The psychology of agnosticism

Mattias Desmet’s The Psychology of Totalitarianism is arguably essential reading in understanding how it is that not only is the narrative running in the “Collective West” a pack of lies, but that a big majority of ordinary people believe the lies so fanatically that they marginalise any objectors.

His theory of Mass Formation (not dissimilar to other similar theories over the last century) explains the circumstances in which, and the means by which, mass fear produces mass compliance to irrational stories, and totalitarianism follows in its wake. It’s a persuasive case, and you should read it.

I find the philosophical position he’s coming from, as he works his way into the nitty gritty, to be both refreshing and frustrating. On the one hand, he decries the Enlightenment’s reductionist materialist worldview in some really interesting ways, one good example being his analysis of why digital communication proved so dehumanising during COVID, with reference to developmental psychology. This, of course, leads to a major critique of the technocracy promised, or threatened, by bodies like the WEF in the wake of COVID, which fail to take into account what is unmeasurable, and therefore most valuable, in human experience.

On the other hand, he seems to have imbibed the typical Enlightenment illusion of “liberation” from “organised religion,” which he sees, in the best New Atheist fashion, as the oppression from which the Enlightenment freed mankind before it unaccountably lost its way. In fact it seems to me it was the abandonment of Christianity that made its failure inevitable. Desmet seems to espouse the kind of mystical spirituality that characterised the beliefs of some of the twentieth century’s major physicists, ie a belief in the mysterious Unknowable, coupled without any clear justification to a respect for human freedom.

That, of course, one can easily forgive in seeking to understand his main thesis, except that on at least one occasion it leads him to play fast and loose with historical truth in the very way he criticises in others when they allow their ideology to govern the evidence. In chapter 5, in arguing how we have become excessively averse to pain (a good point), he cites Henry David Thoreau to claim:

In the seventeenth century, when Jesuits tried to convert Native Americans to Christianity by burning them at the stake, the missionaries discovered, to their great frustration, that the Indigenous Peoples were unimpressed. Over time, the Native Americans themselves suggested other, much more painful forms of torture. “Why always at the stake?” they asked the missionaries.

Now when I read that, my bullshit monitor immediately started bleeping. I’m no apologist for the Jesuits, and suspect that their missionary methods were seldom as culturally sensitive as even Protestant missionaries of the time would have liked. But even a moment’s thought would tell you that nobody gets converted by being burned to death, and that it would require a great deal of force to inflict it on the local people successfully. It would need armed roving bands of missionaries, picking off isolated Natives for fiery conversion. Back home, burning was the fate only of heretics and, sometimes, witches after lengthy, if seldom dispassionate, trials. Why would missionaries turn it into an evangelistic method? Furthermore, I would have expected to hear about it before now.

I had immediate suspicions about Thoreau as a historical source. He was actually writing about off-grid living, not American history, and indeed it seems he was not particularly fastidious about the truth even of his own life and times, as well as being a professed enemy of “organised religion” and of Catholicism in particular. But did even he accuse the Jesuits of “conversion by combustion”?

Searching on the subject discovers a lot of scholarly discussion about Jesuit accounts of being tortured by Native Americans, and of the latter torturing each other. But nothing about Jesuits inflicting it. Most of the scholarly discussions are about whether they exaggerated the stories as martyrology for their European readers, or simply misunderstood the complex social reasons for the practice. Mostly, they point to one seventeenth century autobiographical account by Jesuit missionary Isaac Jogues of his treatment at the hands of the Iroquois, and it is almost certainly this account to which Thoreau briefly refers in his book, Walden. Jogues was a courageous cookie – getting home after his torments, minus a few fingers and very scarred, he nevertheless volunteered to return as French ambassador to his beloved Iroquois, and they killed him.

What Thoreau actually writes, in Chapter 1 of his book on simple living, is this:

The Jesuits were quite balked by those Indians who, being burned at the stake, suggested new modes of torture to their tormentors. Being superior to physical suffering, it sometimes chanced that they were superior to any consolation which the missionaries could offer; and the law to do as you would be done by fell with less persuasiveness on the ears of those who, for their part, did not care how they were done by, who loved their enemies after a new fashion, and came very near freely forgiving them all they did.

The original missionary’s account makes it quite clear that, since a captured Native from another tribe was tortured at the same time as he was himself, he was able to observe, if not fully understand, how both the torture and the victim’s response differed from his own. What is obvious is that, through bravado (or, as modern scholars conclude, in order to demonstrate the stoicism of his own tribe in the face of the enemy), this Native American expressed scorn at his prolonged burning, and asked if his captors couldn’t come up with anything that really hurt.

I should add that it seems that the ritual of torture, for the Native rather than the despised Jesuit “magicians,” was sometimes used, should the victim survive, as an initiation rite, washing away his old life so he could be adopted into his captors’ community. Expressions of courage were the only way of saving his life. So indifference to pain and love for enemies is scarcely a complete interpretation, casting doubt on both Thoreau’s point and the relevance of the one Desmet draws from it. But it is abundantly clear that nothing in the passage casts the missionaries in the light of torturers, still less punishers of non-conversion by death, but only as victims of torture, evidently borne as bravely by Jogues for the cause of Christ as by the Native America, though more severe.

Does this matter? Can we excuse Desmet on the grounds that as a Belgian he might have missed the full meaning of the English text he cites? Although the passage is entirely tangential to the main thrust of Desmet’s book, it matters because it is just the kind of false narrative that easily gets repeated over and over again (with a cross reference to Desmet’s reputably academic book).

Longstanding readers will know that I have from time to time focused on the anti-religious “scientific” myths perpetrated by the nineteenth century science-secularists such as J. W. Draper and A. D. White and still circulating today. Mediaeval Christians (these jokers claimed) used the Bible to insist the world was flat; they burned the library at Alexandria; they insisted the earth was created in 4004BC etc. Particularly in our day this casting of aspersions on Christianity, currently the most persecuted religion in the world, holds very real dangers.

In Canada many churches (I believe about fifty), mostly Catholic, have in the last year or two been burned down on the basis of entirely unvalidated claims that Catholic Schools for Native Canadians systematically murdered children in their care and buried them in mass graves. It is not insignificant that near-identical, and equally unsubstantiated, claims have been made in Ireland and Australia. Falsehoods like Desmet’s, widely extant in society, make such fictions plausible. They give support to the very kind of false narrative that Desmet’s work highlights and opposes, whose ill effects have been demonstrably proven in the burning of churches and the open demonisation of Catholic institutions by politicians like Justin Trudeau. They underlie the British court decision that biblical Christian beliefs on gender are “not worthy of civilised society.” And so they contribute to the kind of mass-formation that is the subject of his book, and can be lethal to the innocent.

Given the prominence of scientistic education in our state schools, it is not surprising that scientific and historical fictions are tied into the mythos of “organised religion” (for some reason a bad thing, unlike “organised science”), in order to dissuade young people from finding truth and community in the Christian churches. Hence they contribute to the “atomization” that Desmet diagnoses as a primary underlying cause of the malaise of society leading to mass-formation. It is hard to see how some generalised “sense of the Unknowable,” gained from “lived experience,” could avoid being just another aspect of society’s individualised fragmentation.

Mattias, you’re supposed to be solving the problem – don’t inadvertently add to it by careless scholarship!

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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7 Responses to The psychology of agnosticism

  1. Levi says:

    “We teach children that we stopped hunting witches because of science arose. But it is the contrary. Science arose because, for moral and religious reasons, we stopped hunting witches. ”

    – René Girard, “Quand Ces Choses Commeneront”

  2. Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Levi

    Not sure how much I agree with Giraud on this, though there’s truth in it. The fact is that the Church had taught against the practice of magic, on principle, for centuries, but had also dismissed witchcraft as merely fraudulent. Witch-hunts had never been a part of Christianity, so the “moral and religious” reasons Girard cites were operating from the start.

    The superstitious craze for hunting down witches is therefore a later development which needs explaining in terms other than “Christian superstition.” I’ve argued that it was in fact imported into the Church by secular intellectual “natural philosophers” who, for a century or so, saw magic as a real way of gaining knowledge, which opened the door to their belief that non-academics might be using ritual magic to do harm, and that Something Ought To Be Done.

    That belief in the reality and danger of magic worked its way through society, with popular “mass formation” infecting the churches too, much as “woke” began in the academy, infected society and finally began to subvert the churches, so that now bishops sack ministers for opposing the teaching of transgenderism.

    Magic seems to have been gradually banished from science, after a century or so, because magic didn’t work, and because experimental science started to yield results… and perhaps because the large proportion of strongly Christian scientists one by one got “red-pilled.”

    It’s at that kind of point that Girard’s thesis may kick in: Christians began to “awaken” to the monstrosity of witch-hunts too and return to what Christianity had originally taught, just as churches that begin to see what intersectionality produces in practice might start to clean up their act. Did that turn-around facilitate science, or not? It seems to have been early science, in my thesis, that caused the problem in the first place, but then outgrew it.

    What seem certain is that the common story that the Enlightenment’s rationality overturned Christianity’s blind superstition is a typical case of “Whig History.”

    • Levi says:

      Dear Jon

      Without wanting to enter into a lengthy apology for Girard’s anthropological thesis, the initial quote was intended to indicate, by “witch-hunts” both universal scapegoating (in its myriad, including inverted, forms) and the particular witch-hunts, notably those occurring in Christendom up til the 18th century.

      Girard is certainly not saying that witch-hunting in the universal sense ever stopped, if it did in the particular sense above-mentioned, because he is saying that it is the basis and origin of all human culture (excepting truly Christian life), and therefore a sort of Original Sin, inhering in individual and interdividual psychology as well as in all politics. However, the specially unique aspect of his theory outlines that Christ and the totality of prophetic Christian revelation is a ‘technology’ that uniquely exposes – and counters – this pre-existing ‘technology’ of accusation, blame-shifting victimage.

      Notwithstanding revelation – or because of it – scapegoating continues in more hideous forms, more hideous because insidious, as although it is always functioning beneath the level of awareness, it is forced by Christian religious and moral teaching to dress itself in the fine drapery of Christian virtue, including logic and science, whilst doing its ancient, satanic, pre-Adamic thing. Witch-hunts within Christendom are one such example, as are all of today’s modernist perversions and delusions (of which, Wokeness is only the latest apology for), such as abortion in the explicitly homicidal sense, and even the hostility to, and misrepresentation of, Christianity that you mentioned, in the tacit sense.

      I don’t think I’m contradicting your arguments about magic etc., which of course are contrary to true Christianity. What Girard tries to show is that Christendom was the beginning stage of the “good infection”, but that even Christians are subject to the tendencies, natural as they are, to seek in others and elsewhere the the causes of evil, and that modernity (and especially wokeness, which he commented on before his death) is what Girard labels “ultrachristianity”, where, agreeing with Chesterton, all the Christian ideals are inverted and taken to their extreme, perverse conclusion, under the motor and guidance of the original, satanic principle of order.

      Being a practicing Roman Catholic, Girard obviously does not intend by this epithet to associate magical thinking and witch-hunting/accusatory psychology with Christianity (for it is the only exposé and utter rejection of it), but only to show that, as evil is always parasitic on the good, and Christ is the Good, Satan now uses Christian rather than pagan standards to perform his work.

      • Jon Garvey says:

        Agreed. I was only questioning Girard’s apparent assumption that witchhunts were an “original feature” of Christianity, whereas they were an isolated phenomenon from, say, the sixteenth century, and seem to have had their origin outside the Church.

        But as you say, the underlying scapegoating phenomenon is highly contagious, though not universal. I may have mentioned before that one of the first entries in my Baptist church’s record book from 1653 was an accusation by an outsider that two of their members were involved in witchcraft.

        The church’s response was that unless he could provide evidence, he should cease and desist, and no more was heard about it.

        • Levi says:

          If I may correct the record, Girard never made any such assumption. On the contrary, Christianity unleashes what we now call: forensic justice, as well as the following rights (in English jurisprudence), entre autres: to face one’s accuser; that the prosecutor has the burden of proof; that any prosecution must prove an accusation beyond reasonable doubt; that without corroboration, circumstantial evidence or hearsay evidence are insufficient to satisfy that burden; etc. These have their primitive origins in Leviticus (2 accusers required for any charge; both must throw the first and second stones, if the accused is found guilty), and we see the Church from the very beginning employing its genius (I.e., the revelation of the satanic in human culture manifesting as, amongst other things, magical thinking, false accusation, and lying) to prevent the cruel and unjust persecution of society’s most vulnerable: discarded babies, lepers, the accused, etc. The Church is the origin of orphanages, lazars and hospitals, and yes, English jurisprudence.

          The problem of credulity, mass formation, scapegoating and war, is not with the Church and her doctrines; it is with the heart of man, which is, in his fallen nature, against the truth.

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