Friday, August 1, 2014

Still an idealist

The definition of an idealist is "a person who is guided more by ideals than by practical considerations."  Although guided by those ideals, I also try to remain aware of practical reality.  In particular, the latest installment of the never-ending conflict in the Middle East puts my ideals to the test.  Yes, that part of the world has been in violent dispute for thousands of years.  Radicals, goaded on by their leaders, employing their personal interpretations of religious faith, have used terrorism, genocide, and war to try to carry out their political ends.  I say "try" because it's pretty evident they've all failed to achieve a stable peace through violence.  It's widely accepted that it's a form of insanity to keep doing the same things over and over again and expect a different outcome.  I'm told by some that it's foolish to hope for the madness that permeates the region (and occasionally spills out on the rest of the world) to end one day, to hope that the warring sects eventually will come to realize the futility of their violence.  Well, my message here is that I just can't give up that hope, even though my understanding of this unreal "reality" is that there's no such hope in the near future.

Vengeance for wrongs committed is poor excuse for violence.  It can't bring back those killed in previous violence, and whatever "satisfaction" is served by murder in the name of vengeance is ephemeral.  Such hatred only serves to destroy the hater from the inside.  For believers, consider Leviticus 19:18 ... "Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD."  That message appears over and over in the bible.  And in the koran, a similar sentiment can be found "The recompense for an evil is an evil like thereof."  Of course, in those same documents can be found very contradictory calls (or even demands) for violence against their enemies.   Apparently, in Abrahamic religions, vengeance is not entirely left in the hands of their deity - or at least the message in this regard is pretty mixed.

Ironically, the unceasing violence that dominates the Middle East is thoroughly covered with the cloak of "religions of peace".  Like politics, the mindset of religion is dominated by unthinking, unquestioning obedience.  Religion and politics often are bedfellows in the rape of humanity - not always, of course, but history says this is a common situation.  Sometimes politicians see religion for what it is:  a means of exercising control over people, and so some politicians seek the suppression of religion since it can be a competitor for that control.  But religions typically survive (or even thrive) under political suppression - believers often see themselves as being persecuted for their beliefs, even as believers persecute others for their different beliefs.  One need only to look at theocracies or nations dominated by one religion to see the fruits of such tribalism.

Nationalism and religion are simply tribalism made manifest.  Tribalism is the ultimate source of "us versus them" - it requires conformity (obedience, control), rewarding those who support the tribe and punishing those who don't.  Tribalism simultaneously can induce compassion (reserved for the tribe members) and encourage cruelty (toward members of other tribes).  Tribalism is buried deeply in our evolutionary heritage and so has become instinctive.  We find comfort in the security of surrounding ourselves with people of similar beliefs and are discomforted in the presence of those who differ from us.  It's the wellspring from which bigotry, hatred, and violence flow.  That sort of "thinking" likely was helpful to the survival of early humans and so is hard-wired in our brains.  But what was helpful in days of primitive human existence is not at all helpful today.  Seeking company only of like-minded people nowadays is seen by many as harmful and counter-productive:  being challenged by someone of a different mindset is seen by many as a good thing.  Interestingly, some of those mouthing such words are, in fact, wholly dismissive of opposing viewpoints.  This had led the US to a deeply divided society:  liberals in one tribe, conservatives in another, who pour invective on the "enemy" and their leaders.  Wake up, folks!  This is unproductive tribalism and, given free rein, it ultimately can lead us to violence.

Since I'm an idealist, I must maintain the hope we can overcome this.  There are some who proclaim the secular humanist viewpoint that it's unhealthy to surround ourselves with those of entirely like minds.  We can think things through and if we do so, it should be possible to suppress our tendency to yield to tribalism, to push back the anger and the bloodlust that tribalism generates to support our wish to impose vengeance on those who differ from us.  Our experience tells us that achieving vengeance only hardens the will of the "tribe" upon which we exact vengeance - it creates a never-ending "feud" that can only achieve more of the same.  It creates new recruits for our "enemies", ready to sacrifice themselves just to kill us.  Surely we can agree not to give in to primitive urges, choosing instead to embrace diversity.  Tribalism is no longer the path to human survival.  We must work together to solve our many challenges in the modern world, or we risk falling back to a much more brutal form of existence.