'Altruistic evil' must be fought across society

Behind the waves of terrorist extremism afflicting the world today lies a pathological dualism, writes Ian Harris. 

It culminates in "altruistic evil".

To most people, the most baffling thing about the Sri Lankan church bombings and the Christchurch mosque massacres is how anyone could do such evil at all. How could innocent people at worship in their holy places ever be a focus of hatred and violence for Muslim extremists in one instance, and a white racist extremist in the other?

The prime targets were obviously religious, though in Sri Lanka they also included tourist hotels. Some would say that goes to show how dangerous religion can be, and the world would be better without it.

I would argue the opposite: it shows how destructive of human dignity, peace and concord bad religion and racial supremacy assumptions are, and how necessary it is to assert all the more strongly the essential values of good religion, namely humanity, compassion and togetherness.

In other words, it would help to have more religion, not less - as long as it's religion that builds respect across the givens of ethnicity, sex and era we're born into, and the social divides that develop around them. Religion that doesn't do that is self-obsessed, and can generate evil.

From England Jonathan Sacks, who was for 22 years the Commonwealth's chief rabbi, makes that point strongly in a timely study of the part religion plays in contemporary waves of terrorist violence, Not in God's Name. What is there in the human psyche, he asks, that leads people of faith to murder randomly in the name of their God? His analysis also throws light on white racists who act in the same way to defend their twisted view of "civilisation".

Sacks begins with group identity, something basic to human society. That does not lead inevitably to violence - we all live in groups of one kind or another, and find our identity within them. From time to time groups compete for advantage, resources, power, control. Protecting one's own group brings out the best in people, as we have just recalled on Anzac Day.

Group identity becomes noxious, however, when it morphs into a pathological dualism of an Us and a Them. Members of a dominant group become suspicious of some Other, blame that Other for any woes that afflict them, and disparage "Them" as less worthy beings.

The Them come to be seen as affronts to one's faith or cause, enemies of the righteous, threats to one's way of life. Religion is a powerful source of identity and, as with IS, may be enlisted to reinforce such attitudes. The Us believe they must strike in defence of all they hold dear. Unspeakable violence can then be seen as not only justified but obligatory, and for some a sacred duty.

"Altruistic evil" Sacks call this, evil committed in the name of God or of a higher good. In an age of democratised violence, where weapons are readily available and social media provides a global platform to fan hatred of all hues, there follows 9/11, a recurrent conspiracy of violence in Europe and Arab states, and now in Christchurch, Colombo and San Diego.

In recent years we have seen "Them" fingered variously as the immigrants, the Americans, the communists, western secular culture, the capitalists, the Jews, and latterly the Christians in Muslim countries and Muslims in the West.

Of course, religion is not the only motivation for all this, nor the most lethal. Over the past century the potent substitutes of nationalism, political ideology and race have boiled over in two world wars, brutal political purges in Russia, China and Cambodia, ethnic "cleansing" in the Holocaust, Rwanda and Bosnia. They left more than 100million dead.

At the root of all these is the pathological dualism of Us and Them, "a virus that attacks the moral sense," says Sacks.

"Dehumanisation destroys empathy and sympathy. It shuts down the emotions that prevent people from doing harm. Victimhood deflects responsibility: `It wasn't our fault, it was theirs.' Altruistic evil recruits good people to a bad cause. It turns ordinary people into murderers in the name of high ideals."

This pathology must be called out at every turn - in politics, religious faiths, the worldwide web, international councils, wherever.

And if religion has been part of the problem, rightly recalibrated it can be part of the cure.

At their heart, all faiths agree on the centrality of compassion in human affairs. Hence they must proclaim, loudly and insistently, that anyone who acts out of hate and violence is not only trashing the teaching of their founders, but blaspheming against their God.

- Ian Harris is a journalist and commentator.


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