The Idiocracy of Ideology


Most individual human beliefs are formed from the social groups and cultures of which they are a member.  Rejection of widely held group foundational beliefs--whether religious, political or moral--is typically regarded as disloyal behavior by the group and such disloyalty may be severely punished.  Yet, no religious ideology can be true because all gods are myths.  And, no political ideology can be true because all individuals are ultimately driven by their own subjective self-interest; something that no political ideology can ever satisfy for all people.

In societies which do not value free expression, a person who rejects established religious or moral beliefs may be deemed a heretic, a blasphemer, an apostate or a criminal.  In some cultures, the penalty for professing non-belief is death.  Even in pluralistic cultures which value free expression, the rejection of established norms of belief can easily create hostile and even violent reactions.  We see examples of this even on liberal US university campus such as Berkeley, where academic freedom is an important value.  Yet when controversial figures propose to make speeches advocating unpopular views, hostile audiences and violent reactions often occur resulting in halting or canceling the speakers.

The implicit threat of social ostracism for non-conformist beliefs results in a natural self-interested tendency for most individuals to follow group beliefs, or at least to refrain from public challenges.  The most interesting thing about this is that group values and beliefs, whether they be moral, religious, political or social, are almost always mere fictions that lack any objective foundation.  The fact that these belief systems are fictions does not subtract from their power or ability to gain adherents.

Despite the great advances of science in developing an understanding of the universe, huge numbers of people still accept supernatural explanations for the origins of man and the universe and deny scientifically and empirically established facts.

People tend to be utterly impervious to rational arguments pointing out that their beliefs are based on myths and fictions.  This results from the believers having incorporated group fictions into their own personal identities.  For example, a person might say, “I am a Catholic” or “I am a Muslim.”  Of course this is nonsense.  The individual is a human being not “a Catholic”, but he has chosen to identify himself by reference to his religious affiliation, thus defining his own existence as an agent of his religion.

These dynamics can easily lead to mass delusions and not only religious ones.  Millions of Germans sacrificed themselves for the deluded ideology of Nazism.  And millions of Russians and Chinese and others were sacrificed on the altar of communist beliefs.  The fact that the underlying belief-systems were utterly nonsensical did not stop millions from sacrificing themselves in their name.  And many followed along loyally regardless of their actual beliefs.

False belief systems are a powerful tool to ensure social conformity and cohesion and affirmative group action and dissidence is often not tolerated.  Yet not all fictional belief systems are harmful.  The world’s faith in the illusion of money has allowed the international economic system to achieve unparalleled growth which could not have occurred without an accepted medium of exchange.  The belief that humans have certain natural and inalienable rights has eliminated much unnecessary suffering even though the existence of natural rights is purely imaginary.

Core beliefs, however fictional, help hold human societies together and increase our prosperity and wellbeing.  They have an important practical purpose and can therefore be the most fortuitous of fictions.