Thursday, April 17, 2014

As Above, So Below

"It would be very surprising if there wasn't a genetic basis to the psychological predispositions which make people vulnerable to religion. 
One idea about irrationality that I and various other people have put forward is that the risks we faced in our natural state often came from evolved agents like leopards and snakes. So with a natural phenomenon like a storm, the prudent thing might have been to attribute it to an agent rather than to forces of physics. It's the proverbial rustle in the long grass: It's probably not a leopard, but if it is, you're for it. So a bias towards seeing agency rather than boring old natural forces may have been built into us."

- Richard Dawkins

Ran across this little article while looking up something else Dawkins had said, but this comment brings up an important point, and it's not about religion. I maintain that social competition is the defining and self-destructive adaptation of the human species. When discussing the environmental pressures which might have led to the human tendency to anthropomorphize seemingly random occurrences, the focus should not be on the conveniently mute leopards and snakes, but on the much uglier truth of human society.

We are our own worst enemy. If you're a caveman and a rock falls on your head, it may be accident, it may be divine wrath, but it's also quite likely to be the chief's daughter eliminating you as a social threat without risking open conflict. That rustling in the grass is quite likely your best friend waiting to gut you because she's been telling him he's not man enough for her if he doesn't turn on you.
Many events commonly passed off as amorphous, inevitable societal ills are in fact quite reasonably attributable to the competitive drive of others. When you work overtime to get only a fifth of what your fatcat boss put into his latest convertible, it's not because there just isn't enough money to spread around so we can all live comfortably. It's because he is deliberately impoverishing you to enrich himself. When your child mindlessly trend-hops demanding you buy the latest pop-idol's poster, it's not because pop idols are somehow intrinsic to intellectual development. It's because schools have been turned into advertising platforms in addition to jails. And when you get stabbed for the twenty dollars in your pocket, it's neither accident nor divine will but the inherent greed and sadism of your fellow woman.
When a storm blows over your house, it is partly the greed of the builders and real estate developers who built a shoddy plywood-and-plaster house to cut costs and maximize their profits that's to blame. Our instinct to blame a sentient entity has a very solid root. It's just misdirected. 

One great over-riding power-play has been precisely what's evident in Dawkins' wording: that we are taught to shy away from pointing out the innate viciousness, malice and treachery of the human animal. Our tendency to seek purpose in actions taken against us is rooted in our natural state, yes, but it is our natural state, not the leopard's. There are indeed sinister, destructive, unscrupulous forces at work against us but their name isn't Yahweh or Satan, it's Exxon-Mobil, Goldman Sachs and Bob your bestest bootlick bud who's angling for the same promotion as you.

This is the glue that holds human society together. We glorify willful ignorance, the sleeve hiding the dagger until it becomes useful. We fear to admit that what humanity needs is dehumanization.

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