To understand the past, it’s essential to know history, but to have an idea where humanity is going, “it’s better to have a sense of history than to know history” as my friend and TNH contributor Alexander Billinis likes to say.
During the lockdown, baseball – the most past-rooted of all sports – and history have been on my mind. Trying to get a feel for humanity’s fate, baseball metaphors came in handy.
Science and technology are the fastballs of history – some societies just don’t have the hard stuff – so the economies feeding their military develop too slowly, and they are swallowed by neighbors.
Those trends are not hard to spot, but history sports a great curveball too, stuff you never see coming: religion.
New religions are history’s big slams that crush nations, double plays great states hit into, and winning streaks by outsiders that disrupt societies. And they seem to come out of nowhere. In Hellenic history we can cite Islam, iconoclasm, and Hesychasm – the latter Orthodox movement, while valuable spiritually, contributed to the Fall of Constantinople.
What political extremist and religious movements have in common is that their adherents often think similarly, and they usually emerge during times of chaos and crisis – like ours.
But the form and content of religious movements can’t be foreseen. There’s a good chance that the most important paths leading to our future might not be our current concerns, not even the disruptive ones, like AI, robotics, populism, etc.
When Samuel Huntington warned about civilizational conflict, he meant the religions and denominations of his time. But we must also be alert to new ones, especially since for many, the prevailing anti-establishment fervor extends to mainstream religion. In the past religious movements have overthrown establishments, in the future, they may threaten our democracies.
We face a general challenge, however, as individuals in discussions, and as a society: we must do a better job confronting the irrational in politics.
That is the concern that motivated this article. The power of the internet to disperse fantasies and the devaluation of facts (or their selective use) and the abandonment of logic (or its too ‘flexible’ application) is disturbing.
This even among highly skilled professionals like doctors and lawyers, for whom empirical evidence and reasoning is of the essence.
They claim – I think they believe it – that they are looking at the world scientifically, but they are not ‘doing science’, they are doing religion. They know fact-based logical reasoning – because that’s what they do from 9 to 5! – but unlike science, when they encounter a fact that threatens their belief, they tend not to even consider it, let alone allow it to change their mind. When they do use evidence and logic – again, selectively – they use it to demonstrate what they already believe. Like a theologian.
That is the mass component, but there is an elite element, too: political leaders are being treated like religious leaders. Followers do not put their ‘theories’ to the test. ‘Conspiracy theory’ is a misnomer – for them it’s not a theory. They have the truth, not the way people like Newton, Darwin, and Einstein fervently believed they were right – after discovering new evidence and approaches – but the way Joseph Smith did.
We laugh at the monsters in Scientology and Mormonism and similar religions and are puzzled at how Jehovah’s Witnesses continue to thrive despite the world not ending in 1914 as they predicted – yet many well-educated people are believers.
The trouble is, we now encounter analogous elements in political discourse in America and Europe, the world’s most advanced societies, where you hear about sinister forces and individuals in their dark fantasies about the world. The Anti-Vax movement seems like a religion and the Trump phenomenon has been called a cult – he can do no wrong and nothing can persuade believers he is unfit for office because he is the ‘Savior’. Trump’s opponents will say his charisma is rooted in his giving people permission to hate certain groups, but his supporters say they hate the world’s evil forces and the evil people in the so-called Deep State (i.e. our government and our dedicated public servants).
I finally learned you can’t argue with them – because for them it’s a matter of Faith, not Reason.
But that is not the disturbing thing. Good friends disagree about many things from religion to baseball, but divides of this kind – not over opinions and priorities but about reality – are potentially devastating for democracies. Can you now confidently rule out Theocracy in America with faith in secular governments at all-time lows?
Politicians – populists, and establishmentarians – come and go. A time will come when the names Clinton, Bush, and Trump will be footnotes or jokes, like William Jennings Bryan, or Calvin Coolidge (put together) are to us today. Indeed, I have a dear friend who would not be worried if Trump lost in November because the anti-establishment political movement he fueled is more important than the man-child most Americans now see. But can my friend be sure the ideas and grievances, passions and fantasies will feed his movement, and not a toxic religious movement with a political agenda?
History provides more anxiety than reassurance: Some portions of the rich and powerful are always attracted to new religions – but today they control wealth and technology that can seize governments. That’s not a curveball, it’s a filthy slider – but the above is just food for thought – for now.