Completely normal, healthy people are liable to believe completely abnormal, unhealthy things. So it was in Nazi Germany, in which a nation was psychologically manipulated to persecute specific factions of people on the basis of pseudo-science and national loyalty. In fact, approximately 90% of German workers at the concentration camps which systematically murdered thousands of Jews at a time, were, according to psychiatrists from the camps, psychiatrically normal people with no mental deficiencies. How could this be? How could people who committed such unspeakable atrocities be considered normal?
Well, the truth that comes out of this startling fact is that all humans are vulnerable to such mind paralysis. If the conditions of the psyche are right, people are bound to fall into traps such as these. For example, Germany’s culture encouraged a unique dichotomy between the public and private spheres. Privately, Germans were supposed to be passionate, sentimental, and emotional, as demonstrated in the German art and literature prevalent at the time. However, publicly, Germans were trained to devote their loyalty entirely to the state and taught that unmindful obedience to authority was the appropriate way to behave. In doing this, their public sense of self was sacrificed to the greater whole of Germany, and they viewed themselves as mere subjects to the German state, while harboring a dangerously passionate emotional side, left to grow unmonitored in hidden mental compartments.
While most religious people would never condone such conduct, they demonstrate a similar trend within the human psyche. It is natural for humans to possess the desire to submit themselves to a greater whole. The loss of sense of self can be an ecstatic feeling worth striving for. This, in my view, is a major reason why people are so attracted to religion and why being religious persists to be the norm in American society.
In fact, submission of self can be seen across the entire spectrum of world society. Members of a sports team are encouraged to sacrifice personal accolades for the greater good of the team. Any job in which people are required to work as a team promotes this same sacrificial concept. And certainly, this evidently natural human tendency does not always have the detrimental behavioral outputs as seen in Nazi Germany. The key is to channel this tendency into a productive manner that heightens the human experience, without losing one’s sense of independent thought and reason. I have been extremely critical of Christianity and religion in general, but many people seem to use religion merely as a guide, while ensuring that their mental and intellectual independence is not endangered by their submission to a god. However, history has demonstrated that one’s complete submission to religion is one of – if not the – most destructive and murderous impulses. When people believe wholeheartedly in something, they are liable to commit extreme atrocities in the name of whatever greater good they’re immersed in – atrocities that their natural sense of reason would normally object to, but is trumped by the powerful, binding force of eliminating the self.
Therefore, when SS officers in concentration camps were asked how they were able to allow the mass killings to proceed, many of them responded that they were merely taking orders. The command came from the authority that they had invested their heart into and committed their minds to. Obeying the will of the greater good was their main priority – even if that meant murder.
Here, we see the flaw in religious teachings. Complete submission and thoughtless obedience stand at the forefront, and people accept these ideals because it makes them feel as though they are a part of something greater than themselves. This is a good feeling. And sometimes, it can result in spectacular achievements – religious organizations are often first in line to contribute to disaster relief efforts. But other times, it results in the reckless killing of others on the grounds that they are merely “taking orders,” just as the rigidly loyal SS officers claimed. Whether that authority is Nazi Germany or God, though, does not make a difference. The danger is the same, and the suppression of rationality exists equally in both cases. Furthermore, religion can pose no reasonable criticism of the actions of these SS officers, because they are bound to the same philosophy. The only difference is the authority giving orders. And merely claiming that one’s model of authority is true, or would never demand such atrocities, only produces further intellectual stagnation and differences between people that are immune to change, given both sides view their authoritarian figure as immutably correct and perfect.
Therefore, we must find more productive ways to channel our sacrificial tendencies without abandoning our faculties of independent thought. This is something that religion in its purest form fails to do, because it constructs a fixed entity with limitless power who demands complete submission and obedience. And while many would argue that humans merely misinterpret this entity’s will, the danger remains the same; those who commit loyalty to an all-knowing, all-powerful figure are immune to criticism and opposing arguments because the forces of reason and rationality are superseded by the godlike figure. With this religious mentality, intellectual and moral improvement are impossible. But by procuring an independent mind, we are able to grow intellectually because we are not attaching ourselves to any sort of fixed truth. Open inquiry and rational questioning are at the heart of this ideal – an ideal that neither Nazi Germany nor religion can honestly lay any claim to.