Carroll Quigley’s Book Review: “Scientific Criticism” in the Heyday of the Blank Slate

The importance of self-understanding seems self-evident.  Our species is quite capable of committing suicide.  If we can learn why it is we tend to behave in some ways and not in others, our chances of avoiding that fate will be much improved.  That’s why it’s a matter of no small concern that the behavioral sciences were hijacked over a period of several decades by ideological zealots, who succeeded in imposing the false orthodoxy that human nature doesn’t matter; the so-called Blank Slate.  In spite of the obvious significance of these events, very little effort has been devoted to understanding why and how they happened, and how they might be prevented from happening again.  I can think of nothing more important for the behavioral sciences to study and understand than the reasons for their own ideologically induced collapse.  So far, however, very little is happening along those lines.  Anthropologists, psychologists, and sociologists are cheerfully churning out books and papers about evolved human nature as if the whole episode never happened, in spite of the fact that much of it took place within living memory.

In fact, the manner in which the false orthodoxy was imposed had nothing to do with science.  It was accomplished by people who were, for all practical purposes, religious zealots, using the time-tested methods that have always been used to impose orthodoxy; vilification, psychological terrorism, ad hominem attacks, and self-righteous posing.  The only difference between the zealots of the Blank Slate and more traditional religious fanatics was the secular rather than spiritual nature of the gods they served.

I recently ran across an interesting example of genre fossilized on the Internet.  It took the form of an attack on Robert Ardrey, bête noir of the Blank Slaters of his day, and the most effective and influential opponent they ever had to deal with.  It was couched in the form of a book review written by one Carroll Quigley, a professor of history at Georgetown.  The work in question was Ardrey’s The Social Contract, and all the usual gambits are there; the assumption of superior scientific gravitas, the dismissal of opponents as “pop psychologists,” the copious invention of strawmen, topped off with moralistic posing and denunciations of the “sins” of the unbelievers.

Quigley begins with his version of the “pop psychology” canard:

…in this book there is no more science than there is in a comic strip.  As an entertainer, Ardrey is the Scheherazade of the present day, telling tales about strange animals, in far off places and in remote times, with every assurance that they are true, but, like the Arabian Nights, it is foolish to worry about how true they are, they are so unbelievable and so glib.

That would have been news to the people whose work Ardrey quoted.  They were usually chosen from among the most well-known and respected researchers of their day, who described the behavior of animals that, far from being far off or remote, were often quite common.  Geoffrey Gorer, himself a Blank Slater, but one who managed to preserve some semblance of common decency, observed that,

Almost without question, Robert Ardrey is today the most influential writer in English dealing with the innate or instinctive attributes of human nature, and the most skilled populariser of the findings of paleo-anthropologists, ethologists, and biological experimenters… He is a skilled writer, with a lively command of English prose, a pretty turn of wit, and a dramatist’s skill in exposition; he is also a good reporter, with the reporter’s eye for the significant detail, the striking visual impression. He has taken a look at nearly all the current work in Africa of paleo-anthropologists and ethologists; time and again, a couple of his paragraphs can make vivid a site, such as the Olduvai Gorge, which has been merely a name in a hundred articles.

…he does not distort his authorities beyond what is inevitable in any selection and condensation… even those familiar with most of the literature are likely to find descriptions of research they had hitherto ignored, particularly in The Territorial Imperative, with its bibliography of 245 items.

It’s not clear why Quigley thought he was qualified to lecture Ardrey on animal behavior in the first place.  He certainly had no claim to expertise in the field.  However, he so distorted what Ardrey had to say on the subject that his expertise was irrelevant in any case.  For example, he writes,

It is true that Ardrey has read a great deal about animal behavior, but he never seems to grasp what it all means, and his biases prevent him from seeing what is really there. For example, he gives the impression that he is constantly exploring Africa, watching lions with George Schaller, or chatting with the world’s greatest experts about elephants. He tells us that he “made a general survey of predatory communities” in Africa in 1968, but his ignorance of lions is so great that he misunderstands most of what he sees, reads, or is told. For example, one afternoon, Ardrey and his wife roused a lioness “a few hundred yards” from a herd of browsing impala. Two of the impala came over to see the lioness as it sought another sleeping place, while the others “never for a moment stopped eating.” Ardrey was amazed at this, but decided that he could not say that the impala were “suicidal” since the lioness was so sleepy. Then he adds, “Nevertheless, one can state in very nearly mathematical terms the survival value of approaching or fleeing the presence of a lion of unknown antagonism if you are an impala.”

This is typical of the ponderous way Ardrey covers his ignorance. Despite his claims of intimacy with Schaller, who studied lions in Africa over three years, 1966-1969, Ardrey apparently does not know that killing by a lion (1) is not motivated by “antagonism”; (2) almost never takes place in the middle of the day; (3) is never directed at an animal which is looking at the lion; and (4) the attack never is made from a distance of over 40 to 50 yards. Ardrey will find these rules stated by R. D. Estes in Natural History for February and March 1967 or by Schaller in National Geographic for April 1969. The latter says, “The lion must stalk to within a few feet of a potential victim before its rush has much chance of success. Prey animals are fully aware of the lion’s limitations. They have learned how near to a lion they may wander without danger of attack—usually to within about 120 feet. This leads to ludicrous situations . . . A visible lion is a safe lion.” Need I add that Ardrey’s “suicidal” impala were about 500 feet from danger.

To see that this critique is not only preposterous but a deliberate and malicious distortion of what Ardrey actually said, one need only read the passage in question.  I found it on page 76 of my hard cover copy of The Social Contract, and it can be seen by clicking on the “Order and Disorder” chapter and scrolling down at the above link to book.  It is worth quoting in full:

One afternoon we passed an all-male herd of twenty or twenty-five browsing impala, then a few hundred yards away came on a lioness sleeping under a tree.  Approaching her too closely, we disturbed her.  She rose, and for the first time was observed by the impala.  We could hear the instant far off snort.  Now the lioness moved away at deliberate pace toward another tree and another spot of shade.  Immediately two impala detached themselves from their fellows and came running after her, sending back to the party repeated warning snorts.  When she settled herself again, the two still lingered, watching tensely, giving their occasional snorts.  Not until she had most evidently gone back to sleep did they trot away to rejoin their fellows, who never for a moment had stopped eating.

One cannot say that the two impala had accepted risks of a suicidal nature by following a lioness as sleepy as this one.  Nevertheless, one can state in very nearly mathematical terms the survival value of approaching or fleeing the presence of a lion of unknown antagonism if you are an impala.

The observant reader will notice that Ardrey never expressed “amazement,” did not take the possibility seriously that the impala were “suicidal,” obviously had no intent of using the term “antagonism” as a scientifically rigorous description of lion behavior, and nowhere stated the minimum distance between the impala and the lion was either 500 feet or any other distance. He is merely using a personal anecdote to illustrate a point, and nowhere makes any claims, express or implied, about the feeding behavior of lions that would in any way justify Quigley’s gratuitous blather on the subject.

A familiar tactic of the old Blank Slaters was the blowing of smokescreens with scientific jargon.  For example, they furiously pounced on anyone who used the term “instinct” in connection with human beings.  “Instinct,” you see, was reserved for such programmed behavior as the building of nests by insects, and using to refer to open-ended predispositions became an inexcusable sin.  Nowadays, of course, “instinct” is back in fashion as a vernacular term, and no one seems particularly confused when it is applied to humans.  Here’s Quigley’s version of the smokescreen:

Moreover, this slovenly thinking, which ignores the distinction between animal societies and human societies, also ignores the distinction between social acts and biological actions.  Thus he says that “the social life” of a leopard is “limited to a few occasional hours of copulation;” copulation is biological, not social, just as parturition is.  The whole book is filled with his confusions of quite distinct things in this way.

I really doubt that anyone, except, perhaps, Quigley, was confused by Ardrey’s “unscientific” use of the term “social life” to describe copulation in leopards.  Fortunately, the physicists have not seen fit to go around correcting everyone who doesn’t use terms like “work,” “energy,” “power,” etc., as they are defined in the scientific jargon.  The substitution of jargon for the vernacular in this context would likely be similarly unhelpful.

Just as with the polemics exchanged between the iconoclasts and the iconodules, or the believers in Communion in both kinds with the believers in Communion in only one kind, such “reviews” usually conclude with the striking of moralistic poses and the raining down of anathemas on the object of the author’s ire.  Quigley’s was no exception.  Here is how “science” was enforced by the Blank Slaters:

Fundamentally, Ardrey is a racist, devoted to a belief in human inequality and unfreedom, an enemy of social “disorder” which must be suppressed by authority because man is a predatory, violent, aggressive creature, compelled by irresistible hereditary compulsion to war over territory.  These are fascist ideas, and, in this book, Ardrey is doing for America what Treitschke, H. S. Chamberlain, Alfred Rosenberg, and others did for Germany:  preparing an intellectual basis for fascist political action.

That Ardrey believed none of the things Quigley attributes to him in the above quote is a fact familiar to anyone who has actually read his books.  He was, in fact, a liberal of the far left who nearly became a Communist himself at one point, or at least he was until he became familiar with the real nature of “progressive” ideologues in the school of hard knocks.  None of this mattered to the “scientist” Quigley, who was intent on character assassination, not uncovering the truth.  Comically enough, this ringing tribute to freedom of thought appeared a few paragraphs after Quigley piously observed that Ardrey seemed to think that the truth was being suppressed by the scientific establishment, and that,

The reasons for this conspiracy are not stated, but it seems to be partly because the established don’t want these brilliant young researchers, whom Ardrey has found, to eclipse them and show them up for the old fuddy-duddies that they are. Partly also for more secret political reasons related to Ardrey’s idea that there is a profoundly unscientific liberal establishment which is based on a number of lies like equality, democracy, and freedom (!) which makes it necessary for them to want to suppress the scientists that Ardrey is reporting on.

Not the least interesting bit in Quigley’s opus is the manner in which he actually slips in the knife, the ideological shibboleth of the Blank Slate cloaked in the mantle of science, quite unobtrusively midway through the review:

Ardrey tries to tell us what man is like.  He insists that man is simply an animal (which implies that animals are simply men).  This is, of course, contrary to general scientific belief, which holds that man evolved from an animal when his survival shifted from dependence upon inherited behavior to dependence upon learned behavior.

This, of course, is the actual point of all the browbeating and histrionic posing.  Failing this “scientific fact” all the cherished utopias of the Blank Slaters collapse like a house of cards.  Indeed, the most prominent of them, Communism, collapsed quite spectacularly, exposing Quigley’s “general scientific belief” as one of history’s most successful and damaging hoaxes in the process.


A Papal Bull from Daily Kos: On Permissible and Impermissible Sciences

Practitioners of the behavioral sciences will be pleased to know that an official blessing has come down from on high announcing that believers in the existence of human nature are no longer to be considered fascists and racists.  Writing for Daily Kos, one Erasmussimo announced the long-expected change in orthodox dogma as follows:

In the 70s and 80s, a strict intolerance for the racist abuse of science mushroomed into something entirely different: an ideological rejection of the notion that genetics played any role in human behavior. This school of thought was so dominant that many scientists were frightened away from any research remotely related to such matters.

But you can’t deny reality.  As one scientist wrote, “Evolution didn’t stop at the neck.” Human mental evolution was strongly influenced by selection pressures, which manifested themselves in human behavior. Genetics really does influence behavior, but it took a while for scientists to re-assert that basic principle. Two scientists, Cosmides and Tooby, began an extremely rigorous program of experiments that demonstrated beyond question that there were oddities of human cognition that could not be explained by any environmental factors. They christened their field of research “evolutionary psychology”. For many years they attracted considerable opprobrium, but their research was flawless and now evolutionary psychology is a respected field of research.

Au contraire, my dear Erasmussimo!  The reality that “Evolution doesn’t stop at the neck,” was denied quite successfully by psychologists, anthropologists, and sociologists alike for a period of several decades, and was the prevailing orthodoxy, not only in the 70’s and 80’s, but in the 50’s and 60’s as well, in spite of that denial being palpably ludicrous to any reasonably intelligent 10 year old.  Indeed, our unfortunate Erasmussimo seems to have compounded his mistake by completely swallowing the Pinker “big bang” myth of evolutionary psychology, according to which the field sprang forth in all its glory from the mind of E. O. Wilson, like Athena from the forehead of Zeus, with the publication of Sociobiology in 1975.  For example,

The eminent scientist E.O.Wilson was the world’s leading authority on the behavior of ants when, in the 1970s, he proposed that evolutionary selection pressures acted on behavior as well as the body, leading to genetic factors in behavior. His work with ants demonstrated the basic concept beyond question, but when he extended his ideas to humans, he triggered a shitstorm of outrage, and was treated quite badly. Wilson’s work was impeccable, but because it was distantly analogous to the racist IQ claims, his ideas (which he termed “sociobiology”) were lumped together with that odious ideology.

As I’ve pointed out before, Pinker’s “big bang” fairy tale can be easily debunked by anyone who takes the trouble to read Man and Aggression, edited by Ashley Montagu, which appeared in 1968.  A manifesto of the Blank Slaters, the last I looked it was available on Amazon for a mere 46 cents.  It documents the fact that there were several thinkers who insisted on the existence of innate human nature long before Wilson, including Nobel Prize winner Konrad Lorenz, and that they also had the honor of being denounced as fascists and racists by the politically pure.  According to the testimony of the Blank Slaters themselves, however, by far the most prominent among them was not Lorenz but Robert Ardrey, a “mere playwright.”  That fact goes far to explain Pinker’s fabrication, which spares the sensitivities and gravitas of his academic tribe.  Read Ardrey’s books, along with those of Lorenz and several others who were challenging the prevailing orthodoxy during the 60’s, and it will become abundantly clear that, as far as the overriding theme of innate human nature is concerned, Sociobiology was anything but original.

Be that as it may, it’s still gratifying to know that the authors of the recent stream of books about innate human behavior are not under any immediate threat of falling under the interdict of the secular morality police.  Alas, we gather that not all fields of inquiry have been so fortunate from the title of Erasmussimo’s epistle:  Racism has a New Name:  HBD.  For the unitiated, the acronym HBD stands for Human BioDiversity, described by one of its practitioners as follows:

Human biodiversity is an acknowledgment that humans differ from each other in various ways because of our different genotypes. Differences include, but are not limited to, physical appearance, athletic ability, personality, and cognitive abilities.

Those who have sullied themselves by lusting after such forbidden knowledge need not complain that they were unaware that they were inviting excommunication.  The anathema from Kos was preceded by numerous rumblings from lesser lights among the secular clergy.  See for example, The Perversity of Human Biodiversity, a.k.a. “Scientific” Racism, the Steve Sailer Sucks blog (Steve Sailer is an arch-wizard of HBD, who, BTW, had the effrontery to sass back), the archive for the Human Biodiversity (HBD) Category at the Unamusement Park, etc.  In spite of this, apparently not all of them are in immediate danger of secular hellfire.  Kos is merciful.  As Erasmussimo puts it,

However, riding on the coattails of this respectable (evolutionary psychology) work is the HBD movement, populated mostly by eager amateurs rather than professional scientists. The HBD movement covers a broad range of ideas, from the genuinely scientific to the nakedly racist. At the scientific end of the range we have people like HBD Chick, who aggregate lots of evidence on matters anthropological and genetic as they relate to human behavior. At the other extreme we have Steve Sailor (sic), a conservative who promulgates racist ideas.

And how are we to distinguish who in the HBD movement are dangling like spiders over the flaming pits of hell (to paraphrase Jonathan Edwards), as opposed to those who are granted a respite to get their minds right?  As Erasmussimo explains, by their fruit shall ye know them:

There’s an easy way to differentiate the scientific side of HBD from the racist side: fixation on IQ. These people love to wring the IQ data for every ounce of scientific justification they can find for their racism. They analyze IQ scores by race, religion, gender, national origin, and lots of other factors; I wouldn’t be surprised if one of them hasn’t calculated the correlation coefficient of IQ score with aversion to broccoli. They triumphantly trumpet the results that support their prejudices and quietly ignore results that undermine their prejudices, such as the finding that national IQ scores are correlated with GDP per capita.

Paradoxically, at least for those unschooled in the holy mysteries, Erasmussimo leaves open the hypothetical possibility that these racists may actually be right:

Finally, I caution the reader to subordinate personal preference for scientific objectivity in this question. I fervently believe that “All men are created equal”, but I am willing to entertain the hypothesis that some men are born with lesser cognitive talents than others. If solid evidence arises that blacks are cognitively less capable than whites, then I shall accept the hypothesis and move on to asking how we reconcile scientific conclusions with political theory. So far, however, the evidence I have seen is completely inadequate to support the hypothesis.

It may not appear immediately obvious how such evidence, in the wildly implausible event that it exists, is to be forthcoming given that anyone who dares to investigate the matter is to be automatically denounced as a racist.  However, it’s not that difficult to understand.  Voltaire explained it in Candide, where, alluding to the judicial murder of Admiral Byng by the English, he wrote, “There is no doubt of it; but in this country it is found good, from time to time, to kill one Admiral to encourage the others.”

Ancient Greek artwork depicting Evolutionary Psychology emerging fully formed from the head of E. O. Wilson.

Phys Rev Letters meets Homo ideologicus

According to Wikipedia, Physical Review Letters’ “focus is rapid dissemination of significant, or notable, results of fundamental research on all topics related to all fields of physics. This is accomplished by rapid publication of short reports, called ‘Letters'”. That’s what I always thought, so I was somewhat taken aback to find an article in last week’s issue entitled, “Encouraging Moderation: Clues from a Simple Model of Ideological Conflict.” Unfortunately, you can’t see the whole thing without a subscription, but here’s the abstract:

Some of the most pivotal moments in intellectual history occur when a new ideology sweeps through a society, supplanting an established system of beliefs in a rapid revolution of thought. Yet in many cases the new ideology is as extreme as the old. Why is it then that moderate positions so rarely prevail? Here, in the context of a simple model of opinion spreading, we test seven plausible strategies for deradicalizing a society and find that only one of them significantly expands the moderate subpopulation without risking its extinction in the process.

That’s physics?! Not according to any of the definitions in my ancient copy of Webster’s Dictionary.  Evidently some new ones have cropped up since it was published, and nobody bothered to inform me.  In any case, tossing in this kind of stuff doesn’t exactly enhance the integrity of the field.  If you don’t have access to the paper, I would not encourage you to visit your local university campus to have a look.  I doubt the effort would be worth it.

Where should I start?  In the first place, the authors simply assume that “moderate” is to be conflated with “good”, without bothering to offer a coherent definition of “moderate.”  In the context of U.S. politics, for example, the term is practically useless.  People with an ideological ax to grind tend to consider themselves “moderate,” and their opponents “extreme.”  Conservatives refer to the mildest of their opponents as “extreme left wing,” and liberals refer to the most milque-toast of their opponents as “ultra right wing.”  Consider, for example, a post about the Muhammad film flap that just appeared on a website with the moniker, “The Moderate Voice.”  I don’t doubt that it might be termed “moderate” in the academic milieu from which papers such as the one we are discussing usually emanate, but it wouldn’t pass the smell test as such among mainstream conservatives, and has already been dismissed in those quarters as the fumings of the raving extremist hacks of the left.  Back in the 30’s, it was a commonplace and decidedly “moderate” opinion among the authors who contributed articles to The New Republic, the American Mercury, the Atlantic, and the other prestigious intellectual journals of the day was that capitalism was breathing its last, and should be replaced with a socialist system of one stripe or another as soon as possible.  Obviously, what passes as “moderate” isn’t constant, even over relatively short times.  Is the Tea Party Movement moderate?  Certainly not as far as most university professors are concerned, but decidedly so among mainstream conservatives.

According to the authors, the types of ideological swings they refer to occur in science as well as politics.  One wonders what “moderation” would look like in such cases.  Perhaps the textbooks would inform us that only half the species on earth evolved, and God created the rest, or that, while oxygen is necessary to keep a fire burning, phlogiston is necessary to start one, or that only the most visible stars are imbedded in a crystal ball surrounding the earth known as the “firmament,” while the other half are actually many light years away.

Undeterred by such considerations, the authors created a simple mathematical model that is supposed to reflect the dynamics of ideological change.  Just as the economic models are all infallible for predicting the behavior of Homo economicus, it is similarly effective at predicting the behavior of what one might call Homo ideologicus.  As for Homo sapiens, not so much.  There is no attempt whatsoever to incorporate even the most elementary aspects of human nature in the model.  It is inhabited by “speakers” and “listeners,” who are identified as either AB, the inhabitants of the moderate middle ground, or A and B, the extemists on either side of it.  For good measure, there is also an Ac, inhabited by “committed” and intransigent followers of A.  The subpopulations in these groups are, in turn, labeled nA, nB, nAB, and p.  Only moderate listeners can be converted to one of the extremes, and vice versa, although we are reliably informed that, for example, the Nazis found some of their most fertile recruiting grounds among the Communists at the opposite extreme, and certainly not just among German moderates.  With the assumptions noted above, and setting aside trivialities such as units of measure, the authors come up with “dynamic equations” such as,

nA = (p + nA)nAB – nAnB
nB = nBnAB – (p + nA)n

There are variations, complete with parameters to account for “stubbornness” and “evangelism.”  There are any number of counterintuitive assumptions implicit in the models, such as that all speakers are equally effective at convincing others to change sides, opinions about given issues are held independently of opinions about other issues, although this is almost never the case among people who care about the issues one way or the other, that a metric for deciding what is the moderate “good” and what the extreme “evil” will always be available to the philosopher kings who apply the models, etc.  The models were tested on “real social networks,” and (surprise, surprise) the curves derived from a judicious choice of nA, nB, etc., were in nice agreement with predictions.

According to the authors,

Since we present no formal evidence that the dynamics of (the equations noted above) do actually occur in practice, our work could alternatively be viewed as posing this model and its subsequent generalizations as interesting in their own right.

While I heartily concur with the first part of the sentence, I suggest that the model and its subsequent generalizations might be of more enduring interest to sociologists than physicists.  Perhaps the editors of Phys Rev Letters and their reviewers will consider that possibility the next time a similar paper is submitted, and kindly direct the authors to a more appropriate journal.

Academic Experts on Evil: Essays on the Merits of the Emperor’s New Clothes

In an article entitled “Are Modern Professors Experts on Good and Evil” on the website of the National Association of Scholars, author Bruce Davison writes,

Nowadays the professoriate in many parts of the world is very free with its moral judgments, condemning or applauding various nations, groups, and individuals.  This phenomenon prompts a query about whether academics really have any special insight into the nature of good and evil.

One can formulate an answer to this query in one word:  No!  It is impossible to have any special insight regarding objects that don’t exist.  Davison’s query was prompted by what he heard and saw at the most recent of a series of global conferences on “Perpectives on Evil and Human Wickedness” that have been held annually since 2000.  In glancing through the titles of the papers presented at these conferences, one finds the usual fare; one on the evil of “rogue capitalism,” one on the evil of land mines, several on the evil of Nazism, a smattering of others on the evil of ethnic cleansing, a great many on the various evils perpetrated by Republican administrations in the United States, and so on.  In other words, there’s a lot of stuff on things that “modern professors” generally agree are evil, but, predictably, almost nothing on why they are evil.  The implicit assumptions at such soirees are always that there is such a thing as objective evil, and that the attendees know what it is.  These things must be assumed, because, lacking any basis in reality, they cannot be demonstrated.  Evil is perceived as an object because of subjective processes that take place in the brains of individual human beings.  However, it does not actually exist as an object.  Discussions of the various categories of evil are no more rational than discussions of the various categories of unicorns.

Mr. Davidson takes issue, not with the “modern professors'” assertion that evil exists as a thing in itself, but with their assertions regarding the nature of the thing.  For example, he notes,.

To begin with, I was struck by the conference call for papers on the Internet. It listed people commonly regarded as evil, including Torquemada, Hitler, Ivan the Terrible, Genghis Khan, and…Ronald Reagan. Of course, who can forget Ronald Reagan and his Republican hordes sweeping down from the steppes, leaving nothing but devastation in their wake? Few figures from recent history evoke such terror and loathing—at least, among leftist academics.

In other words, he does not dispute the existence of evil as an object.  Rather he disputes the degree to which Ronald Reagan is associated with that object in comparison with such distinguished historical figures as Hitler and Genghis Khan.  In his opinion, the academics are merely looking in the wrong place for the evil object:

In short, faddish ideological conformity blinds many modern scholars to the obvious and trivializes their treatment of weighty moral issues. Though few at the conference dealt with them, traditional religious teachings often have had more insight into the incorrigible, profound depths of human evil. In contrast, most of the modern professoriate has little other than the feeble tools of psychotherapy and politically correct moralism to work with. As a result, the current academic world has in many ways become an enabler of human evil.

I must admit that I do find the rationale of religious teachings for believing in evil as a thing in itself (do it, or you’ll fry in hell for quintillions of years just for starters), rather more coherent than that of the academics (eat shit; 50 billion flies can’t be wrong).  However, that is merely to compare failures.  Neither argument establishes a basis for the existence of evil as a thing independent of the subjective judgments of individuals, and neither establishes a basis for the legitimacy of applying those judgments to others.

As a consequence, I find the ravings of the pathologically pious from either camp about the evil of this, that, and the other thing, very tiresome.  There is, after all, no rational basis for declamations on the merits of the different breeds of unicorns.  I freely admit that, as Jonathan Haidt points out, self-righteousness is as natural to human beings as spots to a leopard.  I even admit that I occasionally have a marked tendency to be just as self-righteous as all the rest.  That doesn’t mean I have to like it.

There are Atheists, and then there are Atheists

As an atheist, I tend to be annoyed by prominent public moralistic posing by other atheists. A particularly egregious example thereof were the billboards recently put up around Charlotte, NC mocking Obama’s Christianity and Romney’s Mormonism ahead of the Democratic and Republican Party conventions.  Aside from the fact that “atheist moralist” is an oxymoron, they don’t even seem to serve any utilitarian purpose, such as promoting public acceptance of atheists, or inspiring people to actually reason about their religious beliefs.  Rather, they are the human equivalent of a troop of atheist howler monkeys rushing to the boundaries of their territory and loudly berating the religious howler monkeys on the other side.  All these people, who refer to themselves as American Atheists, really accomplish with such antics is to reinforce the ideological barriers between their ingroup and the ingroups of their religious opponents.












I should probably use the term “spiritual religious opponents” in place of “religious opponents.”  I suspect most of these atheists are just as religious as the Mormons and Christians they scorn.  Their religion just happens to be secular, with a secular God replacing the spiritual one, but otherwise entirely equivalent to the traditional variety.  The distinction between spiritual and secular religions is entirely artificial.  I strongly doubt that there is any innate wiring in the human brain that somehow distinguishes between the two.  Public atheists do tend to be strongly religious in that way.  I would just prefer that they don’t drag me into their ingroup by implying that, because I, too, am an American atheist, I am also one of them.

Other than being annoying, these billboards are also absurd.  As I pointed out earlier, “atheist moralist” is an oxymoron.  As the proponents of spiritual religions, who never seem to realize they are in the same boat, are fond of pointing out, atheists have no legitimate objective basis for claiming one thing is Good and another Evil whatsoever.  And yet these billboards make just such a claim.  Moral anathemas are hurled down on the Mormons because they are “bigots,” and on the Christians because they “promote hate.”  As Jonathan Haidt has pointed out in his The Righteous Mind, such self-righteous moral judgments are entirely typical of our species.  They are also rationally insupportable.  These atheists are trying to fly without even bothering to don the imaginary spiritual wings of the Christians and Mormons they condemn.

I note in passing that I’m not the only atheist outlier.  For example, while most of the other atheists I know tend to gravitate to the left of the political spectrum, there are conservative atheists as well, and they even have blogs.  The “American Atheists” might want to note in passing the next time they get the itch to launch a billboard campaign that they don’t represent all American atheists.  Meanwhile, no doubt to the relief of right-thinking atheists everywhere, the old ones have been taken down.

Sex and War by Potts and Hayden: The Amity/Enmity Complex Revisited

Sex and War by Malcolm Potts and Thomas Hayden is the icon of a paradigm shift. Perhaps better than any other recent work, it marks academia’s final abandonment of the Blank Slate, final tossing away of ideological blinders, final acceptance of the abundantly obvious fact that we are predisposed to act in some ways but not in others by our genes, acceptance of the equally obvious fact that these predispositions are not all rosy and benign, but have been a major contributing factor to our species’ long history of warfare and violence, and recognition, at long last, that there are such things and ingroups and outgroups, and our behavior towards individuals is profoundly different, depending on whether they appear to us to belong to the one or the other. In the author’s words,

We suggest that the predisposition to form aggressive coalitions is so deep-seated within us that all humanity is compelled to live by two profoundly contradictory moral systems. We have the morals of the troop, expressed by “Thou shalt not kill,” and the morals of the aggressive male coalition, also explicitly spelled out in the Old Testament, “And when the Lord they God has delivered (a city) into thine hands, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword… Whether we want to or not, we all distinguish between our ingroup and various outgroups.

This pretentious “suggestion,” of course, amounts to nothing more than a belated acceptance by the authors that writers who said the same thing decades ago were right after all. For example, from Sir Arthur Keith, writing in the 1930’s,

Human nature has a dual constitution; to hate as well as to love are parts of it; and conscience may enforce hate as a duty just as it enforces the duty of love. Conscience has a two-fold role in the soldier: it is his duty to save and protect his own people and equally his duty to destroy their enemies… Thus conscience serves both codes of group behavior; it gives sanction to practices of the code of enmity as well as the code of amity.

Somewhat later, Robert Ardrey wrote about the same behavioral traits a great deal more clearly, in a much pleasanter style, and with a much better grasp of their implications for the future of our species. He referred to them as the Amity/Enmity Complex, and devoted a chapter with that title to the subject in The Territorial Imperative. Of course, Ardrey was a mere playwright who, lacking the academic gravitas of such worthies as Potts and Hayden, “rose above his station” in insisting on such a palpably obvious aspect of our nature at a time when the orthodox in anthropology were still bedazzled by the Blank Slate. As readers of this blog are aware, his reward for such pretentiousness has been the gross distortion of his legacy and consignment to oblivion. And as for Keith, comically enough, the authors actually do mention him, but in a context that has nothing to do with his writings on ingroup/outgroup behavior. Apparently they were loath to be upstaged. But I digress.

Actually, one should cheer on reading a book like this. It represents the victory of an obvious truth over the quasi-religious dogmas posing as “science” that prevailed for decades in the behavioral sciences, according to which human nature was either nonexistent or insignificant. Alas, I could only sigh. It’s a bittersweet book for anyone who’s actually been paying attention to what’s been happening in the field now referred to as evolutionary psychology for the last 50 years. Fifteen years ago, Potts and Hayden would have been almost universally vilified as fascists and demons of the right for publishing such a book, just as Ardrey, Konrad Lorenz and E.O. Wilson were in their day. Now, instead of chanting “four legs good, two legs bad,” the academic sheep are chanting “four legs good, two legs better,” just like in Orwell’s Animal Farm. Ironically, Potts and Hayden belong to the very milieu of the academic left that would have been foremost in hurling down righteous anathemas on their heads 15 years ago. Apparently all unawares, they still live in the ideological box of that most obscurantist and dogmatic of ingroups. It’s delicious, really. They give a perfect description their own ingroup in the book without even realizing it.

Allow me to illustrate with a few quotations from the book. Of course, every good ingroup must have its outgroup or, in the vernacular, bad guys. For Potts and Hayden, these are the usual stock villains of the academic left; conservative Republicans, Israel, evangelical Christians, evil white people against pure and innocent Indians, etc. For example,

On May 26, 1637, during the war with the Pequot Indians in New England Connecticut Colony, a Puritan army commanded by John Mason surrounded a small wooden fort in which “six or seven hundred” Pequot Indians were sheltering. Mason ordered the wooden palisade surrounding the fort set on fire. Only seven Indians escaped alive.

This bit of “history,” in all likelihood unbeknownst to Professors Potts and Hayden, is such a vicious and outrageous lie that it’s worth addressing it at length. From a work entitled “History of the Indian Wars,” published in 1846 by Henry Trumble, who was anything but an inveterate hater of Indians, we read,

In June, 1634, they (the Pequots) treacherously murdered Capt. Stone and Capt. Norton, who had been long in the habit of visiting them occasionally to trade. In August, 1635, they inhumanly murdered a Mr. Weeks and his whole family, consisting of a wife and six children, and soon after murdered the wife and children of a Mr. Williams, residing near Hartford.

In spite of many such outrages, the colonists signed a treaty of peace with the Pequots. Trumbull continues,

Soon after the conclusion of peace with the Pequots, the English, to put their fair promises to the test, sent a small boat into the river, on the borders of which they resided, with the pretence of trade; but so great was the treachery of the natives, that, after succeeding by fair promises in enticing the crew of the boat on shore, they were inhumanly murdered… A few families were at this time settled at or near Weathersfield, Ct. the whole of whom were carried away captives. Two girls, daughters of Mr. Gibbons of Hartford, were in the most brutal manner put to death. After gashing their flesh with their knives, the Indians filled their wounds with hot embers, in the mean time mimicking their dying groans.

The colonists had no illusion about their fate if they were defeated by the Pequots. As it was they could hardly hunt or cultivate their fields and were in danger of starvation. If they suffered a serious defeat they and their families would likely be butchered. The “army” Potts and Hayden referred to consisted of less than 100 men, the entire effective fighting force of the Connecticut colony. It was accompanied by several hundred Indian allies who, at the moment of crisis, stayed in the rear and watched as noncombatants. It did not surround the Pequot palisade and coolly set it on fire, an act that would have been impossible with such a tiny band facing an effective force of several hundred Indian warriors inside. Here is how Trumbull describes the action:

When within a few rods of (the palisade), Capt. Mason sent for Uncas and Wequash (leaders of the Indian allies), desiring them in their Indian manner to harangue and prepare their men for combat. They replied, that their men were much afraid, and could not be prevailed on to advance any farther. “Go then,” said Capt. Mason, “and request them not to retire, but to surround the fort at any distance they please, and see what courage Englishmen can display!” They day was now dawning, and no time was to be lost. The fort was soon in view. The soldiers pressed forward, animated by the reflection that it was not for themselves alone that they were to fight, but for their parents, wives, children, and countrymen! As they approached the fort within a short distance, they were discovered by a Pequot sentinel, who roared out, Owanux! Owanux! (Englishmen, Englishmen.) The troops pressed on, and as the Indians were rallying, poured in upon them the contents of their muskets, and instantly hastened to the principal entrance to the fort, rushed in, sword in hand. An important moment, this; for, notwithstanding the blaze and thunder of the fire-arms, the Pequots made a powerful resistance. Sheltered by their wigwams, and rallied by their sachems and squaws, they defended themselves, and, in some instances, attacked the English with a resolution that would have done honor to the Romans. After a bloody and desperate conflict of near two hours, in which hundreds of the Indians were slain, and many of the English killed and wounded, victory still hung in suspense. In this critical state of the action, Capt. Mason had recourse to a successful expedient. Rushing into a wigwam within the fort, he seized a brand of fire, and in the mean time crying out to his men, “We must burn them!” communicated it to the mats with which the wigwams were covered, by which means the whole fort was soon wrapt in flames. As the fire increased, the English retired and formed a circle around the fort. The Mohegans and Narragansets, who remained idle spectators to the bloody carnage, mustered courage sufficient to form another circle in the rear of them. The enemy were now in a deplorable situation. Death inevitably was their portion. Sallying forth from their burning cells, they were shot or cut in pieces by the English; many, perceiving it impossible to escape the vigilance of the troops, threw themselves into the flames.

So much for Potts’ and Hayden’s tall tale about the “army” that coolly burned the inoffensive Indians in cold blood. The little band of 90 men knew that if they failed on that day, nothing would protect their wives and children from the Pequots who had demonstrated their ruthlessness on many previous occasions. If the authors or anyone else know of any source material disputing Trumbull’s account, I hereby challenge them to bring it forward.

Forgive me for going on at such length, but I get really tired of the “noble savage” schtick. Moving right along to Israel and the Republicans, we find them, too, consigned to the outer darkness reserved for outgroups, far from the enlightened halls of the wise, the good, and the just inhabited by the author’s academic ingroup:

We cannot remind ourselves too often of the ubiquitous nature of our Stone Age behaviors. On the same day in 2006, President Bush announced he would veto a Senate Bill loosening restrictions on stem cell research and permit the export of bombs to Israel to use it its war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, where collateral killing of civilians was certain. When I was a laboratory researcher, I needed a powerful microscope to even see a bunch of stem cells, and personally I would have been much less troubled by flushing stems cells down the sink than dropping a bomb on a house full of women and children. Yet our ingrained ability to dehumanize others is so strong, and our ability to “justify” war so facile, that intelligent and well-intentioned people spend more time worrying about embryos than children or adults – provided of course that those children and adults live somewhere else and are not part of out ingroup.

And so the good professors self-identify their own ingroup. I need hardly mention there’s another side to this story. Anyone worthy of the name of “scientist” should have been aware of the fact and mentioned it, whether they personally agree with it or not. Instead, Potts and Hayden are content to merely condemn their Republican and Israeli outgroups for “Stone Age behavior.” Here’s another example of “Stone Age behavior” that, coincidentally enough, once again relates to two other iconic “bad guys” of the ideological left, evangelical Christians and the military:

Michael Drosnin, who wrote The Bible Code, implying extraterrestrial forces embedded a secret code in the Bible only modern computers can unravel, was invited to brief “top military intelligence officials” in the Pentagon following 9/11. Whatever the original evolutionary benefit of blind faith in such patently ridiculous explanations of the world may have been, its application to modern international relations is clearly and wildly maladaptive.

This version of the Drosnin affair is more or less an urban myth, but it fits the narrative, so Potts and Hayden simply swallowed it, apparently without even bothering to do a little fact checking on Google. Apparently they found their version in the New York Times, which should have been an obvious tipoff as to its ideological provenance, but no doubt the Grey Lady is the soul of objectivity as far as the authors are concerned. The evangelical Christian outgroup comes in for a good deal more abuse, counter-intuitively, it would seem, as Muslims have been responsible for most of the deliberate religiously motivated mayhem against civilians. Remember, though, that we are in the realm of ideological narrative, not facts. For example, referring to the latest Gulf war,

Blair did not wear religion on his sleeve while in office, but Bush paraded his faith enthusiastically. His religious outlook resonated with many American fundamentalist Christians, whose contrived interpretations of the rambling Book of Revelation have sinister implications for war and violence. In one strain, a belief has emerged that the Temple of Solomon has to be rebuilt in Jerusalem in order for the Second Coming to take place – and that “keeping” Jerusalem Jewish is a necessary step on the way. Beyond being poor theology, this interpretation encourages foolish military action in order to hasten the coming of the end times, but still finds a receptive audience in the United States.

It struck me that this yarn about the sinister Christians lurking behind every bush in the United States had an unmistakable British ring to it, and, sure enough, Potts originally came from merry old England. If you’re interested in “comparative religion,” read Sex and War alongside Richard Dawkins The God Delusion, which is larded with lots of similar horror stories about the “American Taliban.” I think you’ll find the tone of the two books remarkably similar. As an American atheist, it seems to me our cousins from the old country have a marked tendency to lay it on a bit too thick when it comes to American Christian fundamentalism.

In short, what we have here is a chimera, a couple of professors who come from the same milieu from which the fiercest Blank Slaters used to emanate writing about ingroups and outgroups as if they were devoted disciples of Robert Ardrey, all ensconced in a thick, hoary crust of ante-deluvian leftist ideological shibboleths. One of the more interesting aspects of the book has to do with the relevance of its theme to moral behavior. Intellectually, the authors know, or at least pay lip service to the fact that there is no such thing as an objective, transcendental morality. For example,

Most people, however, still think of moral sentiments and religious convictions as transcendental things that come from outside of us, either reflecting some eternal truth, emanating from a supernatural power, or as instructions from a God who created us and who will reward or punish us according to how we restrain aggression or enhance empathy. History shows that this understanding of morality has not worked terribly well as a means to ending war. Our survival as a species will not depend on divine intervention but on understanding our Stone Age behaviors. Once we do that, controlling them should become an achievable goal.

And yet they simply cannot dispense with the cherished belief of all people who share the ideological box they dwell in that they represent the good, the true and the just, as opposed to members of the outgroups cited above who are slaves of the basest human behavioral predispositions. Of course, they cannot have a monopoly on truth and justice unless these things have an objective, transcendental existence of their own, so we have what Marx might have called a “contradiction.” As a result, a certain amount of doublethink is necessary. For example,

Before we look more closely at how we can rein in our warring impulses, we have first to understand the nature of what it is we are confronting. In English, we have one simple word that expresses it perfectly: evil.

In what sense does the term “evil” have any meaning if it has no objective existence? In fact the authors make it quite clear that, in their heart of hearts, they perceive morality as an objective thing-in-itself. It is not a product of evolution, but an entity having an independent existence of its own, often in conflict with evolution. For example,

…evolution is not only remorselessly amoral: it is also not nearly as efficient as we might like in pruning branches that come to bear toxic, destructive fruit.

Evolution doesn’t make morality obsolete, any more than being hungry excuses a violent mugging.


Remember that evolution cares not a whit for morality, it has provided human males at the bottom of the social pile ample reason to risk everything, including violent death, rather than live a passive, sexless life without passing on their genes.

Such statements are complete gibberish, absent morality as a thing-in-itself. Evolution may not “care” about morality, but morality does not have any existence whatsoever other than as a subjective subset of the human behavioral repertoire which is itself a product of evolution. It has no independent existence other than as an evolved behavioral trait. When you say that evolution does not make morality obsolete, my dear professors, pray tell me what morality you are talking about.  Well, we can excuse this particular instance of doublethink.  After all, without virtuous indignation and a smug feeling of moral superiority, life would hold little joy for the average ideologue of the left.  Apparently the realization that they had just sawed off the limb that they and their moral superiority were sitting on was a bit much for Professors Potts and Hayden to bear.

In any case, the two find grounds for optimism. As they inform us,

Now we are finding ways to extend ingroup morality beyond national boundaries to embrace all humanity.

How, exactly, they plan to do that after roundly denouncing that vast bloc of humanity unfortunate enough to have landed in one of the familiar outgroups of the left is beyond me. Do they plan to invite them all to the University of California at Berkeley for a seminar on anger management? Perhaps they will be good enough to let us know in their next book.

No matter. We, too, can be optimistic, dear reader, for while Sex and War may be a tedious ideological tract, it is also one more data point confirming that we have finally landed safely on the far side of a paradigm shift. It and many other works of its kind emanating from the hoariest and most obscurantist caverns of academia serve as announcements that, yes, the Blank Slate really is stone, cold dead. We have finally gained acknowledgement that such a thing as human nature really does exist, and that is no small thing.

The Rich Really are Evil! Science Proves It!

The stuff you find in academic and professional journals runs the gamut. Sometimes it’s good science and sometimes it’s bad science. Occasionally, it’s abject drivel. A piece of the latter just turned up in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, supposedly one of the nation’s elite scientific journals. Entitled Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior, it claims, among other things, that “Seven studies using experimental and naturalistic methods reveal that upper-class individuals behave more unethically than lower class individuals,” and “Mediator and moderator data demonstrated that upper-class individuals’ unethical tendencies are accounted for, in part, by their more favorable attitudes toward greed.”  Unfortunately, only the abstract is available online.  PNAS is hiding the rest behind their copyright fence, but you can “rent” the article for a nominal fee at Deepdyve.

The title of the article gives a broad hint about the quality of the rest of the piece.  It simply assumes the existence of something that doesn’t exist; an objective ethics.  The authors don’t refer to “our ethics,” or, as Marx might have put it, “proletarian ethics,” or “the ethics currently prevailing among professors at the University of California at Berkeley,” the source of the “studies.”  No, they simply make the bald assumption that Good and Evil exist as objective things.  Perhaps it will finally start to dawn on you, dear reader, why I am always harping about the nature of morality in this blog.  Among other things, understanding the distinction between subjective and objective “ethics” may prevent you from publicly making an ass of yourself in academic journals.

It is, of course, obvious that individuals of our species, like those of thousands of others, recognize differences in status, and that, in all these species, there are behavioral differences between high and low status individuals.  However, authors of articles documenting these differences in, for example, European jackdaws or hamadryas baboons, don’t commonly coach their readers to distinguish which of the animals are Good and which Evil.  Suppose, however, we ignore for the moment the author’s conflating of behavioral traits in Homo sapiens with their own subjective moral judgments, and consider the quality of the article aside from this rather glaring fault.

In one of the studies, the authors investigated whether upper-class drivers were more likely to cut off other vehicles at a busy four-way intersection with stop signs on all sides.  They began by making the rather dubious assumption that “upper-class drivers” are identical with those who drive nice cars.  To “prove” this assumption, they refer to a “pop sci” book entitled Luxury Fever: Why Money Fails to Satisfy In An Era of Excess, written by Robert Frank, a professor at Cornell whose subjective moral predispositions, if we can judge by the reviewer comments at the Amazon link, are entirely similar to their own.  “Observers” stood near the intersection, “coded the status of approaching vehicles, and recorded whether the driver cut off other vehicles by crossing the intersection before waiting their turn.”  To add weight to the claim that such behavior is “unethical,” they helpfully note that, such behavior “defies the California Vehicle Code.”  Sure enough, “A binary logistic regression indicated that upper-class drivers were the most likely to cut off other vehicles at the intersection, even when controlling for time of day, driver’s perceived sex and age, and amount of traffic, b = 0.36, SE b = 0.18, P < 0.05.”  I will not cavil at the fact that such observations were made.  After all, who would dare to doubt a binary logistic regression?  One can, however, question the bias of the observers.  What were their attitudes towards “high status individuals?”  Was any attempt made to determine whether they were more likely to conclude that nice cars had cut them off than clunkers in identical situations?  Do the authors give us any hint at all that they have ever heard of such a thing as a double blind procedure?  None of the above.

There are similar rather obvious faults in the rest of the seven studies.  One of them at least provides comic relief by measuring whether rich people are more likely (no kidding!) to steal candy from a baby, or, as the authors put it, “individually wrapped candies, ostensibly for children in a nearby laboratory.”  All of them contain statements such as, “Greed, in turn, is a robust determinant of unethical behavior,” “These results suggest that upper-class individuals are more likely to exhibit tendencies to act unethically compared with lower-class individuals,” “These results further suggest that more favorable attitudes toward greed among members of the upper class explain, in part, their unethical tendencies,” etc., with the implicit assumption that “ethics” is some objective, scientifically quantifiable thing-in-itself, hovering out there in the ether independent of the subjective judgments of mere mortals.

One wonders about the quality of peer review of stuff like this.  Far from any shred of intellectual honesty or scientific integrity, it appears the PNAS reviewers lacked even something as elementary as common sense.  Did it never occur to them to consider such obvious indicators of the association of social class with “unethical behavior” as the population of our prisons?  Presumably, most of the inmates have committed offenses even more serious than “defying the California Vehicle Code.”  What is the distribution of “rich” and “poor” among them?  Ah, but I forget!  All those people are in prison to begin with because of the exploitation and injustices of rich people!  We’ve heard it all before, haven’t we?

Apart from the wretched nature of the “science” in these articles, one wonders whether the authors ever considered the results of similar jihads against “rich people” in the past.  They used to be called “bourgeoisie,” and mountains of similar “scientific studies” demonstrated that these “bourgeoisie” were also “unethical.”  Once all was said and done, 100 million of the “bourgeoisie” had been murdered to atone for their lack of ethics.  Do we really want to go there again?  To judge from these “studies,” a good number of us do.  It would certainly bring a smile to the faces of some of those earlier “scientists,” now no doubt ascended to that great Workers Paradise in the Sky.

The Theology of Rick Santorum

Rick Santorum threw the Left a meaty pitch right down the middle with his comments about “theology” to an audience in Columbus.  Here’s what he said:

It’s not about you.  It’s not about your quality of life. It’s not about your job. It’s about some phony ideal, some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible. A different theology.  But no less a theology.

The quote seems to lend credence to the “Santorum is a scary theocrat” meme, and the Left lost no time in flooding the media and the blogosphere with articles to that effect.  The Right quickly fired back with the usual claims that the remarks were taken out of context.  This time the Right has it right.  For example, from Foxnews,

Rick Santorum said Sunday he wasn’t questioning  whether President Obama is a Christian when he referred to his “phony theology”  over the weekend, but was in fact challenging policies that he says place the  stewardship of the Earth above the welfare of people living on it.

“I wasn’t suggesting the president’s not a  Christian. I accept the fact that the president is a Christian,” Santorum  said.

“I was talking about the radical environmentalist,”  he said. “I was talking about energy, this idea that man is here to serve the  Earth as opposed to husband its resources and be good stewards of the Earth. And  I think that is a phony ideal.

I note in passing a surprising thing about almost all the articles about this story, whether they come from the Left or the Right. The part of Santorum’s speech that actually does put things in context is absent. Here it is:

I think that a lot of radical environmentalists have it backwards. This idea that man is here to serve the earth, as opposed to husband its resources and be good stewards of the earth. Man is here to use the resources and use them wisely. But man is not here to serve the earth.

I can understand its absence on the Left, but on the Right? Could it be that contrived controversies are good for the bottom line? Well, be that as it may, I’m not adding my two cents worth to this kerfluffle because I’m particularly fond of Santorum. However, he did touch on a matter that deserves serious consideration; the existence of secular religions.

In fact, there are secular religions, and they have dogmas, just like the more traditional kind. It’s inaccurate to call those dogmas “theologies,” because they don’t have a Theos, but otherwise they’re entirely similar. In both cases they describe elaborate systems of belief in things that either have not or cannot be demonstrated and proved. The reason for this is obvious in the case of traditional religions. They are based on claims of the existence of spiritual realms inaccessible to the human senses. Secular dogmas, on the other hand, commonly deal with events that can’t be fact-checked because they are to occur in the future.

Socialism in it’s heyday was probably the best example of a secular religion to date.  While it lasted, millions were completely convinced that the complex social developments it predicted were the inevitable fate of mankind, absent any experimental demonstration or proof whatsoever.  Not only did they believe it, they considered themselves superior in intellect and wisdom to other mere mortals by virtue of that knowledge.  They were elitists in the truest sense of the word.  Thousands and thousands of dreary tomes were written elaborating on the ramifications and details of the dogma, all based on the fundamental assumption that it was true.  They were similar in every respect to the other thousands and thousands of dreary tomes of theology written to elaborate on conventional religious dogmas, except for the one very important distinction referred to above.  Instead of describing an entirely different world, they described the future of this world.

That was their Achilles heal.  The future eventually becomes the present.  The imaginary worker’s paradise was eventually exchanged for the very real Gulag, mass executions, and exploitation by a New Class beyond anything ever imagined by the bourgeoisie.  Few of the genuine zealots of the religion ever saw the light.  They simply refused to believe what was happening before their very eyes, on the testimony of thousands of witnesses and victims.  Eventually, they died, though, and their religion died with them.  Socialism survives as an idea, but no longer as the mass delusion of cocksure intellectuals.  For that we can all be grateful.

In a word, then, the kind of secular “theologies” Santorum was referring to really do exist.  The question remains whether the specific one he referred to, radical environmentalism, rises to the level of such a religion.  I think not.  True, some of the telltale symptoms of a secular religion are certainly there.  For example, like the socialists before them, environmental ideologues are characterized by a faith, free of any doubt, that a theoretically predicted future, e.g., global warming, will certainly happen, or at least will certainly happen unless they are allowed to “rescue” us.  The physics justifies the surmise that severe global warming is possible.  It does not, however, justify fanatical certainty.  Probabilistic computer models that must deal with billions of ill-defined degrees of freedom cannot provide certainty about anything.

An additional indicator is the fact that radical environmentalists do not admit the possibility of honest differences of opinion.  They have a term for those who disagree with them; “denialists.”  Like the heretics of religions gone before, denialists are an outgroup.  It cannot be admitted that members of an outgroup have honest and reasonable differences of opinion.  Rather, they must be the dupes of dark political forces, or the evil corporations they serve, just as, in an earlier day, anyone who happened not to want to live under a socialist government was automatically perceived as a minion of the evil bourgeoisie.

However, to date, at least, environmentalism possesses nothing like the all encompassing world view, or “Theory of Everything,” if you will, that, in my opinion at least, would raise it to the level of a secular religion.  For example, Christianity has its millennium, and the socialists had their worker’s paradise.  The environmental movement has nothing of the sort.  So far, at least, it also falls short of the pitch of zealotry that results in the spawning of warring internal sects, such as the Arians and the Athanasians within Christianity, or the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks within socialism.

In short, then, Santorum was right about the existence of secular religions.  He was merely sloppy in according that honor to a sect that really doesn’t deserve it.


On the Bigotry of Victor Davis Hanson

When it comes to inclination, or emotion if you will, I tend to be more conservative than liberal.  There are some things about the right in the US today that rub me the wrong way, though.  For example, they’re constantly harping about their love of Liberty, but they don’t define the term quite the same way as Webster.  When it comes to religion, for example, it means you’re free to think just like them.  Beyond that, there are certain constraints on your “liberty.”  According to their idiosyncratic definition of the term, you are endowed with freedom “of” religion, but not freedom “from” religion.  If, like me, you are unfortunate enough not to believe in supernatural beings, as far as your liberty is concerned, “certain restrictions apply.”  In spite of the fact that you can no more voluntarily decide to change your mind in matters of religion than you can voluntarily change you skin color or ethnicity, you can no longer be considered a citizen in the full sense of the term.  As an atheist, you are relegated to one of the last remaining officially approved outgroups, and are, at best tolerated.

Some artifacts of this attitude recently turned up in an article by the conservative essayist, Victor Davis Hanson.  The article in question, entitled “Europe in the Rearview Mirror,” deals with the familiar theme of European malaise, and includes the following observations on religion:

Yes, I know Europe is sick, ill with loud secular agnosticism and atheism, aging and shrinking, wedded to an unworkable redistributive socialism.


We seem to have forgotten that what is admirable in the U.S. is not just the result of the vast American landscape, a natural selection of the more audacious and risk-taking immigrants, frontier life, and the resulting rugged individualism, but because the Founders were nursed on the European Enlightenment, Christianity was imported from Europe, and Anglo-Saxon law was built upon in a new continent.

I wonder, what are my chances of enjoying anything like genuine liberty among people who consider my religious opinions an “illness?”  Let’s consider the implications of these statements by Davis.  The possibilities are,

a)  Mr. Hanson is a prophet.  In other words, God has fluttered down from on high and spoken to him personally, giving him detailed instructions about how all of us are to live our lives in order that our societies may not become “ill.”  Surely he would not dare presume to declare that some millions of his fellow citizens were a “sickness” on his own authority.  After all, has he not spent a good portion of his career railing against just such people – those he and the rest of the right call self-appointed “elites?”  Surely he would not willingly join such an elite himself.  After all his anathemas specifically directed at such gentry, it would be the grossest hypocrisy.  If, on the other hand, Hanson really has been endowed with the authority to declare millions of his fellow citizens a “sickness” directly from God, by all means let him announce it to the world.

b)  Hanson is not a prophet, but is merely personally convinced of the truth of Christianity.  However, rejecting the taint of elitism, he does not presume to dictate to the rest of us what we should believe in matters of religion.  In that case, it logically follows that his argument is essentially utilitarian.  In other words, he is of the opinion that we should all pretend to be Christians whether we actually are or not because otherwise our society will become ill.  If so, then we must conclude that, as far as Hanson is concerned, the question of whether what we believe, or at least pretend to believe, is true or not is irrelevant.  It is the duty of every citizen, regardless of their actual convictions, to pretend to believe that which is most conducive to the health of society.

Unfortunately, I suspect I will always be ill-suited for life in a society which requires me to base my actions on premises that are untrue.  However, if the criterion for acceptance of these premises is their promotion of the health of society, and avoidance of social “ills,” then Christianity is a most unlikely candidate.  After all, admitting that the country our forefathers left us was, indeed, admirable, are we really to attribute the fact to the coincidence that many of them happened to be Christians?  Were not the founders of the countries currently occupying central and South America Christians as well?  Would Hanson be so bold as to claim that, thanks to their Christian faith, these countries have never been sick a day in their lives?  What about two of the greatest success stories of western civilization, Greece and Rome?  Presumably, based on his writings, Hanson knows something about them.  Were the Greek city states Christian?  Was Rome Christian except in the decades of her decline and fall?  What of the Crusades?  Were the Christian states they established all free of “illness?”  Was the murder of the the citizens of Jerusalem after its conquest, not to mention 50,000 “witches,” a sign of health?  From the senile stupidity of the Papal States to the suicidal proclivity of scores of monarchs by “divine right” to hold their subjects in a state of abject ignorance, I could cite thousands of other historical data points that demonstrate that, far from promoting the “health” of society, Christianity has been the source of its most virulent diseases.

Certainly, if we are an “illness,” Hanson must question the patriotism of American atheists.  Well, I’m an American atheist.  I also attended the United States Military Academy at West Point and volunteered to serve, and actually did serve, in the armed forces of my country in Vietnam, at a time when serving ones country in that way was hardly a popular thing to do.  I was there from 1971 to 1972, at a time when Hanson was just of an age to be a soldier.  My question to him is, “Where were you?”  You, who reserve to yourself the right to decide who among us are patriots and who, on the other hand, will make our country “ill,” you, who have always been full of such fulsome and unctuous praise for our nation’s armed forces, where were you?

Note on the Pathologically Pious

I mentioned Malcolm Muggeridge’s post-mortem of a decade he had just lived through, The Thirties, in an earlier post.  There are any number of thought provoking nuggets in the book, but one of the best has to do with the people I sometimes refer to as the pathologically pious.  These are the self-appointed saviors of one category of the oppressed and downtrodden or other whose “selfless” crusades are always an irritant to the rest of us, and occasionally become downright dangerous.  Typically one finds them eternally locked in a noble struggle to right some egregious wrong, yet, in spite of all their self-attributed heroism, they never actually seem to reach the goal.  There’s good reason for that.  The “struggle” is the end in itself.  As Muggeridge put it,

In all movements which undertake the championship of the oppressed, and demand rectification of injustices and inequalities, there is, as in Don Quixote, a strong admixture of egotism.  Their leaders are usually heroic; but when their heroism is no longer required, they are left disconsolate, and sometimes embittered.  It seems cruel that they should be deprived of the limelight, or at best deserve as veterans only occasional acclamation, for no other reason than that what they agitated for has been wholly, or largely, obtained.  In their case, nothing fails like success.

The doom of all who invest imaginative hopes in earthly enterprises and mortal men, is for these enterprises to triumph.

In other words, as Skinner might have put it, the positive “reinforcement” for this sort of behavior lies not in actually achieving some hypothetical goal, but in the process of, or, perhaps more accurately, in the appearance of “struggling” to achieve that goal.  To put it more pithily, the pose is everything, and the reality nothing.

There’s nothing surprising or unexpected about this particular aspect of human behavior.  It’s perfectly “normal” manifestation of the human traits associated with morality.  As is usually the case, it requires the Don Quixote in question to perceive the Good as an object, existing independently, outside of the subjective mind.  We are all programmed to perceive the Good in that way, even though no such object actually exists.  Evolution doesn’t arrive at solutions that respect abstract truth.  It arrives at solutions that promote genetic survival.

It is not difficult to understand why we should be programmed to perceive the Good in this way.  Assuming moral behavior promoted our ancestors’ survival in the first place, it is more plausible that it would do so in the form of emotional imperatives rather than as a mix of subjective alternatives for cave dwelling philosophers to chew the fat over around the campfire at night.  This sort of programming apparently worked well enough in our prehistoric past.  After all, we’re still here.  In those days, the Good was associated almost exclusively with ones own tribe or group, and the Evil with ones neighbors.  The problem is, human societies have changed rather significantly since then.  We can now perceive the Evil in ways that Mother Nature never imagined during the long millennia in which we existed as small groups of hunter-gatherers.  Victor Davis Hanson provided just a few of the almost countless possibilities from a point of view on the political right in a recent article:

…there are new monsters in America, and I am starting to wonder whether I am to be considered among them: those of the uninvolved and uninformed lives, the bar-raisers, the downright mean ones, the never deserving of respect ones, the Vegas junketeers, the Super Bowl jet setters, the tuition stealers, the faux-Christians who do not pay higher taxes, the too much income makers, the tormenters of autistic children, the polluters, the enemies deserving of punishment, the targets to bring a gun against, the faces to get in front of, the limb-loppers, the tonsil pullers, the fat cats, the corporate jet owners, the one-percenters, the stupidly acting, the not paying their fair sharers, the discriminators on the “way you look”, the alligator raisers and moat builders, the vote deniers, the clingers, the typical something persons, the hunters of kids at ice cream parlors, the stereotypers and profilers, the cowards, the lazy and soft, the non-spreaders of money, the not my people people, the Tea party racists, the not been perfect and mistake makers, the disengaged and the dictating, the not the time to profiteers, the ones who did not know when to quit making money, and on and on.

Those on the left could compose a similar list, and it would be just as accurate.  One finds saviors of mankind occupying all points on the political spectrum, and they all perceive Good and Evil in a bewildering array of real and imagined entities that didn’t exist when the tendency to conceptualize Good and Evil as real, independent objects evolved.  As a result, human moral behavior is becoming increasingly dysfunctional.  If the preceding ages weren’t sufficient, the 20th century provided us with ample experimental confirmation of the fact.  Never before had so many people been slaughtered in the name of defending the Good in its Communist, Nazi, and assorted other ideological manifestations.

As one who cherishes the whim that our species should survive, I suggest that it’s high time that we a) realize we have a problem, and b) do something about it.  We have at least taken the first baby step towards this goal by finally realizing, after a bitter struggle, that there is such a thing as human nature, and that it exists because it evolved.  It seems to me that, once we have accepted these elementary facts and done a little thinking about their implications, we may be able to start breaking ourselves of the very satisfying but increasingly dangerous habit of inventing ever more imaginary Goods and the imaginary Evils of the sort noted by Mr. Hanson that invariably come along with them.

The advantages would be many.  For starters, we could finally dismiss all the pretentions of the pathologically pious, the obnoxiously self-righteous, and the permanently outraged among us to an exclusive knowledge of the ingredients of Virtue.  Instead of taking them seriously, would it not be better to smile in their faces, explain to them that the particular Good object that seems so real to them doesn’t actually exist, and, if they persist, house them in comfortable asylums?  The alternative is to wait and hope they go away, as we did so often in the past.  Sometimes it works, but sometimes it doesn’t and, as history has so copiously demonstrated, eventually they can accumulate enough power to start murdering those of us who are unfortunate enough to fit their description of Evil.  From a purely utilitarian point of view, it seems better not to take the risk.