Religious Conviction and “Altruistic Evil”

Religious Conviction and “Altruistic Evil” December 7, 2015

The murders in Beirut, Paris, and San Bernardino raise many questions, but few are as haunting and recurring as this one: how in the name of religious conviction can acts of such ghastly violence be committed? Sadly, this might well be the defining riddle of our age.

But it’s an old one and many explanations have been offered. Few I’ve come across, however, are as trenchant and eloquent as that offered by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his recent book, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence (Schocken Books, 2015). The book’s key concept is what Sacks calls “altruistic evil,” to which I shall return.

Drawing insights from psychology, sociology, biology, and (mainly Jewish) theology, Sacks– himself a deeply religious man–understands well the maxim made famous by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn that the line dividing good and evil does not run between groups but through every human heart. Still, the tendency to hive off into groups and define one’s group against others constitutes the heart of the matter and disposes us not only to great evil but to great good. And this is the rub. Or, as Sacks puts it: “what is best in us and what is worst both come from the same source: our tendency to form ourselves into groups [and] to think highly of our own and negatively of others.”

Most would recognize this as all-too-human tendency but know, too, that groups can inspire and enable our better angels. The path to violence takes shape when three additional items are added. First, group formation must occur around our deepest convictions, which are often religious or metaphysical in nature; Sacks employs a line from Pascal to underscore this point: “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do so from religious conviction.” Second, one has to experience or at least be persuaded that the “other group” has committed grave wrongdoing against your group—your family, your clan, your religion. Finally, you need unscrupulous leaders to enflame a pervasive, righteous feeling of victimhood, enabling one to see the “other group” as utterly despicable, subhuman, malevolent.

The violence inherent in this (real or perceived) sense of victimhood can then lead to “altruistic evil,” a willingness to commit heinous acts against others while thoroughly convinced that you are serving a higher good. Sacks is most eloquent on victimhood in this sense, and his words are perhaps not only relevant to global jihadism but to the extremes ends of the political spectrum in Western nations. Permit me to close with a lengthy quote from Sacks:

“Defining yourself as a victim is a denial of what makes us human. We see ourselves as objects, not subjects. We become done-to, not doers; passive, not active. Blame bars the path to responsibility. The victim, ascribing his condition to others, locates the cause of his situation outside himself, thus rendering himself incapable of breaking free from his self-created trap. Because he attributes a real phenomenon (pain, poverty, illiteracy, disease, defeat, humiliation) to a fictitious cause, he discovers that eliminating the cause does not remove the symptom. Hence efforts must be redoubled. If you kill witches for causing illness, the witches die and the illness remains. So you must find more witches to kill, and still the illness remains. Blame cultures perpetuate every condition against which they are a protest.

They also corrupt others. One of the noblest of all human instincts is compassion. We reach out to help victims even though they are strangers, even though there is no other bond between us other than our shared humanity. But compassion can be exploited. When self-defined victims lay claim to compassion in a less-than-noble cause, they turn people of goodwill into co-dependents. Seeking to assist, they reinforce the pattern of behavior they wish to cure.

When dehumanisation and demonisation are combined with a sense of victimhood, the third stage becomes possible: the commission of evil in an altruistic cause.”

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