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Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Pettigrew’

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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The fourth Taráz concerneth trustworthiness. Verily it is the door of security for all that dwell on earth and a token of glory on the part of the All-Merciful. He who partaketh thereof hath indeed partaken of the treasures of wealth and prosperity. Trustworthiness is the greatest portal leading unto the tranquillity and security of the people. In truth the stability of every affair hath depended and doth depend upon it. All the domains of power, of grandeur and of wealth are illumined by its light.

(Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh – page 38)

Altruism Black EarthIn October I posted a sequence of three articles reviewing the thinking of two contrasting writers: Timothy Snyder, an historian with an interesting message about the Holocaust and World War II in his book The Black Earth, and Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk and neuroscientist with an impassioned and well-documented plea for altruism in his book of the same name.

I felt that the sequence of posts failed to do justice to the depth and extent of Ricard’s case and am therefore revisiting the final few chapters of his book in an attempt to put that right. It’s only fair to add that his book covers so much ground that all I can convey of his wealth of detail is a faint impression.

The System

Ricard radically questions the operational model of our acquisitive society. We are not homo economicus (page 564), ‘selfish agents’ out to promote ‘their own interests.’ We are potentially homo reciprocans with a desire to ‘cooperate’ and consider ‘the benefits to the community’ in what we do. He quotes Amartya Sen who wrote (page 565): ‘Taking universal selfishness as read may well be delusional, but to turn it into a standard for rationality is utterly absurd.’

He first quotes (page 566) Milton Friedman’s purblind declaration that any other policy for corporate officials than maximising the dividends of stockholders would ‘undermine the very foundations of our free society.’ The word ‘free’ there is of course doubly ironic: those who pay the true price of our society are anything but free. Then he follows up with Frans de Waal’s damning analysis: ‘Every advanced nation has had major business scandals [over the last 10 years] and in every case executives have managed to shake the foundations of our society precisely by following Friedman’s advice.’

He argues the evidence strongly suggests that the kind of regulation libertarians fear is conducive to economic growth (page 571). Their fantasy of a ‘free market economy,’ far from being stable, leads to global crashes. He quotes the research of Thomas Picketty, which demonstrates that, even in-between crashes, none of the wealth realised by the elite trickles down to the less well off (page 572). And the unkindest cut of all came with 2008 crisis: bankers walked off with bonuses while others, lower down this disgraceful pecking order, lost their homes and/or their jobs (page 573). It is not without significance that, between 1998 and 2008, the financial sector spent 5 billion dollars lobbying politicians in the States (page 574).

Having painted a dark picture of the way our system has worked up till now – and believe me I have only picked out a tiny number of his main points in this summary – he moves onto possible solutions.

First of all, using the address of the economics professor, Dennis Snower, to the Global Economics Symposium in 2012, he homes in on (page 578) our need to take proper account of two issues.

One is ‘collective/public goods:’ these include democratic freedoms, the state of the environment, and natural resources.

The other is ‘poverty in the midst of plenty.’

There are major obstacles to addressing this effectively and Ricard is not blind to them (page 580):

. . . . . in a world where politicians aim only to be elected or re-elected, where financial interest groups wield a disproportionate influence on policy makers, where the well-being of future generations is often ignored since their representatives do not have a seat at the negotiating table, where governments pursue national economic policies that are to the detriment of the global interest, decision-makers have barely any inclination to create institutions whose goal would be to encourage citizens to contribute to collective wealth, which would serve to eradicate poverty.

Snower contends, and Ricard agrees with him and so do I, that reason alone will never get us beyond this point (page 581):

. . . . no one has been able to show that reason alone, without the help of some prosocial motivation, is enough to persuade individuals to widen their sphere of responsibility to include all those who are affected by their actions.

Emp CivilWe have been here before of course on this blog, in the consideration of Jeremy Rifkin’s solution to a similar dilemma. In his book The Empathic Civilisation, because he does not accept that there is a God of any kind and contends that theology is suspect, he chose what he calls ‘biosphere consciousness’ as the motivating factor (page 432):

A globalising world is creating a new cosmopolitan, one whose multiple identities and affiliations spend the planet. Cosmopolitans are the early advance party, if you will, of a fledgling biosphere consciousness. . . .

For not dissimilar reasons perhaps in terms of persuading his readers, and obviously because he is a Buddhist, in his book Ricard chooses to advocate altruism (ibid):

Combined with the voice of reason, the voice of care can fundamentally change our will to contribute to collective goods. Such ideas echo the Buddhist teachings on uniting wisdom and compassion: without wisdom, compassion can be blind without compassion, wisdom becomes sterile.

He goes on to argue for (page 583) an ‘economics of reciprocity,’ and quotes various examples, such as the Mondragon Corporation (pages 584-86) where ‘the members of the cooperative (on average 80%-85% of the total number of workers at each company) collectively own and manage the company.’ The best paid earn only six times more than the lowest paid compared to the 400 times more in some American companies. The founding of the company dates back to 1956, and it is still going strong.

Ricard also discusses the value of ‘socially responsible investing’ (SRI). He does not see such approaches as flawless, explaining (page 593) that some such investors, while avoiding tobacco and armaments, will still put our money into oil, gas or pharmaceuticals. He argues for developing this further (page 594) into ‘positive economy stock exchanges,’ and feels progress in this direction is being made by such ventures as the Social Stock Exchange in London, which finally opened in 2103.

The Individual

We live in an economy (page 606) which, to quote Victor Lebrow, ‘needs things consumed, burned, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever-increasing rate. Tim Kasser’s research has demonstrated that consumerism reduces life satisfaction and habitual materialists (page 607) lack compassion, are exploitative of others and often lack close friends.

A particularly interesting set of findings that Ricard quotes, given the importance attached to trustworthiness in the Bahá’í Faith, concerns Denmark, where levels of satisfaction with living conditions is high (page 611):

It is not one of the world’s wealthiest countries, but there is very little poverty and inequality. [The high level of reported satisfaction] can be explained, among other things, by the high level of trust that people feel towards each other, including toward strangers and institutions: people’s natural instinct is to think that a stranger is kind. This trust goes hand-in-hand with a very low level of corruption.

Ricard raises the issue of ‘altruism for the sake of future generations.’ If we accept the reality of climate change, as most of us now do, our behaviour will unarguably affect our descendants for the worse if we do not change it. However, there are interesting dynamics at work here, rather similar to the one I have explored already in terms of prejudice.

personaluse2_6206924~A-South-African-Miner-Drives-a-Drill-into-Veins-of-Gold-Ore-on-the-South-African-Rand-Posters

South African Miner (for source of image see link)

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 problem Ricard says we are still facing in terms of responding to climate change.

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 ever: 60% of people shifted from desegregation below ground to segregation above it (the percentages are approximate: the pattern is accurate).

Ricard quotes the research of Kurzban and Houser (page 631-32). They conclude from their research that:

20% of people are altruists who bear the fortunes of future generations in mind and are disposed to altering their ways of consumption to avoid destroying the environment. . . . . .

[However], around 60% of people follow prevailing trends and opinion leaders, something that highlights the power of the herd instinct in humans. These ‘followers’ are also ‘conditional cooperators:’ they are ready to contribute to the public good on the condition that everyone else does likewise.

The final 20% are not at all inclined to cooperate and want more than anything to take advantage of all the opportunities available to them. They are not opposed to other people’s happiness in principle, but it is not their business.

This clearly indicates that reaching the tipping point, where most people have widened out their unempathic tunnel vision to embrace the whole of humanity and future generations in a wide-angled embrace, is some way off still. He goes on to outline the many practical steps that lie within our reach, such as recycling more of our waste metals and moving to hydrogen powered cars. Enough of us have to want to bring those steps into reality before change will occur at a fast enough rate.

And that issue will be the focus of next Monday’s post.

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For source of image see link

For source of image see link

In the last post I began to share some thoughts about whether current economic theory could solve our problems. I had reached the point of beginning to look at whether capitalism can deliver us from the dangers we are drifting deeply into.

Possible Restraints?

Setting aside inequality, moderately rising living standards on their own can come with an excessively high price tag in terms of quality of life in general. An example that comes readily to my mind is that of China. Figures, as I remember them from about four years ago, indicated that economic growth had lifted 200 million Chinese people out of poverty, obviously a welcome development for all those who benefited. Part of what helped drive that growth was the building of coal fired power stations at the rate of roughly one per week. New cars were flooding onto the road in their thousands per week. During the same period nearly one million Chinese people were dying of pollution-related diseases per year, obviously not a welcome development for those affected. Yes, the Chinese economy is managed by a one-party state, but that does not devalue this as a good example of where untrammeled growth on a capitalist-style economic model can lead.

Therefore the question arises: ‘Do we have to exert ourselves to meet expectations of unsustainable living standards which have unacceptable consequences?’ Want is not the same as need.

For source of image see link

For source of image see link

In their thought-provoking book Flourishing John Ehrenfeld and Andrew Hoffman put the matter bluntly (page 12):

“Humans have changed Earth’s ecosystems more in the past 50 years than in any comparable historical period.” We have increased species extinction rates up to a thousand times over rates typical for Earth’s history. Almost 25 per cent of the world’s most important marine fish stocks are depleted or over-harvested, while 44% are fished at their biological limit and vulnerable to collapse. As we extract the world’s riches, we contaminate its atmosphere, altering our global climate through the unabated emission of greenhouse gases.

And these impacts are not evenly distributed. According to the UN, the richest 20 per cent of the world’s population consumes over 75 per cent of all private goods and services, while the poorest 20 per cent and consume just 1.5 per cent. Of the 4.4 billion people in the developing world (more than half of the world’s population), almost 60 per cent lack access to safe sewers, 33 per cent have no access to clean water, 25 per cent lack adequate housing, and 30 per cent have no modern health services.

This inevitably leads to a consideration of the kinds of restraints that need to be placed upon a ‘free market.’ Basically how laissez faire can we afford to be about market forces?  Surely they have to be counterbalanced and constrained by other considerations including moral ones.

Even when we are at war, while we need to listen to the generals, we must also be aware of the need for the constraints we currently call the Geneva Convention. Just as war is clearly not a desirable permanent mode, the same may be true of capitalism and its attendant dependency upon growth. There has to be some kind of constraint on its operations. How tight would those measures be before advocates of the status quo ruled them out as an unacceptable dilution of capitalism?

A more radical shift?

Moreover, if evolutionary thinkers see us as capable of developing beyond revenge and competition, and see cooperation as equally wired in and more compelling perhaps, we can transcend what drives us to consume as well as what makes the idea of profit so irresistible.  If so, would capitalism be the only viable model still?

Even as it stands, there are models of economic activity that, within their own terms, operate on a somewhat different logic, for example distributing profits more equitably and giving some power to influence company decisions to workers and surrounding communities. Economics is evolving – natural resources are no longer treated in economic models as inexhaustible gifts that do not have to be taken into account when determining the long-term costs and viability of projects.

Jeremy Rifkin, whose book The Empathic Civilization I referred to last time, is advocating what he called ‘distributed capitalism.’ In brief he feels that (page 544):

. . . the simple reality is that distributed information technologies and a distributed communications and energy infrastructure are giving rise to distributed capitalism and necessitate a new type of management.

I will be returning to his thinking in far more detail in a later sequence of posts. Clearly socialism is not the only alternative to relatively unbridled capitalism.

There are, of course, those who contend that we must look beyond both socialism/communism and capitalism. John Fitzgerald Medina, for instance, in this thought-provoking book, Faith, Physics and Psychology, argues (page 230):

Both systems place undue importance on economics as the core of civilisation. . . . From a spiritual perspective, in spite of all their surface differences, capitalism and socialism, when applied in actual practice, have both been destructive to human beings, communities, and the environment.

He regards it as imperative that we develop an approach to economics that is rooted in moral and spiritual values. I will be revisiting his thinking in more detail at a later date.

Any attempt to suggest, as has been the case, that violence may have its roots in simple racism, with nothing added on from a divisive and competitive system, and that nothing does more to reduce violence and many other social ills than the rising standards of living that capitalism alone makes possible, is too simplistic. This is true even if we set aside how entangled the development of racism is with the slavery that made possible the rate of economic development America enjoyed. And also true even when we set aside the evidence that the current economic model in America, blended with its residual racism, is maintaining horrific levels of inequality and compromising the efficacy of the educational system to remedy that. I will be going into far more detail about that in a subsequent sequence of posts.

As hinted at last time, I have dealt at length on my blog with the sources of prejudice which include the disgust reflex (Hauser), the hive switch (Haidt), culture (Pettigrew), and there is more to group violence than prejudice as Zimbardo explains in The Lucifer Effect and Milgram suggested very early on in his repeatedly re-examined studies of obedience. So, violence is not reducible to racism, and racism is not simple.

I accept there are benefits to liberal democracy. However, there are reasons for believing that its party political divides may need to be transcended as no longer fit for purpose, and just as they were the result of evolutionary processes over long periods of time it seems likely that we are going to have to undergo similar processes to lift us further up the ladder of development, economic, political, and legal, to create structures and systems adequate to the world in which we now find ourselves. As the Bahá’í World Centre indicates, this will be the work of centuries. If we do not, we will find that our modes of operation are too simplistic for the global conditions that confront us just as other systems have been tested and found wanting in the past.

Whether the shift in economic systems will be one of degree or kind is not yet completely clear.  Certainly that a massive shift of some kind is required, is unarguable, in my view.

Emp Civil

Jeremy Rifkin sees his ideal of ‘distributed capitalism’ as being effective only in the context of ‘biosphere consciousness’ (pages 598-99):

Our dawning awareness that the Earth functions like an indivisible organism requires us to rethink our notions of global risks, vulnerability, and security. If every human life, the species as a whole, and all other life-forms are intertwined with one another and with the geochemistry of the planet in a rich and complex choreography that sustains life itself, then we are all dependent on and responsible for the health of the whole organism. Carrying out that responsibility means living out our individual lives in our neighbourhood communities in ways that promote the general well-being of the larger biosphere within which we dwell.

I will have more to say about the adequacy of that motivator when I look at Rifkin’s thinking in more detail in a later sequence of posts.

The Bahá’í view is that our civilisation is at a tipping point and a fundamental change of focus is demanded of us. It is not a question of replacing money as a driving force, nor even about efficiency in some narrow sense. It is to do with consciousness-raising. A statement from the Bahá’í World Centre on social action explains:

In addition to a sound financial system, the question of efficiency needs attention. What should be avoided are limited conceptions of efficiency, for instance, those that consider only the relation of output to material input, even when the latter includes some quantitative measure of effort. A more sophisticated understanding of efficiency seems to be required. With regard to input, for example, work that is motivated by a spirit of service and an inner urge to excel clearly has a different value than work that is used as a vehicle to advance one’s personal interests. As to results, to give another example, the accomplishment of a particular task—say, the construction of a small facility for a school—may be far less important than the development of the participants’ capacity to cooperate and engage in unified action.

Such a shift of consciousness, as Rifkin, Medina and the Bahá’í model fully recognise, has to be part of a wider shift in understanding. For Rifkin this is a secular shift still in terms of biosphere consciousness: for Bahá’ís there has to be a spiritual dimension that enables us to see that our connection with other human beings and with the life-world goes deeper and higher than biology alone.

But that will be the subject of longer and later sequences of posts.

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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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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.

Read Full Post »