We’re on a mission from god.
~ The Blues Brothers
~ British film
It was another bad day for God and his mono-theism. Two men killed a third man with butcher knives and cleavers. They gutted him like a deer. In His name. If God existed, He should be upset. Or not. Abrahamic monotheism comes with different faces. There are at least three: Love, Justice, and Vengeance. Me, I like the first one.
If you are an optimist, you might say that over historic time the story of Abrahamic monotheism has been the civilizing of God: moving Him, inch by inch, from Vengeance to Justice to Love. The repressed has a way of returning, though, and rearing its ugly head of displaced violence.
I received a call from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation with an invitation to comment on the Woolwich butchery and the role of bystanders. I declined for two reasons. First, inference requires information, and there is not enough reliable information available. Second, an incident like this one shows up the weak underbelly of empirical science (any empirical science, not just psychology). The strong suit of empirical science is to predict events on the basis of theory and past observation. These predictions are good to the extent that the context in which they are made is narrow and well-defined. Most people are interested in the reverse inference, however. They want causal explanations. Their need to understand is greatest when the event is very rare and very bad. Unfortunately, those events are the hardest to predict and explain.
We can make some general points, though. The butchers of Woolwich (I have no compunction using loaded language) claimed to be acting on behalf of a group. To them, their victim was also a mere representative of a group. In that sense, their crime was not personal. This is an extreme example of the principle of outgroup homogeneity, which is that members of a social category appear to be interchangeable. As people in England and elsewhere respond to the crime, they are in danger of being trapped by the same psychological principle. It can lead to no good. I am, however, encouraged by the response of the British Prime Minister, who thoughtfully steered away from making the issue a categorical or collective one.
The principle of outgroup homogeneity has a side effect. Once you see members of a group as interchangeable it is hard to see them as fully human and it is hard to regard them with compassion. Our minds are prepared to have and to feel compassion for others who are individuals as we are. To have compassion with a group is possible, but it is a more cortical affair. To seek vengeance by gutting a person on behalf of a group is completely irrational. It is trying to balance the suffering of ingroup members with the suffering of outgroup members, but that can be done only by dehumanizing them, which negates the idea that balance is achieved. I think that it was the recognition of this irrationality that over historic time replaced human sacrifice with animal sacrifice. Eventually, most of us woke up to the fact that animal sacrifice does not do much good either.
Now Justice. The problem of the God of Sinai is that he anchors the concept of Justice on belief in Him. If belief in Him dominates everything else, Justice is defined in intergroup terms. Those who do not believe in Him are mortally guilty regardless of anything else they do. This concept of Justice gives energy to monotheist zealots because they can psych themselves into believing that they have unique access to supernatural support. I think that polytheism is preferable here. If Polyphemos can rage against Odysseus with the support of Poseidon, Odysseus can counter with the help of Athena. The battle is fairer and juster. Both acknowledge the reality of the other’s god.
Love, actually. If God is love, what does it mean for the response to Woolwich? Nothing would be gained by submitting the perpetrators to painful punishment besides satisfying an archaic need for vengeance. So what to do? If God has become love, how will she guide the human response?