‘Freedom, free thought, and science will lead them into such straits and will bring them face to face with such marvels and insoluble mysteries, that some of them, the fierce and rebellious, will destroy themselves, others, rebellious but weak, will destroy one another, while the rest, weak and unhappy, will crawl fawning to our feet and whine to us: "Yes, you were right, you alone possess His mystery, and we come back to you, save us from ourselves!"
(The Grand Inquisitor, Fyodor Dostoevsky)
There was a spirited discussion going on until recently over at winstoninabox’s atheism blog which centred, I think, around the extent to which an ideology is responsible for unsavoury actions that are implied by that ideology. Winstoninabox disclaims any connection between atheism per se and the actions of atheist regimes, even actions taken with the stated aim of suppressing religion. Talking heads mouth platitudes about Islam as a ‘religion of peace’, ignoring the copious statements made by Muslim radicals, impeccably supported by Qur’anic quotations exhorting violence.
I can understand the motivation, I think, for trying to construe your vision of the universe, such that your ideology is lily-white and blameless of any negative consequences, but I think such an effort is doomed, and I have never ever been tempted to it myself. This is probably a historical accident arising from the fact that the ideologies I have most closely associated myself with since before I was consciously aware there were ideologies were the ideologies associated with the Roman Catholic Church and the United States of America. Those are things that are too large, too complicated, to avoid throwing up countless examples of people doing bad things and logically justifying them by the ideology. You cannot pretend that the Inquisition was not logically connected to Catholicism; you cannot pretend that Sherman’s march through Georgia was an aberration unconnected to the principles of republican federalism. You have to say, ‘yes, but’ and accept your ideology as the flawed thing striving towards perfection that it is. In a more fundamental way, this is also the Catholic way of looking at everything, so is very deep in my bones. I don’t expect my ideology to be faultless any more than I expect myself to be faultless.
Anyhow, my point, and where I am hoping to turn the discussion on vex cathedra eventually, is this:
Let’s say I have been convinced, like Tim Minchin, that life is meaningless. However, I am not just an individual, but part of a society. The implications of what I believe affect my whole society. When my belief is competing in idea space, I need to consider those implications with the same ruthless honesty that I employed in coming to my stark realisation that life is meaningless. And one of those implications arises from the fact that people do not like to believe that life is meaningless. Let us say my belief steamrolls through my society, overcoming weak and divided ideologies that assert life has a meaning. And then someone else comes along and says, speaking with authority, not like the scribes and pharisees: of course life has a meaning. And it is this meaning, here (points). Join us! They will have a pretty good run of it. Because if someone doesn’t have a very strong intellectual structure supporting their belief that life is meaningless, it will just collapse like a house of cards when exposed to a sufficiently confident assertion that life has a meaning. To the extent that I am successful in propagating my belief, I am softening up society for a belief that might be might be diametrically opposed to mine. So, isn’t it better, in any true sense of the word, for me to behave like Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor? To stare into the abyss of meaninglessness, realise that it is too much for people to bear, and turn back. Never forgetting the abyss, and the hole it leaves in my own soul, but devoting myself for the good of others to supporting a belief system I don’t believe in. Because I have seen that the society that is implied by that belief system will work, if the belief system is confidently asserted, and the people of that society will be happy and healthy, like the people of Utah are happy and healthy, and they will not be seduced into madness and death by prophets bearing strange faiths out of the desert.
I have probably written here before of a conversation I had in August 2001, with one of the principal figures of a conservative Catholic student group, where he asserted that the principal conflict of the 21st century would be the same as the principal conflict of the 12th century: a struggle between Christianity and Islam. I thought he was right then. Thirteen years later, I still think he was right, and his assertion seems less contrarian with each passing year.