One of the greatest gifts of mankind is the ability to change our reality through innovation and invention. Human beings have the remarkable gift to imagine a world beyond what we presently experience and work to make that imagined world the new reality.
It is fascinating to view the human transition from simple groups of hunter-gatherers to complex permanent communities with intricate social systems. It is amazing to see tools of transportation such as automobiles, supersonic jets, and space shuttles piloted by beings who spent centuries utilizing domesticated animals as their primary mode of mobility.
Far more amazing than our ability to use innovation and invention is our ability to suppress these mental powers through systems of psychological and social control. Nowhere is humanity’s ability to suppress innovation and invention more apparent than in the creation and proliferation of belief systems. Throughout history ideological belief systems have been the source of inspiration, motivation and purpose for individuals and groups in every culture and nationality. They have given people the courage to survive and even thrive through the most unimaginable difficulties and disasters. Ideological traditions set in political, philosophical and religious belief systems have been the catalyst for some of the greatest discoveries regarding the universe around us. However, these phenomena have two faces.
They have not only been the source for moments of peace. They have more often than not been the spark for horrific wars. Ideology has not only moved men to accept the weaknesses of one another. It has also been the reason men reject, ostracize and subjugate each other. Ideology has not only inspired people to love. It has also been the foundation of unspeakable hate.
As a student of history, I began to ask myself and others questions. What gives this phenomenon such power? Why have empires been built and destroyed because of it? Why have people given their lives and taken the lives of others because of it? Why, in the most advanced era of mankind, does this phenomenon still hold remarkable sway over the judgment of people? I am not the only one who has begun asking these questions.
According to Gollnick and Chinn (2013), survey findings from Kosmin’s and Keysar’s (2009) Religion Identification Survey shows that Americans have become less religious between 1990 and 2008. The researchers concluded that within this time span, those identifying themselves as Christians decreased by 10 percent; while those who identified themselves as non-Christians increased by 0.5 percent. Most interesting is the fact that the number of those who identify themselves as atheist or agnostic doubled.
A paradigm shift in religion has occurred in this country, especially for younger people. Gollnick and Chinn (2013) also cited the Pew Religious Landscape Survey (2008), which revealed that 62 percent of Americans over the age of 70 identified themselves as Protestant. However, only 43 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 29 identify as Protestant. An increasing number of members of the younger generation do not affiliate themselves with any particular religion.
I think it is important to understand the historical development of religion in order to understand why our religious landscape is changing. Anthropologists describe the shift of humanity from nomads to organized societies during the beginning of the Neolithic age as the Agricultural Revolution. Before this event, people hunted and cultivated just enough food to last them for a brief amount of time. They then moved to another area to find more food. When people learned more advanced methods for cultivating food they began to produce a surplus of food. This surplus allowed them to stay in one area rather than move from area to area to find food. The ability to stay in one area combined with the surplus of food meant that all members of the group did not have to engage in the cultivation of the food. Some could cultivate the food, others could protect the surplus as soldiers, others could build shelters and another group could lead. This phenomenon is called the Division of Labor.
The division of labor also led to the creation of roles in society. As I looked back through history texts and surveyed what I have learned over the years I realized that the philosophies I have studied, though all from diverse places, have a common origin. Most, if not all these belief systems began with people realizing that the world in which they lived has systems and mechanisms that are greater than them and their ability to control. People realized that though they needed the rain to water their plants, they could not control when it would fall. They could not control how hot the sun would be or when and how fast the winds could blow. Scarier subjects like death and what happened after death were beyond their knowledge and even their understanding. These people began to search for who or what did control these things or knew what they didn’t know or understood what was beyond their comprehension.
Whether it is ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, Mesoamerica, or any other locale, I find that a certain group of people emerged. People in these groups were able to convince others that they knew who or what controlled all the things they didn’t understand and that they had a special connection with those who were in control. Amazingly, in every culture I surveyed I realized that groups like these became the most important people in a given society. They were not the rulers or the kings. They were the philosophers, priests, prophets, Brahmin, or shaman.
They became the most important and the most powerful because they held the secrets to controlling the rain and sun; therefore, they controlled the growth of food. They held the secrets to controlling good fortune and bad fortune; therefore, they controlled who could win wars and who would have wealth and good health. They even held the secrets to what happened to a person when they died; therefore, they controlled who went to heaven and who went to hell. They would teach those whom they influenced certain rituals that were designed to connect them to the entities that controlled the unknown. These rituals and the beliefs that went with them are what we call religion.
The source of any belief system’s power isn’t the ritual that is described and defined. The power of a belief system is convincing its adherents to accept absolutes. I have noticed that when a group of people has a specific set of rituals for a specific ideology and they are taught that that ideology is the only way to control the unknown, then they have created an absolute or an “only way” of doing things. The person who believes strongly in that ideology will believe all other ways of controlling the unknown are wrong. All other ways of finding peace, happiness and love are futile. All other ways of discovering purpose are vain attempts. That one course of action; that one set of rituals; that one belief system is the only way. This is the power, the absolute.
I didn’t understand why the most violent wars or events in history like the Thirty Years War, the Crusades, the Holocaust, Bosnia, Darfur and many others were as a result of ideological differences or intolerance until I understood the absolute. I didn’t understand why so-called peaceful people could enslave each other, bomb churches, bomb a federal building, or fly jetliners filled with innocent people into buildings until I understood the power of the absolute.
The absolute causes one to totally devalue the beliefs, culture, purpose, and even the life of another individual. I have experienced this without even realizing it. Once one decides that their belief system is the only way to control the unknown, especially if it is given a moral finality like heaven and hell, that person cannot help but create a wall of division, prejudice and intolerance between themselves and others. Once a person accepts that their collection of rituals is the only way to be judged “good” or is the only way to “heaven,” then anyone who has a different collection of rituals can only be judged “bad” and can only be destined for “hell.”
I considered how easy it must have been for Pope Urban II to convince valiant knights to march against Jerusalem and willingly kill and be killed. They were convinced that was the only way to be judged “good.” That was the only way to happiness. Johan Teztel made a great amount of money for Pope Leo X selling people on the idea that if they gave him money, relatives who had died would stop being tortured in purgatory and be released to Heaven. I think of Muhammad Atta as he was flying a plane filled with innocent men, women, and children into the south tower. The lives he was about to destroy, the children he saw smiling and laughing on the plane, the husbands and wives he saw holding each other did not affect him at all. He had accepted the fact that they were following the wrong ritual; therefore, they were evil and destined for hell anyway.
Jim Jones, Adolf Hitler, David Koresh, Osama bin Laden; I could name a list of charismatic individuals throughout history who have convinced otherwise intelligent and peaceful people to commit the most inhumane and horrible acts upon their fellowmen. I realize what their power was. Their great speeches were just a medium for their power. Their engaging personalities were just the window dressing for their power. Their positions of authority only served as a platform for their power. Their power was their ability to create, communicate, and sustain an absolute.
The absolute has been weakened in the past. What caused ideologies to lose their hold on the human psyche was the discovery of the secrets of the unknown through curiosity, questioning, and learning. For example, the Roman Catholic Church declared the world was flat because of what appeared to be true as one stood on a beach and gazed across the sea, noticing that there seemed to be an aquatic cliff at the horizon. Leaders declared this as if it was revealed to them from an otherworldly source. However, when explorers became curious, began to cross the sea, and discover new lands and new people the ideological leaders of the day were proven to be false. This occurred many times during the Renaissance, Reformation, and Age of Exploration. Because the knowledge of the populace increased, the supposed secret knowledge of the universe owned by a few was proven to be myth or just false.
I believe this is the same in the present landscape. The prevailing belief systems seemed to answer all the questions. They were also good tools of social control. Americans used it to justify slavery, the marginalization of women, and the ostracizing of those who believed differently. As the populace became more educated and as they began to see the potential of all people no matter their background, these systems began to lose their power. Gollnick and Chinn (2013) note that this loss of power is also a backlash against what they call “conservatives.” I disagree to an extent. I believe it is a backlash against others seeking to control their lives with untested and unchallenged belief systems. Because of the evolution of our governments, economies, social norms, knowledge, and relationships, the tools that were used to so easily define the parameters of our existence became obsolete. I believe the god of the ideologues is a social construct, and because people are constantly learning, they tend to grow beyond the construct. This growth changes the landscape.
I reject the absolutes that social control systems seek to create. These absolutes only result in fear, intolerance, hate, and then genocide. Our only hope for defeating these resultants of mankind’s penchant to control the will of others is our unyielding curiosity, our constant questioning, and our hunger for knowledge. These cause us to continue to rise beyond the limiting definitions and divisive absolutes of binding belief systems and grow closer to the wonder of the universe. Full knowledge of the cosmos is like the vertical asymptote — we will grow closer to it but never reach it. We will strive for it but never touch it. We will forever grow and discover. We will never be limited by any man’s absolute.
Mason West III has been an innovative leader in community-based program development for 15 years. He has developed and managed programs for companies, schools and governments at every level in the United States, England and Bermuda. He specializes in prevention, intervention and restoration strategies that restore lives and communities impacted by cyclical poverty, drugs, gangs and violent extremism. Mr. West earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in Theology at Oakwood College. He later earned his Masters degree in Urban and Regional Planning and Community Development from Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University. Currently, he is pursuing his Doctoral Degree in Educational Leadership at the University of Tennessee.