Post No.: 0162
Sacred values or beliefs (special values or beliefs placed above the merely material, secular or profane) are considered non-tradable or non-negotiable – thus they violate rational cost-benefit rules. This is because they are upheld even at the expense of one’s material life or peace i.e. no price whatsoever will permit holders to compromise their sacred values or beliefs.
So when enough people from two or more opposing religious groups hold opposing sacred beliefs (e.g. enough followers within each of these opposing sides believing that a particular piece of land is divinely their own) then those sides will be stuck in a bloody and long-running stalemate that’ll last for generations until one or all sides are completely wiped out, or somehow give up their sacred beliefs.
Such moral absolutists will even find cash offers to compromise their sacred commitments (a ‘taboo trade-off’) particularly aversive and, all else being equal, will tend to increase their moral outrage and support for violent opposition if such a material, secular or profane ‘deal-sweetener’ (e.g. money, security) is offered in exchange for their sacred values. Thus when values get sacralised, they no longer follow rational rules (at least materially-related ones), and this allows conflicts to escalate out of all utilitarian proportion. This is where the coalitional or ingroup-building aspects of religion, which most likely lead to the entrenchment of ingroup moral and sacred norms, can be harmful.
In conflicts where one’s sacred beliefs and moral identity are at stake – compromise, admitting defeat or litigating for peace isn’t easy. But as the idea of the monarch as a divine representative faded away and wars were more clearly fought over secular assets (e.g. territory and mineral resources), it became easier for the parties involved to operate under more rational cost-benefit analyses based on tradable materials rather than non-tradable values. And so it became easier to end any conflicts that had spiralling costs that began to exceed the expected gains (although state leaders still tend to hate losing face amongst the international community and for the sake of their own chapters in history! So for a side engaged in a conflict for secular reasons, withdrawing from conflict is still often done with a degree of hesitation and the presentation of warped truths e.g. “We’re only leaving because we’ve won in achieving what we set out to do!”)
Now it’s vital to note that, whilst a capitalist mindset can help discourage groups from starting or prolonging irrational wars or violence where the material cost-benefit ratio isn’t worth it – this mindset has also encouraged the initiations of rational wars or violence for e.g. land, minerals and slaves, when groups saw the expected value of the material resources to be gained as positive, in part because the assessed probability of defeating the opposition was high because the opposition risk was relatively weak and exploitable. That’s basically imperialism – and lots of invasions, wars, violence and atrocities have been committed in history because of cold-calculated, rational, materialistic motives to acquire/steal resources from foreign lands too.
So lots of activities done in the name of rational self-interests, profit maximisation and capitalism have been and are unethical too e.g. child or slave labour, pollution or fraud, if external regulations and their enforcement are weak i.e. when the personal/corporate risk-to-benefit ratio is calculated to be favourable for oneself, even if it comes at the exploited expense of others. And it may be interesting to find out whether a person with sacralised beliefs that ‘everything is capitalistically tradable’ would be willing to trade such a belief away?(!) So secular capitalism or pure, selfish rationalism cannot get on a high horse against religion when it comes to conflicts, injustices and atrocities. Hardly all wars or inter-group violence have been committed due to religious beliefs. Woof.
Yet the sacralisation of military conflicts changes their character – sometimes soldiers with uncompromising, non-negotiable, sacralised motives can overcome a greater foe that is fighting only for secular rewards like pay and promotion. Mercenaries are typically the first to rout in the battlefield. Soldiers who don’t personally fight with religious or ideological motivations, who fight only because it’s their job, and haven’t been fed with propaganda dehumanising the opposition forces, don’t tend to see their opponents as evil – they just see them as people following orders and doing their jobs too. And so when the war is over or if there’s a temporary ceasefire, they might even kick a ball amongst each other across the trenches. But two opposing sides fighting for sacred beliefs will result in irrationally prolonged conflicts that might even span across multiple generations.
Those who see their country as a religious entity are more willing to fight and die for their country, hence if you link your nationalism or patriotism to your religion then your nation becomes a sacred entity on a divine mission, and the rationality for entering or prolonging a war can go by the wayside (it becomes more of a sacred struggle or ‘holy war’). Believing in supernatural allies can also make one feel overconfident in (easily) winning a conflict, hence encourage the initiation and/or persistence of a conflict against a militarily-powerful or resourceful guerrilla outgroup i.e. the opposition can become severely underestimated when one thinks ‘God is on our side’. And an opposition force claiming to have supernatural allies won’t likely deter you unless you believe in their claims too, hence their use of divine support as a deterrent can fail to prevent a conflict. Any leader from any country who concocts or emphasises the sacredness of a cause, to stir up their nation/group and to justify a conflict, is dangerous.
One of the remarkable aspects of cultural evolution is its ability to bring about behaviours that can even work against individual genetic interests (e.g. sacrificing one’s own (young) life for one’s country, even if one descended from immigrants); although regular genetic evolution can sometimes inadvertently achieve this outcome too when environments vastly change from where these genetically-evolved behaviours largely evolved (e.g. the over-consumption of calories in many modern consumerist environments, leading to obesity, infertility and preventable disease).
Note that non-religious values can become sacralised too e.g. the political democratic right to vote, freedom and autonomy, or even ironically secularism itself. In fact, only a minority fraction of terrorist attacks in the past few decades have been religiously inspired, with many attacks motivated by animal or environmental rights, political, nationalist or supremacist motives. But most of these latter individual incidences are typically not salient enough to report in the national news for various reasons (maybe because they have not been quite as deadly (although far-right attacks have seen an increase in frequency and lethality lately) and/or maybe religiously-inspired terrorist attacks almost always capture the headlines no matter the size of the incident, or even when a potential incident was thwarted, because it has been the zeitgeist since 9/11?) And no one commits terrorism just for cash, but of course a lot of lethal homicides have been committed for monetary or material motives – but these aren’t classed as ‘acts of terrorism’ despite the terror they cause to their victims and communities.
So sacred values or deep/strong moral convictions aren’t always religious in source. Many people have politico-economic or socio-cultural sources for their inviolable values. And if they’re interwoven with ‘groupishness’ (the social equivalent of selfishness, or the selfishness of a group to promote the survival of that group, and, inferred, the greater chance of survival of each individual within that group), which can be facilitated by non-religious means too (e.g. political echo chambers), then conflict can ensue.
It’s stressed again that religiously-motivated violence and conflict only contributes a subset of all violence and conflict, but religion brings together many complex interlocking features that operate together to rally people towards self-sacrificial group-level violence – such as shared identities and loyalty that bind people together into a cohesive ingroup but which can foster outgroup hostilities, rituals that commit members to each other and discourage defection, beliefs in a glorious afterlife that allay the fear of death and promise great rewards of an immaterial/spiritual nature especially for those who sacrifice themselves for the cause, sacred values that empower moral norms and deepen members’ unconditional commitments to the group, and divine scriptures that seemingly support all of this with absolute authority. We can therefore see that the very same features of religion can be very beneficial for some reasons and contexts but very harmful for other reasons and contexts.
Well, whether regarding religious or secular divisions – we all need to concentrate on our major commonalties rather than our relatively minor differences. If cohesion and peace is enhanced when we see each other as within the same ingroup, and large-scale hostility or prejudice is only directed at outgroups – then to achieve global peace, we must see ourselves and each and every other person as belonging to just one inclusive global ingroup. We can belong to many groups (e.g. by country, religion, sports team, hobby) but one of them must be that all people are people. It’s a small world after all.
Woof! How do you think we can all finally see ourselves as part of one global ingroup rather than a bunch of smaller groups in opposition or competition? Are there any problems with this goal itself? Please share your ideas and views via the Twitter comment button below if you’d like.