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Posts Tagged ‘Samuel Johnson’

The best lack all conviction, while the worstSand Sculpture
Are full of passionate intensity.

(W. B. Yeats: ‘The Second Coming‘)

The issues I have been looking at lately – war, the economy, the rigid approach to mental health – all raise the question, ‘Why do we find it so difficult to fix such problems, even when we can see that something is seriously wrong? One factor, among many, is discussed with great insight by Jonathan Haidt, whom I quote from in a short sequence on conviction, which I have decided to republish now. This is the second of three. The first came out on Monday: the last will come out tomorrow.

Ruling passion

We obviously need to take care what we believe in. It tends to determine the person we will become. Sadly, most of us devote more conscious effort to choosing a car than creating a character. We simply accept what we have been given, rarely assessing its value, rarely considering whether or not it could be changed for the better, and if we do feel dissatisfaction with what we have become we tend to test it against inappropriate measures such as the wealth it has brought us, the worldly success we have achieved, the number rather than the quality of our friendships, the power we derive from it and so on. We seldom carefully reflect upon our beliefs and how they have shaped and are still shaping who we are.

Culture has struggled to get a handle on this problem for generations. In the 18th Century they talked of people having a ‘ruling passion.’ This was the organising principle around which all activities and aspirations were supposed to revolve. Alexander Pope wrote:

The ruling passion, be it what it will,
The ruling passion conquers reason still.

(Moral Essay iii: lines 153-154)

(Samuel Johnson, though, questioned the usefulness and validity of this concept in his usual robust fashion.) That they called it a ‘passion’ gives us a clue about what is going on here.

Samuel Johnson (for source of image see link)

Samuel Johnson (for source of image see link)

Erich Fromm’s book, ‘The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness‘ (1973: page 260) develops this idea very clearly.  He argues that, in human beings, character has replaced instinct as a driver of what we do. And character creates a special need in us.

Man needs an object of total devotion to be the focal point of all his strivings. In being devoted to a goal beyond his isolated ego, he transcends himself and leaves the prison of absolute egocentricity. He can be devoted to the most diverse goals and idols but the need for devotion is itself a primary, essential need demanding fulfilment.

This has created a god-shaped hole in the middle of our being. We cannot help but fill it with something. Our sense of identity is at stake. In 2001 the Bahá’í World Centre published a review of the Twentieth Century which contained these words (page 59-60):

The yearning for belief is inextinguishable, an inherent part of what makes one human. When it is blocked or betrayed, the rational soul is driven to seek some new compass point, however inadequate or unworthy, around which it can organize experience and dare again to assume the risks that are an inescapable aspect of life.

Is conviction, like atomic power, a double-edged sword? Can we truly say that no great enterprise was ever accomplished and no huge and large scale evil ever completed without it? If this is so, and I think it is because both great good and massive evil require great energy and great persistence, what determines whether it will be destructive or constructive?

Idealising something (or someone) seriously flawed corrupts us: I  think the opposite is also true and that worshiping something both better and greater than ourselves improves us. I would like to entertain the possibility that it is the object of our devotion as we understand it rather than simply the intensity of the conviction that makes the greatest difference, though if the object of devotion is less than good then the intensity of our devotion will strongly influence how destructive espousing that belief will make us.

Is there any object of devotion that does not induce in its followers intolerance and hatred towards others especially those who have a different god?

Tolerant Devotion

The issue of what determines the strength and nature of our convictions is not a straightforward one. When I was studying psychology for the first time in the 1970s I came across the work of Thomas Pettigrew, which is still referred to even now. It illustrates nicely the exact nature of the difficulty.

To put one set of his findings very simply, whether you were a miner  in segregated West Virginia or apartheid South Africa, the culture around you differed depending on whether you were above ground or below it. Below ground discrimination was potentially dangerous so the culture there frowned on it: above ground the culture was discriminatory. What was particularly interesting to me was that 20% of people discriminated all the time regardless of the culture and 20% refused to do so at all: 60% of people shifted from desegregation below ground to segregation above it (the percentages are approximate: the pattern is accurate).

The implications are fascinating.

First, as Richard Holloway stresses, most of us are ‘infirm of purpose’ and lack the courage of our convictions or even any convictions at all. We follow the herd, a potentially dangerous tendency.

Secondly, the proneness to develop strong convictions does not lead us to develop only the best ones. In the example of the mining communities, segregation and desegegration are antitheses and cannot both be right and desirable, but clearly both attract approximately equal numbers of adherents with equivalent degrees of courage in their convictions, in stark contrast to the moral cowardice or lack of conviction of the rest of us. It is questionable whether it is the ‘best’ that  ‘lack all conviction.’

Thirdly, while most of us are drifting with the tide rather than choosing a firm rock to cling to, the strong-minded do choose but on grounds that have little if anything reliably to do with their strong-mindedness. Authoritarianism  has been wheeled out as a favourite explanation for why people end up fascist or fanatical. It would though be hard to make it work as an explanation of the moral courage and firm conviction of a Martin Luther King or a Ghandi. The vision of these two men was not one of replacing their oppressors in power and becoming oppressors in their turn but of transcending oppression altogether.

So where on earth or in heaven does that leave us? Are these two men so exceptional that their example does not count? Or is a humane and constructive kind of strong conviction possible for most if not all of us?

A Possible Way Forward

When it comes to determining what might provide a positive vision of sufficient power to heal the divisions of the world of humanity, a consideration of religion is inevitable. Although I was brought up a Christian, became an atheist for nearly two decades and was strongly attracted to Buddhism for a period of years, the religion I know best is the Bahá’í Faith.

Much of what I will be describing in the next post about the vision I have derived from its teachings, is also to be found in other faiths. For instance, anyone who wants to know about the healing heart of the Christian message and the positively empowering concept of God it enshrines, there is no better place to go than Eric Reitan’s book, and I would also see God in much the same way as he does. His view also opens the way towards discerning the same spirit in other faiths.

One of his premises is that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion.  Our idealism, our ideology, will then, in my view, build an identity on the crumbling and treacherous sand of some kind of idolatry.

I will though confine my discussion now to what the faith I know best, with its inclusive vision of the divine, has taught me about a way out of this divided and intolerant state by which we are bedevilled. Even those who do not believe in the divine can relate to much of what I will be saying by reframing the ‘divine’ as their highest most inclusive sense of the ultimate good around which to organise our lives.

I am not claiming that others have not grappled with these issues: nor am I saying that what they have discovered as possible antidotes to fanatical intolerance is to be ignored or discounted. Zimbardo and McCullough, for example, have much of great value to say from which we can all learn a great deal.

I do believe though that religion and spirituality have recently been so demonised in certain quarters that we are in danger of neglecting the powerful antidotes to evil that they also can provide. It is to these that I wish to draw our attention in the next post.

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2950

Given my preoccupation with trauma and creativity, amongst other cheerful issues, it will come as no surprise to hear that I am almost certain to buy this book on death and poets. As far as I can tell from the Guardian review its combination of wit and wisdom will be hard for me to resist. Below is a short extract: for the full article see link.

Not the lives of poets, which Dr Johnson wrote about, but their deaths – whether early or late, in bed or in battle, accidental or self-inflicted. It’s a great idea for a book but one that could easily descend into ghoulish sensationalism or slick postmortem psychologising. It helps that the authors are poets themselves, whose agenda isn’t to rubberneck or lecture but to interrogate the Romantic myth “that great poems come at a heavy – ultimately fatal – price”.

If their previous collaboration, Edgelands, in 2011, was a pilgrimage to neglected corners of the English landscape, this one sends them further afield, to wherever it was (Boston, Vienna or Hull) that a poet’s last hours were spent. The hope is that by being there they can learn something – about the life and work, and how the manner of a poet’s death can affect, for better or worse, an understanding of his or her poems.

Henry Wallis’s portrait of the death of Chatterton – splayed body, abandoned drafts, arsenic phial – glamorised the image of the poet as sacrificial victim. Chatterton was just 17. The consumptive Keats (“that drop of blood is my death-warrant”) lasted only eight years longer. As other early casualties followed (Shelley, Byron, Rimbaud, Verlaine), the legend of the poète maudit took hold. Dylan Thomas, dying at 39 in New York after claiming to have drunk “18 straight whiskies”, gave it new vigour. According to his widow Caitlin, his “ridiculous” investment in the idea of the doomed poet was a self-betrayal – what he really liked was warm slippers, pickled onions and checking the cricket scores.

In the 1960s, the myth took an even darker turn, with the idea that personal disaster is necessary for great writing, and that – as John Berryman put it – poets who experience every worst possible ordeal short of suicide are “extremely lucky”’. For most, including Berryman himself, the luck soon ran out: he, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton all killed themselves. (Randall Jarrell, who walked out in front of a car on a dark road, almost certainly did too.) The poet and critic Al Alvarez articulated the “extremist” thesis in his study The Savage God and was later teased for it by James Fenton (“He tells you, in the sombrest notes, / If poets want to get their oats / The first step is to slit their throats”). In reality, factors unrelated to poetry were often involved: drugs, alcohol, marital breakdown and depression, and in the cases of Plath and Berryman the precedent of a self-destructive father. But the myth lost none of its allure: Edgelife or Ledgelife meant pushing oneself to the limit and beyond in the service of art. Suicidal painters added to the thrill, as did rock stars then and since.

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The best lack all conviction, while the worstSand Sculpture
Are full of passionate intensity.

(W. B. Yeats: ‘The Second Coming‘)

In the wake of the anniversary of 9/11 and as a response, however inadequate, to the enormity of the recent beheadings of three innocent hostages by IS, I feel it is worth republishing a sequence of posts I first published several years ago. The situation in the world is at least as fraught as it was then, if not more so, making the sequence still as relevant now. Moreover, I feel that the ideas I tried to pull together continue to deserve careful attention if we are to learn how to respond effectively to those influences within and around us that might pull us into the quicksand of extremism. This is the second of the sequence: the first was published yesterday

Ruling passion

We obviously need to take care what we believe in. It tends to determine the person we will become. Sadly, most of us devote more conscious effort to choosing a car than creating a character. We simply accept what we have been given, rarely assessing its value, rarely considering whether or not it could be changed for the better, and if we do feel dissatisfaction with what we have become we tend to test it against inappropriate measures such as the wealth it has brought us, the worldly success we have achieved, the number rather than the quality of our friendships, the power we derive from it and so on. We seldom carefully reflect upon our beliefs and how they have shaped and are still shaping who we are.

Culture has struggled to get a handle on this problem for generations. In the 18th Century they talked of people having a ‘ruling passion.’ This was the organising principle around which all activities and aspirations were supposed to revolve. Alexander Pope wrote:

The ruling passion, be it what it will,
The ruling passion conquers reason still.

(Moral Essay iii: lines 153-154)

(Samuel Johnson, though, questioned the usefulness and validity of this concept in his usual robust fashion.) That

Samuel Johnson (for source of image see link)

Samuel Johnson (for source of image see link)

they called it a ‘passion’ gives us a clue about what is going on here.

Erich Fromm’s book, ‘The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness‘ (1973: page 260) develops this idea very clearly.  He argues that, in human beings, character has replaced instinct as a driver of what we do. And character creates a special need in us.

Man needs an object of total devotion to be the focal point of all his strivings. In being devoted to a goal beyond his isolated ego, he transcends himself and leaves the prison of absolute egocentricity. He can be devoted to the most diverse goals and idols but the need for devotion is itself a primary, essential need demanding fulfilment.

This has created a god-shaped hole in the middle of our being. We cannot help but fill it with something. Our sense of identity is at stake. In 2001 the Bahá’í World Centre published a review of the Twentieth Century which contained these words (page 59-60):

The yearning for belief is inextinguishable, an inherent part of what makes one human. When it is blocked or betrayed, the rational soul is driven to seek some new compass point, however inadequate or unworthy, around which it can organize experience and dare again to assume the risks that are an inescapable aspect of life.

Is conviction, like atomic power, a double-edged sword? Can we truly say that no great enterprise was ever accomplished and no huge and large scale evil ever completed without it? If this is so, and I think it is because both great good and massive evil require great energy and great persistence, what determines whether it will be destructive or constructive?

Idealising something (or someone) seriously flawed corrupts us: I  think the opposite is also true and that worshiping something both better and greater than ourselves improves us. I would like to entertain the possibility that it is the object of our devotion as we understand it rather than simply the intensity of the conviction that makes the greatest difference, though if the object of devotion is less than good then the intensity of our devotion will strongly influence how destructive espousing that belief will make us.

Is there any object of devotion that does not induce in its followers intolerance and hatred towards others especially those who have a different god?

Tolerant Devotion

The issue of what determines the strength and nature of our convictions is not a straightforward one. When I was studying psychology for the first time in the 1970s I came across the work of Thomas Pettigrew, which is still referred to even now. It illustrates nicely the exact nature of the difficulty.

To put one set of his findings very simply, whether you were a miner  in segregated West Virginia or apartheid South Africa, the culture around you differed depending on whether you were above ground or below it. Below ground discrimination was potentially dangerous so the culture there frowned on it: above ground the culture was discriminatory. What was particularly interesting to me was that 20% of people discriminated all the time regardless of the culture and 20% refused to do so at all: 60% of people shifted from desegregation below ground to segregation above it (the percentages are approximate: the pattern is accurate).

The implications are fascinating.

First, as Richard Holloway stresses, most of us are ‘infirm of purpose’ and lack the courage of our convictions or even any convictions at all. We follow the herd, a potentially dangerous tendency.

Secondly, the proneness to develop strong convictions does not lead us to develop only the best ones. In the example of the mining communities, segregation and desegegration are antitheses and cannot both be right and desirable, but clearly both attract approximately equal numbers of adherents with equivalent degrees of courage in their convictions, in stark contrast to the moral cowardice or lack of conviction of the rest of us. It is questionable whether it is the ‘best’ that  ‘lack all conviction.’

Thirdly, while most of us are drifting with the tide rather than choosing a firm rock to cling to, the strong-minded do choose but on grounds that have little if anything reliably to do with their strong-mindedness. Authoritarianism  has been wheeled out as a favourite explanation for why people end up fascist or fanatical. It would though be hard to make it work as an explanation of the moral courage and firm conviction of a Martin Luther King or a Ghandi. The vision of these two men was not one of replacing their oppressors in power and becoming oppressors in their turn but of transcending oppression altogether.

So where on earth or in heaven does that leave us? Are these two men so exceptional that their example does not count? Or is a humane and constructive kind of strong conviction possible for most if not all of us?

A Possible Way Forward

When it comes to determining what might provide a positive vision of sufficient power to heal the divisions of the world of humanity, a consideration of religion is inevitable. Although I was brought up a Christian, became an atheist for nearly two decades and was strongly attracted to Buddhism for a period of years, the religion I know best is the Bahá’í Faith.

Much of what I will be describing in the next post about the vision I have derived from its teachings, is also to be found in other faiths. For instance, anyone who wants to know about the healing heart of the Christian message and the positively empowering concept of God it enshrines, there is no better place to go than Eric Reitan’s book, and I would also see God in much the same way as he does. His view also opens the way towards discerning the same spirit in other faiths.

One of his premises is that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion.  Our idealism, our ideology, will then, in my view, build an identity on the crumbling and treacherous sand of some kind of idolatry.

I will though confine my discussion now to what the faith I know best, with its inclusive vision of the divine, has taught me about a way out of this divided and intolerant state by which we are bedevilled. Even those who do not believe in the divine can relate to much of what I will be saying by reframing the ‘divine’ as their highest most inclusive sense of the ultimate good around which to organise our lives.

I am not claiming that others have not grappled with these issues: nor am I saying that what they have discovered as possible antidotes to fanatical intolerance is to be ignored or discounted. Zimbardo and McCullough, for example, have much of great value to say from which we can all learn a great deal.

I do believe though that religion and spirituality have recently been so demonised in certain quarters that we are in danger of neglecting the powerful antidotes to evil that they also can provide. It is to these that I wish to draw our attention in the next post.

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Guess Who?

Guess who in Fuxin Park, Shanghai

Let observation with extensive view,
Survey mankind, from China to Peru;
Remark each anxious toil, each eager strife,
And watch the busy scenes of crowded life;
Then say how hope and fear, desire and hate,
O’erspread with snares the clouded maze of fate . . . . . .

Samuel Johnson: opening lines of The Vanity of Human Wishes

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!

Those lines of the lovable curmudgeon of dictionary fame, which I read in secondary school, ignited a desire to travel to both those countries. I’ve now been to China twice. (Given how hard I found the long flight to China this time, I doubt I’ll ever make Peru.) After both trips to China, in 2009 and just recently, I came back wanting to write about my experiences, but finding myself thwarted by the complexity of my feelings, explained at its simplest as a conflicted and intense fusion of admiration and disappointment. This time I’m going to have a go at conveying at least some of what I experienced.

Johnson’s words make it very clear that what I found in China is simply their version of the same challenges you can find anywhere in the so-called ‘developed’ world – it just hits me harder and stands out more clearly because the clothes the problems wear are so different from the ones that I’m used to seeing.

And, a word of warning before we start walking down this road. As a Bahá’í, and as a psychologist influenced by McGilchrist, I take the word ‘developed’ with a pinch of salt. We’re all certainly ‘industrialised’ but that is by no means the same thing as developed. The former is rooted in a value system that prizes materialism and consumption, whether on the Marxist or the capitalist side of the divide.  We’re all a long way from the ideals espoused, though not invented, by the two men whose statues stand in Fuxin Park: ‘From each according to his ability: to each according to his need.’ And, I believe, no purely material ideology will ever get us anywhere near that kind of society.

China street food

Street Food in China

So, where to begin? How to explain my ambivalence about China as an emblem of a more general dilemma?

It’s hard for me to be objective about China, partly for personal reasons of probably small importance, but I need to mention them as they do cloud my judgement somewhat.

It’s no place for a vegetarian blogger like me to feel comfortable. In the UK I hardly ever set foot in a Subway or a Tesco. In Shanghai I’d have died of starvation without my regular Subway cheese sandwich and my daily dose of Tesco brown bread. Even the small advantage China had over India diet-wise – we could drink the tap water without falling immediately sick – disappeared when we were told that it was contaminated with heavy metals that were not neutralised by boiling. Fortunately, even though I was unable to confirm the information as all the relevant websites seemed to be blocked, we were able to buy bottled water for one yuan a litre and boil it to make tea. And that points to the other issue. In the UK, if I feel like posting something on FB or WordPress expressing the impulse is no more than a couple of clicks away. There the Great Firewall of China kept the world protected from the unwisdom of my opinions.

The censorship does not stop there, of course. While I could access the BBC News on my iPhone, watching the CNN News in our hotel room, broadcast from Hong Kong, was a different experience. You’d be watching an item on Mandela fading into an update on the recent Bo Xilai corruption trial only to see the screen blank out within seconds, to pick up later with something about the weather.

But then I knew all this before I went, as this was my second trip, and I am well aware that the Western world might be subtler and more constrained in its censorship and media bias, but those evils exist in our version of reality as well. I also know that China has one of the richest and most enduringly continuous cultures in the history of the world. It’s just that Shanghai brings the clash between China’s beauty and her less endearing fusion of Marxist and consumerist materialism into a stark and disturbing relief. That may be no bad thing if it alerts me to a similar clash on my home turf, where familiarity may have bred an undesirable blindness in me.  On the other hand, this may simply be the rant of someone stuck in the Nineteenth Century, where his parents had their roots and where his taste in literature and art has left him fossilised.

View from hotel windowSo, where did I detect signs of this disturbing clash?

The view from our hotel window above shows the downside in all its dehumanising oppressiveness. The unrelenting replication of high-rise storage cubicles for cogs in the new machine scars the skyline right across the centre of Shanghai. The newly built shopping malls, the ones that I saw only half full of empty clothing stores, were scattered almost everywhere, it felt. The older versions, like the one below, are still thriving, but the superficial shine seeks to conceal the hollowness of their promises.

Shopping MallThere were places where an attempt to keep the old beauty alive shared living space with the towering monuments of consumerism. The Buddhist Jing’an Temple was a good example. It had been destroyed by fire. The TravelChinaGuide explains:

The temple has a history of more than 780 years. First built in the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280), it was named Hudu Chongyuan Temple. In the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), it was moved to the present location from the bank of Wusong River and became a busy and crowded place until 1908; the first tramcar was built as Jing’an Temple for its starting station. Later, a famous calligrapher renamed it as Jing’an Temple in 1945 and is still named as such today. Unfortunately, the temple was burnt down to ruins in 1972. However, the reconstruction began after 1984, so the Hall of Heavenly Kings and the Three-Sage Hall were repaired in succession. In 1990, the whole temple was finally opened to the public.

The photo below shows how the recreation of its former splendour has to battle with the hubris of modernity (for more photos see link). The sheer height of the tower calls to mind later lines from Johnson’s poem (73-76);

Unnumbered suppliants crowd Preferment’s gate,
Athirst for wealth, and burning to be great;
Delusive Fortune hears th’ incessant call,
They mount, they shine, evaporate and fall.

Jing'an highrise

The places where I felt most at home were the parks, such as Fuxin, and the museums. There were quiet spaces there, far from the din of the traffic, the shock of the silent electric bike coming at you from behind on the pavement, the ‘getting and the spending’ that Wordsworth complained about in his sonnet. Shanghai left me in no doubt that I am a dinosaur. I felt as battered at the end of each day as the statue hidden along its green path in Fuxin Park. I envied it its secluded illusion of safety.

Fuxin statue

 

Most days in the park, round about lunchtime, you could hear the sound of music from a path near the tea room. If you wandered in that direction you would find about twenty people of various ages, but mostly in their fifties or older, almost all couples except for one or two alone, dancing ballroom style on the same concrete as an old man used at other times to write in water on the ground. The patterns of movement that they wove came from an age long gone by and were as evanescent, under the warmth of that cloudy sun, as the delicate calligraphy with which the old man momentarily beautified the grey paving stones beneath my feet.

Painting with Water

Somehow the graceful spirit of old China, which was embodied in Confucius, in Lao Tse, in Chinese Buddhism, like a butterfly in a coal mine perilously survives in spite of the grinding of the wheels that are hauling it into the carbon burning glare of its industrial revolution. I fervently hope that the society the current generation are creating will end up with that same spirit at its heart, but Shanghai leaves you feeling that it would take a miracle for that to be so.

Garden in Yangzhou

Garden in Yangzhou

I recognise that Shanghai is not typical of China as a whole. Yangzhou, where I spent most of my time on my last visit, has (or at least had then) a better balance between the dark side of industrialism and the graceful charm of old China. Nor am I sentimentally assuming that old China was all wonderful. Women had their feet bound and the Emperor was a god with a bureaucracy to match. And, of course, we do need to transmute the beauties and the values of past ages into a new form suited to this new age. But I feel that Shanghai is a kind of signpost pointing to where many cities in China could end up if things carry on as they are. Also it hurts to see so many of us everywhere, and in China so starkly, Judas-like destroying what we should be protecting for a handful of corroding silver.

But then, perhaps I believe in miracles. After all, in the Ming Era they managed to uncannily anticipate and combine the abstraction of our modernism with the grace of the China of those days. Maybe that might still be possible for us now. Maybe there is still time.

Antique with a modern feel

A Ming Era couch (1368–1644)

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The best lack all conviction, while the worstSand Sculpture
Are full of passionate intensity.

(W. B. Yeats: ‘The Second Coming‘)

Ruling passion

We obviously need to take care what we believe in. It tends to determine the person we will become. Sadly, most of us devote more conscious effort to choosing a car than creating a character. We simply accept what we have been given, rarely assessing its value, rarely considering whether or not it could be changed for the better, and if we do feel dissatisfaction with what we have become we tend to test it against inappropriate measures such as the wealth it has brought us, the worldly success we have achieved, the number rather than the quality of our friendships, the power we derive from it and so on. We seldom carefully reflect upon our beliefs and how they have shaped and are still shaping who we are.

Culture has struggled to get a handle on this problem for generations. In the 18th Century they talked of people having a ‘ruling passion.’ This was the organising principle around which all activities and aspirations were supposed to revolve. Alexander Pope wrote:

The ruling passion, be it what it will,

The ruling passion conquers reason still.

(Moral Essay iii: lines 153-154)

(Samuel Johnson, though, questioned the usefulness and validity of this concept in his usual robust fashion.) That

Samual Johnson

Samuel Johnson

they called it a ‘passion’ gives us a clue about what is going on here.

Erich Fromm’s book, ‘The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness‘ (1973: page 260) develops this idea very clearly.  He argues that, in human beings, character has replaced instinct as a driver of what we do. And character creates a special need in us.

Man needs an object of total devotion to be the focal point of all his strivings. In being devoted to a goal beyond his isolated ego, he transcends himself and leaves the prison of absolute egocentricity. He can be devoted to the most diverse goals and idols but the need for devotion is itself a primary, essential need demanding fulfilment.

This has created a god-shaped hole in the middle of our being. We cannot help but fill it with something. Our sense of identity is at stake. In 2001 the Bahá’í World Centre published a review of the Twentieth Century which contained these words (page 59-60):

The yearning for belief is inextinguishable, an inherent part of what makes one human. When it is blocked or betrayed, the rational soul is driven to seek some new compass point, however inadequate or unworthy, around which it can organize experience and dare again to assume the risks that are an inescapable aspect of life.

Is conviction, like atomic power, a double-edged sword? Can we truly say that no great enterprise was ever accomplished and no huge and large scale evil ever completed without it? If this is so, and I think it is because both great good and massive evil require great energy and great persistence, what determines whether it will be destructive or constructive?

Idealising something (or someone) seriously flawed corrupts us: I  think the opposite is also true and that worshiping something both better and greater than ourselves improves us. I would like to entertain the possibility that it is the object of our devotion as we understand it rather than simply the intensity of the conviction that makes the greatest difference, though if the object of devotion is less than good then the intensity of our devotion will strongly influence how destructive espousing that belief will make us.

Is there any object of devotion that does not induce in its followers intolerance and hatred towards others especially those who have a different god?

Tolerant Devotion

The issue of what determines the strength and nature of our convictions is not a straightforward one. When I was studying psychology for the first time in the 1970s I came across the work of Thomas Pettigrew, which is still referred to even now. It illustrates nicely the exact nature of the difficulty.

To put one set of his findings very simply, whether you were a miner  in segregated West Virginia or apartheid South Africa, the culture around you differed depending on whether you were above ground or below it. Below ground discrimination was potentially dangerous so the culture there frowned on it: above ground the culture was discriminatory. What was particularly interesting to me was that 20% of people discriminated all the time regardless of the culture and 20% refused to do so at all: 60% of people shifted from desegregation below ground to segregation above it (the percentages are approximate: the pattern is accurate).

The implications are fascinating.

First, as Richard Holloway stresses, most of us are ‘infirm of purpose’ and lack the courage of our convictions or even any convictions at all. We follow the herd, a potentially dangerous tendency.

Secondly, the proneness to develop strong convictions does not lead us to develop only the best ones. In the example of the mining communities, segregation and desegegration are antitheses and cannot both be right and desirable, but clearly both attract approximately equal numbers of adherents with equivalent degrees of courage in their convictions, in stark contrast to the moral cowardice or lack of conviction of the rest of us. It is questionable whether it is the ‘best’ that  ‘lack all conviction.’

Thirdly, while most of us are drifting with the tide rather than choosing a firm rock to cling to, the strong-minded do choose but on grounds that have little if anything reliably to do with their strong-mindedness. Authoritarianism  has been wheeled out as a favourite explanation for why people end up fascist or fanatical. It would though be hard to make it work as an explanation of the moral courage and firm conviction of a Martin Luther King or a Ghandi. The vision of these two men was not one of replacing their oppressors in power and becoming oppressors in their turn but of transcending oppression altogether.

So where on earth or in heaven does that leave us? Are these two men so exceptional that their example does not count? Or is a humane and constructive kind of strong conviction possible for most if not all of us?

A Possible Way Forward

When it comes to determining what might provide a positive vision of sufficient power to heal the divisions of the world of humanity, a consideration of religion is inevitable. Although I was brought up a Christian, became an atheist for nearly two decades and was strongly attracted to Buddhism for a period of years, the religion I know best is the Bahá’í Faith.

Much of what I will be describing in the next post about the vision I have derived from its teachings, is also to be found in other faiths. For instance, anyone who wants to know about the healing heart of the Christian message and the positively empowering concept of God it enshrines, there is no better place to go than Eric Reitan’s book, and I would also see God in much the same way as he does. His view also opens the way towards discerning the same spirit in other faiths.

One of his premises is that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion.  Our idealism, our ideology, will then, in my view, build an identity on the crumbling and treacherous sand of some kind of idolatry.

I will though confine my discussion now to what the faith I know best, with its inclusive vision of the divine, has taught me about a way out of this divided and intolerant state by which we are bedevilled. Even those who do not believe in the divine can relate to much of what I will be saying by reframing the ‘divine’ as their highest most inclusive sense of the ultimate good around which to organise our lives.

I am not claiming that others have not grappled with these issues: nor am I saying that what they have discovered as possible antidotes to fanatical intolerance is to be ignored or discounted. Zimbardo and McCullough, for example, have much of great value to say from which we can all learn a great deal.

I do believe though that religion and spirituality have recently been so demonised in certain quarters that we are in danger of neglecting the powerful antidotes to evil that they also can provide. It is to these that I wish to draw our attention in the next post.

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