Tuesday, March 19, 2019

People Want To Be Told What To Do.

Extremist religions are on the rise and liberalized religions are on the decline. Why is this?

I've said time and time again in this blog that I am not an advice columnist.  Yet people write to me regularly asking me for advice on what they should do with their financial matters.  I noticed this trend also online with various financial advice pages, where people put their fate in the hands of somebody they hardly know - and give them only a partial set of facts from which to draw conclusions as to what would be the best course of action for them.

People, it seems, crave direction.

Normative cues - I have harped on this concept a lot in this blog.  People are desperate for normative cues in their lives.  I realized this when attending a law conference.  During a break, people were gathered around nervously in the lobby wondering what it is they're supposed to do next.  Without someone showing the way, or some schedule, or some other form of organization, people feel uneasy and anxious.  Religion, with its easy answers to complex questions, assuages this anxiety in people.

It seems, sometimes, that humanity is divided into two groups. The first group are actives - people who take action their lives and know what they want to do or at least have an idea of what they like to do. Often these ideas are foolish and poorly thought-out.  Nevertheless, they are certain as to what they want to do with their lives and although they will consider advice of others, they use their own internal compass in making decisions about their own situation.

The second group is the passives. These are people who want advice and instruction on every aspect of their daily lives.  These are people who wouldn't know what to do in the morning if they didn't have to get up and go to a job.  They constantly seek advice from someone else, and won't do anything without first consulting an expert in the field. These are the sort of folks who consult with Consumer Reports before they even buy a toaster.

And the second group outnumbers the first group by about 10 to 1.  And this is why religions that tell people what to do in every aspect of their lives succeed, while liberalized religions fail.

Of course, sometimes people shouldn't have choices - or when choices are presented to them, they choose poorly.  The children's menu is an example where sometimes too many choices is not a good thing.  You no doubt have been to a restaurant where a well-meaning parent asks their child what they would like from the children's menu - the chicken nuggets or the cheeseburger. The child pouts and says, "I want a hot dog!" - which of course isn't on the menu.

As Mark has often noted, when we were children, parents made decisions for us - as to what to eat, what to wear, what to do - at least at that early age.  There was no discussion as to whether we had a choice in the matter. We were children and children really don't need to have choices in these sort of things, as given a choice, a child will typically choose poorly or be befuddled by the concept of choice.  It's not a cruelty to control young children at age 5.  It's a cruelty to offer them too many choices when they expect authority and control from their parents.   Yes, the child in all of us wants to be told what to do - it is in our makeup.

Arab Spring is another example where people, when given choices, choose poorly.  Many people in the West assumed once free elections were held in many Arab countries, they would choose democracy over totalitarianism.  However, in an almost a knee-jerk reaction, many Arab countries immediately voted for Islamic theocracy - effectively destroying the future possibility of the choice that they just had.  Their first election was, in fact, their last.   When given a chance to vote, they vote for no more voting!  Some people shouldn't have choices.

The Catholic church, over the years, has liberalized its theology.  Starting with Vatican II, the church has opened itself up more and more to new ideas.  For most of us who are actives, we consider this good news.  We bristle at the thought of the church telling us how to manage every aspect of our daily lives, based on teachings of sometimes crazy people from thousands of years ago. But for the passives in the world, liberalization is an anathema.

Without the church telling them what to do, their lives do not have a rudder or compass.  Where will they go, what will they do?

When a church revises or liberalizes its positions on issues, parishioners are not happier as a result. "What, you don't know what you're doing either?" they ask. People want their authorities to be confident and consistent and not self-doubting and questioning their own dogma.  When dogma can change at a whim, people realize that the rule-of-law handed down by the church doesn't come from God, but rather was crafted by mortal humans.   And we can't have that, can we?   That is to say, you can't expose the man-behind-the-curtain in any religion - it scares the plebes.   They might stop tithing!

So it comes as no surprise that during the 1960's when traditional mainline religions were liberalizing their theologies, that many new forms of religion and cults became popular. These cults often demanded absolute obedience to the authority of the cult leader, which is what people crave.  People of that generation felt lost and adrift in a crazy new world of "do your own thing" and no rules.  Suddenly here was this magnetic personality telling them exactly what to do, with no self-doubt or questioning of his own authority or righteousness.  And they all fall in line, even if being told exactly what to do means begging on the streets or being the guru's sex slave.

This, in part, is why fundamentalist Islam has become more popular in recent years and why many people in the West have converted to Islam and even gone off to fight in Islamic Wars.  People are puzzled as to why ordinary folks would listen to a recruiting video on YouTube and suddenly find religion even though they were raised as Anglican or Catholic.

And the answer is simple. Fundamentalist Islam provides all the answers without any pesky questions. Other religions seem to be waffling or self-doubting.  Islam is the final authority in all matters and thus leaves followers with a feeling of security and that their religion is as immovable as a rock.

And in many religions the metaphor of the rock is often used to define the religion.  The belief system is fixed and doesn't vary with social fashions or changes.  The rules of a religion are inflexible and firm even if they are unfair or unjust.   That, in short, is what people want.

And in many religions, people are controlled to a great extent.  People are told what to do and when to do it. They were required to attend church several times a week or even pray several times a day. They may be forced to wear funny hats, funny underwear, or in case of Scientologists, ridiculous grins on their faces.

Controlling even the clothing you wear is the way of constantly reminding you of your obligations to the religion.  Some members of Opus Dei, the conservative Catholic sect, supposedly wear something called a "clinch" on their leg, which bites into the flesh so that the pain will constantly remind then of their obligations to the church.  Lesser Catholics would carry a rosary, wear a cross, or some other form of religious accessory.  More liberal religions generally don't require much in terms of regular attendance habits or special clothing, although Unitarians do require that you buy a Volvo or Subaru.

Please note that I'm not attacking religion per se.  The same effect is found in many people who consider themselves non-religious.  Rather than following Priests or Imams or Rabbis, they subscribe to the secular religion of materialism.  They look to the almighty TeeVee for instruction as to what to buy, what to do, and even what to say ("wassup!").  Many more make a belief system out of politics - if only "our guy" could get elected, the world would be a paradise!   Not much different than fundamentalist Islam, which pretty much promises the same thing.   Even atheists make a religion that of non-religion - conforming to another set of informal standards, but conforming nevertheless.   If you don't have a "Coexist" bumper sticker, you don't belong!

We see this throughout history.  People prefer to have an authoritarian government that is consistent over a democratic government that vacillates and changes its mind - even if the latter is more fair and just.   The Wiemar republic was liberal and democratic - and doomed.   Germans back then just didn't know what to do with Democracy, once it was handed to them.    But with fascism, once you know what the rules are, you can play the game - even if it is rigged.

We saw this play out in Afghanistan where the Taliban ended up ruling the country by default. The people of Afghanistan were desperate after the Soviet Union had left.  Various warlords vied for power and indiscriminately bombed their own people.  The Taliban promised to put an end to all of that and institute a new Islamic theocracy.  Maybe it wasn't what people wanted, but it was a consistent and reliable set of rules they could follow.  So long as your beard was of the proper length, you were okay.

Theocracies or dictatorships or other forms of totalitarianism are often preferred by many people to democracy.  Such absolute forms of government are far more powerful than vacillating democracies where people's opinions vary over time and laws are changed on a weekly basis.  People see this as weakness, instead of the strength that it is.   The idea that you should think things through and maybe change your mind if you were wrong isn't seen as an act of wisdom, but an act of feeble-mindedness.

Our democracy is under attack by these types of totalitarian forces, and has been since the dawn of our Republic.  Often it is the people within a country that cause it to fail, rather than those from without.   What people crave from Donald Trump is a firm set of rules and guidelines and not the vacillating hand-wringing questioning that the opposing party seems to present.  This is why Trump is so popular with the passives - such as the unemployed factory worker, who like a deer in the headlights, has no clue what to do, once the factory closes.

(It also illustrates how many actives like Trump as well, as his laissez-faire kleptocracy is ideal for the sort of folks who live by no rules at all, other than taking everything they can get their hands on.  Sadly, such folks are most likely to go for petty grabs, not grandiose ones).

America wants a Daddy, one with a leather belt who isn't afraid to take Junior out to the woodshed if he misbehaves.  As long as everyone knows the rules - and the consequences - they can live with that. What people don't like is uncertainty - vacillating positions, re-thinking of ideas, inconsistency of message.   Indeed, one reason why so many on the Left are enamored of Alex Occasional-Furniture, is that she presents a totalitarianism of the Left - a future where the government will tell us what is best for is, keep us from polluting, pay us a "guaranteed annual income" and provide medicare and free college for all.  Comforting thoughts for passives - an anathema for an active who wants to start their own business.

This, of course is a problem for you, if you are one of the actives and not a passive.  Of course, we all perceive ourselves to be active people who want to take control of our lives, but in reality, in many instances, we want other people to make decisions for us, because this is so much easier to do - and it avoids conflict.  So, we go along with a lot of bad ideas.

I'm not sure where this takes us, other than to explain why fundamentalist religions and cults are on rise in the world.  But, perhaps this also illustrates how all of us tend to gravitate toward authority and authoritarianism.  If we can resist this urge within ourselves, it can work our own personal advantage.  Act rationally in an irrational world - all you need to do to get ahead.

Of course, acting rationally quite often means going along with some of these religious doctrines or at least appearing to do so.   It doesn't pay to be a heretic or a revolutionary, if the end result is you are burned at the stake.  If you can't fly under the radar and avoid religious persecution, the other alternative is to become part of the religion and lead it.   Because, let's face it that's where the real money is.