Beliefs vs. Interests

I’ve been listening to an interview with Lawrence Wright about his new book examining Scientology, Going Clear (which grew out of his New Yorker article The Apostate which we’ve mentioned before). Wright is also the author of The Looming Tower, a Pullitzer winning history of Al-Qaeda.

At the end of the interview, Wright is asked what he’s learned about humanity over his career:

I’ve been so struck by the power of belief to transform individuals in society for good or ill. I used to be very religious as a young man and I’m not now, but I sure understand how radical changes can be brought about simply through the power of belief. I don’t think we respect it enough, because it can be great and it can be terribly, terribly dangerous.

Coming on the heels of his discussion of Al-Qaeda and the abuses of power within Scientology, that “terribly dangerous” seems to refer to the conflicts sparked by religious belief.

Yet, over at Religion Bulletin, Craig Martin throws out this challenge:

I would argue people don’t tend to fight over differences in belief; they tend to fight over conflicts of interest. However, characterizing conflicts in terms of belief has the effect of masking conflicts of interest.

I’m prepared to take this one step farther: perhaps the talk of “religious violence” as resulting from “beliefs” is not merely misguided, but is in fact motivated. Perhaps those who utilize the “divided by faith” rhetoric want to forget that conflicts usually follow from a clash of interests rather than a difference in beliefs.

So which causes religious violence, beliefs or interests? I guess it’s a chicken-and-egg problem: our beliefs shape our interests and our interests give rise to our beliefs. Maybe we just can’t separate the two cleanly.

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  • JohnMWhite

    I think there are numerous circumstances where we can separate the two, and where it is clear that conflicts are driven more by religious belief than by more secular interest. The Taliban are blowing up people and buildings for all sorts of reasons, some of them political, some of them all about self-preservation and maintaining their powerbase, but sometimes they blow shit up because girls go to school. The religious right in America (the actual religious ones and not the charlatans using them for money and power a la Romney) aren’t actually being hurt by gay marriage or women being able to control their own fertility, they simply act like it and they are happy to torpedo education, the economy and health care over it. The Catholic Church in Scotland didn’t find itself conflicted over whether or not to kick out a bunch of orphans because they were going to have to let gay parents adopt them because of anything but their beliefs clashing with secular law. In cases like these, I cannot see how the conflict would happen if it weren’t for people believing whatever their faith is teaching them.

    • kessy_athena

      It seems to me that there’s a significant part of human behavior involved in conflicts that doesn’t really fit neatly into either “interests” or “beliefs”. A lot of what’s going on is really about various emotional reactions that aren’t about immediate practical or logical interests, but are a part of human nature and not tied to any particular belief system. Xenophobia, scapegoating, fear of the other, fear of the different, competition for social status, taking out our insecurities on those who are perceived as being different, in groups and out groups, us and them thinking, and so on. Humans do this sort of stuff all the time without any gods telling them to.

      I think a lot of things that are apparently religiously motivated are really in this sort of category. A lot of the religious right in the US are groups who used to have privileged social positions who feel threatened by a changing society with new groups starting to rise to prominence. Many Islamists in the Arab world feel that their existing social order is under threat by outside (particularly Western) influence. And so on. I’m pretty skeptical of the notion that the wrong set of beliefs will make people who are secure and happy turn into murderers.

      In my view, the role that belief has in conflicts is as an enabler. Beliefs provide a ready made rationalization and justification for all sorts of bad behavior. Beliefs provide an easy avenue to bypass the normal social restraints that tend to inhibit conflicts. Ideological belief systems can create both permanent out groups and a basis for the instant creation of out groups. I think you need stresses on groups to bring out the bad behavior, and that sufficient stress will always bring out the bad behavior, but ideology probably lowers the threshold for the bad behavior to manifest and increases the level of the bad behavior.

      • Jabster

        With ref. to the last paragraph that is certainly my view in the majority of conflicts (I’ll use military conflicts as examples here) where there is a religious element. However much I dislike religions the change that they cause many conflicts is a step to far.

        Conflicts arise for multiple, complex and interconnected reasons and it seems to be more our desire to simplify matters that leads to a single reason than reality. The start off WWI is often attributed to the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand but this is really just one of the reasons. Indeed if we can’t even really point to when WWII started without almost picking a date then we sure won’t be able to work out why it started.

        So where does religion come in, well if you want to go to war then what better way to dehumanise the enemy and provide a reason why you’re fighting for the right side. Religion is an incredibly easy way to provide dividing lines that don’t really exist – did the differences between Catholics and Protestants religious beliefs really cause the deaths of 3000+ people in Northern Island – of course not but The Troubles where widely separated on religious beliefs.

  • L.Long

    Easy ….ALL activities are controlled by interests, and incidentally by beliefs. The whole religious push to do anything is just justification to the totally delusional so that they can get public support for their personal interests.
    But religion is also the cause for much of what is wrong because all forms seem to push for blind acceptance with no justification in facts and truth. So religion fosters and perpetuates stupidity which makes it easier for people with interests to get certain outcomes.
    The whole gay thing is a bunch of bigots at some point saying ‘oh! that’s so icky!’ and then saying ‘IT’s AGAINST GAWD’s LAW! Kill THEM!!!’
    As another example….to get lots of people to do stuff my way I have to silence descenders. So make blasphemy laws. Religion fosters stupidity and ‘mob thinking’ because so few of the religious can reason that the OMNI-everything god needs THEM to fight for it. If the talking (atheist type stuff) was so bad then the omni-everything gawd always has its lightning bolts which strangely never happen.
    So the 3 are all at fault…the not so delusional intent of the Fundies….the delusional religious…..and the religious dogma that is not questioned.

  • Andrew Kilian

    I’ve thought about this a number of times. Would the people who would do religious violence perpetrate the same acts if religion wasn’t a factor. Pedophiles exist independently of religion, as do people who murder their children or commit acts of Terrorism. I think it’s a factor when people are raised to believe that the universe operates that way and then acts on it, but how many religious people in the US and worldwide do not commit these terrible acts? I sincerely think that it retards forward progress and that there are merits to having an invisible all present security blanket. Indeed, Malsow’s Hierarchy of Needs states Safety is the foundation that can lead to self actualization. So if you have an imaginary figure that, it could be a good thing. If you have someone who has a chemical imbalance it could be disastrous. Also as someone who went from being self-destructive to decidedly not there is also a component that doesn’t involve insanity, it can be trained in. So where does all this leave us? A big Gordian knot of a mess I guess.

  • MountainTiger

    It seems that Martin’s only chance of separating belief and interest is to insist that interests are objectively defined. This is unpersuasive, and I don’t think that it is what he was trying for.

  • Nox

    What you believe is in your interest is based on what you believe.