The Pull of Passivity: Reconsidering the Rationality of Religion

Monica Klein, Opinions Editor

Religion is irrational. The religious adhere, after all, to unprovable theories that often stem from a fictional, outdated book. And yet those who scorn the religious are often oblivious to the literature that they themselves adhere to, often with an even more dogmatic reverence. The largest difference between Darwin’s Origin of Species and the Bible may be the attitudes of their readers.

Both books offer explanations for human behavior. In admittedly oversimplified terms, one argues that human behavior stems from an inherent need to survive, while one implies that scientific explanation does not dictate human behavior.

Yet adherents to the Bible see this explanation as acceptably incomplete. They acknowledge, and appreciate, that human nature is not fully explicable: The Bible does not offer, nor does it claim to offer, all of the answers for the physical or mental behavior of humans.

Many modern Darwinists, however, believe his words to be the ultimate, objective truth on the nature of humans. Interestingly, it is often these very Darwinist adherents who scorn the religious for over-dogmatic beliefs. When any theory (religious or scientific) is believed as objective truth, it is worth questioning what detrimental conclusions may arise.

Perhaps we interpret Darwin’s and Hobbes’s theories of natural selfishness as a justification for passivity; in believing that we are inherently selfish beings, we are able to rationalize incapacity in the face of moral and social injustice. Yet it is not our “natural selfishness,” but rather this claim of incapacity, that truly limits our ability to act generously and selflessly.

A strict adherence to this theory of inherent selfishness is appealing, and frightening, in its ability to easily strike down every possible attempt toward selfless actions with the swift label, “unnatural.” And it is from this fun, label-applying frenzy that this stance of incapacity stems.

At college we point out the problems of our hypocritically poisonous eco-friendly light bulbs and our immensely overpriced education. We sit in our 300-level seminars, studying the plight of Chinese sweatshop workers, until it suddenly seems that we must all drop out of college and send our tuition money to a charity across the globe. We slowly reach the height of our utopian brainstorming frenzy, projecting a system of global monetary redistribution and imaging country-wide organic farms.

And then a senior philosophy student (writing his senior thesis on Hobbes, no doubt) raises his hand and reminds us that in truth, we are all acting selfishly. We are merely attempting to alleviate our elite-intellectual guilt by saving a few orphans. We are, in reality, merely instinctual animals, so our every action and thought is “naturally” motivated by self-interest.

A collective sigh arises, purportedly from resigned acceptance, though perhaps stemming more from relief than we would like to admit. Passivity in the face of injustice, we have reaffirmed, is not immoral but rational.

The detriment of this theory lies in our skewed conclusions, rather than in its original content. Theories, after all, can be dismissed or accepted; the very word implies a proposed idea, rather than an objective truth. This belief in inherent selfishness ultimately affects our social and political policies on a global scale. Using assumed self-interest as a model for national security, states perpetually build up weapons rather than reduce arms because this is more rationally beneficial — just in case another state makes the same self-interested decision. This scenario, based on the assumption that everyone naturally seeks the best position for themselves, has brought us such lovely results as World War I and the Cold War. These consequences are inevitable, since we are, after all, selfishly seeking survival.

Our politicians and our citizens passively accept the wars that stem from weapon races, among other horrific events moti- vated by self-interest, because these occurrences appear to be the inevitable consequences of natural selfishness. Many argue for the banishment of the United Nations on these grounds, arguing that limits and treaties are powerless in the face of national self-interest.

And yet if we replace the nations in the security dilemma with a mother and child, or perhaps with Romeo and Juliet, the results deviate from the “natural” conclusion. Humans give their lives for other, sabandon their own needs for the needs of a loved one, and choose to admit guilt in order to exonerate someone else. Selflessness is as real a motivation as selfishness — yet it is dismissed as “unnatural” because it strays from the theory of self-interest.

We have become a generation of Nietzsche-quoting cynics, refusing to strive toward goodness because our theories tell us this is a false goal. We have, essentially, read a book that suggested our legs were tied down and then proceeded to tie our legs down. Now, as we make halfhearted attempts to stand up, we inevitably return to pointing at our legs in resignation — we cannot move, for we are “naturally” incapable of standing.

At Oberlin College today, self-identified liberals often shun progressive ideas as utopian dreams, unachievable because they are motivated by a false sense of selflessness that will crumble in the face of inherent human selfishness. Students cynically dismiss G20 protesters and organic farmers as mere attempts at self-aggrandizement that stem from selfish motives. This criticism ultimately explains more effectively why the critics themselves sit passively than it explains why these idealists will inevitably fail. The cynics believe it is natural to act selfishly, and foolish to pretend otherwise.

Denying the achievements that occurred in the face of “inevitable natural selfishness” on this very campus, the student body has claimed a higher sense of reality as an excuse for passiveness. Incapacity, as Marilynne Robinson pointed out in her visit to Oberlin, is a tranquilizer. We have now gained our right to sit back, sedated, and ignore the injustice around us.

We find comfort in the realization that we are powerless in the face of our instincts, because powerlessness entails no obligation. If we believed that humans have the capacity to strive for more than selfish goals, the enormity of our task would be daunting. Instead, we choose to self-medicate with the seductive sedative of inherent selfishness, justifying our passivity by elevating a theory to the level of objective, all-encompassing truth. Perhaps the intensity with which we cling to this legitimization of immobility ultimately speaks to the level of cowardice and accustomed laziness that our society has reached. An immobile state may be comfortable, but this does not imply that it is natural.