Saturday, May 20, 2006


Theodore Dalrymple is "a former inner-city and prison doctor" in Britain, but even he can be shocked sometimes:

Now I know that physiognomy is not an exact science, that one cannot tell a book by its cover, and so on and so forth, but when I saw the mugshots of the four animal rights activists who were sentenced last week to long terms of imprisonment for having terrorised a family of animal breeders, eventually digging up the body of a deceased relative as part of their campaign of intimidation, I understood at once that they did not so much love our furry friends as hate humanity.

I don't want to keep piling on animal-rights activists and environmental extremists, in part because that's too easy. But then Dalrymple's essay is about a broader topic. That's just the doorway into it.

What he's offering up here is a convergence of historical threads into a modern phenomenon of hate-driven secular religion. His pieces usually are worth attention, and this is no exception. As a secularist myself, I've sometimes tried to warn people about the trap: That medieval mumbo-jumbo you're so proud of being enlightened enough to live without, it's inside you as well as outside you. It's what feeds an inborn hunger, and even if you decide to stop eating, your hunger will keep looking.

And the old organized religions, as dreary and cold as they may seem, survived in part because they took a hot, fierce human passion and channeled it through rituals that kept it from burning to the ground all human civilization. Even Islam. It takes centuries and hecatombs of victims to work out the kinks. But as our Enlightened Founders knew (here in America); if you see how bad man is with religion, imagine him without it and shudder.

Dalrymple says, in many ways we're already there:

Radical politics answers the need for transcendence and provides a plausible, though erroneous, explanation for the existential shortcomings of human existence. It kills two birds with one stone. It gives a transcendent purpose to life, by allowing participants the illusion that they are helping to bring about a life that is completely without dissatisfaction.

The religiosity of Marxists has long been remarked by the non-believers, the doctrine of Marxism being that history has a plan for the redemption of mankind. When it became impossible for anyone, except perhaps Professor Eric Hobsbawm, to believe any such thing, just as earlier Christianity had lost its credibility for most people, a new outlet for the religious impulse that motivated belief had to be found.

A further two axioms need to be added to explain the rise of monomaniacal fanaticism. The first is that hatred is a much more powerful political emotion than love, and is therefore also a stronger motive for action. It is my guess, for example, that Mr Brown hates the rich much more than he loves the poor, and that anti-racists, for example, hate whites, even when they are white themselves, more than they love members of minorities.

The second additional axiom is that aggressiveness, destruction and violence are their own reward, because they are enjoyable, at least for quite large numbers of people, in themselves. There is also great pleasure to be had from intimidating and striking fear into people. This is no doubt a regrettable feature of human nature, but it is a real one. Anyone who has observed a riot will have been struck not by the misery of the crowd but by its happiness. To feel morally superior while doing evil is one of the most exquisite pleasures known to man.

It deals in generalities, but there is an element of truth in generalities. It flows into many things, including the discussion in the comments thread here.

"Greeks and the Irrational" by E.R. Dodds, published in 1951 but still in print, is one of those books that you read slowly, not because it's difficult, but because each sentence is so well-turned, and so larded with meaning, that you have to savor it. Once you submerge yourself in this book, it will make your hair stand on end. Some people cringe at classical studies because the Greek world often looks like a victory parade of cold rationalism. They would do well to read this book. Dodds applies a psychoanalytical perspective to the neglected flip-side of Greek religion.

He digs right down to the chthonic roots of the rituals, even to symbolic relics of a presumably-once-real cannibalism: "It is hard to guess at the psychological state that he (Euripides) describes in these two words, omophagon charin; but it is noteworthy that the days appointed for omophagia were 'unlucky and black days,' and in fact those who practiced such a rite in our time seem to experience in it a mixture of supreme exaltation and supreme repulsion: it is at once holy and horrible, fulfilment and uncleanness, a sacrament and a pollution -- the same violent conflict of emotional attitude that runs all through the Bacchae and lies at the root of all religion of the Dionysiac type."

Dodds connects ancient Greek ways to cultures far removed from our common conception of the solemn, rationalist mind -- cannibalistic dances in British Columbia, and shamanistic ecstatic rites in Sumatra and Siberia. Whether Dodds mentions snake-handling sects in Perry County, Ky., or whether that was something I thought of while reading him, I don't remember. But it was Dodds who dug a key phrase out of Benedict's "Patterns of Culture": "The very repugnance which the Kwakiutl (Indians of Vancouver Island) felt towards the act of eating human flesh made it for them a fitting expression of the Dionysian virtue that lies in the terrible and the forbidden."