Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Defector Problem

Pursuant upon my last post, I return the problem of defectors. Jonathan Haidt has once again returned to his theme of the moral criteria of tribe/purity/respect. Again, it does not occur to Haidt that these impulses should not be labeled moral motivations at all, but prejudices, and that academics do not reject them because academics are liberals, but because they have such a scandalous history. Consider this formulation of these same values: Ein Reich (tribe); Ein Volk (purity); Ein Fuhrer (respect). These do not deserve to be placed upon the same footing as justice and caring, and do not command the same respect simply because they have done nothing to earn it.

The responses are varied, many of which seem to miss the point entirely. Sam Harris's response was the closest to the mark. Michael Shermer's is very interesting, in that Shermer does not seem to realize that he has repudiated Haidt's main thesis, that conservative values are communitarian rather than individualistic values. Shermer is an extreme Libertarian (big L), which is a profoundly individualistic political position, and yet he defends the Republicans with this in mind. This illustrates one of the deepest divides in the republican party--they embrace both the religious right (which supposedly embraces communitarian values, though this may not actually be the case) and the libertarians, who are almost diametrically opposed to them.

Haidt seems unaware of this. Furthermore, he seems oblivious to these values on the left. In the vaccination scare, certain elements of the environmentalist movement, in the organic foods movement, and in the entire ideology of political correctness, there is an overwhelming emphasis on purity, so much so that when I first encountered the politically correct at university I called them The New Puritans. I won't go into depth about the ingroup/outgroup dynamic between the old and new left, or upon the reliance upon authority rather than evidence typified by the post-modernists--this would take more time than I have. When these emotional motivations do raise their head, pundits on the right attack them mercilessly, to which criticism I must, reluctantly, concede. Not only do I find these values on the left, I often find that they predominate to the point of embarrassment, and so I find Haidt's claims rather startling--how could he have missed something so blatantly obvious, and why didn't Shermer realize that he was refuting Haidt's central thesis?

Scott Atran's response was more to the point, but misses something alarming about religion. Yes, religion does encourage social solidarity, but at a cost. At a grassroots level, religion encourages cooperation and action as an interest group. And it does, at a grassroots level, discourage defection. But pay attention to what happens at the level of leadership. Consider the founders of three modern religions: Mormonism, Scientology, and the Unification Church.

They were all con men.

Joseph Smith had been imprisoned on charges of fraud before hitting upon the scheme of the golden tablets which purportedly contained the Book of Mormon. His earliest converts left him in disgust, having been swindled of most of their funds, and finally, Smith was lynched by a Christian mob who had had enough of his efforts to twist their religion to his own benefit. Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard started his religion on a bet and lived a life of vindictive paranoia, culminating in the "Sea Org", a floating ministry made necessary by criminal investigations in several countries. The Unification Church, founded by Sun Myung Moon, was primarily built around Chinese brainwashing techniques he encountered during the Korean War. Employing these techniques upon first world baby boomers, Moon built a large financial empire upon slave labour. The theology (as with Mormonism and Scientology) is a hallucinagenic montage of various elements which places Moon as Jesus' Superior.

The story of Mohammad had many parallels to that of Smith; his revelations seemed to conveniently coincide with his own desires, allowing him to marry any woman he had a hankering for, to wage war against anyone who disagreed with him, and to keep the lion's share of the spoils of those wars. When I first came across his story, decades ago while I was still a religious believer, he struck me as an obvious fraud. Nothing I have encountered since has changed my mind, and much has confirmed that opinion.

Let's leave aside the hordes of cult leaders (although it is an open question as to what distinguishes a cult from a religion, beyond the fact that religions outlive their founders), but let us pay attention to what is happening at the top of the religions, amongst the leaders. We have pedophile priests, terrorist demagogues, crooked televangelists, and closeted homosexuals campaigning against gay rights (what, was there no one in Haggard's congregation with gaydar?) All are defectors--and these defectors are at the top of the hierarchy. But for defectors, you must stand in awe of Karl Rove, a man who in public said that he was not fortunate enough to believe, and in private called the religious right "the crazies'. And yet this man commanded the position of at least a bishop, if not a pope, invoking God through targeted campaigns to motivate people en masse to political action. The Religious Right in America--that 15 to 30 percent who support Sarah Palin--is still called "Karl Rove's base".

To understand how this can be, consider this; what kind of person could claim, against all opposition, that they are the chosen of the Creator of the Universe, effectively the most important person in all that creation, and that they know with absolute certainty the infinite mind of that Creator? The arrogance of this claim, the sheer cock sureness, beggars imagination. Even the most manic episode will eventually come to an end, and then the claimant will slink off to the shadows. The only type of personality that could sustain such an imposture is that of a thoroughly unrepentant sociopath--the ultimate defector. The founder of a religion might possibly be a man or woman of great faith, but it is far more likely that they will be a consummate confidence trickster. And the historical record suggests that this is exactly the case. Indeed, the Bible is littered with warnings about false prophets. The problem has apparently been so ubiquitous, and so long present, that it was recognized even in ancient times.

This is what Atran and Haidt miss. Religion is a political tool, morally neutral in and of itself. It can be used for good or ill. At the grassroots level it is a community of mutual support; but thanks to the credulity it encourages amongst its adherents, religion is the ideal tool of the professional defector, permitting him to turn his followers into a political bloc, a cheap labour force, or an army. It is simply too easy to hack. The aura of righteousness that surrounds the leader blinds followers to the possibility of deceit.

The motive and mechanic is easy to understand--critical thinking is expensive, in both an economic and evolutionary sense. Consider lawyers; lawyers are hired skeptics. A good lawyer will scrutinize in exacting detail the terms of an agreement, looking for loopholes through which the other party could defraud the lawyer's client. But lawyers are expensive, and so too is the entire enterprise of skepticism. Imagine how much more efficient every transaction would be if both parties could be certain that trust was justified. And that is precisely what religion attempts; mere membership in the sect is supposed to be enough to certify good faith. Yet such an arrangement draws predators like flies to manure. A group of people who will not question my motives? Where do I sign on! The desire to arrange things so that trust is a given is not foolish; it is a rational arrangement worthy of that great fictional construct, homo economicus, the purely rational, self-interested actor, so popular amongst economists. If such an arrangement could truly be made, the benefits would be staggering. But any such arrangement will be sought out and exploited by the the most ruthless of predators. The price of freedom remains, forever, eternal vigilance.

Where such arrangements persist, they will begin to take on the characteristics specified by those predators. On occasions where I find myself reading Catholic apologists (as in First Things) I am repeatedly appalled by their hatred of the world and everything--and everyone--in it. There is an unmistakeably ripe smell of decay. Joy, beauty, friendship, comfort, and peace are all to be despised. These Catholic writers create a prison with walls of despair, a world of brambles and darkness, whose only light is the dim light of the Church. It is an orgy of nihilism that would make even Nietzsche blanch. There is nothing in life, and no escape, for suicide too is a mortal sin. All that is left is the afterlife. And what could be more useful to their clerical masters, for it is the church who claims the keys to heaven, the only good worth having. In pursuit of this good all other values are surfeit, to be surrendered up to the Church and its masters for their enjoyment. Thus, Opus Dei, the cult within a sect within a church, an organization which taps potentially wealthy professionals and turns them into cash cows. And so, we are told, by a Pope who arranged the clemency of child molesters and their protectors, that we need to trust the Church and obey its dictates. I left the Catholic Church amiably, thinking it the best of bad lot. But I find it too sullied by the hands of the worst of humanity to think this anymore.

The use of religion as a morally neutral political tool goes a long way to explaining how Christianity has been derailed from being a faith primarily about charity and mercy to being a religous movement almost exclusively focused upon sex, referenced by the code phrase "family values". The preoccupation with sex is expressed in the obsession with homosexuality, reproduction and reproductive rights, sex education, prurient obsessions with nudity, and women's rights (or the denial thereof.) There is remarkably little in the four gospels related to sex, but you wouldn't know it from the speeches of the evangelists. Add to this the resistance to evolution, and you have a religion obsessed with distracting trivialities, whose hollow core can now be filled with whatever its masters claim to be Christian values. The greatest threat to the world's religions is not the new atheists, but this gradual erosion of the spiritual and social aspect in favour of pure power politics; they stand to win the world but lose their souls, Nor does this side show or trivialities do anything to actually affect behavior; the most religious areas of America still have the highest rates of teenage pregnancy, divorce, and children born of single mothers. A supernatural moral arbiter and conductor of mortal affairs can be petitioned and bribed; it doesn't matter what you do on Saturday night as long as you can pray for forgiveness on Sunday morning. For the secular there is no escape clause. Reality offers no such buffer between action and consequence. Whatever their stated intentions, the methods of religious leaders do not work.

The best analogy I can think of is the One Ring of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Each community bound by blind faith offers a means that can rule them all, that can be used to draw them all together and bind them to the darkness of ignorance. Religion is, of course, not alone in creating such a trap; political ideologies have proven their ability to do the same thing. The trick seems consist of promising a simple explanation for everything, a Utopian vision whereby, once we have dispensed with the evil of X, we shall all benefit from the ascendance of Y, leading us to the promised land. It is always a lie. It is never that simple. Religious believers and political ideologues alike must be made aware of the power they are handing over to the worst people possible. The Ring must be destroyed.