Ostentatious Piety in the Asylum

The blogosphere is a crazy place. Read posts and comments where you will, and you will find the online asylum is filled to bursting with people who are cocksure they know what is good and what is evil, and are quite convinced their standards apply to everyone else in the world. No matter whether they are leftists or rightists, infidels or true believers, they are all convinced they have a monopoly on the true morality. One typically finds them pointing out how people they happen not to agree with don’t quite measure up to their universal standard.

Now, certain as they are that they know the difference between good and evil (and assuming, of course, that human beings really are intelligent), one would think that they would be able to tell you, logically, and going back to first principles, why what they consider good is really good, and why what they consider evil is really evil. If so, one would be thinking wrong. Of all those currently strutting about on the moral high ground preening themselves on their superior virtue, you could probably count the number who could even make a convincing attempt with the fingers on one hand.

Good and evil have no objective existence, and yet our brains are hard wired to perceive them as not only real, but absolute. Even I, the philosopher king of this blog, perceive them that way. That would all be well and good if our situation were still the same as it was when morality evolved. It isn’t though. The world is now much more complex, and we are armed with nuclear weapons in place of sticks and stones. Second guessing mother nature is always a dubious proposition. Refusing to act as moral beings because we consider ourselves too clever and sophisticated for such atavistic nonsense is a strategy that is more than likely to blow up in our faces. Still, it would behoove us to occasionally step back and ask ourselves whether what we consider good and evil really promote our survival or not. These categories only exist in our minds because that’s what they did in the past. If they prompt us to act self-destructively in the new world we’ve inherited, perhaps its a sign we need to turn off the autopilot, and start relying on our reason.

The Case of Sarah Palin, or Why do the Heathen Rage, and the People Imagine a Vain Thing?

I’ve never been particularly impressed by Sarah Palin. She seems to me a rather commonplace person trying to react to very unnatural, unusual, and, of course, hostile circumstances. The reactions to her one can find at websites such as this, this, and this are irrational but very predictable and typical manifestations of amity-enmity behavior. Sarah Palin was the personification of an out-group for the liberal/progressive in-group from the moment she left the gate. They duly trooped to the boundaries of their intellectual territory and began shrieking at her like so many howler monkeys. The reaction in the “objective” mainstream media was remarkably slanted, even for this day and age. They were so intent on making sure the rest of us were aware she was the “bad guy” that they completely lost their bearings. One felt sorry for her in spite of ones self.

Well, we can expect more of the same until those for whom she has become the manifestation of evil are convinced that they are, after all, beating a dead horse. I rather suspect it will go on much longer than necessary, as good “bad guys” are hard to find.

The Evolution of Morality and the Shifting Standards of Political Correctness

Robert Ardrey
Robert Ardrey
An interesting article appeared in the German news magazine, “Der Spiegel,” recently. It was entitled, “How Mankind Learned Humanity,” and discussed recent developments in the field of evolutionary science relating to the evolution of morality in human beings. Why was it interesting? Well, there was a time when the appearance of anything of the sort in a left-leaning publication like Spiegel would have been virtually unthinkable. You see, back in the day, Marxists, socialists, and dwellers in various other ideological straightjackets found such notions politically unpalatable. They were in conflict with the preferred version of human behavior as infinitely malleable, and determined entirely by environment and learning. Creatures possessing such ideal characteristics were indispensible if the various utopias then under construction for us were ever to work as planned.

Back in the 60’s and 70’s, a brilliant thinker named Robert Ardrey and others like him began publishing books, such as “African Genesis,” and “The Territorial Imperative,” pointing out the rather obvious absurdities of such notions, and reviewing studies of animal behavior and other research that pointed to the conclusion that our capacity to act as moral beings had evolved, along with the rest of our characteristics. They were promptly demonized as fascists, racists, and “pop ethologists” by the puritan ideologues. Notions to the effect that there was any genetic component to human behavior became distinctly politically incorrect. References to such ideas in the popular media became few and far between. When they did, it was usually to the accompaniment of some slur about the moral turpitude of those harboring such notions.

For those of us who lived through those times, and witnessed the shameful attempts of scientific poseurs like Richard Lewontin and Ashley Montagu to silence Ardrey and his colleagues with ridicule and spite, the unconscious vindication of his ideas represented by the Spiegel article and many others like it is both welcome and encouraging. I never doubted that vindication would come, because it seemed that, unless the Lewontins of the world were somehow able to cow the rest of the research community into suppressing every “inconvenient truth” that didn’t quite agree with their ideologically conditioned preconceptions, the weight of evidence for ideas that really amounted to little more than common sense would become overwhelming.

In the end, it did become overwhelming. The Spiegel article and the ever increasing volume of others like it are a reflection of that fact. The genetic basis of morality, and of human nature in general, is now treated as a commonplace in the popular media, as it is in the scientific research community in general. To tell the truth, I never thought the day would come as quickly as it has. It’s a hopeful sign. In the end, as long as free research can continue, the truth really can prevail.

The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth

I must leave the question of our ability to know the truth with absolute certainty for others to debate.  For my part, I act according to what appears to me to be closest to the truth, although I realize I can’t be perfectly sure it really is the truth.  Rather, I accept the conclusions that seem to me to have the highest probability of being true, and act on them as if they were the truth.  It seems to me that actions based on the truth are more likely to have a positive outcome than actions based on falsehoods.  Therefore, I reason, investigate, and experiment in order to approach the truth as closely as I can.

Human beings have accomplished some remarkable intellectual feats, but usually by confirming their hypotheses with experiments every step of the way.  Take, for example, the conclusions of several talented physicists regarding the discovery of nuclear fission.  Although they were dealing with processes they couldn’t actually see, they predicted that it would be possible to build a nuclear weapon.  They proceeded to build such a weapon.  The weapon worked.  Therefore, there must have been some element of truth in their original conclusions.  Terrible as its result may be, the development of the bomb was, nevertheless, an awesome achievement of the human mind.  However, it did not result from much spinning of complex intellectual webs, carried out purely in the realm of theory.  Rather, to the extent possible, theory was confirmed by experiment every step of the way.

Despite such remarkable achievements, however, we are far less logical and intelligent than we give ourselves credit for.  Our conclusions about what is true are subject to a host of emotional biases having their origin in “human nature,” the way in which evolution has hard-wired various predispositions and responses in our brains.  We experience reality conditioned by a host of preconceived notions.  As a result, the more complex our theoretical and ideological speculations become, and the further we depart from the realm of experiment, the more likely we are to wander off the path of truth into intellectual swamps.  History is full of cautionary lessons to this effect.  Communism is an outstanding example.  Many others can be drawn from our endless quarrels over obscure matters of religious doctrine. 

The conclusion?  The truth is never “crystal clear,” and no individual or sect, whether political or religious, has a monopoly on it.  It is elusive, and easily lost sight of in the mist.  If you would approach it, do so with due humility, never assuming that you know it in advance.

Morality – the Nature of Good and Evil

To understand morality it is necessary to understand what it is and why it exists.  Morality is a construct of our minds.  In other words, it is subjective.  It is a part of us, in the same way that our eyes, heart, and feet are parts of us.  Being a part of us, it exists for the same reason that our other parts exist.  It promotes our survival, or at least did promote our survival at some point in our past.  It is a characteristic which evolved, in the same way that all our other characteristics evolved.  We do not yet understand how it works, or what gives rise to it, or the detailed nature of its development as our conscious selves interact with the world around us during our lives.  We cannot see it, as we can see our hands and feet, or hear it, as we hear our voices, but still, we know it’s there, and is a part of what we are.  The thinkers among us have often noted its remarkable consistency across otherwise widely divergent cultures.  For example, in response to a M. Le Beau, who claimed that, “The Christians had a morality, but the Pagans had none,” Voltaire replied in an article entitled “Morality” in his “Philosophical Dictionary,”

“Oh, M. Le Beau!  …where did you pick up this absurdity?  …There is but one morality, M. Le Beau, as there is but one geometry.  But you will tell me that the greater part of mankind are ignorant of geometry.  True; but if they apply a little to the study of it, all men draw the same conclusions.  …We cannot repeat too frequently that dogmas differ, but that morality is the same among all men who make use of their reason.”  

The point I wish to make here is not that Voltaire was strictly correct in his conclusions about the absolute consistency of morality, but that he noticed that it is a part of our nature.  While it may not be exactly the same in one individual as in another, the similarities across cultures are remarkable.  We experience morality, not as relative or situational, but as an absolute.  It was this aspect of morality that Kant perceived when he associated it with a categorical, rather than hypothetical imperatives. 

It is not difficult to understand why morality evolved.  We all have desires.  However, others desire the same things.  A state of affairs in which each individual laid claim to the same scarce resources, and was willing to battle all others to the death to acquire them would not be conducive to our survival.  On the other hand, if something in the consciousness of the individuals in a group caused them to share the available resources according to rules familiar to all, derived from certain fundamental principles, it would enhance the chances that the individuals in the group would survive.  It would give them an advantage over others not possessing the same quality.  Therefore, like everything else about us, morality evolved.   Its basic framework is hard wired in our brains.  Its behavioral manifestations are moderated more or less in practice by our environment, by cultural influences.  

We experience morality as an absolute.  Why?  Because it functions best that way.  We experience good and evil as real, objective things because they are most effective in promoting our survival if we experience them that way.  In other words, we experience a subjective entity as an objective absolute because it works best that way.  The resultant conundrums and apparent logical inconsistencies in our perception of good and evil have busied philosophers through the ages.  In all likelihood, morality evolved long before our emergence as a species.  However, while other animals have moral natures, and can distinguish between “good” and “bad” actions, they were fortunate enough not to be aware of these logical difficulties.  We, with our greater mental capacity, have often run afoul of them.

The ancient Greeks were certainly aware of the difficulties.  Plato explores the problem in his “Euthyphro.”  The “hero,” Euthyphro, gives himself out as an “expert” on piety.  Socrates embarrasses him in his usual style when he is unable to provide any logical basis for distinguishing good from evil. 

In fact, morality is not really absolute, in that it is subjective, and has no independent existence outside of our own minds.  If we did not exist, one rock would not be more or less good or evil than another.  Unlike a rock, good and evil have no objective existence.  They are constructs of our minds.  How then, “ought” we to act?

As Voltaire pointed out, we all experience morality in the same way regardless of what ideological or religious dogmas we associate ourselves with.  There is no difference between atheists and the most zealous Christians in this regard.  Visit an atheist website, and you will see that professed atheists can experience righteous indignation and are quite as firmly convinced that they know the difference between good and evil as any true believer.  Neither, as Socrates pointed out long ago, can provide any logical basis for this conviction.  What “should” we do?  To the extent that there is anything that we really “should” do, we should survive.  There is nothing more immoral than failing to survive.  Morality is a part of us because it works.  It is, therefore, probably not a good idea to “overthink” the issue.  We should not try to be too coy with Mother Nature.  On the other hand, morality evolved long before the emergence of modern human societies.  It may prompt us to do things which had survival value when we existed as small groups of hunter-gatherers, but would be disastrous in the context of modern civilization.  See, for example, what I have written below on the different moral standards we apply to “in-groups” and “out-groups.”  The outcome of nuclear war was not possible when morality evolved. 

Perhaps, then, we should act as enlightened moral beings, seeking to do good and avoid evil as we perceive them, but keeping in mind the reason that morality exists to begin with.  In other words, act morally, but not self-destructively.

H. G. Wells, H. L. Mencken, and the Baby Boomers

H. G. Wells
H. G. Wells
I like reading old magazines, especially when I get tired of seeing today’s political agendas, and today’s political correctness between the lines of the modern ones. I suppose they have political agendas of their own, but at least they have the virtue of being different. A while back I was paging through a copy of “The American Mercury,” published in the days when H. L. Mencken was still its editor. If Mencken wasn’t the best editor this country ever produced, he’s definitely on the short list. When he praises a novel, you can be sure it’s not a puff piece for a literary pet. Well, in this mag, I was not a little surprised to find him waxing effusive over a novel by H.G. Wells, and one I’d never heard of: “The World of William Clissold.”

Now, I enjoyed reading “The Time Machine,” and “War of the Worlds” once upon a time, but never game them a second thought as serious works of literature. They certainly never impressed me as the sort of thing Mencken would waste time reviewing. My curiosity was duly piqued. I got the book. As usual, the Sage of Baltimore was right. “Clissold” is the genuine article.

If you’re a baby boomer, you’ll be fascinated. Wells wrote the novel when he was about 60, and it’s full of interesting insights and observations about the significance of reaching that age, what a post-60 future might look like, his observations on how others that age were dealing with life, etc. As with any great work of literature, I’m sure you’ll find reflections of your own thoughts as well, assuming you’ve managed to attain such a ripe old age.

Again, as with all good novels, “Clissold” is full of anecdotes that were surely drawn from Wells’ life experiences. For example, he tells the story of his visit to Geneva during the heighday of the League of Nations in 1922. There, among a host of other interesting types, he tells of meeting an old Indian. In his own words:

“I remember a charming Red Indian from Canada with a wonderful belt of wampum; it was a treaty all done in beads; by it the British Government gave sovereign dominion for ever and ever to the remnants of the Five Nations over a long strip of country running right through Canadian territories, territories in which prohibition and all sorts of bizarre moder practices now prevail. The Canadians were infringing the freedoms of that ribbon of liberty by sending in excisement and the like. So the Five Nations, with a grave copper face, wampum treaty very carefully wrapped in tissue paper, were appealing from the British Empire to mankind.”

As the cliche goes, “he couldn’t make stuff like that up.” And sure enough, one finds several references to the incident on the Web, for example, here and here. You’ll find more on wampum, along with a fascinating history of the Five Nations here.

There is much other food for thought in “Clissold,” including a rather heavy handed exposition of his world view and his rather Rand-like version of what mankind needs to do to save itself, a summary of which may be found in the Wiki article linked above. A closer look may be found here. Another chapter is devoted to a review of the news media of his day. Modern connoiseurs will surely find it fascinating. Other than that, I can only echo Mencken’s recommendation. This novel is well worth a read.

Genesis, the Firmament, and Christian Fundamentalism

Drawing attention to the many contradictions and inconsistencies in the Bible, as well as the verses that contradict what we’ve learned about the age of the earth, the size of the universe and the earth’s place in it, etc., can occasionally open minds if they are open to reason to begin with. Some of the best and brightest among us have always had the ability to find these discrepancies on their own, and the honesty to point them out to others. Such a one, for example, was Jean Meslier. This simple French priest composed three copies of a testament that demolished Christianity, not to mention all other versions of belief in a Supreme Being, more than a hundred years before Darwin published his theories. Somehow Voltaire and a few other kindred spirits got wind of the Testament, and so preserved it for later generations. Since then, it has been an inspiration to many who have also had the courage to think for themselves. Unfortunately, minds that live in little steel cages of “faith” aren’t so accessible. They can always adjust reality to fit scripture as needed.

Take, for example, the discrepancy in the genealogy of Jesus between the versions in the books of Matthew and Luke. It would seem that, on reading these two vastly different versions, a logical, open-minded person would conclude that the claim that the entire Bible is infallible is wrong. After all, a God who really loves us and wants us to find our way to a truth so critical to our welfare in the hereafter would hardly make us the butt of crude practical jokes, or allow gross mis-tranlations of his word to bamboozle generations of true believers. However, logical thought and open-mindedness are not strong suits of Christian true believers. They have simply come up with a host of “interpretations” of these contradictory genealogies to “make them right.” The interested reader can find an example here.

Another famous historical example, cited by Voltaire, among others, is the difficulty with the description of a “firmament” in the King James Version of the Bible. Early civilizations commonly believed that the sun, moon, stars and other heavenly bodies were set in a solid, crystalline shell, or “firmament.” That such a version of the firmament was exactly what the author or authors of Genesis had in mind seems obvious on the face of if to anyone who actually reads the book. For example, we read in Genesis 1:4, that it acts as a barrier, and there are waters above the firmament, placing the heavenly bodies beneath this body of water. According to Genesis 1:17, the stars are set in the firmament.

Thanks to Project Apollo, and a few other inconvenient interventions of reality, later generations of true believers didn’t have the luxury of standing pat on the firmament theory. No matter. They simply hand-waved it out of existence by mistranslating “firmament” as “sky.” This was a bit much to swallow for some of the more erudite and honest among the faithful. Christian evangelist Paul Seely is a case in point. He has given us a wonderful commentary on the historical facts relating to the notion of a firmament in many cultures, complete with observations on the original Hebrew as well as the later translations into Greek and English. He demonstrates conclusively that a solid firmament is precisely what is meant in the book of Genesis. Alas, Mr. Seely is a faithful Christian, and so had no trouble squaring the circle his philological inquiries had revealed. He concludes his paper with the observation that, “Certainly the historical-grammatical meaning of (the Hebrew word) raqiac is ‘the ordinary opinion of the writer’s day.’ Certainly also it is not the purpose of Gen 1: 7 to teach us the physical nature of the sky, but to reveal the creator of the sky. Consequently, the reference to the solid firmament ‘lies outside the scope of the writer’s teachings’ and the verse is still infallibly true.” (!!) Faith will always find a way.

Not surprisingly, this rather startling conclusion was rather too much of a mental double back flip for believers of lesser intellectual agility among fellow fundamentalists. They chose, predictably, to rearrange reality to get rid of the pesky firmament in the time-honored fashion noted above. Examples abound, and a few of them can be found here and here. Google “Genesis firmament” and you will find many more.

Of course, the book of Genesis also has a serious issue with the disconnect between its version of the earth’s age, at 6,000 years, give or take, and the fact that vast numbers of heavenly bodies have been discovered so far away from us that it took light thousands of times that long to reach us, and yet we see them nevertheless. There is an interesting discussion of the subject here. A slam-dunk for science say you? Wrong again, oh ye of little faith, For the fundamentalist, the Bible is, a priori, the absolute truth. For one who is determined to believe the Bible is the inspired word of God and the absolute truth against all odds, no evidence to the contrary will ever suffice. You see, facts that seem to contradict the Bible simply can’t be true. One accommodates them very easily, by simply readjusting reality.

I know! The same thought has occurred to me. We are living in an insane asylum. Occasionally I am bothered a little by the reflection that I, too, am a human being, just like the fundamentalists who have these fanciful notions. How much superior to them could I really be in matters of intellect? After all, we both belong to the same species. For that matter, if I glance about the asylum once again, I may discover a host of atheist “fundamentalists” with ideological notions that, though secular, are as inaccessible to reason as the faith of a theist. Well, enough of this. I’m not ready to turn myself in at the front desk just yet.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, H. L. Mencken, and the Uplift

Odd, that two men as different as Nathaniel Hawthorne, the New England Puritan, and H. L. Mencken, the infidel sage of Baltimore, were such kindred spirits when it came to what Mencken called the “Uplift.” Mencken’s loathing for the professional saviors of the world is well known. Here’s what Hawthorne had to say about the type, represented by Hollingsworth in “The Blithedale Romance.”
“…Hollingsworth had a closer friend than ever you could be. And this friend was the cold, spectral monster which he had himself conjured up, and on which he was wasting all the warmth of his heart, and of which, at last-as these men of a mighty purpose so invariably do-he had grown to be the bond-slave. It was his philanthropic theory!”
“He knew absolutely nothing, except in a single direction, where he had thought so energetically, and felt to such a depth, that, no doubt, the entire reason and justice of the universe appeared to be concentrated thitherward.”
“…They have no heart, no sympathy, no reason, no conscience. They will keep no friend, unless he make himself the mirror of their purpose.”
“They have an idol, to which they consecrate themselves high-priest, and deem it holy work to offer sacrifices of whatever is most precious, and never once seem to suspect-so cunning has the Devil been with them-that this false deity, in whose iron features, immitigable to all the rest of mankind they see only benignity and love, is but a spectrum of the very priest himself, projected upon the surrounding darkness.”
…so Hawthorne, the novelist and prophet.

Gregory of Tours, the Trinity, Gay Marriage, and Liberal Christianity

Gregory of Tours
Gregory of Tours
I am the least spiritual of men, and believe in no gods or supernatural beings of any kind, my only deviation in these matters being a slight case of triskaidekaphobia. However, I do take an interest in history, and religious belief has certainly played a significant role therein. It’s interesting that the times most people would consider the most enlightened are not necessarily those coincident with the highest levels of sophistication when it comes to religious belief. In fact, some of the writings that have come down to us from what Europeans call the “Dark Ages” are hardly behindhand in that regard. To support this assertion, I call to the stand Gregory, Bishop of Tours, who wrote in the latter half of the 6th century A.D., a time when England was shrouded in a deep historical mist. Gregory was a chatty, gossipy, entertaining writer, who lived in and described firsthand the horrific scene in western Europe following the collapse of the Roman Empire. It was a time of warring petty states whose kings and nobility tortured, murdered, and robbed their subjects, of constant devastating plagues, natural disasters and famines, and periodic social chaos. If you want some real insight into what it was like, read Gregory’s “History of the Franks.” He won’t disappoint you.

In spite of it all, Gregory, scion of an old Roman senatorial family, somehow managed to acquire an education, and no mean skill as a theologian. In those days, the Goths, Vandals, and most of the other Christianized barbarian tribes had adopted a Unitarian version of the faith before Athanasius and his followers had managed to gain acceptance for their Trinitarian teachings. When the Trinitarians gained the upper hand in what remained of the Empire, the surrounded barbarians remained Unitarians, with the exception of the Franks. In the excerpt that follows, Gregory, an orthodox Catholic, describes a debate he had with a visiting Unitarian cleric from the Visigothic kingdom in Spain. What’s noteworthy about it is the subtlety of Gregory’s theological arguments. As you’re reading it, try to imagine a “modern” priest or bishop teaching a similarly sophisticated version of the Trinity. I rather suspect most of us have never heard anything of the sort. Turning it over to Gregory…

“As envoy to Chilperic (one of the Frankish kings who ruled part of France) King Leuvigild (Visigothic ruler of Spain) sent Agilan, a man of low intelligence, untrained in logical argument, but distinguished by his hatred of our Catholic faith. Tours (seat of Gregory’s bishopric) was on his route and he took advantage of this to attack me concerning my beliefs and to assail the dogmas of the Church. ‘The bishops of the early Church made a foolish pronouncement,’ he said, when they asserted that the Son was equal to the Father. How can He be equal to the Father, when He says: ‘My Father is greater than I’? It is not right that the Son should be considered equal to the Father when He Himself admits that He is less, when it is to the Father that He complains about the miserable manner of His death, when at the very moment of His death He commends His spirit to the Father, as if He Himself were completely powerless. Surely it is quite obvious that He is less than the Father, both in power and in age!’ In reply to this, I asked him if he believed that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and if he admitted that He was the wisdom of God, the light, the truth, the life, the justice of God. Agilan answered: ‘I believe that the Son of God was all those things.’ Then I said: ‘Tell me now, when was the Father without wisdom? When was He without light, without life, without truth, without justice? Jast as the Father could not exist without these things, so He could not exist without the Son. These attributes are absolutely essential to the mystery of the Godhead. Similarly the Father could hardly be called the Father if He had no Son. When you quote the Son as having aaid: ‘My Father is greater than I,’ you must know that He said this in the lowliness of the flesh, which He had assumed so that He might teach you that you were redeemed not by His power but by His humility. You must also remember, when you quote the words: ‘My father is greater than I,’ that He also says in another place: ‘I and my Father are one.’ His fear of death and the fact that He commended His spirit are a reference to the weakness of the flesh, so that, just as he is believed to be very God, so may He be believed to be very man.’ Agilan answered: ‘He who does what another commends is less than that other: the Son is always less than the Father because He does the will of the Father, whereas there is no proof that the Father does the will of the Son.’ ‘You must understand’, I replied, ‘that the Father is the Son and that the Son is in the Father, each subsisting in one Godhead. If you want proof that the Father does the will of the Son, consider what our Lord Jesus Christ says when He come to raise Lazarus – that is if you have any faith in the Gospel at all: ‘Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me. And I knew that thou hearest me always: but because of the people which stand by I said it, that they may believe that thou hast sent me.’ When He comes to His Passion, He says: ‘And now, O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was.’ Then the Father replies from Heaven: ‘I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again.’ Therefore the Son is equal in Godhead, and not inferior, and He is not inferior in anything else.”

…and so on. As noted above, I’m not a believer, but I’ve spent a great deal of time in church. I’ve never heard the Trinity discussed by pastor, bishop, or priest with anywhere near that level of sophistication. I grew up in the Methodist church, and one of our pastors in my early youth was a throwback who took theology seriously. He is the only Christian teacher I’ve ever heard who so much as made a serious attempt to teach the doctrine of the Trinity to his flock. However, his sermons never approached Gregory’s level of subtlety or refinement. What’s the point? I guess that, when one compares intellectual development in the “Dark Ages” with that in modern times, one should answer the question, “What kind?”

The “kind” of theological debate Gregory excelled at no longer exists outside of obscure seminary classrooms because the conclusions of that debate have become irrelevant. Today, the “theology” of the more liberal sects of Christianity is a mélange of badly digested “progressive” ideology. To the extent that the Scriptures have any significance at all, they are rifled through in the search for verses that appear to support some already foregone conclusion, borrowed from the realm of politics. The “doctrine” of the church conforms to a prevailing political fashion, and not vice versa, limited only by the reluctance of the clerics’ more conservative flocks to go along. This is what one might expect. Modern “in-groups” and “out-groups” are far more likely to be defined by politics than religion in first world countries with a European background. (See my post on the significance of in-group/out-group behavior in the archives.) If one wants to play a role in a group that has relevance in modern society, one must conform to the fundamental doctrines that define the intellectual boundaries of the group. If the groups happen to be political, then so much the worse for religion. Its “teachings” must conform to politically derived ideological doctrines, regardless of what the contents of its written scriptures might be. Thus, for example, one finds a number of Christian sects embracing gay marriage, in defiance of the Bible’s clear condemnation of homosexual acts. The sophistication of Gregory of Tours and the “Dark Ages” is exchanged for “Christianity Lite.”

As an infidel, I offer these remarks as an observation on the human condition, and certainly not to support or condemn gay marriage, or any other aspect of Christian belief. As for the battle between Athanasius and Arius, I am content to let sleeping dogs lie.

In Groups and Out Groups

 It would be difficult to overestimate the role of what Robert Ardrey called the Amity-Enmity (AE) complex in our development as a species.  It is an aspect of our behavior and our nature whose expression is ubiquitous in our relationships with other individuals and other groups.  It is fundamental to any coherent understanding of human history.  Why is  the AE complex important?  Among other things, it has played a decisive role in motivating, provoking, and/or justifying virtually every one of our countless wars since the dawn of recorded history, and, presumably, long before that.  It is the reason we associate good, justice, honor, heroism, and similar positive qualities with our in-group, and evil, impurity, dishonesty, and corruption with our out-group(s).  It affects the way in which we perceive and categorize every other human being on the planet.  Indeed, we have categorized many manifestations of AE behavior, such as racism, patriotism, and religious bigotry, and assigned them “good” or “evil” connotations, without ever understanding the one basic predisposition at the root of them all.  It is impossible to correctly understand our group and individual behavior without taking it into account.  Given the decisive role it has played in our past and will continue to play in our future, it certainly behooves us to study it and understand it. 


Unfortunately, there are aspects of our nature, including the AE complex itself, that hinder an objective approach to the subject.  For example, many in-groups are defined by ideology.  Beliefs in certain ideological notions are the touchstones for membership in the group.  Some in-groups must believe that human behavior is entirely determined by environment, and lacks any innate component, hard-wired in our brains.  To believe otherwise would challenge the ideological construct that defines the in-group itself.  For example, Marxists in the former Soviet Union believed they could call forth the “new Soviet man” merely by providing a “correct” environment and educational system.  The “new Soviet man” would fit perfectly into the Communist future that they also believed in as a defining concept of their in-group.  The reality of innate predispositions would make the “new Soviet man” impossible.  The reality must, therefore, be denied.  It has been denied, by Marxists and others whose ideologies have been challenged by its implications, with a fury that is difficult to understand unless one understands its in-group based ideological motivation.  One may find interesting examples of this denial in the works of Ashley Montagu and Richard Lewontin, both of whom enjoyed significant “scientific” credibility, and there are many others like them.  When writers like Ardrey insisted that the AE complex existed whether they chose to wear ideological blinkers or not, they did not limit their responses to dispassionate logical arguments.  Rather, they vilified anyone who proposed such arguments, claiming they were fascists, racists, or associated with some other evil.  In other words, they assigned qualities to Ardrey and the rest that they associated with their own out-groups.  In doing so, they proved his point.


Why does the AE complex exist?  Like all of our other important characteristics, it evolved, because, at least at some point in our existence, it helped us to survive.  AE behavior is seen in other primates, and has likely been around since before our emergence as a species.  When we lived in small groups of more or less closely related individuals, such behavior tended to spread us out so as to take maximum advantage of the available resources, and increase our chances of surviving local depletion of resources or environmental catastrophe.  Unfortunately, evolution cannot plan ahead, and it could not foresee the emergence of nation states containing populations much larger than the small groups of hunter gatherers that had been the rule for many thousands of years.  Perception of the others of our species in terms of in-groups and out-groups results from an innate predisposition.  It was not a manifestation of conscious, logical thought when it evolved, any more than it is today.  However, in a world of nation states armed with nuclear weapons, AE behavior’s value in promoting our survival is dubious at best.  In fact, our survival is threatened unless we finally grasp its fundamental impact on our thought processes and our actions.


Writers throughout history have commented on the seemingly illogical and absurd manifestations of the complex.  The Byzantine historian Procopius recorded a visit by Christian clerics motivated by a dispute over points of doctrine, remarking that the matters at issue were so absurd that he declined to record them.  AE behavior often assumes a façade of rationality because the members of human in-groups are able to use ideological markers to distinguish themselves from “the others,” in addition to the physical traits our primate cousins must rely on.  For example, Procopius also recorded the antics of the “Blues” and “Greens” of the circus.  Later historians have claimed to “understand,” and, occasionally, justify their seemingly irrational mutual slaughter by pointing out that one side or the other associated itself with demands for lower taxation, less oppressive government, etc.  The manifestations of the AE complex in our own day, similarly shrouded with ideological camouflage, have become increasingly destructive.  Instead of relatively harmless assaults of one group of a few score primates on another, similar group in an adjoining territory, we have seen the slaughter of millions of Jews by the Nazis, tens of millions of bourgeoisie by the Communists, including the decapitation of Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge, and the butchery of the Tutsis by the Hutus.  It has been difficult for us to understand the fundamentally irrational and emotional nature of this mayhem because all of us are subject to the same primal predispositions.  Once we have made the subjective identification of the victims as “others,” it becomes an easy matter to rationalize mass murder by simply buying into the ideological façade.  Henry Ford and countless others like him were able to accept and justify the Holocaust as a “reasonable” response to the “Jewish world conspiracy.”  Hundreds of thousands of Communist sympathizers accepted the mass murder of millions of innocents once they had convinced themselves that the victims were “bourgeoisie.” 


Meanwhile, the mayhem continues.  It will not end until we are able to understand ourselves, grasp the nature of our behavior, and finally undertake a conscious effort to control it.  We cannot make our predispositions disappear, because they are every bit as much a part of us as our arms, legs and other physical characteristics.  Evolution has hard wired them in our brains.  As a result, we must belong to in-groups, and we require out-groups to serve as the evil enemy.  If one in-group no longer serves, and begins to disappear, another invariably emerges to fill the vacuum, as, for example, political Islam emerged as a potent force in the world following the demise of Communism. 


What is to be done?  First, we must understand the nature of in-group/out-group behavior, and grasp its immense significance.  We must begin to see clearly the decisive and destructive role it has played in our history.  The solution will certainly be easier once we understand that we are all potential victims, and that we are all threatened, and that we ourselves, and not just the “others” might easily belong to the next out-group slated for mass slaughter. 


It will also behoove us to devote every effort to understanding the function of our own brains at the most fundamental level.  We must seek to explain the physical basis, not only of in-group/out-group behavior but of human morality and all the rest of the emotions that shape our behavior, our perceptions, and our relationships so decisively.   We face no scientific challenge more grand than this.  Our survival as a species may well depend on our ability to find the answers we seek.