How beliefs enable atrocities

The foundations for the atrocity of the 1994 Rwandan genocide can be traced to maladaptive beliefs. The troubling circumstances in Rwanda translated into enmity manifested in the in-group versus out-group thinking of ethnicity. Traditionally, the Tutsis were more powerful, and the Hutus were seen as a lower class of people. This ethnic and class division between Hutus and Tutsis was operative in Rwandan colonial and pre-colonial history. After the colonial period, the Hutus naturally blamed the hard times on the Tutsis, which were seen as parasitic animals. This belief caused the Hutus to slaughter both moderate Hutus and Tutsis. In the 1990’s the cultural differences and prejudices were exploited and magnified until a catalyzing event sparked the genocide.

Humans commit atrocities like the Rwanda genocide as a result of their beliefs. Beliefs cause atrocities in ways that no other mental states can. As Voltaire said, “If they can make you believe absurdities, they can make you commit atrocities.” All actions are based on propositions, and beliefs are propositions that are taken to be true statements about reality. No sober person acts on beliefs that are not theirs.

There are also dangerous attitudes that accommodate maladaptive beliefs. For instance, the view that people can believe whatever they want, as long as they do not act them (or “force them down my throat”) represents a disconnect from reality. Beliefs are important, if not, the essential predictors of human behavior. This is why it should be acceptable to judge people according to their beliefs. This should be especially applied when one has the chance to participate in choosing leaders. If one sanctions or considers a belief legitimate, that individual is partly responsible for the potentially dangerous outcomes of the belief.

When a believer finally commits an atrocity, one can often hear the claim “hate the sin, not the sinner.” This is another claim, which on its surface looks reasonably diplomatic, but actually is outrageous. The “sin” cannot be a continuing problem without the “sinners.” It truly is important to care what other people believe, and to apply pressure to them through the power of conversation. Whenever someone seriously represents that they strongly believe something with insufficient evidence, they pay the price in ill-concealed laughter or rejection. This is actually one of the benefits of freedom of expression. The cure for a bad argument should not be censorship, but a better argument.

There is an underlying fact that maladaptive beliefs in any form are dangerous in that they do not exist in isolation. Also, there is a conflict between beliefs and reality that can be narrowed down to this: either a person has good reasons to believe, or he does not. How one handles this conflict between reality and beliefs determines the extent to which beliefs are harmful. Sometimes the harm is confined to believers. Other times, the harm spreads to others. This occurs when the belief is strongly compelling, operative and maladaptive. In Rwanda, it was the belief that the Tutsis were something less than human, and that the Hutus who were against the genocide should be slaughtered as Tutsi collaborators. Not even religious beliefs prevented Catholic priests from wielding machetes, and taking part in the genocide.

It is horrible that innocent people suffer needlessly, and innocent people die before their time. That much of these offenses against human happiness can be directly blamed on beliefs is what makes honest critical evaluation of beliefs a moral and intellectual requirement.

The following are ways to curb the capacity to hold ridiculous, life-destroying beliefs. There needs to be “conversational intolerance,” that is, neither Stalinist intolerance, nor laws against beliefs or ignorance. This simply means is that people need to start thinking and discussing differently — applying the pressure of conversation to beliefs. There should be media and art depicting believers and beliefs in a different way. The goal must be to make junk ideas and dogmas completely foolish and ridiculous to hold by having them criticized, lampooned, ridiculed, and eroded from a thousand sides. Strongly believing something without evidence should be an indicator of madness or stupidity in every area of human interest. Intellectual honesty must be practiced in every human endeavor if we are to build a durable civil society. The people who strongly hold irrational beliefs about the march of history, the eternal fate of certain people, and the ownership of certain resources should not be allowed to grab the handles of power.

There must also be positive work done, as well. People also have to offer rational, satisfying alternatives to bogus dogmatism. There has to talk about treating other human beings in a compelling and rich way that is justifiable scientifically. People must paint very stark contracts in our public discourse between legitimate claims to certainty, science, and ethics centered on human happiness.

There is a solid correlation between societal health and diminished belief in dogma and junk thought. The best-behaved nations, according to several rankings and reports, have the highest levels of educational attainment, gender equality, adult literacy, life expectancy, and per capita income. Science, rationality, and intellectual honesty really do produce results, and deliver the goods.

It is important to remember that beliefs should not be respected; their reasons should be evaluated in the light of reasoned, open-ended debate. The endgame for civilization is not the spread of moderation or dogmas, it is reason.


~ by jsacc001 on April 4, 2008.

One Response to “How beliefs enable atrocities”

  1. The problem here, of course, is defining “bogus dogmatism.” We may indeed live in an Age of Reason, but liberal democratic theory also allows for fervent unreason. Oh, and one more thing: “He who says he knows the way, does not know the way.” Lao-Tze

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