One of the most common characterizations of the present U.S. congress is that it its members have become ideologues of the left and right, unable to compromise. I want to suggest that ideologies have become a new form of religion, and have led us to many of the same conflicts that have emerged within and among religions.
If we think about the ways humans address challenges we can see that three approaches have emerged in our evolutionary history. “Instinct” would be the first of these. Like all animals humans, when confronted with the appearance of a threat, undergo a whole variety of non-voluntary physical responses designed to preserve and extend our lives. The second emerged later in relationship to human rationality. Confronted with the appearance of a threat humans can pause, analyze whether the threat is real or not, consider alternative courses of action, and take the course of action that is most advantageous in the long run. This ability has almost certainly allowed humanity to emerge in its position of pre-eminence among creatures – capable of occupying virtually every desirable ecological niche.
Yet there is a problem with this approach to meeting a challenge or apparent threat. As threats and challenges become more complex the time necessary to identify alternative courses of action and determine which is most advantageous becomes problematic. We may be overcome by the threat before we’ve explored and prioritized all the possible responses.
The result is that we’ve developed a whole variety of shortcuts that allow us to quickly respond, not on the basis of our own reasoning, but on the basis of a cultural history of reasoning. In short we learn from our ancestors that threats and challenges can be divided into broad categories, and that for each of these there is a time proven and valuable response. So important is wisdom contained in these short-hand forms of analysis and response that they are often enshrined in religious codes of conduct with a purported divine sanction.
In our own time, however, a new short-hand form of analysis and response has been developed, one that claims its sanction not from the divine, but from the supposedly scientific study of human history and society. These are ideologies, characterizations of reality that allow those who hold them to choose their course of action in any situation without undertaking a full analysis of all the possible responses and their possible outcomes. They are very like religions, in that most of their adherents have no real knowledge of the tradition of reasoning out of which their doctrines emerged, and instead simply accept them “on faith” and blindly follow their dictates.
And of course this results in conflict. People who possess beliefs about reality that are grounded in their own thoughtful analysis are capable of both putting forth arguments for those beliefs, justifying the responses to reality that these beliefs entail, and take into account new evidence, new situations, and new viewpoints. People who possess their beliefs “on faith” have little choice but to respond unthinking according to the doctrine they already have. And if their responses are incompatible with those of others the only way to resolve them is by determining who has the most power. Religious and ideological wars result.
And this is what has happened in Congress. A significant number of members are in possession of faith based ideologies that dictate their response to every situation. They simply don’t have or won’t use their capacity to rationally analyze each new situation and determine which course of action is best over the long run.
Ideologies appear to be a natural, and rational, step up from religion as a way of encapsulating in shorthand form the wisdom of the past. Yet like religions they dangerous when they become a substitute for rational analysis and thoughtful choice. They create fruitless conflict, and can finally destroy rather than preserve the very things they claim to value.