Some time ago, I wrote a piece on this blog about peace activists during the Vietnam war. The gist of it was that whether or not to go into the military was a difficult decision back then, and that motivations varied from person to person regarding that decision. Many activists were sincere in their opposition to the war, but many more were simply saving themselves, and got into the anti-war effort as a justification. My own decision to join was similarly motivated by personal considerations. I was not a believer in the cause either way, really; my parents had fled the Soviet Union and were no fans of communism, and I couldn’t bring myself to break their hearts.
Anyway, a friend of long standing took exception to something I said in the comments in response to a reader’s comment, expressing disappointment that I would say such a thing; what it was is not relevant to this post. What is relevant is that our relationship has changed since then. It got me to thinking about our default thinking about our fellow humans, perhaps even ourselves.
We seem to begin with the assumption that people are intrinsically bad, and while we’re willing to give people the benefit of the doubt, we accept the first bit of evidence, even the flimsiest at times, of their inherent wickedness. Once done, there’s no going back.
It’s easy enough to see this as a reflection of the teachings of the dominant religions in the world; we are wicked, unworthy, and can only be saved by supernatural intervention. If left to our own devices, we are condemned to eternal, horrifying anguish, and, what’s more, we deserve it.
It might be more insightful to turn this explanation around. Religions are the reflections (and amplifications) of our natural tendencies.
Why on earth would that be a feature of our nature? I think the evolution of our social co-dependency goes a long way toward explaining it, and the key to understanding it is that, conversely, we tend to resist thinking ill of our closest friends and relatives, no matter how much evidence there is for it. The result is the coalescing of the core social group, while pushing outward those at the periphery. In short, it’s not wise to trust someone you don’t know very well, and who might have an allegiance to another group. Historically, or rather, prehistorically, I suppose, our welfare was intimately tied to the welfare of our core group. When agriculture developed and spawned urban civilization, groups became much larger and intertwined in a complex way; it’s no accident that religion as we know it developed precisely then. Originally, there was no distinction between religion and ideology, it all served the same purpose: as the glue that bound together these larger, more complex social groups. It’s not surprising that the precepts and values under this new situation would be the same as those we had for the 2 or 3 million years of our existence as hunters and gatherers. They represent the sow’s ear from which we fashioned our silk purses.
Have we outgrown the utility of such conventions? No doubt, but there seems little we can do about it beyond just being aware of it. Evolution is a matter of more generations than we’ve had to deal with all the changes we’ve wrought upon ourselves.