We have asked several of our contributors to respond to a question in our occasional series of forums. This time the question is: What is the world’s most dangerous idea? We expect that the answers will be quite controversial. Please add your comments.
The world’s most dangerous idea would have
to bear upon its biggest problems; these are not political or economic in
nature, but ultimately cultural in origin – which is to say that they are in
some way related to religion. It
would be difficult not to include among them the breakdown of the family – the
scale and speed of which is hard to imagine without the birth control pill. Though it promises “control” – an illusion
– it has instead delivered discord, demographic disaster, and ultimately deflationary
pressures in the economy. A similar frame of mind – “if it works, it is ok” – also
justified the unscrupulous financial practices which contributed mightily to
our present economic woes.
More precisely, then, our biggest problems
can be traced back to moral and intellectual shortcomings which, in our present
cultural climate, are no longer recognized as such. To point them out is to risk giving offense; contemporary
life is thus governed by deceptive if fashionable convention rather than by
This never bodes well.
And it is all the more dangerous because so
few recognize it. As G.K. Chesterton perceived back in 1923, there are two
kinds of people: “those who have a dogma and know it, and those who have a
dogma and don’t know it.” The very word dogma is almost
always used today in a pejorative sense. To call someone dogmatic is to call
someone rigid, unthinking, and hopelessly out of touch with the way things are
nowadays; this has proven an effective means of dismissing “old-fashioned” ideas
which clash with personal preferences – the way we wish things were. But the fact of the matter is that we
all live by dogma; it is therefore a great good to be able to name them for
what they are.
While many imagine they are merely living
by the dictates of reason, science, or progress, they are really living by
relativism – the overarching dogma of the West today. (Never mind that adherents of relativism often make
universal claims, such as “Female Genital Mutilation is wrong”, or “equality
laws are necessary to prevent discrimination.” Such claims, irrespective of
their validity, are inconsistent with pure relativism.)
Relativism ensures that solutions to our
most pressing health care and bioethical issues are pursued chiefly by recourse
to scientism and utilitarianism; these ideologies might be portrayed as pragmatic,
compassionate, and enlightened, but they are profoundly hostile to human
The void created by relativism has gone
hand in hand with the advance of radical individualism; what else is there
other than the self when broader truths are rejected? But the incessant pursuit
of the self’s own desires (at the expense of truth, human nature, and the
common good) leads us further away from rather than closer to happiness and
fulfillment. It might seem
paradoxical, given the West’s unprecedented material prosperity, but a profound
despair – what Kierkegaard called the “sickness unto death” – has in fact proliferated
alongside the modern West’s cult of the self. Such despair may even help explain its astounding population
implosion; at any rate, it is an emblematic feature of the culture of death.
That our modern dogmas lead to tyranny
might be difficult to perceive in an era of ever expanding “rights” (even
though Plato recognized long ago that tyranny was quite compatible with
democracy). After all, the
classical tyrannies of old revoked natural
rights and liberties. But as Spanish author Juan Manuel de Prada observes,
today’s “rights” derive not from nature but from inflamed self-will and the
legal power of the state – a much more precarious provenance.
Social harmony and authentic development cannot
be imposed. But the first step in rectifying our situation – and protecting
ourselves from an expanding tyranny – is to disabuse ourselves of the notion
that dogma is the strict province of narrow-minded religious fundamentalists. Dogma
can lead to our fulfillment and happiness, or to our destruction and misery. What our dogma actually is, in short, makes all the difference
in the world.
Matthew Hanley is the author, with Jokin D. Irala MD of Affirming
Love, Avoiding AIDS: What Africa Can Teach the West.