politics

Should We Discourage People from Becoming Religious Extremists?

It makes sense in response to the massacre committed by supporters of Isis to ask: how can we discourage people from becoming the sort of people who commit such massacres.  A first approximation of what sorts of people those are would be to characterize them as “religious extremists”.  This raises the issue of which is more important: to discourage people from becoming religious or to discourage people from becoming extreme.

Let’s consider discouraging religion.  One obvious problem is that billions of people find their identity in religion, including admirable ones.  If “we” (and who we is a worthwhile worry, but let’s say it means “concerned citizens trying to avoid future massacres like the recent one in Paris”) declare our opposition to religion as such we alienate them and add credence to the view that what is most precious to them is under concerted attack.  But even assuming we could finesse this political problem and that it would somehow be possible to exterminate religion from the range of human possibilities, it’s not clear that it is desirable.  Religion provides identity and community support by responding to ultimate questions of death and the contingency of human life with ritual, myth, and spiritual practice.   Since it is hard to see why this ultimate questions will ever go away — they’re ultimate after all — it’s hard to see why we should chuck myth, ritual, and spiritual practice.   The burden of proof lies on the person promising to protect us from massacre by eliminating these three coping mechanisms to convince us that they have something better.

Another option would be to eliminate extremism.  We can define the extremist as the person willing ot make big bets in the hope of big future rewards.  His opposite is the timid supporter of the status quo.  Both can agree that the status quo is rife with injustice and inefficiency, but while the moderate worries that big moves run an unacceptable risk of making the situation even worse, the extremist is wiling to take that risk.  They also differ in rhetoric — the extremist says that what we have now is very very bad and what we stand to get is very very good — but these are just sign posts to their differing view of action.

It would be a mistake to try to quell the human impulse to extremism, because its impulses include a perception of the sub-optimality of the status quo, and an ability to imagine better alternatives.  If we eliminate these two impulses we would in the same act eliminate the cognitive and emotional engines for improving our lot.  Take the example of Semelweis who advocated that surgeons wash their hands after performing an autopsy and before assisting in a childbirth.  Semelweis was both an extremist and a martyr; we have him to thank for life-saving hygiene measures.

If neither religion nor extremism can be eliminated without an unacceptable cost, what should we avoid?  Is Isis the unavoidable price to pay for a society that allows the extremism of a Semelweis or the religion of a Martin Luther King?   I believe not, but we need to focus our fire on the real enemies.

The real enemies I believe are Maincheanism and apocalypticism.

Manicheanism is the view that we are engaged in a cosmic struggle of pure good versus radical evil.  Apocalypticism is the view that history is nearing its end.  An individual who believes he and his friends are pure good and his enemies are pure evil will feel justified in commiting atrocities because the lives and views of his victims have no value. An individual who believes history is nearing its end will feel justified in causing mass destruction both to hasten the end, and because since the gameboard will soon be knocked over by G-d no moves really matter other than those that hasten the end.  If we are playing speedchess big showy sacrifices make sense, not so if we are playing chess with an unlimited clock.

If Apocalypticism and Manicheanism are the two fangs of the serpent, how can we pull them? The apocalyptic impulse can be tempered by learning history.  If we acquaint ourselves with the many prophets in the bast who have failed — from Bar Kochba to Sabbatai Zvi to the Taiping Rebels — we will be less likely to put all our chips on the guess that history is ending soon.  The manichean impulse can be tempered by learning comparative religion.  If we learn to see the good and the complexity in people of other faiths we will be less likely to throw them in a big shapeless trash heap called “the dwellers in darkness”.

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12 thoughts on “Should We Discourage People from Becoming Religious Extremists?

  1. THIS. THIS. THIS. I agree so much with this that my heart aches. I have friends of many faiths and I love them all. I tears me apart when they are lumped into blob of evil: “The manichean impulse can be tempered by learning comparative religion. If we learn to see the good and the complexity in people of other faiths we will be less likely to throw them in a big shapeless trash heap called “the dwellers in darkness”.”

  2. N.S. Palmer says:

    I must enter a 50 percent dissent along with 50 percent agreement.

    The root of human violence is biological, not ideological. People prone to violence tend to justify their actions in terms of whatever ideas are handy: God commanded it, democracy requires it, “she made me hit her,” and so forth. Biology accounts for at least 50 percent of aggressive behavior.

    That being said, environment can mitigate innate aggressive tendencies. Just as it is more difficult to do astronomical calculations in a Ptolemaic model of the solar system than in a Copernican model, some religious frameworks make it more difficult to be violent (that’s 25 percent there). Societies that promote tolerance, provide non-violent ways of resolving disputes, and severely punish those who commit private acts of violence also make it more difficult to be violent (that’s the other 25 percent there).

    Steven Pinker says the same thing, with a lot more documentation, in his book “The Better Angels of Our Nature:”

    “These methods have shown that having an antisocial personality and getting into trouble with the law have a substantial heritable component, though their effects sometimes depend on features of the environment.” (loc. 13744, Kindle edition)

    So, yeah, kinda, it’s a good thing to discourage religions that foster irrational violence, as long as we remember that it’s only a partial solution.

    • N.S. Palmer says:

      Pinker argues that we already have, for example:

      “The graph shows that from the 13th century to the 20th, homicide in various parts of England plummeted by a factor of ten, fifty, and in some cases a hundred— for example, from 110 homicides per 100,000 people per year in 14th-century Oxford to less than 1 homicide per 100,000 in mid-20th-century London.”

      He makes a case that the decline results from (1) providing legal and institutional ways of resolving disputes, thereby reducing the incentive for private violence; (2) capital punishment that, over a period of centuries, eliminated some of the most violence-prone individuals from the gene pool; and (3) a shift to economic relations that are positive-sum rather than zero-sum, so that our neighbors are more valuable to us alive than dead.

      A big part of the point is that human beings are animals, but not *merely* animals. We have biological impulses, but we also have intelligence, foresight, and we can adapt to changing incentives. Thus, we should avoid the extremes of thinking on the one hand that human nature doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter, and on the other hand that our biological nature controls us completely. Neither extreme is true.

      • Nature vs. nurture strikes me as a fruitless debate. Pinker is knocking down a strawman. Nobody who has discussed these issues denies that there are biological facts about human beings — e.g. if you want to frighten people you will do better to drop bombs on them than candy. Nevertheless it is possible to convince people to go against their biological drives. The extreme example is the suicide bomber. The exciting question is how to change people and ourselves, not a sterile dispute about whether there is or is not a “human nature”. There clearly is a human nature, and a very important fact about that nature is that it is reprogrammable by ideology and culture.

  3. N.S. Palmer says:

    One sad truth that I think we have to accept is that we can only change ourselves, and to a lesser degree, people on whom we have influence. Short of the Messianic age, violence and hatred will always be with us. We can only minimize them and try to avoid engaging in them if we can reasonably avoid it.

  4. They also differ in rhetoric — the extremist says that what we have now is very very bad and what we stand to get is very very good — but these are just sign posts to their differing view of action.

    It would be a mistake to try to quell the human impulse to extremism, because its impulses include a perception of the sub-optimality of the status quo, and an ability to imagine better alternatives. If we eliminate these two impulses we would in the same act eliminate the cognitive and emotional engines for improving our lot. Take the example of Semelweis who advocated that surgeons wash their hands after performing an autopsy and before assisting in a childbirth. Semelweis was both an extremist and a martyr; we have him to thank for life-saving hygiene measures.

    I don’t know whether you believe this false comparison or just want to, Eric?

    I mean you use an emperically provable example of an improvement, as if it’s the same deal as saying you believe X real hard and you’ll get 21 virgins in a magical land.

    To me this just seems a liberal extremism. More one of ensuring oneself is never, ever the badguy oppressor.

    Sure some people don’t care if they are the badguy. And some people don’t think they are the badguy (no matter how many liberties they remove from everyone supposedly in the name of ‘protecting the country from terrorists!’). But in between some will risk being the baddie, to stop the worse. Of course, it wont be anyone who just wants to be a cool guy at parties.

      • Problem I have is sometimes people seem to be going by some ‘this is how it must be, the cosmos says so’ where as I go by more a ‘what if I were in their shoes’.

        I think if you ran a survey with thousands of people asking if they wanted to be a slave (and giving the conditions involved – it’s not some cute S&M version of a slave), they’d say no. That’s fairly emperical in that regard.

        But just in a ‘the cosmos says slavery is wrong’ way? Yeah, I’m not terribly good with that extremism either. Ie, releasing slaves and…the slaves have no where to go. Workforce has more supply of labour than demand, because of using a crappy supply and demand system to begin with..etc. But stuff thinking about that – just fulfill the moral impetus without thinking of the ramifications…So I don’t agree lots of extremism is good, even with abolition.

        Non empirical examples do not get to enjoy the credibility of emperical examples of change.

  5. Mikey says:

    Here are some good things about Apocalypticism and Manicheanism:
    Manicheanism – if you’re born without any concept of good and bad, the first thing you need to learn is that there is good and bad. Stories for children always have good and bad characters. It’s the default starting point for moral learning. I can’t think of a better way of introducing morality, but it runs a risk of being left undeveloped. Naturally if this is the starting point for all moral learning there will be lots of people left at this stage if they don’t learn any more.

    Apocalypticism – the story of Apocalypticism is so persuasive because it’s a metaphor and an answer to our mortality. And in some ways, it’s true. The world is about to end, if the world is just your own life.

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