Violence and Convenient Mysticism

Mysticism in the United States doesn’t really feel like it lends itself to violence. When we think of mystics, we probably think of someone close to a shaman, or maybe a modern mystic whose aesthetic is very homeopathic. Mystics don’t seem like they would be the most violent people today, but in the past, mysticism was a convenient motivating factor for violence.
In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker describes the way that mysticism lends itself to violence by writing, “the brain has evolved to ferret out hidden powers in nature, including those that no one can see. Once you start rummaging around in the realm of the unverifiable there is considerable room for creativity, and accusations of sorcery are often blended with self-serving motives.”
There are two important factors to recognize in this quote from Pinker, and both are often overlooked and misunderstood. First, our brains look for causal links between events. They are very good and very natural at thinking causally and pinpointing causation, however, as Daniel Kahneman wrote in Thinking Fast and Slow, the brain can often fall into cognitive fallacies and misattribute causation. Mystical thinking is a result of misplaced causal reasoning. It is important that we recognize that our brains can see causation that doesn’t truly exist and lead us to wrong conclusions.
The second important factor that we often manage to overlook is our own self-interest. As Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson explain in The Elephant in the Brain, our self-interest plays a much larger role in much of our decision-making and behavior than we like to admit. When combined with mysticism, self-interest can be dangerous.
If you have an enemy who boasts that they are special and offers mystical explanations for their special powers, then it suddenly becomes convenient to justify violence against your enemy. You don’t need actual proof of any wrong doing, you don’t need actual proof of their danger to society, you just need to convince others that their mystical powers could be dangerous, and you now have a convenient excuse for disposing of those who you dislike. You can promote your own self-interest without regard to reality if you can harness the power of mystical thinking.
Pinker explains that the world is becoming a more peaceful place in part because mystical thinking is moving to smaller and smaller corners of the world. Legal systems don’t recognize mystical explanations and justifications for behaviors and crimes. Empirical facts and verifiable evidence has superseded mysticism in our evaluations and judgments of crime and the use of violence. By moving beyond mysticism we have created systems, structures, and institutions that foster more peace and less violence among groups of people.

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