutions they decry.

This inverted protest- in which the blame for humanity’s violence, misery and pain is projected onto the institutions which, of all the similar institutions in the world, have the best record of managing and minimizing the violence, theft, hatred, xenophobia, abusiveness and uncontrolled rage about which they are complaining- is the diagnostic symptom of western cultural anomie.

We have already discussed the most obvious signs (anti-theism, moral relativism, political correctness, post modernism, liberal cognitive egocentrism and post-colonialism) of this anomie at length. But, somehow, there has always been the nagging question of how so many, otherwise intelligent and well-educated people could be blind to the obvious internal contradictions inherent in their behavior and thought-process.

This unconsciously self-destructive behavior is a special case of what Richard Landes calls Demopathy. Demopathy, is the cynical and calculated use of the ideals, language and institutions of democratic western civilization to weaken or destroy it. Under Landes’ definition, someone who indulges in the form of blindly suicidal behavior described above is referred to not as a full-fledged Demopath but, rather, a Dupe of Demopathy. A Dupe takes up the arguments and reframing of true Demopaths and in a well-intentioned but overly emotional, and sub-rational state, they can not see how the ideas they profess weaken the very fabric of there own culture.

The question has remained open- what could possibly motivate people with no obvious mental incapacity to want to weaken and possibly destroy the culture that made them who they are- the only culture in the history of humankind that would have a place and tolerance for people who think and behave as they do. The energy source for this powerful screen of denial lies in the deeply disturbing idea that the source and magnitude of the evil of human nature is not an aberration but an inherent part of every individual.

This is the wellspring of demopathy. The Demopathic westerner has a very personal, deeply emotional investment in projecting the evil within himself (which otherwise he has to recognize as analogous to, if not identical with, the evil behind all the atrocities and horrors committed by the whole human race) onto his closest support system.
To make this work, he willingly believes that all individuals are either good or totally neutral until they become trained or enlisted by one of these (evil) institutions. This is what makes it seem like a good idea to some people to weaken or try to destroy the very structures that make us free and safe. There is not even a corresponding assumption that we are not as safe or free as we might be under a system that denies our true nature and attempts to turn us into totalitarian tools.

And this is where I must return to Hitchens. I have to stress that I use him to stand for all who, like him, want us to believe that belief in a supreme being is not essential to living a principled existence and is even somehow retrogressive.

Humanists would have us believe that secularism, rationality and “universal values” will suffice to safeguard our liberty and guide us to the next stage of human liberation. Humanism embraces a variety of related philosophies, according to Wikipedia, “…that affirm the dignity and worth of all people, based on the ability to determine right and wrong by appeal to universal human qualities – particularly rationality.” This faith in human beings and their intellectual devices would not seem justified in the light of what the antitheist regimes of the last century have done to the human race. One would think that Hitchens, as a substantially reconstructed Trotskyite, would have an idea about that.

To depend only on human values and reason- to claim dependence on universal moral values is itself an exercise in faith. Viewed only from the human perspective, though, there can be nothing truly universal about those morals and the effect of it is to deny that evil exists in the human nature. The greatest evils in the history of humankind have been a result of the denial that evil exists in the human heart- that it is only governments (like the monarchy of Louis XVI) and systems (such as capitalism) that need to be eliminated (along with thousands or even millions of arbitrarily selected people) to allow the reign of reason and humanistic values (from each according to his means, to each according to his needs) to prevail. In 1911 Joseph Conrad, in Under Western Eyes, Wrote “The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness.”- And that goes for institutional, cultural and social sources of wickedness too.

The greatness of the American off-shoot of the western tradition is that in its foundational spiritual sources the society of Freemasons, farmers and frontiersmen who framed the republic were deeply involved with the “Old Testament” and had made a commitment to responsibility and self-reliance in preference to the soul deadening interpretations of original sin so prevalent in the old world of Europe. This hopeful, productive and democratic strain of the Judeo-Christian tradition acknowledges that evil (as well as righteousness) is part of what makes us human. Its greatest innovation is that it saw that the only good reason for religion, government and tradition is the to make it difficult for the any one group to gain too great a proportion of the power. We need all the help we can get to keep us from acting in ways that are (in the long run at least) counter to our own interests- it does us no good to sanctify humanity and project our evil side onto God and religion (and our freely elected government) we need to continue to try to live up to our best understanding of the goodness, order and balance that are the visible manifestations of Godliness.

The constant battle between The Judeo Christian West and the various retrograde Western ideologies, (Nazism, Socialism, Communism, Utopianism, religious fundamentalism, etc...) of which I believe Humanism and its corollary, Progressivism is one, is the same battle that divides the west from Islam. It is the conflict between utopian approaches that believe the human being is neither good nor evil but can be molded and remade in a political or religious image and the liberal western approach that acknowledges the human character accepts the good and the evil, acknowledges the human freedom to take responsibility for choosing between them and attempts to devise a system that balances and restrains the two sides of human nature in the most liberating and productive way possible.

Balance, indeed, is the signal innovation and genius of the Constitution of the United States of America. The framers of the Constitution were men versed in scripture. They well understood the problem of evil. They built a system with so many redundant safeguards that even the demopathic paranoid fringe that feigns courage by calling the current president Bushhitler and accusing him of being a fascist thug do so in complete confidence that they will not wake some night to a raid by the Secret Police and be “disappeared” into a mythical American Gulag.

It reminds me of nothing so much as the paranoid bravado that I (yes, even I), like many of my generation, felt in 1968 about what we would do “when the revolution comes”. We had convinced ourselves that a revolution was required to stop the evil we saw around us- and that our ascendance as leaders was Inevitable because of our own youth and purity. We fancied ourselves important in an adolescent and grandiose fantasy.

The revolution never came nor will today’s progressives be rounded up and turned into lampshades by the Bush administration. In time, we will gain enough perspective to see today’s pathetic attempt to appear heroic by challenging the most benign and open democracy on earth to suppress them with just as much condescending nostalgia as we do the “when the revolution comes” fantasy of 1968. But the similarity is no accident and it is important to see that they are both analogous to “feeling ill, calling a doctor, letting the doctor treat you and then blaming the physician for the disease”. They are quintessential expressions of that same human urge to avoid the reality of the chaotic evil that is present in all of us by projecting it onto the very institution(s) that have evolved to balance it with the good in each of us.

Our Judeo-Christian Western experiment is a flawed and human enterprise. Any human endeavor is doomed to embody a mixture of good and evil. But it is unique in human history as the one that has most productively valued introspection, fostered intellectual honesty and supported the dignity and rights of the individual. We can only continue the evolution and perfection of these powerful forces for good by, at last, putting away the childish omnipotence and imaginary purity of the extreme ends of the political spectrum.

As embodied in the US constitution, balance is the key. The rights and dignity of the human race can only be defended and expanded by first understanding the human being and respecting his qualities- both the positives and the negatives- then the checks and balances we devise will be felt as fair and effective and we can stop hating them and helping our enemies (the Demopaths of all stripes) to undermine them.

It is not, after all, the fault of religion or government or George Bush, Osama bin Laden or even Dick Cheney that there is evil in the world. It is not even the things that are done that seem evil. The things that seem evil to us are the violence and the hatred and the fear that are inherent in the human soul. Rene Girard offered a singularly brilliant insight when he observed that the source of evil was not the institutions but the nature of the human being. He falls short, however in carrying that insight through to its full meaning. In my next post I will discuss what Girard missed. In doing so, I will also show that progressivism and Islamism are actively engaged in behaviors that multiply and spread the violence and pain (and the denial that causes them).

1 comment:

lgude said...

I have come to a very similar view regarding evil, personal responsibility, and particularly the problem of projection. I notice that you too have noticed the increase in projection on Dick Cheney as Dubya has lost his sizzle. It all reminds me of Pooh and Piglet going round and round the copse in the snow discovering more and more wozzle tracks with each circuit.

I think you have put your finger on a valuable general principle in arguing that projection onto institutions is a royal road to collective disaster. That principle convincingly ties together such apparently disparate movements as Nazism, Communism and Islamic fundamentalism in a useful way. Thanks.