The Triumphant Defeat of “Belief”

As energy-overconsumption and related regional wars still persist, there is at least one historical advance in human thinking worth celebrating.  And that is — as we move well into the 21st century — the rapid decline in the hegemony of “Belief.”

Political absolutism has historically required, or entailed, an exclusive ideological mandate, such as Marxist-Leninism or Nazism or Catholicism. When Louis XIV restored his absolute monarchy, he revoked the Edict of Nantes — thereby banishing all non-Catholics, on pain of severe persecution and/or death, from France. The Jesuit order held control over the educational system. When the youthful Voltaire visited England in the early 18th century, he was astonished to encounter widespread religious tolerance, within a wider background of liberal skepticism and scientific investigation.

Right into the 20th century, dictators and emperors continued to claim a divine mandate, and their besieged populations were rhetorically browbeaten into a “faith” in their rulers — guided under “God’s protection.” This last notion, fervently embraced by millions as their divinely chosen potentates dragged them into calamitous world wars, has by now become an almost-forgotten relic of bygone, mass delusion. In part, formerly credulous, largely rural peoples became literate, and looked beyond their local pastor or national Fuehrer for plausible answers to human suffering and misfortune. The Church — extolling the non-rational, fervent emotionality of devotion and faith, failed to deliver — prayer, in fact, did not “work.” In our present-day, largely secularized and cosmopolitan world of shared knowledge, it must seem incredible to young people that earlier generations prayed every day — asking for “help,” often for the most mundane of personal problems — from a “God” no doubt already quite busy, managing thousands of galaxies, and so forth. (I concede that backward Americans are still reflexively exhorted to “pray for” the dead victims of the latest mass shooting.)

Reasonable preventive measures — such as vaccines, public hygiene, legal due process and trial by jury, international treaties, legal sanctions against child and spouse abuse, etc. — brought positive results which all the prayers of past millennia did not. People came to understand that dogmatic ideologies–whether political or religious — clearly benefited oppressors and quieted the discontent of the oppressed. And they thus, in a watershed moment for human enlightenment, began to question the inevitability of authoritarian institutions, patriarchal marriage, and hostile ethnic relations. As to the latter, fierce pride in one’s ethnic-nation had largely consisted of reactionary populism against imperial annexations. In the 20th century, once the Ottoman and Austrian empires collapsed, ethnic nationalism began to subside – with the notorious exception of mid-century “pan-Germanism” — into the average ethnocentrism typical of regional populations of linguistic and spatial distinctiveness.

Intellectual historian and psychoanalytic anthropologist, William Manson (Ph.D., Columbia) has published numerous scholarly books and papers, and is a longtime contributor to Dissident Voice. Read other articles by William.