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    Religious Impulse and Evil

    Today’s lecture is likely to be a highly unpopular one. I will argue that evil is among us and that we good people are the cause. Moreover, I’ll try to show that it is our own best intentions that are most likely to lead to evil outcomes. It is all the fault of our religious impulse, the very same human impulse behind formal religions like Judaism and Christianity, yet also the impulse behind both the Nazi and Communist parties and their genocides. Worse, I think this evil impulse is still alive and well in the guise of modern liberalism.

    People really get mad when you accuse them of doing wrong, especially if the criticism has some ring of truth. So I’m going to start with a little humor to lighten things up. That way, y’all think I’m just a regular folksy kind of guy and may be marginally less likely to mail me letter bombs and/or throw me into some deep dungeon.

    Q. How many liberals does it take to screw up a light bulb?

    A. A majority in Congress.

    A Not So Bright Idea

    I may be an aging reactionary who cannot keep up with the times. (That’s another technique. Admit to your opponent’s rebuttal before he has a chance to say it.) But I think that energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs are a really bad idea, even though we will soon be required to use them by law.

    Compact fluorescent bulbs use maybe 75% less energy with similar brightness. They may cost ten times more than incandescents, but they last maybe twenty times longer. So fluorescent lighting can save us money. Plus by reducing electricity consumption, they should allow power plants to burn less oil and release less carbon dioxide, which makes them appealing to the Global Warming faithful. And by reducing oil imports, they could decrease our dependence on potential enemies in the Middle East and elsewhere. No wonder mandating such bulbs was one of the early priorities for the newly Democratic congress in 2007 (though Republicans were persuaded as well and President Bush signed the law).

    As often happens with new laws, there turn out to be some problems. For one thing, I would bet partisans have inflated the data to some degree. For example, newer “long life” incandescent bulbs typically last a lot longer the 1000 hours usually quoted, though there is a slight reduction in energy efficiency. Also, saving oil with efficient light bulbs is a dubious accomplishment since we could save a whole lot more oil if we just stopped burning it for electrical power. I think people are overly alarmist about nuclear power given of a narrative fallacy that associates nuclear bombs with nuclear power. If we used more nuclear electrical power, we would conserver our precious oil resources for applications like materials and transpiration, where there are fewer good alternatives.

    There are some even more serious drawbacks to compact fluorescent bulbs. First, their light quality is not nearly as good. That may not matter much to those who prefer television, but they aren’t as good if you like to read. Chemical fluorescence is naturally monochromatic. Atoms fluoresce by releasing energy in fixed quanta at one or a few fixed frequencies. Just like newer and more efficient LEDs, fluorescent bulbs do not produce broad spectrum white light and are typically have much more blue than incandescent bulbs or sunlight. Sure, improving technology can and will improve the whiteness of fluorescents, but probably by reducing their efficiency and increasing their cost. In addition, fluorescent do not work well with dimmers, which cut off the power for a fraction of each 60 Hz cycle. That means less saved energy as mandated fluorescents must be used without dimming and significantly higher costs for expensive versions built to cope with dimmers.

    Most disturbing of all, fluorescent lights all use mercury. Mercury is a substance so toxic that we can no longer get reliable oral thermometers. Mercury is a neurotoxin and can make you stupid and/or crazy. Plus it is carcinogenic. Breaking a fluorescent bulb can be hazardous to your health. Worse, such bulbs cannot be thrown out along with normal trash because they are toxic waste. They must be specially recycled and so are a great boon the few businesses who can handle that. But of course there is no way that everyone will carefully recycle such bulbs. So the dubious goal of reducing global warming will very likely have the real consequence of toxic waste in landfills throughout our nation. Now that it is too late, people are waking up to the environmental dangers of mandatory fluorescent bulbs. Very possibly, compact fluorescents will “save” the environment by helping destroy it.

    Secular Religion

    Advocates of energy saving bulbs are not stupid. They are just acting stupidly because their “religious” beliefs make it difficult to think rationally about the subject. Or to put it more charitably, what seems rational to them does not to me. If you religiously believe the end of the world is coming in the guise of global warming, then possibly inferior light bulbs are not a problem. Moreover, you assume they are worthwhile for the rest of us too. We humans naturally assume that our religion should apply to everyone. Sure there is religious freedom here in the USA, but that does not necessarily apply to secular religions like Global Warming.

    When I talk about secular religions like Global Warming, I’ll bet you think I’ve been exposed to a little too much mercury myself. But I really do think it is useful to use “religion” for any unquestioned belief, because secular religions probably result in the same human tendencies and have some of the same consequences, both good and bad, as real religions. We have an ingrained tendency to believe what those around us believe, which is one vital factor that makes human society and civilization possible. It is this genetic tendency toward religious belief that helps us cooperate, at least in small groups. Yet it is the same trait that leads to parochialism, intolerance, hatred and war on a larger scale.

    The tendency to share beliefs as a society is what I call our religious impulse. But by “religion”, I don’t just mean faith in some sort of God. For the same religious impulse that has sought divine explanations for the human condition throughout history, also leads to behaviors that have nothing to do with God, especially in modern and increasingly secular times. Call it our religious “gene”, since I am pretty sure it is a genetic trait and not just a cultural one. We tend to believe even without rational evidence. We have faith that some things are right and others are wrong, often without really knowing why.

    The religious impulse is a good thing, since it binds society together. But it is also a very bad thing since it tears our world apart with tribal divisions and warfare, between nations and also between classes and cultures. Simply put, both secular and spiritual religions help us survive together but conversely help us kill each other.

    The Good and the Bad

    There is a natural human tendency to believe in good and evil, to believe that there are “good” people and “bad” people. It is certainly a strong part of our culture and probably all cultures throughout history. Our drama and even our evening news cannot exist without protagonists and antagonists. Teaching good versus evil is probably essential in raising children to be civilized adults. So believing there is evil in the world appears to be a cultural necessity.

    Yet believing that there are good and bad people may be the most potent evil of all. Sure, we must all decide between right and wrong. And there are certainly bad outcomes in our world. But it seems to me the very human nature that binds us together into cohesive civilizations, the trait that allows us to cooperate and create wealth, advancing technology and art, the tendency to believe causes us to separate the world into two kinds of people, the bad and the good. Moreover, we naturally consider ourselves to be one of the good people. I think this tendency may be the primary source of human evil. Bad things happen in this world, but avoidable bad things are almost always the result of this tribal instinct.

    The really dangerous thing is that this tendency to believe that there are bad people and that they are not us, this religious gene leads to a kind of blindness to the real evils in our world. It leads us to believe that we are not the problem, the problem is the “bad” people. It makes it nearly impossible for us to see when we may again be on the same road to unspeakable evil that our ancestors trod. They were evil while we are working for good. The same road that is the cause of most wars in our own time. They are not us. They kill people, we do not. We are good people.

    One of the least understood secrets of all time is that everybody believes that he or she is basically a good person. In real life each and every one of those those villains out there, criminals, murderers, lawyers, politicians and even the occasional software engineer, believes that he or she is basically working for the good of society and not just for personal gain. Real villains exist only in fiction or in the eye of the beholder.

    So when our politicians vote to take health care dollars from a few wealthier citizens in the hope of providing better care for some of the less fortunate, it is a fair exchange and they are doing good in their own eyes. If nationalizing health care has the happy side effect of herding nearly 20% of American workers into government or government-sponsored jobs and probably into government unions, which might just lead to vastly increased political power down the road for those same politicians voting for “reform”, that is fine since the politicians are good people working for the good of others. How can reform and improving the health care of poor Americans be evil? We all know that good people with good intentions can make mistakes, that reform may not work as expected, but those mistakes cannot be evil because we are good people trying to help others as best we can.

    Years from now it may turn out that it is really expensive to provide universal health care. All of those unionized health care providers who no longer work more than forty hours because they are basically government employees without much incentive, working in a nightmare of bureaucracy and waste, and all of those extra demands from citizens rightfully requesting their share of “free” health care, will probably have driven up costs to the point where American health care is really broken and not just in need of a little “reform”. What will we do then? We will do “good” of course, or at least the best we can in a difficult situation. People are going to die anyway, so if rationing health care kills a few of them a little sooner, it is just a necessary evil for the greater good. Make no mistake. Our political class just voted to kill Americans down the road. They are almost surely doing great evil with the best of intentions.

    I am sure that Nazi Germany also had the very best of intentions when they first decided to curtail the rights of some Jews. The Jews had too much money that they did not deserve, they had different values and were morally objectionable from the German point of view. So why not a few laws to reign them in? Jews were not really citizens, or at least should not have been citizens. As their religion itself admitted, they were a nation apart, a “chosen” people. They deserved what they got. And even if they did not, it was all for the greater good of the German people, who were even better than good people, who were glorious in their own eyes. (Note to the stupid: This is sarcasm and my view of Nazi thinking rather than my own opinion. I myself am a Jew.)

    Stop and think about the following. Wall Street bankers have too much money that they do not deserve, they have different values and are morally objectionable from the liberal point of view. So why not a few laws to reign them in? If you are among the many who would agree, backup and reread the virtually identical statements about Jews in the previous paragraph.

    Never forget that good people can do evil. They do it all of the time. But I have already argued that this is human nature, so what can we do? I believe there is an answer, a philosophy that combats our tribal instinct to harm others who we see as different and bad. This philosophy is simply to try to live and let live, to avoid meddling in the private affairs of others. And to me, it is a basically conservative philosophy that most liberals do not deign to follow.

    Conservatives and Liberals

    Political conservatives and liberals both attempt to influence public policy. They typically differ in the kinds of policy they favor, and that is how we typically categorize them. Conservatives prefer more private enterprise, self initiative, and self responsibility, with less government. Liberals believe government intervention is essential to reduce the evils of society and so prize government control over private initiative.

    I think there is a more important difference which explains the problems I have with liberal politics and why as I’ve written elsewhere, “liberals often seem to side with the angels but end up doing the devil’s work.” This essential difference is that liberals have a greater tendency to see the world as good versus evil, and they more often assume that the evil is someone else’s fault.

    In my conception of liberal psychology, there are evil people among us, and we can improve the world by stopping them. Don’t get me wrong, since I am aware that we all have a strong psychological tendency summarize the world as a morality play. That is what I am doing here. But I think conservatives are more prone to think of the world’s problems as something we all help create. Conservatives are more likely to look to themselves as sinners and believe that they can make a better world by improving themselves rather than by forcing others to improve.

    Liberals seem more likely to intervene in other people’s business, even when the evil they perceive is harming some third party underdog rather than themselves. Conservatives are more interested in improving the world as it relates to themselves.

    The Liberal Religion

    What does our religious impulse have to do with liberal politics, since humans of all political persuasions are religious? Certainly, we all tend to believe its the other guy’s fault. And indeed it is the conservative right that is usually the most religiously orthodox.

    Yet, it seems to me that liberals are more prone to secular religious fanaticism. Maybe modern liberalism is the new religion in a post-religious world. Almost by definition, liberals are usually in favor of change. An irrational fanatic out to change the world is potentially more dangerous than a conservative fanatic content to let most things stay as they are. The conservative is less likely to try to force any sort of change upon the world, ill considered fanaticism included.

    Last fall, I read an excellent though quite politically incorrect book by George Gilder called The Israel Test. Gilder argues in passing that the Nazis of World War II fame have more in common with the political left than we assume. I am not yet sure how much truth there may be in this, but it is a very interesting unpopular idea. In German, Nazi is an abbreviated form of “National Socialist German Workers’ Party”, so they considered themselves socialists championing worker rights, just like the liberal left. (Though I sincerely hope modern liberals are not nearly so “religiously” intolerant as were the Nazis.)

    Conservative capitalists believe in letting each consumer decide for himself. Are energy efficient light bulbs worth the possible inconveniences and dangers? To a conservative, that probably depends on who you are and what you value, so its better to allow freedom of choice. Liberal socialists believe they and their government know what is best for us all. For them, fairness dictates we all must share the burden of obviously good ideas. To me, real evil often consists of believing we know what is best for others rather than just taking care of ourselves.

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    Reader Comments (1)

    Much food for thought.

    January 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSusan

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