True Believers, Religion, Politics, and Willingness to Die

I’m currently working on some rather cool simulations, attempting to determine the conditions sufficient to cause mass rebellious movements, where being killed by your own government is preferable to living in the status quo. I’m referring to armed insurrection with the explicit intent to overthrow a regime, rather than everyday protest movements.

Because it’s summer time I asked a bunch of professors for books to read that will help me in my dissertation. The engineering professors suggested books like Agent_Zero by Joshua Epstein, and—believe me—that book is #2 on my list! But I need to have a theoretical background, bringing me back to the soft side of social science. The director of the International Studies department suggested The True Believer, Eric Hoffer’s most famous contribution to social psychology.

For you lovers of knowledge, the entire pdf of the book is here.

As soon as she sent me this pdf I read the preface to determine whether or not it was of any use to my research (yes, it is!). And just two paragraphs in something jumped out at me that I’ve known all along, but never really thought about. Per Hoffer:

All mass movements generate in their adherents a readiness to die and a proclivity for united action; all of them, irrespective of the doctrine they preach and the program they project, breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred and intolerance; all of them are capable of releasing a powerful 􏰀flow of activity in certain departments of life; all of them demand blind faith and singlehearted allegiance.

And it doesn’t end there. Two paragraphs later:

He who, like Pascal, 􏰂finds precise reasons for the effectiveness of Christian doctrine has also found the reasons for the effectiveness of Communist, Nazi and nationalist doctrine. However different the holy causes people die for, they perhaps die basically for the same thing.

In other words, the willingness to die in defense of your own religion is no different—from a psychological perspective—than the willingness to die in defense of Adolph Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, or Donald Trump’s America.

Hoffer seems to suggest that in the minds of the true believer, all mass movements are of such significant import that religious movements are indistinguishable from secular movements. The problem is, however, that secular movements are usually more pliable than religious movements. Religious movements survive due to deep seated beliefs about morality and the afterlife according to an infallible supernatural agent; secular movements survive according to the will of the people. The willingness to die—and therefore kill—to defend religious ideas will survive over the willingness to die and kill to defend ideas that are constantly in flux.

Perhaps this is why religion lasts at the expense of secular ideas.

About Rayan Zehn

I'm a political scientist.
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2 Responses to True Believers, Religion, Politics, and Willingness to Die

  1. peddiebill says:

    When religion includes a desire for violence it may be surviving in the minds of the believers but often this strays very far from the original form of the religion. Thus with Christianity even Hitler claimed he was following Christ in his version of clearing the Temple (and perhaps he honestly believed he was so doing.) However Christianity does not necessarily survive in the intention of the one who started the religion.

    History is littered with examples of those who appeared to seriously believe that they were following the finest principles of those who started the religion but in practice were following the age old principles of Darwinian survival at the expense of any potential rivals. Thus some Popes and Kings were able to send Crusades off to the Holy Lands to slaughter Muslims and Eastern Christians and in so doing believing they were winning entry to heaven. Just because Donald Trump sees himself representing Christianity it doesn’t mean he is helping his religion survive any more than the massive US armament industry and the proponents of the weird US gun laws should be condoned on the grounds that they think what they are doing somehow fits the sermon on the Mount. Perhaps the followers of principled religion are very few in number.

  2. David says:

    Nice post, but I would like to clarify, Hitler was not Christian, he was a Catholic. I know many will say well whats the difference. I am glad you asked. Here’s a video I put together to show how Catholics are not Christians.

    Aside from that fact, in the case of Nazi Germany and Hitler, it was truly driven by as you said Darwinian means, exterminating the lesser “races”, thank you mister Charlie Darwin for science so called backed racism. Science today via mitochondrial eve has proven what the Bible has said all along. There are not different human races, there is just the human race.

    Don’t miss understand my point. The Bible is not a science book, it is a spiritual one, and far to often people use the argument, if it truly was inspired by the creator of the universe, it would have had more “science” in it. Well no, because it is showing how we as humans, aught to be, and not aught to know, in the since of sciences.

    Hows your thesis coming along Rayan?

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