Religion, Evil and Idolatry

Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you'd have good people doing good things and evil people doing bad things, but for good people to do bad things, it takes religion. Steven Weinberg

The claim underlying this and many similar critiques of religion is that religion, disproportionately among human activities, makes people act irrationally and immorally. The implication is that, if we were to eradicate religion, we would also eradicate many of the social ills that plague our species, such as dogmatism, tribalism and intolerance.

One thing that my studies of anxiety and ideology have made clear is that this claim is patently false. Certainly there is dogmatism concerning religious beliefs, the intolerance it gives rise to, and the unspeakable violence with which believers try to defend their beliefs. But religion is not the root of those evils. Rather, they arise from very deep in our nature as vulnerable, mortal, self-aware creatures.

The philosopher Spinoza articulated the conatus principle of finite existence in a world of particular objects. Basically, it is the striving of a thing, whether animate or inanimate, to maintain its existence as a distinct object in the face of forces in its environment which tend to undermine its integrity (literally dis-integrating forces). While it is a very general concept, it has particular application to living things, where part of the definition of a living organism is that it has an integrity distinct from its environment. Conatus manifests itself in different ways: it could be as simple as an amoeba maneuvering itself away from toxic materials in its environment, or as complex as the patterns of muscular contraction that propel an antelope away from a predator. The more complex the organism, the more complex the mechanisms of conatus, but the fundamental principle is the same: life is basically the struggle of individual organisms to maintain their integrity as individuals in the face of disintegrating forces. Some philosophers have called this the 'will to live', but it would be a mistake to interpret this as a conscious, volitional endeavor limited to human beings. Conatus is part of the essence of life itself, and is the default mode of all living beings (there are some situations which could cause it to break down, and one might actually define death as the cessation of conatus, but that discussion is outside the scope of this post).

What does this have to do with our topic? Human beings, like all other organisms, strive to maintain their integrity or identity as organisms. However, we are unique among all organisms in that we are self-reflectively aware of the formidable forces that threaten our identity. This awareness of the precariousness of our identity in the face of dis-integrating forces leads to anxiety, where this anxiety is not merely the propensity to worry about the outcome of certain events or to anticipate negative events in the future, but a state in which, as Paul Tillich put it, "a being is aware of the possibility of its non-being." This awareness does not have to be at the forefront of our consciousness to influence our behavior and thinking. In fact, Blaise Pascal argued that our search for diversion is fundamentally a response to this awareness, even if the superficial motives we give for this search are very different.

Anxiety, defined as a state in which a being is aware of the possibility of its non-being, is constitutive of the human condition, and is an immensely powerful force in our behavior and thinking. It goes beyond individual fears of various dangers from the environment because it does not merely represent the possibility of damage, or harm, but of complete dissolution. Also unlike these individual fears, we cannot isolate and avoid the source of anxiety, because it is the world itself: anything and everything that could threaten our identity, including our basic biological vulnerability but also psychological factors like cognitive dissonance. In our current human condition, anxiety and its source in the world as it is are unavoidable (we might add that human anxiety does not merely concern the possibility of non-being, but its inevitability in death, at least prima facie if the possibility of an after-life is ignored).

If the source of anxiety is the world itself and thus cannot be avoided, how do human beings cope with it? One way, as Pascal noted, is to pursue diversionary activities that can dull our awareness of mortality at least temporarily. A much more ominous strategy, however, involves latching onto some idea or institution that appears to be absolute, untouched by the contingency of time and creature-hood. The problem is that, as sociologist Peter Berger noted, we objectify our own social creations, so that they take on the appearance of external reality. Driven by anxiety, we invest our creations with permanence and absoluteness, in the hopes that they in turn will protect us from the transience of our own existence. In other words, we create idols. A textbook example is the golden calf the Israelites fashioned when they were afraid Moses was not coming back from Mount Sinai. They don't see the irony of creating themselves an idol, and then insisting that it had brought them out of Egypt (Exodus 32:1-4), as if a human creation could have more value and more power than what went into its fashioning. As Paul Moser comments,

Idols are counterfeit objects of hope. We rely on them to give us the comfort, satisfaction, and security we crave and need. Repeatedly, however, we find that they don't deliver. The excitement, glamor, and allure of our idols soon fade. Even our friends and loved ones fail us, just as we fail them. We easily find ourselves on a deadly cycle of disillusionment and despair as we seek the next thing that, we hope, will bring lasting meaning to our lives. Nothing in this world, however, can bring lasting meaning to our lives. The things of this world pass away, and, more urgently, we do too. Sooner or later, we die. We then lose everything this world has to offer, if only because we are ourselves are lost. Like ourselves, our idols lack the power to sustain us past death, and they cannot redeem our failures and other troubles. In particular, they cannot set us free from our burdens of guilt, shame, and fear of having lived without lasting meaning. If our lives are actually to have lasting meaning, we need genuine hope in the face of our moral failures and impending death. Idols are at best band-aids; they keep falling off and we know it.

But the problem is not just that idols fail to deliver what we expect of them, but that, in our devotion to them, we are willing to give up our very humanity. The Accuser in the Book of Job said it well: "Skin for skin! A man will give up everything he has to save his life." (Job 2:4) This can include his sense of decency, of fairness and of justice. If his idol is the tribe or the nation, he may become willing to do anything to defend it, no matter how monstrous, which includes tolerance of monstrous evils committed by other idolaters.

If idols are objects of value in which we place our trust, then scapegoats are objects of blame which we load up with our anger at natural events which we cannot control. Scapegoating is the negative correlate of idolizing, but the dynamic is the same: in the face of anxiety, we conjure up an idea, institution or group which must be to blame for our ills and our vulnerability, and we believe that eradicating the scapegoat will turn the tide of events back in our favor.

The most important thing to note about this process is that idols and scapegoats can come from anywhere, not just or even primarily religion. The idolatry most people may be used to is intolerance or violence in the defense of God's honor, but little gods abound: a political ideology like nazism or communism (see the fascinating book The God That Failed, written by intellectuals who had previously been entranced by communism but then recanted their faith), the pursuit of wealth at any cost, even commitment to one's favorite sports team, which can lead to violent confrontations with fans of another team.

To sum up, then, Weinberg is wrong: it does not take religion for good people to do bad things, it just takes anxiety and our tendency to create idols and scapegoats in response to that anxiety.

In fact, religion, at least in some forms, offers a potent antidote to idolatry and scapegoating: the monotheistic relativizing of all finite allegiances, and the liberation from anxiety that comes from the assurance that Jesus' resurrection has defeated the powers of death that hold us captive. But that is a topic for another post.


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