Confessions of an Anonymous Coward

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Church and State

Okay, this is a post I've been meaning to make for a week or two, but I guess in a way it's kind of appropriate that it's going up today, being that it touches on America and patriotism, and today is the day of a holiday that's all about that. It's the Fourth of July, Independence Day, when we celebrate the birth of the U.S.A.--or, more accurately, when we watch fireworks and have barbecues and maybe occasionally spare a fleeting thought to what the holiday is supposedly about.

Not that this post has much to do with Independence Day, really, but it does have a lot to do with politics. Politics are a subject I'm too thin-skinned to enjoy discussing; it seems a lot of people are very passionate about their political beliefs, and full of vitriol to anyone who opposes them. Which--actually--is sorta kinda what this post is about.

The book selection for last month's meeting of the Skeptics' Book Club was Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President, by Justin A. Frank. This was the first book club selection so far that I actually disliked. And when I say I disliked it, I mean I thought it was complete baloney. The book was all about trying to pin all of George W. Bush's shortcomings on circumstances of his infancy and childhood. It strained to try to explain how Bush being the way he is can be blamed on his father not being there for him enough, and on his mother being cold, and on his younger sister's death, and on all sorts of other things all at once--the self-contradictoriness inherent in ascribing the same traits to several different causes at once apparently having escaped the author. Now, I'm certainly no fan of Dubya, but that doesn't mean I enjoy reading a work that turns to long discredited avenues of psychoanalysis to try to analyze his personality. He is the way he is, and there's nothing to be gained by blaming it all on his mother not having loved him enough.

It seems I wasn't alone in my opinion of this book; several other book club members whom I later spoke to agreed that it was nonsense, and shared my surprise that someone in the book club had recommended it. In any case, though, that was after the book club meeting; at the meeting itself, I wasn't looking forward to discussing the book for fear of offending whoever it was who had recommended it (I honestly didn't remember who) with my negative opinion of it. As it turned out, I was freed of this unpleasantness by the fact that by the time I arrived (somewhat late), everyone had already passed on from talking about the book to just talking about the Bush administration in general.

And really, all of the foregoing is just a mostly irrelevant preamble to a bit of an epiphany I had at said discussion. I wondered aloud at one point how so many other mostly sane and rational people could still wholeheartedly support Bush and live in denial of his misdeeds in the face of all the evidence--and even as I said that, something hit me.

It related, actually, to a discussion the preceding week in the mailing list of the Independent Investigations Group. Someone had brought up Christopher Hitchins' outspoken atheism, and someone else had raised the anomaly of Hitchins' support of the war in Iraq. This led to the following message (paraphrased because I don't have access to the original right now--I'll edit the exact words in tomorrow when I do):

I don't understand how he can claim to be an atheist and still support the Iraq War. It seems like a contradiction in terms.

What an odd thing to say, I thought at the time. Oh, certainly there's some negative correlation between atheism and support of the Iraq War. Because (at least in part) of Bush's ostentatious religiosity, he has disproportionate support from the religious, and conversely disproportionate lack of support among the non-religious. But that doesn't mean that opposition to the Iraq War necessarily follows from atheism. They're two separate issues. I may think that Bush hurried the U.S. into war on shaky and even deceptive grounds, but another atheist may disagree and still be an atheist. Support of the Iraq War doesn't necessarily mean belief in God.

But then during the book club discussion I remembered that message, and saw a connection there I hadn't previously realized. Oh, I still don't think opposition to the Iraq War necessarily follows from atheism--or, conversely, that you have to be religious to support Bush, or vice versa. But...there actually is a common element there.

Thinking back about some of the more hidebound politically partisan people I know (including my own parents, strong kneejerk Republicans who'd never consider voting any other way--though even they have found reason to dislike Bush), I was suddenly struck by the similarities between their unchangeable political viewpoints and, well, those of religion. There's a lot of resemblance in the thought processes. In both cases, the person in question tends to discount any evidence against his particular views, while happily seizing anything, however tenuous, that seems to support it. Both the politically and the religiously faithful are characterized by a complete lack of skeptical inquiry about the subject in question--while remaining utterly convinced that their beliefs are well founded. And the word "faithful" in th previous paragraph isn't a misnomer--political "faith" is quite analogous, if not identical, to the religious variety. Just like the religious faithful, the political faithful, having chosen their side, are convinced of its rightness, and will not be swayed from it.

I'm not claiming this is unique to Republicans--even if certainly it's primarily the Republicans who are allied with fundamentalist Christianity. I remember, from my undergraduate years at USC, an old Thai woman who had similarly unshakable faith in the Democrats--Jerry Brown and Bill Clinton in particular, to the extent that when, after she lauded Bill Clinton for his support of the family, someone brought up his adultery, she literally refused to believe that it had happened. Even after she was told he had admitted to it, she insisted it had to be a lie. In her mind, Bill Clinton was an untarnished pinnacle of virtue; he could not possibly have had an adulterous relationship.

So, to return to the original example, is an atheist who supports the Iraq War really a contradiction in terms? Well, no. Maybe Hitchins hasn't turned to his politics the skeptical eye he's apparently used to look at religion, but then people aren't always consistent. But there's certainly a similar kind of mindset at work, in belief in God and in belief in the infallibility of certain men. Now that I think of it, this goes beyond just politicians; maybe there are times people have similar "faith" in other celebrities, in movie stars and writers and even in scientists...

Yeah, I know, this probably isn't really an original idea; I'm sure other people have noted this before. Still, I'd never thought of it in quite those terms before: that faith, even if we don't call it by that name in other contexts, operates in spheres far outside religion. That the mindset that leads to religion operates just as destructively in politics and in other spheres.

Ah, well. Happy Fourth of July, everyone! (What little is left of it by the time I post this...)


At 7/06/2007 8:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What you're discussing I've often heard referred to as "tribe mentality," though a quick Google search doesn't show anything more than people using that phrase in discussion of other issues, and Wikipedia doesn't have an entry for it at all. So, I'm not sure if this idea has any validity, or if it's just folk wisdom, but I think the idea is that since we evolved as a social animal living in small groups, we darn well better get along with our group. The same mentality carries on today, with people more likely to believe those in their own groups, and distrust outsiders.

A related term is group think, which does have an entry in Wikipedia, and several links to further reading.

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