Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Religious self-debasement and related economic troubles

It is a particularly disgusting feature of the Abrahamic religions (the One True Faiths, as I refer to them in God Doesn't; We Do) that they hold self-debasement almost as a centerpiece, something I would expect is common to essentially any religion that worships gods of sacrifice, perhaps especially when those are angry or jealous gods, particularly gods of battle. Yahweh (a.k.a. God, a.k.a. Allah) is one such example--much of the Old Testament of the Bible, which serves as the foundation of the One True Faiths, is an extended treatise on the rites of sacrifice to Yahweh required in a multitude of circumstances. The New Testament offers no respite from this as it is based entirely upon a story of a human (or deity, depending on one's theology) sacrifice, an act meant to appease Yahweh ultimately in the direct sacrifice department. This appeasement, of course, is not absolute, however, because of the immense list of sacrifices allegedly required of Christians ever after in terms of wealth, time, behaviors, and even certain kinds of thoughts. Islam offers a strengthening of, not a respite from, these sacrificial values, and so it is no surprise that self-debasement before a perfect, if imaginary, standard is a central psychological feature of adherents to these sorts of religious beliefs.

The origins of this rather curious and unfortunate behavioral and psychological pattern seem to be in the superstitious wildernesses of the infancies of our cultures. We can see one branch of the roots of this behavior by generalizing from B.F. Skinner, who was able to demonstrate that pigeons can be induced to be superstitious in the 1940s. It appears, following Skinner, that sentient beings with limited knowledge of their circumstances will develop superstitious behavior surrounding those circumstances, apparently via a simple reward-and-punishment conditioning. This occurs psychological upon the perception of a reward or punishment, not an actual reward or punishment, distinguished by the intention of the operator. In Skinner's experiment, the operator was actually randomly controlled and, key to this, indifferent to the pigeons. This is the same as nature with all sentience, including humans.

To see that ignorance of the circumstances is essentially the core of the development of these superstitious behaviors is rather simple without even having to leave our swivelling desk chairs. A simple thought experiment is quite convincing. Here, we will replace the pigeons with people.

Imagine, if you will, a person (or group of people) placed in a sealed room with no contact to the outside. Everything for the comfort and needs of the person is provided according to the condition that food is delivered to the room through a trapdoor by means of a conveyor belt, and it occurs at completely random intervals, determined by a remote computer. Then, the person's behavior is simply monitored over the course of a significant period of time.

If we follow Skinner and many of the observations that we have all had in life, even in this modern world, say with sporting events, we can assume that it is likely that the person in the room will soon begin to associate particularly lucky or meaningful behaviors with the arrival of foods, particularly choice foods to that person's liking. Indeed, given enough time, it is fair to expect that simple or even relatively elaborate rituals, of sorts, or at least certain patterned behaviors will take place with some expectation that food will arrive through the trapdoor. Confirmation bias, of course, will strengthen certain aspects of these rituals, and it seems fair to assume that disappointment, on the other hand, may cause a motivated individual to double-down on the seriousness of the behavioral patterns (i.e. self-debasement in the face of perceived failure a la "I must not have tried hard enough or done it well enough!"). Of note, if these intervals are chosen to be, on occasion, sufficiently far apart to induce significant discomfort or even worry in the person in the room, then the effects are likely to be drastically exaggerated. Indeed, I would contend that they would also be inflated significantly if the person in the room believes he is being watched or monitored from outside--from whence the food arrives.

Imagine this experiment running for sufficiently long (ethical issues duly compensated, of course, in the subjects), perhaps a month or more. Now envision what would happen if the bubble of mystery were burst. Say that the actual protocol of food delivery were announced via loudspeaker or a note with the food: "Food delivery intervals are determined at random by a remote computer and are not in any way affected by your behaviors at any time." What would happen?

I can see two significant scenarios arising:
  1. The rational human being, at this point, would give up on all rituals and simply try to make the best of the situation, doing whatever entertaining things happen to be available and going on about his business. The rituals, seen behaviorally and psychologically useless, would cease, probably immediately.
  2. The sufficiently conditioned human being would see the note or announcement as a lie and would likely double-down on the ritual behavior again, or at least retain it for psychological comfort. This effect may be diminished over time as it becomes more and more apparent that the intervals are, indeed, independent of behaviors (i.e. that more and more evidence for the veracity of the notice accumulates).
To push the matter further, though, imagine two identical rooms with similar people in them. In one, the person is not informed of the random food delivery method, and in the other, she is. In this case, it is unlikely that the person who is aware of her circumstance will ever adopt superstitious rituals, as the real mechanism is known, and it is further unlikely that those rituals will ever result in the self-debasing behavior of feeling as though a perceived external arbiter had not been satisfied. Grudgingly or not, the person who suffers in knowledge will simply weather her condition while, like Skinner's superstitious pigeons, we might expect all manners of uncanny behaviors out of her ignorant counterpart.

This, of course, is exactly the situation that pre-scientific man found himself in. He was a sentient being subject to the indifferent forces of a universe he did not possess any significant understanding of, and simple confirmation bias alone, ignoring even the tendency of humans to personify circumstances, would be sufficient to create a ritualistic superstition. The utterly indifferent brutality of nature, alternately bringing storm and drought, withering heat and ice, crippling disease and bounty, abject famine and gluts, and brutal defeats and victories, would set the stage to strongly reinforce these behaviors and psychological patterns, and they would almost certainly lead to a doubling-down on almost anything that seemed to bring success while warding off failure. Once nature becomes personified via knowing gods, a jump to attempting to appease them by any means necessary, and thus prostrating the self before them (as brutal human warlords no doubt demanded in exchange for diminished brutality), is a foregone conclusion of the situation. Once the ritual sacrifice was invented, be that by unfortunate accident or macabre desperation, it was all too likely to become a central feature of any belief structure surrounding a brutal god. Enter Yahweh.

Of course now, this pattern of behavior is significantly reduced, largely by the influence of progressive culture and particularly by the advent of sciences like meteorology, modern medicine, etc. What remains is the feeling of needing to prostrate oneself to God's will or to suffer the consequences, and so a psychological complex of self-debasement sits at the heart of fundamentalist, if not other kinds, of One True Faiths religious belief.

The consequences are further reaching than one might expect, I would guess, and that is the theme of this particular piece. One feature of religious belief is that it is practiced. That means that religious believers practice the things that form their faiths and thus, we might expect, become proficient at them, for that is the very point of practicing. This is a danger of moderate faith, of course--in moderate, as well as fundamentalist, faith, people routinely practice activities such as suspending their disbelief in favor of accepting beliefs that are perceived to be desirable. They also practice self-debasing behavior before perceived external authorities viewed as having some meaningful power over their lives. This, it turns out, has serious economic repercussions, one of which I will mention to open Pandora's box.

I would contend that the economic disaster known as supply-side economics, which can now only be supported via quasi-religious (or otherwise ideological) belief, is a very meaningful example of this same self-debasing behavior applied outside of the usual One True Faiths religious context. The magic delivery system, of wealth in this case, is the lamentable hypothesis of "trickle-down economics," which defies the simple economic reality that money floats. This is, of course, widely believed, and by all appearances in conservative areas of the modern world, it is predicated on the idea that people must self-debase, lower themselves in favor of the big business owners and appease them with reduced tax rates, more tax loopholes and credits, and essential protectionism against regulation if the money is to ever start trickling down.

Even a relatively casual scrutiny of the economic evidence reveals the patent absurdity of this trickle-down hypothesis, and yet we are constantly sold from most mainline politicians, particularly on the right, that it will work if only we double-down in our efforts to favor the advantages of the fabulously wealthy in our culture. The result has been utterly predictable: wealth has accumulated at the top while the middle class has slowly sunk into quicksand, and the evidence lies literally everywhere we want to look. Yet rabidly, the untouchables at the top of this socioeconomic hierarchy are defended and their agendas promoted by people working against their own best interests--and we might wonder how much of this has to do with the well-practiced art of self-debasement before an ideological hierarchy that is practically the central feature of the One True Faiths.

Supply-side economic models can't even stand up to armchair scrutiny, though, they are so profoundly fantasy. If there is an expressed demand for some good or service that is within the scope of at least break-even production, there is a very good chance that someone will willingly engage in that production. On the other hand, there is no reason to believe that just because an entity produces a good that anyone will be willing to buy it. It is literally this easy to understand that free markets are driven by demand, not supply (more formally, supply is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for economic activity).

Now, Thom Hartmann has amply indicated how this outlandish notion was sold to the American people since the 1980s, starting with the new Republican Party born under President Ronald Reagan, by the likes of Jude Wanniski, Art Laffer, and the growing neoconservative leadership. These folks, then, are something like the high priests that convinced people that animal sacrifices had influence on the weather, although here it is that economic and political sacrifices by the middle class to the great providers of publicly owned corporations and their CEOs would result in nearly magical influence over the gales of wealth that, no matter how we prostrate ourselves, blow continually like Westerlies into the remote, tax-exempt bank accounts of the ultra-wealthy.

It isn't, of course, the sales pitch that made it work, but rather the belief structure of the people it was sold to. Whether or not it is the case that bizarrely religious America fell prey to this thinking, given their well-practiced art of self-debasement before a providential superpower, is the theme I raise as a question more than an assertion. Plausibility is there, but it may, of course, merely be correlational. This, however, does nothing to remove responsibility from facing the reality of the behavior, or from identifying the potential for elucidation of economic principles to ameliorate some of the problem. Here that means realizing that publicly owned companies represent not nations or their consumers but rather their shareholders, who transcend nationality or allegiance to essentially anything but the profit motive, at least as a collective group. 

Once the realization that Wal*Mart and its CEOs, for example, only represent American (or British or Chinese or Mexican or...) interests--or the interests of anyone but their shareholders--to a nominal extent is accomplished, the legislation that keeps them free to do business within ethical boundaries should follow naturally, supposing corruption in politicians can also be voted out of power along the same lines. Right now too many Westerners hold the stupid idea that corporations are the gold standard of human accomplishment, their CEOs veritable golden calves, and so we give them more than ample opportunity to goose us over and over again. Instead of catching on, we do like everyone in every good religion does: we prostrate ourselves before our gods and hope we can win their mercy by giving them more and more of our sacrifices.

So, we are the people in the sequestered room, and we are the beneficiaries of economic windfalls that come in spite of the socioeconomic winds that blow. We therefore find ourselves in the situation of wondering whether or not knowledge of the process will be enough to get us to bust the myth, changing our economic behavior out of the darkness of supply-side superstitions of ritual legislative prostration before Golden Calf, Inc. Perhaps we'll continue to cling to the hope until we are ultimately disillusioned, as appears to be happening. The announcement has been made, though, and to have a hope of effecting change, we must spread it.
 
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