Bob Bates —
In his book Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil (2013), Paul Bloom, psychology professor at Yale University, reports on the work he has conducted with his team of experimental researchers that addresses fundamental issues regarding the bases of morality in humans: good vs bad, right vs wrong, fair vs unfair. What makes their psychosocial studies unique is that their subjects are children, ranging from infants to toddlers to elementary age kids. Bloom presents convincing evidence that, to a great extent, we are hardwired at birth with a sense of morality. His sweeping conclusion: “Even before they can speak and walk, babies judge the goodness and badness of others’ actions, feel empathy and compassion, act to soothe those in distress, and have a rudimentary sense of justice.” These conclusions are evidenced in scores of experimental studies, some of which are globally, cross-culturally demonstrated.
So why is human history filled with prejudices, injustices, and violence? As if we weren’t aware, the influence of adult groups and cultures shape and condition children, vulnerable in their innocence. While Bloom sees a window of hope for the future, he acknowledges that “up to now the main problem with humanity is that our circle of concern has tended to be cruelly small.” Bluntly, far too much we tend to be overly self-centered and willfully ignorant or dismissive of the dignity and needs of others.
Esteemed 20th century psychiatrist Karl Menninger (1893-1990) openly defined “sin” as the commission of any wrongfulness usually incorporating “the willful disregard or sacrifice of the welfare of others for the welfare or satisfaction of the self,” ranging from subtle to blatant. Further, he went so far as to say this is “at heart … a breaking away from God and the rest of humanity,” an exclusion of care, compassion, and love from one’s feelings, attitudes, thoughts, and actions. Sins of commission are obvious and voluminous; sins of omission are more like a vacuum, with no personal space for others, especially those viewed as different from us.
Bloom notes that wisdom of the ages, like the Golden Rule and its variations, needs the constant reinforcing of mutual empathy and equitable principles to motivate us toward compassionate attitudes and actions. From a universal perspective, no one is born morally privileged; we can learn and practice caring beyond our small self. Says Bloom, “Once we have a commitment to impartial principles, this can trump our self-interest. We sacrifice to do what we feel is right.” His research with children supports this claim. Bloom offers an optimistic hope that sustains him: “A critical part of our morality—so much of what makes us human—emerges over the course of human history and individual development. It is the product of our compassion, our imagination, and our magnificent capacity for reason.”
Education and programs to incorporate such qualities into general society serve to nurture improved circumstances and outcomes as children grow and become, in their own right, adults with influence. Pertinent here is a recently released international report ranking 155 countries on their overall well-being, or “happiness.” People rated their happiness on a range of measures, including personal freedom, social support systems, trust, generosity, and quality of life. The top seven countries were Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, Finland, the Netherlands, and Canada. Trailing by a considerable margin was the United States, at 14th.
We Americans love being #1, at the top of the heap, reveling in our superiority. Though one study may not prove much, a brief analysis reveals that countries practicing or leaning toward “democratic socialism” come off looking good in the eyes, minds, and hearts of their people. Bloom, no doubt, would view this as reinforcing his points; inclusivity and caring on an array of psycho-social issues reaps obvious rewards—circles of concern are expansive.
Conversely, exclusivity (in the rear-view mirror of history) fares badly, too often tragically so. Prolific British writer Karen Armstrong has extensively examined the long scope of world history to try to discern the relationship of religion to violence. She found that in their totality across time each major world religion—Daoism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—shared common elements of systemic inequities, injustices, and sustained intermittent violence. Invariably these were consequences of imbalances of privilege and wealth, and abuses of power.
In each tradition, however, counterbalances arose. Communities formed around sages, prophets, and mystics to protest and develop more egalitarian, peaceable practices. Armstrong stresses that we recognize, given the long span of these varied religio-civilizations, that the contexts of their times were different from ours, stating, “It is clear when pre-modern people engaged in politics, they thought in religious terms and that faith permeated their struggle to make sense of the world in ways that seem strange to us today.”
Weighing all this history, Armstrong concluded, “The problem lies not in the multifaceted activity that we call ‘religion’ but in the violence embedded in our human nature and the nature of the state, which from the start required the forcible subjection of at least 90% of populations.” It seems evident that violence results from our inability to form lasting peaceable relationships with one another, whether religion is an active component or not. Bottom line with Armstrong, “We are all, religious and secular alike, responsible for the current predicament of the world.”
If no one has a monopoly on violence, and history documents few periods when there have not been active wars, what does our future hold?
Scholar of ancient religions, theologian, and prolific author John Dominic Crossan is most apprehensive about the incremental escalation of violence. Technological advancements in weaponry have always eventually been used, though the most horrible ones have come under “rules of war” which seek to stem their use. Nonetheless, the destructive capacity of modern weapons, accompanied by fragmentation of political and social stability, plus the rise of non-state ruthless tactics that honor no external rules—a frightening unholy trinity—place our world in a heretofore inexperienced jeopardy. The challenges to genuine communication exchanges and diplomacy are thus under unique stresses in our current world.
In his definitive The Psychology of War, a scholarly psychoanalytical evaluation of why and how humans almost continually are engaged in war, psychologist Lawrence LeShan writes, “The trouble with our species is not an excess of aggression, but an excessive capacity for fanatical devotion.” The blood, gore, and massive destruction history has witnessed comes overwhelmingly from unquestioned “loyalty to one’s tribe, nation, dynasty, church, or political ideology.” War represents mythic patriotic opportunity to fulfill “two basic drives: to individualize ourselves and to be part of a group,” promising “greater meaning in one’s life without requiring one to go outside the mainstream of one’s culture.” Participation in war feeds “our definition of what makes a superior human being,” offering a chance to demonstrate bravery and courage, and to experience the “intense belonging and loyalty to one’s ‘brothers’,” including a “willingness to sacrifice life and limb for a glorious cause.”
LeShan extends this, citing, “In its powerful immediacy, wartime is Good vs Evil, Right vs Wrong, Us vs Them, even God vs Satan.” Its focus is “whoever wins now wins forever, and that from this comes current and future meaning” for us, determining the state of the world as “embodying our conceptions, ideologies, and way of life—the true meaning of why we must go to war.” In the heat of such fervor, “alternatives short of war cannot be tolerated, as that will mean the enemy is winning.”
For 1400 years in Western Civilization, before nation-states came to prominence in the 17th century, church and state did not function separately, being intertwined as a unit. As a result, history documents a long succession of intimidation and bloody conflict: (1) from about 313 AD Christianity within the vast Roman Empire was aggressively political, and eventually papal armies engaged in warfare; (2) by the middle 600s Muslim armies had conquered large regions of the Near East, Europe, and the Mediterranean area, and dominated these for the next half-millennium; (3) a series of eight Crusades by Christian armies, spanning 275 years, sought to drive Muslims out of the Holy Land, with the result being wholesale bloodshed on both sides and sometimes the indiscriminate slaughters of Jews; (4) subsequently, three centuries of European holy wars arose at the behest of one version or another of Christianity; this period also included the Inquisition, with its intermittent torturing and killing of Jews; and (5) starting in the late 1400s, Europeans’ forcible claiming of New World regions, often replete with brutal subjugation and slaughtering of indigenous populations, spread this heritage well beyond the Old World.
Current fellow of the British Royal Historical Society and Cambridge professor Christopher Catherwood, in examining the past 14 centuries of Western civilization, states it is “simply realistic” to conclude that Christianity’s and Islam’s internal and external conflicts—particularly the intolerance and ugliness of fundamentalism persisting in both, especially in their sociopolitical ramifications—will continue to indefinitely undermine any meaningful understandings, cooperation, or peace. And, at worst extremes, religious and state endorsed violence, harnessing “the dark heart of humanity, the desire to kill one’s fellow creatures with the sanction of the divine” will likely be with us for a long time, yet.
The 21st century rise of non-state terrorist groups should not surprise us, as they have deep and enduring roots. Historian of British Colonial India and related Far East and Arabian cultures, Charles Allen, traces their roots back to a period covering from the late 1200s to the mid-1700s and beyond. Almost constant peripheral but sometimes direct tensions and conflicts developed in Christian and Islamic cultural encounters. As a consequence of four centuries of European colonialism, within Islam several extreme fundamentalist strains asserted themselves. The two that remain in predominance are the Wahhabi influence in Arabia (arising with the mid-1700s House of Saud) and the offshoots of the now-Pakistan/Afghanistan “independent border” regions.
The meaning of Islam is literally the surrendering of one’s whole being to the will of the One God/Allah. Traditionally, three paths are to be integrated to achieve this. Sharia is the outer path or law; Tariqah, the spiritual path; and Haqiqah, the inner state or deeper reality. Allen observes, “The Muslim umma (world community) is made up overwhelmingly of pious, law-abiding men and women with strong moral values who wish nothing more than to live in harmony with their Muslim and non-Muslim neighbors. They want to see others embrace their faith, but are no more bent on world domination than Christian Evangelicals who wish to see humankind ‘saved’.”
However, even though they represent a comparatively small slice of Islam, groups such as the Wahhabis, Taliban, Al Qaeda, and ISIS place almost total emphasis on a strict, inflexibly authoritative version of Sharia. They use selective passages from the Quran that justify and reinforce their extreme intolerance of infidels and apostates. Thus, they internalize LeShan’s uncompromising Good vs Evil and Us vs Them approaches to their perceived holy duty to serve as righteous warriors for Allah.
Lest we be too quick to point out how such views are conceptually inadequate for rational discussion and problem solving, and point a condemning finger at Islam only, I refer you to Ron Berger’s Wise Guys review of Paul Froese and Christopher Bader’s survey research as reported in the book America’s Four Gods, which found that 55% of Americans hold as common belief that God “sits above the natural order and is never subject to the laws of nature.” This God divinely intervenes in worldly affairs and will both judge and punish in order to correct human behavior. Further, one in six Americans holds the belief that there is no escaping ultimate divine justice and that punishment awaits evildoers in the afterlife. Not that there is necessarily anything wrong with these belief systems, but analyses of how they get translated into daily life tend to show that widespread inertia predominates as people await God’s actions rather than implementing necessary activity themselves in their here-on-earth presence.
How ironic is it that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam claim the same God and many of the same traditions, yet on-and-off through centuries each has waged vicious propaganda and violence directed at one another? And how disappointing—and disgraceful—is it that so rarely do influential figures from each faith meet and genuinely communicate on positive common beliefs, values, and principles with any significant attempts to engender real and meaningful mutual understanding and cooperative actions directed at resolving ongoing problems?
If most religions and governments cannot seem to solidify breakthroughs that elevate humanity, we individually and in groups must humbly lead by example and model better ways. As Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr says, “All the conflicts and contradictions in life must find a resolution in us before we can resolve anything outside ourselves. … We cannot change the world except insofar as we have changed ourselves.” The big lesson in life is right before our eyes: to learn and apply this in our daily relationships. Paul Bloom’s work shows us that children have a naturally inherent starting foundation, an intrinsic starting point. Times are urgent that humanity reclaims this birthright.
Charles Allen, God’s Terrorists: The Wahhabi Cult and the Hidden Roots of Modern Jihad (2006).
Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism (2000) and Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence (2014).
Christopher Catherwood, Making War in the Name of God (2007).
John Dominic Crossan, How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis Through Revelation (2015).
Paul Froese & Christopher Bader, America’s Four Gods: What We Say About God—and What That Says About Us (2010).
Lawrence LeShan, The Psychology of War (1992/2002).
Karl Menninger, Whatever Became of Sin? (1973).
World Happiness Report 2017, edited by John Helliwell, Richard Layard & Jeffrey Sachs, http://www.worldhappiness.report.