It seems to be part of general human nature – that is general human behavior – to go with the flow, to not rock the boat, to simply fit in to our social contexts. On one hand, this is a good thing, since it allows for social cohesion, cooperation, civilization, etc. On the other, this assimilation tends to be accompanied by another, far less positive behavior type: surrender of reason. The surrender of reason is the act of turning off your brain, and blindly following the rest of the people in whatever context we find ourselves in. If we take intellect and reason to be the defining feature of humanity (and there is nothing else that separates us from other animals), then the act of surrendering one’s reason is an act of losing humanity.
First, it is worth noting that assimilation and blind following are entirely different things. Assimilation, which we can define as adaptation of a person’s ideas and behaviors, in order to fit into a context, can be a positive. For example, our first inclination in a desert region might be to wear less clothes and drink plenty of water. That approach generally lands you in a hospital with kidney failure or dehydration. Looking around a desert region, we find that locals are fully covered, and don’t drink a lot of water – preferring things like strong hot tea. We also find that they don’t end up hospitalized. Assimilating to their desert lifestyle (while we’re in the desert), is an intelligent thing to do – even if we don’t understand the mechanics of why their approach is hospital-free – as long as we’re making that choice as a rational result of seeing them not suffer the negative consequences of our own approach. In that case, we’re making a rational decision to follow the local experts, based on their success. The whole thing makes even more sense when we understand the mechanics behind it.
Blind following, on the other hand, requires us to specifically NOT think, to NOT use reason, and to act simply on the emotional desire to fit in. The difference, then, is in whether we use reason to assimilate, or reject reason to blindly follow. A simple way to test whether someone is engaged in one or the other is to start asking them questions about WHY they do what they do. So long as there’s a rational basis of action – a kind of explanation that appeals to reason – then we have assimilation. If the answer is based on emotion or on the kinds of accidental issues that require luck (like being born into this or that group, ethnicity, etc.), then we have blind following.
You may be tempted to view this as the difference between science (assimilation) and religion (blind following). Doing so, however, creates a demonstrably false picture of the world. The picture is false not because a lot of religious people are not blindly following, but because a lot of non-religious people are doing the same thing. In other words, the problem is not religious, it is human. Even from a psychology perspective, we have things like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and “fitting in” is levels 2-4. At level 2, it’s about survival, at level 3 it’s about social participation, and at level 4 it’s about excelling within the society. We mold ourselves to our environment, because it helps us feel safe and lets us function better as a society and individuals within a society.
You may also be tempted to think that refusing to assimilate is a positive: rebelling against the “system” or the “establishment” makes you cool, unique, etc. Again, this creates a false picture. Rapists, pedophiles, and other criminals make up the majority of the actually rebellious category – defined as people whose ideas and actions run contrary to the social norms. Sure, there are some occasional positive outliers in this category – abolitionists in the age of slavery, for example. However, these people are few and far between. You’ll notice that I used the adjective “actual” in front of “rebellious.” This is intentional, and draws an important distinction in the kinds of activities that count in the “rebellious” category. Teenagers “rebelling” against their parents are not actually rebellious. Neither is belonging to an organized activity or group (formally or informally organized), especially if it has been commercialized (Hot Topic, for example, is owned by GAP). Instead, rebellion, if it is of the serious kind, requires a serious rejection of core social norms – both ideologically and in application. For example, Harriet Tubman was an actual rebel. So was Dr. Kevorkian, the Unabomber, Timothy McVeigh, and Martin Shkreli (Pharma Bro).
So, what’s the deal with blind following, and why does it require the surrender of reason? Looking to merely fit in, means that we’re not looking for reason to guide our behavior, nor do we require reason to think and act a certain way. In fact, blind following outright demands that reason be left at the door. If you try to use reason in place of blind following, you draw a lot of negative reactions questioning your commitment to the group. More importantly, you don’t get reason to reply to your questions. You’re supposed to fit in by an appeal to emotion – not reason – and because of some accidental quality you possess – like race, gender, ethnicity, etc.
Back to the idea that surrender of reason is a general human trait. Besides allowing us to fit in, the surrender of reason has one additional “benefit:” it relieves us of the responsibility to think, and thus the responsibility of our actions. The act of fitting in gives us a crowd that we belong to. When a crowd does something, there is no personal responsibility, because it gets diluted among all the crowd members. An individual acting alone, on the other hand, must carry the full burden of his reason and moral responsibility, all alone. Thus, we don’t have to think; and when something goes wrong, we’re not the (only) ones responsible. You’ve all heard “he did it too” as an excuse before, and the closely related, “he told me to do it.”
Looking back through history, we find this attitude all over the place: philosophical texts, political texts, religious texts, pick your poison. In every age, from every angle, the great thinkers lament the fact that the majority of their own people are simple blind followers. Plato talks about this idea in The Republic; Al Ghazali talks about it in Deliverance from Error; Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard and Nietzsche talk about it in all their texts; almost all religious stories in the Torah, New Testament, Qur’an, Vedas, Sutras, etc. have this as a crucial problem to overcome. Just to give you an idea, every Abrahamic-based story of a prophet coming to a wrong-doing nation has the wrong-doers give the same reply justifying their actions: “we found our forefathers doing the same thing.” In other words, the wrong-doers are acting by blind adherence to a system, not by reason. The fact that all these people get destroyed should be a major hint to the audience as to where the emphasis for human action should lie – in terms of the religion.
The situation is no better in the 21st century. Social experiments have shown that the majority of people are willing to support insane ideas, so long as they’re led to believe that their group (however they identify) supports that idea. One great example is showing self-identified democrats and republicans climate change proposals, whose content runs contrary to the party platform. The catch is that the title page of the proposal identifies the wrong party as backing it (e.g. climate change denial, backed by democrats). The result is that 2/3 of the democrats and republicans said that they would support a climate change position their party actually disagrees with – because they thought their party was backing it. We see the exact same issues in the scientific community, not to mention the secular scientism community. We jump on our respective bandwagons, and no force in the universe will move us. Generally speaking, we can’t offer anything that resembles a rational explanation of that position, and are basing our ideas off of ignorance – backed by an emotional attachment to the position (this should sound familiar).
The conclusion is that most people lead their lives by blindly following some idea. There’s no reason, no intellect, no critical thought – at least not when it comes to their own position. If this sounds elitist, it is. But, it is also an accurate description of the world. As a result of the blind following, the majority of people fail to use reason. This gives us some very interesting consequences.
In terms of religion, it can be argued that blind adherence means that the person is not actually religious. That is, if one follows a religion without understanding it, knowing its ideas and texts, simply because it’s the social norm (e.g. to go to the Christmas Mass, Yom Kippur, or Eid), they’re not following the religion – they’re following the social customs. As a result, if they were born in a different context, they would identify with a different religion. This is because they are really identifying with their surroundings, not with the idea of the religion. This makes them non-religious.
In terms of secular thought, the same problem is present. If a person is secular because of their upbringing, or because it’s the socially acceptable thing to do, they’re no more secular than the religious person above is religious. Both are really a “nothing.” Quoting scientific facts and studies is as empty as randomly quoting scripture at people – unless you understand the full context, meaning, and impact of those facts and studies – and very few scientists do (a lot of scientists are also just blindly following their own “in-group” ideas – not understanding them).
In the end, the issue is not what we believe, but why we believe it. When we don’t understand the “why,” we end up with incoherent beliefs, and thus incoherent actions. We also actively hurt the very same causes we “fight” for, by presenting the dumbest example in our own actions and ideas. The quote that comes to mind is, “I’d rather have a smart enemy than a dumb friend.”