Posted: Feb 26, 2010 5:40 pm
by Dennis Campbell
Erich Fromm, in his Escape from Freedom, laid out some traits of “true believers,” here called “TB,” and they provide a nice beginning. “Freedom,” for the TB, in the sense of having available a range of options from which to chose, and for which to be responsible by that choice, is avoided at all costs. The presence of any one trait is not conclusive, all or almost all of these traits must be evident in one person before the label has any useful predictive power.

1. Perhaps one of the most striking traits, and I’ve seen them there many times on other forums, is that the TB tends strongly to engage in one-way discourses, from him or her to everyone else. Anyone not endorsing their particular belief system, theistic or otherwise, is promptly labeled some kind of idiot, heretic, fool, or some term that denigrates the questioning person.

2. Another trait that seems evident, in both theistic and secular TB people is that the individual is always subsumed by the posited ideology. “Hi, I’m a Christian (Muslim, Communist, Secularist, Recovering Alcoholic……) is more likely that “I’m John.” Personal identity is always wrapped closely in belief system. Clearly, any criticism of that belief system is then taken as a personal insult.

3. The TB adopts a belief system and subsumes themselves into it, that provides a marked expansion of individual claimed authority while at the same time, conveniently, it reduces any sense of personal or individual responsibility, provided of course that the TB keep that wrap closely wound around them. “Allah” or “God” says is so much more of an authority than “I think.” They may not be as common, but I suspect there are might be some who say, in the same TB way, that “Sam Harris” or “Dawkins” says.

4. A related trait, is that those who’ve “fallen away” from the belief system are almost always reviled and sometimes severely punished, as such people represent a threat of the TB’s sense of power and importance. People who previously do not subscribe to the ideology are actively sought out for subscription, as in some way those people as well offer a threat of inducing dissonance in the TB. So TBs tend to be actively “on the hunt” for both the “fallen,” and the uninitiated.

Ironically, as Fromm also noted, a previous TB in one belief system can quite rapidly transfer his or her endorsements to another, even contradictory system, provided the previous needs and traits are met. The fanatic Nazi becomes a fanatic Communist, was his example.

5. TB people, also as a clue, are not inclined to laugh at themselves or of course their beliefs, they tend to be a dour lot a best. Someone who can step aside and make even gentle fun of themselves, shows the ability to distantiate, which is not seen in TBs.

6. Force and violence, even if proscribed by the ideology, are quite often threatened or employed by TB people as they express their belief system, as judged by their behavior and not necessarily their words.

7. Only a small percentage of adherents any belief system can be usefully described as True Believers. They have to be distinguished from psychopaths or “con men,” who consciously claim to endorse and exploit any belief system for financial or political gain.

8. TBs can be found in secular as well as theist belief systems. Fromm was writing about some Nazi adherents, or Communist. It is not the case that a TD is found among those who believe that Ford is better than Chevy, unless that person somehow attributes his personal significance to Ford…...?!

9. TB people tend strongly to the “Black and White” thinkers, and moral “absolutists.” “Shades of grey” are not accepted by TB people, thus science tends to make them most uncomfortable. Further, TB people are inclined to make huge generalizations, lumping “Atheists,” as an example seen on this thread, as having all sorts of attributes not justified by simple observation.

10. The TB person strongly believes that his or her life is secondary to the belief system. They will sacrifice themselves, or someone else, quite readily if the “opposition” is too threatening.

11. The TB person is strongly disposed toward an authoritarian personality, in that some superior person or entity always has the final judgment. Often, the TB considers that s/he is in that superior relationship with anyone in opposition or dissention; and in that role force if available to the TB is readily threatened or employed.

TB people are more likely(?) to be found among the relatively uneducated and/or poor. I can speculate that a future TB person might’ve been a temperamentally sensitive child raised in a hostile, authoritarian, punishment oriented home, but that is just a speculation. It is certainly possible that some TB people can be found in universities, but that is much less likely given the skeptical values more likely to be expressed in a secular university setting.

As an aside, “Atheism” is NOT a believe system, that word simply means “not to share” some theism. It says nothing about what a particular person who is an atheist relative to one or more theisms does believe. Some of the knee-jerk apologists for a theism posting on forums seem to ignore that minor detail. They are engaging in “either/or” or “black and white” thinking. That kind of thinking tends to be quite normal in children and adolescents; most of us grow out of it.

So, someone behaves in a manner which is a reasonably close fit to being a “true believer.” So what? Well, maybe not a lot, but some predictions seem more likely that with other people:

1. They’re initially calm, assured and quite conclusive in their declarations, with no acknowledgment of any doubt or uncertainty, but under criticism or pointed doubts expressed about their declarations, will quickly become quite intensely angry and begin disparaging the doubters’ intelligence, integrity or education.

2. All knowledge sources are claimed to be from superior people or entities, with little originating from themselves and none from non-believers.

3. Their world and what they propose for others is one in which there’s a strict vertical hierarchy with authority coming from the top, that is not to be questioned but obeyed.

4. They divide the human race into two kinds of people: those who believe as does the true believer and those who do not. Those who do not are assigned into a subordinate and hopefully subservient class who do not deserve the rights and privileges assumed by the believers.

5. Democracy and any free and uninhibited exchanges of ideas is considered not acceptable nor tolerated. If the true believer has the means to impose their wishes on others, force is readily used with no great concerns about the consequences to non-believers.

6. True believers are most commonly men, and if so they consider women to be subordinate and inferior, and to be confined to quite restricted roles and social function. If they’re female, men are viewed as impaired or in some way defective.

7. Skepticism, science and reasoning, except sometimes where the tangible results of those efforts are of clear advantage to true believer, are suspect and restricted, with no free exchange of ideas permitted.

8. Judicial procedures are strictly secondary and subordinate to the tenets of the particular belief system endorsed by the true believer, and are not subject to debate. The accused are presumed guilty until proven innocent, with the burden of proof of innocence residing on the accused.

9. If the true believer resides in a society that as a whole does not endorse their beliefs, then the true believer does not consider that they need to govern themselves by any laws laid down by the larger society.

10. The psychological stability of the true believer rests entirely on the superior posited authority or entity remaining in effect, and if it happens that somehow that external and superior authority is removed, the true believer becomes quite unstable and may behave in a very erratic and self-destructive manner.

11. The welfare of everyone, including the true believer, is secondary to the preservation of the posited external authority; so acts of suicide or homicide in the absence of any immediate threats are considered acceptable.

12. Familial or friendship ties are secondary in importance to the true believer’s endorsement of and subservience to their belief system.

13. Thinking tends to be “either/or,” “true/false,” or “all/none” with little or no recognition of degrees of probability, ambiguity or vagueness. There is accordingly little or no tolerance for those conditions as expressed by others and they’re regarded as “weakness” or some form of impairment.

14. Any verbal or written dialogue is one way, from the true believer to everyone else; they lecture, preach or pronounce, and they do not discuss except perhaps about the best ways to display endorsement to the unquestioned belief system.

15. Knowledge or “truth” is considered by the true believer to always reside in or be defined by the authority of the belief system, and not by objective evidence. Any objective evidence considered by the true believer is only that which supports the belief system; any evidence that does not is denied or disparaged as invalid.

16. Epistemology is primarily by unquestioned acceptance of the tenets of the belief system and/or some unverifiable personal revelations immune from public scrutiny.

17. True believers tend to be grossly ignorant of and disinterested in any knowledge or belief systems apart from theirs. Further, they have little understanding of the thought processes, emotions or concerns of non-believers, which makes the true believer perhaps ironically more vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation by others.

18. True believers, regardless of their intelligence, tend to be unimaginative and uncreative, as they cannot permit in themselves the freedom of cognitive speculation that is a requisite for imagination or creativity, as that would be too threatening to the stability of their brittle and limited base.

19. Associated with #18 above, true believers have little if any recognition or appreciation of others’ artistic or creative endeavors that does not clearly support their own belief system.

20. True believers have regulated, almost compulsive life styles, with little day to day variation.

21. Rules and dictums more than “guidelines” are rigidly followed as to thought or actions, with “value” more associated with how closely these are adhered to than any consequences that might be aversive to self or others.

Extemporaneous 2.23.10
Edited 2.26.10