Nonconformists, Parameters, the Constitution, and Heretics

So far we’ve discussed heresy as a general concept, looked at the definition of it from a Catholic perspective, and looked at the history of the concept.  Here I want to consider some of the sociological aspects of heresy.

Back here I had the following to say (editing a bit):

In all societies and cultures…beyond a certain level of complexity, you have various attitudes toward belief….  These are as follows:  1.  Sheep; or, more politely, conformists.

The vast majority of people–I’d say 70%, at least–are basically conformist.  Conformists go along to get along.  They’re not extremely reflective and they tend accept whatever the prevailing religion, political ideology, or societal Zeitgeist happens to be.

This is most likely a survival trait, for obvious reasons.  In a hunter-gatherer tribe, there has to be a certain amount of social cohesion, which means everyone has to be on the same page about major things.  If this isn’t the case, it could spell doom for the group and the individuals.

Such a trait doesn’t imply ignorance or stupidity or lack of integrity, either.  Most of us have family members, co-workers, bosses, and such with whom we know not to bring up certain topics, or around whom to tread warily, or whatever, as a way of preserving family harmony, one’s own job, etc.  Most of us know that there is an expected pattern of behavior in church, at work, etc.  Almost all of us are conformist at least in some contexts.  Those who are unwilling or unable to “go along to get along” are the eccentrics, the bohemians, the misfits, and such, and are perceived as being either crazy or assholes.  Often they actually are.

The point is that such default conformist belief is not necessarily hypocritical nor is it necessarily deep and sincere.

[For example] most Russians pre-1918 were default monarchists; then they were default Communists; now they’re in transition with the outcome being unclear, to default something else.

Once more, I don’t want to judge people too harshly.  ”Going along to get along” is usually said in a negative, derogatory tone; but it is a deeply human trait, born of our legacy as a social species.  Everyone does it; we do it and will continue to do it, too.

2.  True believers.  There is always a smaller group–say, 15% or so–who internalize conformity to the dominant paradigm much more strongly than everyone else.  These are the leaders, the movers and shakers, the religious police, the party men, the dyed-in-the-wool capitalists/Communists/atheists/Buddhists/Jews, whatever.  Sheep go along to get along, but don’t get too exercised about perfect orthodoxy or even precise details of belief.  True believers, by contrast, will cross every “t”, dot every “i”, and look askance at you (or worse!) if you don’t, too.

When societies change, True Believers are the ones at the forefront of metaphorical or literal battles to Preserve the True Faith (where “faith” need not imply a religion).  If they lose the day, they’re the troublesome resistance fighters that refuse any compromise, or the fifth column that goes into hiding, conforming exteriorly but secretly keeping the faith.

3.  Nonconformists.  Maybe five percent or so of the population.  These are the curmudgeons who are never quite satisfied with society, even if it’s their belief system that is regnant.  If they’re in a capitalist state, they’ll be Communist; if the state goes Communist, they’ll be Trotskyist.  They’re never quite willing to go along with broader currents.  They’re not “joiners”.  These are the eccentrics, the hermits, the denizens of subcultures.

4.  Freethinkers.  I don’t mean this in the usual way the term is used.  Usually, “freethinker” means “liberal, atheist/agnostic, humanist”, or some such.  I’m using it to mean someone who literally thinks freely.  That is, he or she looks at the issues and tries to be careful in forming belief.  He won’t automatically accept or reject something just because it’s the conventional wisdom or the default societal belief.  He doesn’t conform automatically, but he has no trouble doing so to the extent that it does not compromise his values.  He has the courage of his convictions and will set himself against the norms, but he feels no need to do so unless it’s really necessary.  In many ways, he’s what Marcello Truzzi called a “zetetic“.  There aren’t many people like this–perhaps 5% of the population.

That’s a rather long quote, but I think it’s relevant.  As should be obvious, heretics will tend to be in categories 3 or 4 above.  In short they will be among the eccentrics, non-conformists, bohemians, and weirdos.

Now I think one can to an extent classify entire societies as more (or less) conformist.  That is, some societies have a relatively high tolerance for eccentrics, freethinkers, etc.  One thinks of England and its beloved eccentrics. Other societies are more conformist–there is more enforcement of conformity and uniformity by social pressure.  Japan is a good example of this type of culture, with its aphorism, “The nail that sticks up will be pounded down.”

More broadly, the whole matter is an issue of balance.  Obviously, all societies from hunter-gatherer tribes to modern industrial states require a certain amount of conformity in order to function.  Consider this blog post:  We seldom stop to think about just how many people doing a massively large variety of tasks–telephone linemen, fiber optic cable layers, IT people, employees of power plants, etc. etc. etc. need to do their jobs consistently–to conform–for the Internet to work so that I can post this and you can read it.  The infrastructure requirements alone are staggering.  As Freud pointed out long ago, a certain amount of conformity, despite the discomfort it may cause us, is vital to civilization itself.

The flip side of this, however, as Freud also noted, is that the individual often feels stifled, if not outright oppressed.  Throughout history in most societies, primitive or advanced, the idea of holding religious, political, or philosophical belief at odds with the official beliefs of society (be it tribe or state) would have been practically inconceivable.  Only since the Enlightenment has it come to be otherwise, at least in most First World countries, and others to varying degrees.  The best-known example for Americans is the First Amendment, in which is enshrined freedom of religion, of the press, and (indirectly) of association.

It all comes down to a matter of parameters, of balance.  Obviously, a certain amount of conformity is needed in any society.  On the other hand, beyond the more abstract moral case for freedom of conscience (which I think is strong) is the practical case that a certain level of non-conformity that I touched on later on in the above-referenced post:

Most human progress comes from [people in categories three and four above], since they are the ones that are willing to think outside of the societal box, and the ones willing to take the chances to change things

Thus it is not only a moral obligation for the more conformist among us to allow a relatively wide leeway for the nonconformists, it is for their own ultimate good, too, especially in times such as ours of rapid societal change.

This has been a long post, but an important one, since I am using it to ground a more specific issue.  In various discussions I’ve had online in the last couple of years, I’ve encountered the argument that in some cases a certain amount of suppression of religious diversity or non-conforming (i.e. heretical) opinions is, at least in principle, justifiable.  Not to leave you in suspense, I vehemently disagree.  Still, the discussions were helpful in clarifying my thought on the matter.  Thus, I want to look at this argument in the next couple of posts.  Is religious suppression or a societal refusal to grant freedom of conscience always bad?  Is it ever possible to make an argument for it?  And more subtly, even if one acknowledges the wrongness of such suppression or limitation by the state, what about informal pressures by society itself?  These are issues we’ll be looking at in upcoming posts.

Posted on 20/10/2012, in Catholicism, Christianity, religion, society, theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Reblogged this on See Infra and commented:
    There is some danger of reading this and seeing one’s self in positive terms, like a horoscope, but I think drawing lines between the different sorts of conformity and non-conformity is a useful one. I’d also add that “society” is a difficult thing to grasp here since within any one society, one can be a true believer of one faction (say, progressiveness) while perceiving yourself as a non-conformist or free-thinker.

    Free speech, that is, resisting the urge to purge the non-conformists, or insufficiently true believers, is actually a very difficult fit. The inheritors of the Enlightenment have not done a particularly good job. This isn’t to say it isn’t valuable: quite the opposite. It is even more so, because it is so difficult to hold onto.

    Some of this will be coming up this week vis-a-vis Hobby Lobby.

  2. Fascinating post! What do you think is the nature of moral progress since category three and four seem to be the ones discovering it?

  1. Pingback: Heresy: Index « The Chequer-board of Nights and Days

  2. Pingback: Heresy: Systems of Control | The Chequer-board of Nights and Days

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