Calculating the risk of militant ideologies

Here’s a Buddhist hate preacher. You might not have thought a thing was possible. Here’s a Jewish hate preacher. It’s considered hate speech in the U.S. to admit these exist. And here’s a Muslim hate preacher. You hear a lot about these in the news. It’s okay to talk about them, it seems. And here’s  a Christian hate preacher. This one bends a lot of ears in Congress. We can talk about these, but in a sort of wink-nod, “they’re crazy, but they’re our crazy” way. And then, there are the militant atheist hate preachers. Some of them don’t even mind being accused of hate, just don’t call them faith-based. This group is likely the least capable of turning rhetoric into action… except during that period in Russia when some atheists were able to do just that. There are more brands of these kinds of preachers, but the point is made well enough.

Tragedies eventually happen. Sometimes people cause them, and some of these people are religious. When this happens, people then look to the faith cited in order to try to figure out why. Here, a CNN blog tries to identify 4 factors that a religion is about to go postal. Here, a newspaper editorial tries to reconcile the Boston bombing with the Islam the writer knows. This is useless. They’re looking in the wrong place.

I don’t happen to think faith causes anything. As pervasive as religion is, we need to look at it as one ingredient that can make things happen. I offer one atheist’s argument that faith, or any other singular thing, isn’t the actual problem: It’s just one potential (but not required) ingredient in a stew that may consist of a hodge podge of different elements which can result in fantastically catastrophic results if combined just right. The ingredients themselves don’t actually  matter as much as the percentages do. How does a potentially horrible thing come about? Like most beliefs, good or bad or indifferent, really. They require the following:

graph showing this to be true
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have found that when just 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society.

First: You need 10% of a population to have an unshakable belief that something is true, or at least have a good reason for thinking they do. Researchers at the Social Cognitive Networks Academic Research Center looked at historical patterns and ran mathematical simulations to show that when a tenth of a given population is firmly convinced of a thing, whatever that thing is, it will quickly be adopted by the majority of the society. The belief doesn’t have to be true.

Second: How does a critical mass of believers build up? I think Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody was on to something that can be extrapolated here: In order to create a crowd sourced project, such as a free encyclopedia like Wikipedia, participants must sense the potential of personal gain out of joining a project. It isn’t important that the promise be delivered, but it has to convincing enough to propel people to action. I think this works in religions, nation building and political movements, the economy, and lots of other areas, such as homoeopathy, online role-playing games and post-graduate studies.

Third: This belief has to survive and be able to adapt over time. David Sloan Wilson created a brilliant framework for studying why some beliefs outlive others. Spoiler: The rationality of the belief itself is irrelevant. The only commonalities among the victors throughout the ages are:

  • The system encourages a lot of breeding.
  • It creates believers through conversion.
  • It’s able to survive attacks by competitors that see it as a threat.

Fourth: Leverage. People aren’t naturally more prone to beat one another than shake hands. Both eventualities (and others) are possible given various conditions. Like our non-religious, apolitical cousins in the primate world it turns out that how we treat neighbours has little to do with indoctrination, but is subject to a variety of other conditions. Letting these conditions play out naturally doesn’t lead to predictable markets or voting trends. Steering crowds toward some sort of zealous idea is more cost effective. Some people understand this. That’s why:

Lobbying happens because it works. If you don’t have the time to make your case to that 10 percent of the population and wait for the generational change required for a huge ideological tilt in your favour, you can buy your way to the front of the queue. Leverage manufactures situations, negative or positive, that wouldn’t naturally occur within a given time frame.

All those people cited in the first paragraph are trying to get leverage as they’re well under the 10% mark. They also share a common goal of seeking a national structure based around their specific brand of ideology.  Nationalism exaggerates everything and requires dogmatic allegiance to prosper. But who’s going to be effective at delivering a solid threat?

Dogma is the issue, not belief.
Someone out there who calls themselves the same thing you do is probably a twat. Consider that before making your next rash generalisation.
  • That Buddhist monk Wirathu calls himself the ‘Burmese Bin Laden’ and his goal is to defend the “Buddhist Nation” from invasion by inciting followers to attack their Muslim neighbours. But he’s not really got the leverage on a grand scale, and is a mouthpiece for a globally discredited military junta on the way out. His rhetoric is possibly a threat on a local level for a short time, but it doesn’t upscale. His potential audience doesn’t stretch that far.
  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu keeps alive the memory of Rabbi Yaakov Yosef in spite of his racist incitement and support of a doctrine on How to Kill Goyim because it speaks to his far-right Eretz Israel constituency. You could be forgiven for not recognising the name of the late rabbi, but Netanyahu is someone with international pull, and a shortcut to influencing American policy. This is leverage. Threat.
  • Anjem Choudary pantomimes a comedic act of nationalist Islam, shouting for Sharia on every street, and getting a stage on Fox News instead of a bit of pavement at Speaker’s Corner. It does speak to a group of believers: Some of them may actually want what he’s banging on about. Others want to believe he represents a serious threat, because then there’s a face to put to their irrational fears of something that isn’t going to happen. He’s not a threat.
  • John Hagee is, like the aforementioned rabbi, also pushing for Israel’s ethnic/religious-based national-identity, but for different ends than a rabbi or Bibi might intend. Hagee represents a constituency of Americans and can also bend the ear of those in seats of power. He’s got the leverage to make things happen. Threat.
  • Militant atheists have come under more recent attack as of late, but again, it’s not until you add nationalism that things get toxic. These aren’t those atheists, and they possess little influence outside a particular fan base. Not really threats.

But what is an actual global threat? The World Economic Forum’s “Global Risks 2013” provides a basis for rating threats. Religious fanaticism and terrorism do make the list, but they appear pretty far down the scale from the top five most likely concerns:

  • Income disparity
  • Fiscal imbalance
  • Increasing greenhouse gas emission
  • Water supply crisis
  • Mismanagement of an aging population

We can see that in spite of the Fox guest spot, the likes of fanatics like Anjem Choudary and the militants he allegedly inspires don’t amount to all that. The “militant” atheists, for all their huff, don’t really have pull, either. None of our guys really rank up there. So why do we hear so much guff about faith extremists, instead of actual issues facing the world? We have a war against terrorism, but not one against income disparity. Perhaps these people and these people are the bigger threats. What if we looked at a clearly quantifiable method of gauging extremism: monetary support for agendas that increase risks to significant numbers of people around the globe. The nightly news would look pretty different.