Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The New Religion

I've recently found myself thinking back to my university days when the professor would try to encourage student discussions during one of the numerous poli-sci classes I had to take for my major.  From my freshman to my senior year, whether the subject was about the study of politics as a science or comparative forms of government, the topic of the influence of religion invariably came up at least once or twice a semester.

Religion no longer plays such a prominent roll when it comes to current political debates here in Spain, fortunately. There are a few right-wing, Opus Dei Catholics wanting to ban abortion, but in general, there's none of the heated culture wars like in the states. Gays can get married and I haven't read of anyone trying to teach creationism in biology along with evolution like they did in Texas, thank Jah.

No, here in Spain, it's nationalism, which is essentially a different side of the same ideological coin:  heads, a mythical man; tails, a mythical nation. And like the idea of an all mighty God binds Christians, so does the idea of strong independent state unite nationalists.  After all, no one blindly worships something weak and in both cases, they can cite historical events dating back centuries as the foundation for their beliefs while dismissing or revising parts that conflict with their narrative.
But just like religion doesn't hold up to logical scrutiny nor does the concept of a nation make much sense. After all what is it? According to the dictionary, "It's large body of people, associated with a particular territory, which is sufficiently conscious of its unity to seek or to possess a government peculiarly its own." It sounds a bit flexible to me. At least God gets a less ambiguous definition:  "The one Supreme Being, the creator and ruler of the universe." It seems a nation, like a religion, is more an artificial construct of a few men to control the masses rather than a real physical being like a tree or a monkey.

Look at most countries and go back five hundred years; chances are it'll have a different name or be part an ancient kingdom. Once upon a time, there were the Aztecs, the Moors and the Celts. Between then and now a lot has happened: the world was rediscovered to be round, people no longer travel by horse and carriage but by machines that can fly; wars were waged, millions killed and boundaries changed all in the name of a religion or to raise the flag of a nation. The result is the world as it is today nearly half a millennium later. A tragic and a pretty damning indictment of the human species time on earth, I know.

But despite this bloody history, polls show almost all human beings still believe in some form of religion and nationalism, so ingrained is it in our nature. For example, its easier for a Muslim to be elected to the US presidency than  an atheist, just as I imagine a self-anointed Catalan fascist would stand a better chance in local elections than a self-described Spanish socialist.  One reason is human nature; we like to belong and feel a part of something bigger than ourselves and we want our beliefs reflected in our leaders. In most cases, I think, it's a loose loyalty.  People believe in God not because they think he actually created the earth in seven days and made man from his rib, but because faith gives them comfort in a chaotic world.  Likewise, the majority of people support their nation for the camaraderie and pride it gives, rather than seeking to impose it on others through conquest. As with most things in life, done moderately, both religion and nationalism serve a useful purpose.

Within each group, however, there is the passionate minority; I like to call them the foot soldiers for their rulers, the pawns of the kings. Ideologues and evangelicals, they take an absolutist and uncompromising stance and feel the need to spread the word. Like the foundation for their beliefs, they cite historical injustices visited upon the father of the father of the father as the reason for their militancy and insist on fighting past wars instead of facing current problems. They see the world not as it is, but through a lens of persecution and victimization.  Mere mortal men become super villains whose diabolical plans to destroy them must be stopped. Any of us who disagrees with this world view is labeled an extremist, bitter or naive. They are the enlightened ones after all and we are the barbarians who must be converted for our own happiness.

The problem is people who worship mythical ideas don't live in reality. They follow the tenants of their rulers and beliefs unquestionably, while denouncing any dissent as a fantasy or a product of mind control by their perceived enemies. Logic, nuance and perspective don't exist; economic well-being and social harmony must be subservient to the elevation of their ideology above others. It is all about us conforming to their view and the sad truth is the passion of zealots can't be matched which is why, although the minority, they dominate the political discourse by shouting the loudest.  Unfortunately, any cursory study of history will show they're also the reason it's been so bloody. Or as Czech dissident-turned-president Václav Havel once wrote: 'Ideology offers human beings the illusion of dignity and morals while making it easier to part with them.' "


  1. "For example, its easier for a Muslim to be elected to the US presidency than an atheist, just as I imagine a self-anointed Catalan fascist would stand a better chance in local elections than a self-described Spanish socialist." Er... I think I have to disagree with you on this. First of all, it would be practically impossible for a Muslim to get elected president of the USA.

    Secondly, I'm not sure which local election you're talking about but let's assume it's Barcelona, where I guess we both are right now. There are numerous Spanish socialists in local government in Barcelona right now. There are no Catalan fascists in local government in Barcelona right now.

  2. Well, Tom. If you click on the link, you'll see a gallop poll where 38% of Americans would refuse to vote for a man who was Muslim, while 48% would refuse to vote for an atheist. but you're right, neither stands much of a chance. I was using the sentence to show the importance of faith for Americans when it comes to voting for their leaders. Something I don't think is very controversial.

    Likewise with the other comment about catalan fascists or Spanish socialists, I was simply stating that it's easier for a self identified catalan with a conservative politics to get elected here than someone who identifies as a spanish politician even if the economic policies of the latter might be more beneficial. Again, I wasn't citing any specific election or person but simply commenting on the importance people place on nationality here, which again isn't anything new, I think.

    Hope this clarifies the point for you.

  3. Didn't see the link before! I stand corrected.

    Re: the second point, it's obviously not an opinion based on reality, but never mind.

  4. What's not based on reality? That some voters will place more importance on the nationalist position of their candidate than their economic policy?

  5. Doing things that go against self-interest seems like the whole point of pretty much every ideology (except perhaps the objectivists).

    Same thing happens in the US with poor white men voting disproportionally for republicans (who then cut social programs and give more money to the rich). More guns and less abortion won't really affect their lives in any positive way.

  6. That was pretty much the point of the post. That and ideologues are cansinos. I should've used a better analogy, though, because apparently Catalunya is exempt from this phenomena.

  7. Sadly Catalonia is not exempt of self-hate and self-defeating voting patterns: if it was exempt people would not keep voting for parties (PP and PSOE) who abide by the nationalistic dogma of a unitary (one nation, one language) notion of Spain and against the furtherance of Catalan economic interests (Gas Natural v Endesa, fiscal plundering, etc).
    As you say, some voters will vote only based on the nationalistic position of a candidate, hence why some people will only vote for PP or PSOE but never for one of the Catalan parties. They are Spanish and vote for Spanish national parties.

    I quite agree with you when you equate their fundamentalist dogma to a religion: as they used to say, "...por la Gracia de Dios". And the Constitución seems like the Bible: untouchable.

    Time to move on and leave the crazy Spanish nationalists behind and start looking after one's interests....