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The danger of belief

and the vice of extremism

July 2011

This month's bombing by a goon in Norway illustrates again how wrong it can go when we sacrifice our reason for the sake of a belief. And this holds for any belief to which we yield authority over our rational mind. The human species must eventually outgrow its adolescent stage where such juvenile dependence has been the norm, and escape the apron-strings of our priestly nurse-maids who resist our maturation.
I write from Oslo, Norway, on the day after the "terror" bombing of the national government complex, which rattled the windows of our apartment a mile from the explosion, and the cold-blooded massacre of several dozen young people at the Labor Party's summer youth camp nearby, all carried out by a Norwegian so-called "right-wing" extremist who bragged about his readiness to act on his beliefs.

As has been reported, the perpetrator's Twitter page carried a single message, quoted from John Stuart Mill and posted the day before his outrages: "One person with a belief is equal to the force of 100,000 who have only interests." Mill was unquestionably right. Human history is in fact usually written as the history of exactly such men – and occasionally women. Jesus, Mohammad, Jeanne d'Arc, Napoleon, Lenin, Hitler, Mao, etc. are examples of the many "great" historical figures who drew followers by the thousands and millions through the strength and charisma of their beliefs. Something in the human psyche tells us to believe in one who expresses an unshakeable belief in ... something.

Why is this? Is a person with a burning belief in his ideas more likely to hold better, truer, or more useful ideas than others who are less certain, more flexible, more open to nuance and debate? No, that's clearly not so, because equally fanatical true believers will be found on opposite sides of nearly every question of ideas. I think part of an answer is that human beings, who are at a loss for answers to the "great questions" that only humans can ask, are eager for someone who looks like he (or she) knows, and who says convincingly that he knows. Thus we have priests, religious zealots, and populist politicians, folks who are willing to lead us because "they know the way." It may seem juvenile, this need for a substitute mommy or daddy to hold our hand, but the need is clearly there nonetheless, and the charlatans know how to take advantage of it. I'm reminded of a text by the 19th century American poet and novelist, Stephen Crane:

I stood musing in a black world,
Not knowing where to direct my feet.
And I saw the quick stream of men
Pouring ceaselessly,
Filled with eager faces,
A torrent of desire.
I called to them,
"Where do you go? what do you see?"
A thousand voices called to me.
A thousand fingers pointed.
"Look! look! There!"

I know not of it.
But, lo! in the far sky shone a radiance
Ineffable, divine –
A vision painted upon a pall;
And sometimes it was,
And sometimes it was not.
I hesitated.
Then from the stream
Came roaring voices,
"Look! look! There!"

So again I saw,
And leaped, unhesitant,
And struggled and fumed
With outspread clutching fingers.
The hard hills tore at my flesh;
The ways bit my feet.

At last I looked again,
No radiance in the far sky,
Ineffable, divine;
No vision painted upon a pall;
And always my eyes ached for the light.
Then I cried in despair,
"I see nothing! Oh, where do I go?"
The torrent turned again its faces:
"Look! look! There!"

And at the blindness of my spirit
They screamed,
"Fool! fool! fool!"

This eagerness of many to place their faith in self-proclaimed (or church-proclaimed) gurus has led to disaster more often than not. We need only think about those moralizing masters of deceit, the Roman Catholic Church, whose apparently world-wide sexual abuse of small boys must have gone on – well-known to the hierarchy and the Pope – for a thousand years or more, and made the Catholic Church into the world's largest organized crime family. Countless additional millions have suffered – and continue to suffer – horrible lives and deaths following a variety of religious or political charlatans, all to no worthwhile purpose whatever.

Like the Oslo and Oklahoma City bombers, and the many islamist bombers of recent years, those who give themselves over to unquestioning belief in a concept, be it secular or religious, put their ability to think clearly, fully, and freely on the shelf. Our priests, mullahs, evangelists, and partisan politicians proclaim the message that their way is the true way, and they exhort the masses to follow their true way and abandon contrarian thought. This is the beginning of terrorism. Among those who accept such mind-constricting invitations to believe in the one true way, there will invariably be a number who, reasoning logically from the given truth, determine that the worth of their truth exceeds all else, even human lives, however many. In this, all killers-for-a-cause agree. It is this: – the perfectly logical reasoning from "truth" to its reductio ad absurdum that nothing matters but the goal; "the end justifies the means" – that constitutes extremism and leads naturally to terrorism. It doesn't much matter whether the extremist is "right-wing," "left-wing," or religious. The ultimate thought process is the same. It activated the Oslo bomber and Osama bin Laden. It led to the horrors that Hitler, Napoleon, Stalin, and a long line of bloodthirsty popes visited on civilization. It can and does crop up in every doctrine that claims to have found truth, and it is civilization's greatest enemy.

(In the U.S. presidential election of 1964, the conservative senator Barry Goldwater famously proclaimed, "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!" Although the senator's meaning was fairly benign: that one should be prepared to defend one's liberty to the end – he was certainly not advocating bombing those with whose politics or religion one disagreed – his immoderate choice of words has made his phrase an inspiration for extremists to this day.)

Unfortunately, as long as we have religious, political, or other leaders who have found "truth," and who urge others to set aside their free minds and join them in their narrow and chauvinistic belief-based world-views, extremists will continue to be generated. The eventual solution to this problem must be, on the one hand, to open the minds of the leaders of such one-track belief systems: for religious leaders to acknowledge that they know nothing of God, but are merely advising their flock on how to best live their earthly lives, and for political leaders to admit the obvious fact that their party is not all-wise, but that the way to a satisfactory political future must include genuine openness to opinions of every stripe. On the other hand, we can only move forward from the doctrinaire blindness that has afflicted the human species for thousands of years if we also instruct our children to value the abilities of their own mind, and to shun the thought-choking charlatans who promise a heaven, whether on Earth or elsewhere.

This is not a utopian prescription, but a natural outgrowth of the developing western liberal democratic ideas of the past few hundred years. The thought-chokers, though they are still hanging on, are losing influence. Fewer people care about the opinions of old men in Rome, and state leaders are not revered as deity. The islamic world is in a revolution in which the old theocracies will eventually fall, as citizens insist on their own ability to assess their needs and to interpret for themselves their traditional mythologies.

Our species is still far from its maturity. In 1889, Edward Carpenter in Civilization: Its Causes and Cure saw civilization as a disease that humanity needed to get past. I prefer to see our recent few thousand years, with their superstitions, absolutism, slaughters, and other self-destructive idiocies, as our species' long adolescence, which we urgently need to grow out of. No one can describe what an eventual mature human species will be like, but it will certainly have an understanding of its place as one among the millions of species in the integrated Earth community, where our task is to make responsible choices consistent with our place in that community. And claims of absolute truth will be laughed at, as they should be.

I'll give Stephen Crane the last word:

"Think as I think," said a man,
"Or you are abominably wicked;
You are a toad."

And after I had thought of it,
I said: "I will, then, be a toad."

(For more of Crane's greatest short poems, check my site at

© 2011 H. Paul Lillebo

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