18 January 2024

Religion and the authoritarian mind

Last month this post, "Chesterton, Government, and God" appeared on Herald Newman's Truth Seeking Atheist blog (please do go and read it -- he has his own points to make, which are different from mine here).  Newman opens with a GK Chesterton quote found on a "conservative social media group":

But the truth is that it is only by believing in God that we can ever criticize the Government.  Once abolish the God, and the Government becomes the God.

The second sentence makes me suspect that that "conservative social media group" garbled Chesterton's grammar quite a bit, but let it pass.  Newman responds:

Now, I dunno about you, but I don't believe in God and have plenty of criticism of government. I think there are plenty of government policies that could be significantly improved, and I don't see why belief in God has anything to do with criticism of government. Considering what we see out of the MAGA conservatives in the United States, and their unquestioning loyalty to a certain politician, I really have to question whether the problem is lack of God belief!

Myself, I'd go further.  It seems far more accurate to say that when a person has internalized and normalized the practice of believing in and worshiping a god, he is primed to apply that same authoritarian, self-degrading mental template in other areas of life too.  It is indeed mostly fundamentalist Christians who practice that "unquestioning loyalty to a certain politician".  I see no such pattern of atheists displaying a quasi-religious veneration of, say, Richard Dawkins.  And many of those same fundamentalists seem to yearn for an authoritarian government which will enforce the One True Way, regardless of public opinion -- another god-like master-entity.  It is those who base their very identity and self-worth on groveling to an all-powerful deity who are likely to repeat that "virtuous" submission in other fields, looking for other such overlords to venerate.

As for the claim that disbelief in God leaves a void which must be filled by something else (the government, in Chesterton's quote), this always puts me in mind of a person saying "I wish this migraine would go away!" and another replying, "But if it did, what would you replace it with?"  I'm in the best position to know that this is not reality -- I grew up without religion and never felt any such lack.  I've never believed that humans have some innate hunger for a god or religion that needs to be filled by something.  The very concept of religion would never have occurred to me if I hadn't been surrounded by a society in which it was normative.

Religion is not something we need.  It's a tool for exercising power over masses of gullible people.  It was adopted very early in the development of human culture because it's so effective for that purpose, and it has continued ever since because it is usually inculcated into each new generation of children while they're still too young to critically evaluate what adults are telling them -- and it's then sustained by enormously strong cultural pressure because each private doubter is surrounded by people who present a face of strong belief.  Break the chain of inter-generational transmission, and take away the cultural pressure, and it crumbles away decade by decade.  That has been happening in the US for the last three decades or so, and in Europe for somewhat longer, and it is starting to happen in Latin America and even the Middle East.

And just as it's the most fervent religious believers who are the main supporters of authoritarian rule (a trend noticeable among militant Muslims and among Hindu nationalists in India, not just among US fundamentalists), we unbelievers almost unanimously oppose such worship of an all-powerful state.  It's no coincidence that the decline of religion since the Renaissance has progressed hand-in-hand with the rise of individual freedom and representative government.  Without divinity, after all, there can be no divine right of kings.  We who need no gods are not the ones making government or a Big Brother figure into gods.


Anonymous rick shapiro said...

"tool for exercising power over masses of gullible people" - That is certainly true; but there is more behind religion than merely exploitation by cynical preachers. There really is an inborn tendency to signal loyalty to the in-group by believing (honest signaling) in a ridiculous proposition.

18 January, 2024 06:07  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

That tendency certainly exists in some people, though I think the mental behavior involved is too complex for it to be inborn. But that tendency would only arise once religion had already come into existence and emerged as a dominant element defining an in-group -- so it can't be part of the origin of that.

Certainly the belief in religious propositions is an honest belief in the case of most of the rank-and-file, otherwise religion wouldn't work as a tool of manipulation.

18 January, 2024 06:30  
Blogger Shaw Kenawe said...

I think it was in one of Richard Dawkins' books where I read that we humans are hard-wired to believe in deities; that humans are predisposed to believe in gods and an afterlife; and that both theology and atheism are reasoned responses to what is a basic impulse of the human mind.

How does one explain Francis Collins, for one example, and his religious beliefs, for example? Collins, an evangelical Christian, described sequencing the human genome as “both a stunning scientific achievement and an occasion of worship.” But, as a young man, he considered himself an atheist. ​​He's also said that faith is rational and can answer life's deepest questions.

I don't agree at all, but my point is that even great intellects, who should know better, can hold onto irrational beliefs, and perhaps there IS something to the idea of our brains being hard-wired to believe in gods; therefore Collins, a scientist, is still captured by this hard-wiring?

I don't know the answer. But I've always been puzzled by highly educated, scientific minds who hold onto irrational beliefs.

It's also interesting to remember how long it took Darwin to publish "On the Origin of Species," because of his almost paralyzing fear of, as Huxley put it, being the man who "killed God."

18 January, 2024 07:59  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

That's just cultural inertia. The majority -- I think the overwhelming majority, something like 90% -- of top scientists in the US are atheists, a far higher percentage than in the general population. Cases like Collins are in that 10%, which was probably higher in his time. I suspect you'd find that the percentage of scientists who are religious decreases the more recently they were born and grew up. Collins and Dawkins were born at a time when almost everyone was religious, and growing up without religion was fantastically rare. The early-indoctrination factor and the cultural-pressure factor were both much stronger for them than for a person born more recently.

The fact that some "great intellects, who should know better, can hold onto irrational beliefs" just means that that 10% hasn't dropped to 0% yet. It's not evidence that human brains are hard-wired to need religion. The fact that so many people (about 30% of Americans, a majority in Japan and some European countries) get along perfectly well without religion is very solid evidence against that proposition.

18 January, 2024 09:12  
Blogger Ami said...

There's been a lot of discussion around my house lately about tribalism. And what activities, beliefs, ideas are really THAT, when reduced to their simplest form.

Sports teams. School spirit. Religion. Designer labels. A person's profession.

I'm of the opinion that belief in a deity is not hard wired, but wanting to belong to a group is. How else can we band together and leave other people out?

Religion is just the ugliest version of tribalism, as you are considered fair game by the members of the tribe that you're not part of.

18 January, 2024 13:07  
Blogger Lady M said...

That is a great article. That christian "we all must worship something" view of the world is just mind boggling bull crap. I don't worship anything. I like things. I love people and places. I have hobbies but nothing in this life is worthy of worship.

18 January, 2024 18:10  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Ami: I'm sure the need to belong to a group is hard-wired. We're social animals, like our nearest relatives (chimps and bonobos). In a sense, religion perverts that need. In the case of small, intensely-controlling cults, they're pretty obvious about it.

Lady M: Thanks! I can't fathom the claim that a "need to worship" is hard-wired in humans. No other animal species exhibits behavior that remotely resembles it. I can't imagine any way in which natural selection would have favored a tendency to worship things (it wouldn't contribute to survival or reproductive success in a stone-age environment). Huge numbers of people today don't worship anything, and far more people leave religions than join them (as adults). It makes no sense.

19 January, 2024 02:43  
Blogger Mary Kirkland said...

I'm not religious, I haven't been to church since I was a kid. I actually only know one person in my family or friends that goes to church still. Everyone I knew as a kid went to church back then but it seems less people go these days.

19 January, 2024 12:02  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

I think a lot of young people go to church even if they don't really believe, just to avoid clashes with their parents. When they're old enough to be fully independent and no longer worry so much about what their parents think, they stop.

19 January, 2024 21:43  

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