Politics as the new religion

LIAM HEHIR
Last updated 12:00 29/07/2014

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Scientists say the human instinct for religion is so strong that it can never actually be eradicated. We unavoidably seek patterns in otherwise random events, yearn for meaning and think about things in terms of justice and wickedness.

So what happens when a society like ours becomes increasingly unchurched? Some people believe we simply transpose religious concepts to other aspects of human affairs. Politics is a natural substitute.

Say you are a believer in Green politics and feel guilty about using air travel. Some would say that you should buy carbon offsets to counterbalance the emissions your travel creates. Some environmentalists, however, oppose this as buying your way out of the responsibility to mend your ways. As such, the debate over the orthodoxy of carbon offsets echoes the debate between Martin Luther and the Catholic Church over the granting of indulgences for the remissions of sins.

Or consider the heady days of 2008 when Barack Obama, unburdened by any kind of track record, rode the mantras of "hope" and "change" all the way to the White House. Otherwise serious newspaper columnists wrote articles about whether the man was some kind of enlightened spiritual being - a "lightworker".

More than a few commentators have noted that the narrative of the rise of Obama resembled the archetype of the Messiah - though one whose promised transformation of American and global politics has largely failed to materialise.

Think about it and further examples will spring to mind. Is somebody holding out against a trend you think is desirable? Clearly they are on the wrong side of history. Find the Gospel of St Mark too hard to believe? How about the Gospel of St Marx instead?

That politics may be the new religion of the post-religious West is not necessarily a bad thing. The religious impulse is part of what makes us human. It orients us towards a greater good larger than our own wellbeing.

The dangers of religion are well advertised, however, and chief among them is intolerance. When you believe that your principles and priorities are ordained by providence the corollary is that opposition to them comes straight from hell. While that belief might be perfectly logical, it can have unpleasant results when strategies for co-existence are absent.

I think we see this in New Zealand. When we invest politics with a sense of cosmic justice, political issues take on apocalyptic overtones. Proponents of a particular policy don't see opponents as a fellow citizen to be persuaded, but as a heretic to be intimidated into recantation (or silence).

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If somebody is not moved by your predictions of disaster, it must be because they are indifferent to suffering or, worse still, are willing it.

With the stakes raised we turn to increasingly unpleasant means to forestall an adverse election. Party activists target individual businesses associated with political opponents. Protesters camp outside homes. Boycotts are visited upon media which publish or broadcast dissenting voices.

For those interested in politics, the subject becomes more acrimonious. It consumes more and more of your life and your mind. We learn to avoid discussing public affairs when in mixed company, choosing to discuss such matters with the like-minded. There are strategies we could adopt to improve matters, while retaining or enhancing our ability to talk with people with whom we disagree.

One that works well - even if it takes some discipline to implement - is to assume good faith on the part of the person you are talking to. Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman said that his role as an apostle of free enterprise became much easier when he limited the argument to what was being argued, rather than second-guessing the motivations of his opponents.

For example, if you are debating against the idea that tax cuts will spur economic growth, you can keep things civil by not accusing the other side of being motivated by personal greed, selfishness or callous indifference to the poor.

Or, if you're a global warming sceptic, things will be much more pleasant if you don't let the argument degenerate into a debate about whether the concept is just a Trojan horse to enable more government control.

By assuming good faith, you immediately grant what is probably true - that the person you are talking with is personally honest, concerned with the greater good and somebody you otherwise have a lot in common with. This might not make it easier to change his or her mind, but it makes it easier to share a few beers together afterwards. Even in an election year.

- Manawatu Standard

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