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.