Holocaust denial, religion, and ideology

We often hear atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and P. Z. Myers castigating the excesses and irrationality of religion. (Heck, I’m often game for joining in when it comes to fundamentalist religion.) While discussing the recent Holocaust denial conference in Iran, Massimo Pigliucci makes a good point when he argues that focusing on just religion is missing the broader context:

The answer, I think, is similar to that of the other unnerving question raised by this week’s events: how can some people deny one of the best documented (and recent) historical events of all times? I mean, these guys have no trouble believing in unseen gods, or swallowing tall tales of miracles allegedly performed by long-dead prophets, but cannot bring themselves to accept the reality of an event for which there are still eyewitnesses around, that has been documented on film, and of which there are detailed historical records kept not by the victims, but by the perpetrators! Evolution deniers are pure dilettantes in comparison with Holocaust deniers.

The commonality between these cases is provided by the frightening effects of ideological blinders on human thinking. While Dawkins, Dennett and Harris (justly) rail against the damage caused by religions, they are missing the broader and most important point: unquestioning ideological commitment is the real enemy, be that in favor of a religion or political position, in reverence of a prophet or a political leader. Ironically, I think our tragic tendency to fall for facile ideological brainwashing may be the result of the fact that, despite our literature, science, and technology, we are still little more than a species of social chimpanzees – and we instinctively align ourselves with the alpha male, regardless of how much stupidity and suffering may result from it.

Indeed. It is not just fundamentalist religion, or even religion in general, that is the problem. They are just symptoms of a broader problem in human nature: unquestioning commitment to an ideology that allows us to deny evidence if it conflicts with that ideology. It’s a tendency that all humans are prone to, whether they are willing to admit it or not. The trick is to recognize when it’s happening in oneself and counter it, a very difficult trick indeed.