A Follow-Up: Religion, Authority, and the Dangers of Optimism

In observing certain conversations sparked by yesterday’s post, I felt stimulated to add some further thoughts, especially in trying to put religion in a broader context.

As I presented it yesterday, the essential process of reasoning that led to “all human beings deserve to be tortured and killed” is something like this:

1) Overall, everything is good.

2) But in cases x, y, z, etc… things are bad.

Therefore, 3) The specific people involved in x, y, z, etc… are bad and have themselves produced what happens to them.

We could put it in more visual terms by saying that because evil has been excluded on principle from the grand over-arching structure of the world, it has to be ‘localised’ as an intrinsic feature of those affected.

But the thing is, this isn’t at all unique to theism. Of course theism has the most extreme possible version of ‘overall, everything is good’. But other less metaphysically extravagant versions are also possible.

One example, I think, is that vague tradition of ideas that has held that modern knowledge and reason is in the ascendant, that across the world enlightenment is being shone, that history is over and the new age of rational, modern, progressively progressing prosperity is at hand. This was strong I think in the 19th century heyday of empire, got somewhat worried during the wars, and triumphantly resumed in the 90s.

This generates exactly the same kind of pressure towards projecting problems onto the worst-off as either their choice, or an intrinsic flaw. If ‘the natives’ are unhappy, restless, or even violent, then either it’s their fault for breeding too much, for refusing to ‘modernise’, for ungratefully fighting against our benevolent overseers – or else it is an inherent defect, a backwardness, a racial stupidity or aggressiveness. Either way: “Exterminate all the brutes!”

Of course it would be remiss of me not to admit that revolutionary ideology lends itself well to this. If we have assured ourselves that now, now that we are in charge and things are largely sorted out, everything should be improving and everybody should be inspired, we have set ourselves up to interpret any suggestion to the contrary as indicating, not that we were partly wrong, but that the people who raise the complaints are selfish, spiteful, counter-revolutionaries who must be purged.

And the ironic thing is that these latter two forms of modern ‘optmism’ will often use religion itself as their favoured scapegoat – the fanaticism and irrationality of the superstitious explains problems and justifies harsh measures against them.

The simplest form of this dynamic, of course, isn’t even at the level of ideology: if I need to believe that my partner/parent/owner/master is good and benign, then whenever they beat me up,  or frustrate or abuse me some other way – I must have deserved it. And whenever they do so to the other subordinates, those subordinates deserved it.

This kind of grand optimism – that the whole world is basically in good hands – is always latently authoritarian.

Why start with that optmistic premise though? Presumably, because it’s more comforting, gives more sense of meaning and security. That’s right – it can be comforting to believe that you or others deserve to suffer, and probably will in the future. That’s because, to quote Nietzsche (whose views on religion I find more and more compelling every week): “humanity’s problem is not that it suffers, but that it does not know why it suffers.”

So people respond to the weaknesses and insecurities and authoritarian nonsenses of their lives by ‘adapting’ themselves to authoritarian habits of thought.

So what I wrote yesterday is not an attack on religion as something special and distinctive and unique, but quite the opposite: an attack on religion as one distinct form of a far broader phenomenon. I find defenses to the argument from evil ‘hard to stomach’ precisely because of what they remind me of: victim-blaming in a hundred other contexts.

3 Responses to “A Follow-Up: Religion, Authority, and the Dangers of Optimism”

  1. Q Says:

    I like this. Optimism is not only unjustified by the evidence and past experience, but also by its implications.

  2. Cathy Sander Says:

    This is what is behind the “Just World Phenomenon” where people believe that people deserve what they get, whether or not they had the power or the resources to deal with their problems.

  3. Joe Bernado Says:

    I don’t know what the answer is ,But I know what the wrong answer is, is evolution in progress

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