EP&M Online Essay

Ethopathy and Religion


Dr. Joseph S. Salemi
Department of Classics, Hunter College, CUNY

I am a daily rider of the New York City subway system.  I buy a monthly Metrocard for seventy dollars, but with incessant interborough travel my wife and I rack up over two hundred dollars' worth of rides on it.  If everyone in New York were like us, the Transit Authority would go broke very quickly.

One consequence of this protracted subway ride is that I get to see hundreds of advertisements posted in the trains and on the stations.  They come and go with amazing regularity.  You get a sense of what a madhouse of commercial solicitation the modern world has become, and how utterly pervasive advertising is in our lives.  Madison Avenue is a metastasizing cancer that is out of control.

However, I'm not going to go into a reactionary rant about it.  I suppose there has to be some way to sell deodorants and flavored vodkas to a mass population.  After all, you can always close your eyes, or read a book.

What is really troubling is the way in which advertising is used not just to flog products, but to encourage ethopathic disorders.  This is a frightening sign of how degraded modernity has become, and how utterly amoral capitalism is.  Corporate America encourages ethopathy among the less intelligent strata of the public in the same way that South Bronx crack dealers encourage drug addiction among the poor.

Everywhere you look there are ads for dubious vitamin supplements and energy-revivers.  There are ads for diets and weight-loss nostrums.  There are paeans to "wellness," whatever the hell that means.  There are, if you can believe it, ads for prescription medicines without any reference to the disorders that they supposedly treat.  There are ads for convoluted exercise equipment and workout contraptions.  There are ads for elective plastic surgery, and for psychic healing via quack therapies.  There are truly surreal ads, like the one for cholesterol-free orange juice (which is as absurd as pushing "nitrogen-free water").

I see these ads day in and day out, and I ask myself "What pathetic little schmucks are buying this shpiel?  How empty-headed do you have to be to fall for this crap?  What sort of a dream world are you in if you think that a combination of health food, vitamin pills, aerobic exercise, cosmetic surgery, and psychobabble will save you?"

The answer is the dream world of ethopathy.  It is a parallel universe in which an increasingly large segment of the populace lives.

As I have explained in several previous essays, ethopathy is my coinage for a wide-ranging syndrome of self-destructive behavior that is now ravaging the developed world.  Its manifestations are legion, but its essence can be put in a nutshell: ethopathy is a fixation on some stupid notion or practice, and adherence to that stupidity in the teeth of all contrary evidence and all bad consequences.

Ethopathy is religion without the dogmatic sanction.  Now many religions ask believers to accept things that seem incredible or impossible, but these religions acknowledge that they require a conscious leap of faith from their adherents.  When the Christian apologist Tertullian said Credo quia impossibile est ("I believe it because it's impossible") he was giving his allegiance—as supernatural religions demand—to mystery and the ineffable. Likewise, when St. Paul calls faith "the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things unseen," he alludes to the humbling of the human intellect before the unknowable.

But ethopathy is only a pathetic simulacrum of religion.  In fact, it is a desperate substitute for the real thing.  Ethopathy is the religious impulse cut loose from any valid object, while hopelessly grasping at something transitory or meretricious.  When people become food neurotics counting calories and obsessing about cholesterol, that is a childish kind of pseudo-religion.  When they spend hours in fruitless New Age therapy sessions listening to psychobabble, that is sheer superstition.  When they go on rampages against cigarette smoke and alcohol and pornography, that is simon-pure witch-hunting.  When they blather on about animal rights and veganism and same-sex marriage, that is obscurantist ideology of the worst sort.

These are only a few examples of the ethopathic sicknesses that plague us, and that get worse every year.  More and more people are caught up in them as the West's bad habits spread globally.  The psychologist C.G. Jung called these transpersonal manifestations of mental disorder "psychic epidemics," and warned that they were extremely dangerous under modern conditions because they could infect mass populations quickly.

Communism and Nazism are perfect examples of psychic epidemics.  Millions of otherwise intelligent people accepted, defended, and even died to promote these two evil and insane ideologies.  We look back now in horror at such thought systems, and wonder how any rational human being could have accepted them.  But entire nations did so, and created cataclysms of slaughter in their name.  Psychic epidemics are just as virulent and contagious as biological ones.

How can these epidemics be prevented?  Well, traditional religion provides you with a vaccine against a great deal of the absurd mummery that passes for progressive thought.  If you believe in the resurrection of the body, you are not going to fall for something degrading and ridiculous like cryogenic freezing.  If you believe that God gave man dominion over the earth and the lower animals, you're not going to be taken in by deep ecology and veganism.  If you believe in the Virgin Birth, you're going to have a real respect for women, and not the politicized claptrap that feminism offers. If you believe that serious sin is lethal to the soul, you're not going to be wasting a lot of time in worry over carcinogens and cholesterol.  Traditional religion, properly and devoutly practiced, inoculates people against trendy idiocy.

One of the terrible things about ethopathy is its compulsiveness. Ethopaths are driven to act stupidly by a deep inner need that checks all reason or self-interest.  Those two tyrannical words, MUST and OUGHT, govern their every move.  It's as if some computer chip in their brain made it impossible for them to act freely.  They have to follow a prescribed pattern of response drilled into them like catechism answers.  A potent mix of peer pressure, trend-chasing, and fear of ridicule works to enslave their thinking.

Blind compulsiveness is becoming increasingly common in modern society. Let me give an example from the field of pedagogy.  One of my tasks is to teach prose composition to undergraduates.  Now as far as I'm concerned, the only real test of ability in prose is generating it yourself, without the crutch of research or source consultation.  If you can't write a simple essay except by using the library or going to Google, you're an incompetent. For this reason, in all my classes I insist that students submit papers with no citations, quotes, or references of any kind whatsoever.  I tell my students this: If you include a single quote, citation, or bibliographical reference, I will give your paper an F.

What happens next is as predictable as clockwork.  About ten percent of the class completely disregard my directions.  They have been brainwashed by dimwitted faculty in other departments who think that all prose is a pastiche of footnoted references followed by a tedious bibliography.  So, despite my warnings, these students dutifully hand in papers filled with citations and references.  I then give those papers an F grade, as I promised.

You can't believe the look of dazed incomprehension on these students' faces when they come whining to me about their grades.  I say "I told you: No quotations or references."  They then babble on vaguely, saying "But... but... I thought a paper had to be researched and supported... all the other professors insist..."

Here is a perfect example of people doing what they think they ought to do, regardless of their explicit self-interest.  Someone has drilled it into them that an essay must have references and citations.  And, ignoring my instructions, they have kept faith with that absurdity.  Like British troops at the Somme, they marched in closed ranks against machine guns, blindly obeying their jackass officers.

At least at the Somme men could argue that they were under military orders, and had no other choice.  But what excuse do ethopaths in our society have?  No one is forcing them to eat health food, or get body piercings, or go to group therapy.  No one is threatening them with court-martial if they don't follow asinine trends and fads.  No one is compelling them at gunpoint to be vegans or transsexuals or feminists or politically correct lemmings. In short, the raging epidemics of stupidity in our society are purely self-generated and self-sustained.

For this reason I am not particularly sanguine about the possibility of large-scale change or regeneration among ethopaths.  What is happening in the Western world today is the end result of a deep-rooted and intractable sickness of the soul, something endemic to modern industrialized life and its alienating horrors.  Legions of ethopaths are stupidly self-destructive because everything in this media-and-money driven colossus actively encourages their madness, and profits from it.  Their mental enslavement therefore has the impenetrable armor of both external ratification and internal logic.  When millions of sick people can say that their compulsions enjoy social sanction, why should we expect things to change?

All that is left is the revenge of satire.  The setting down in cold print of ethopathic follies, along with the testimony of one's personal loathing for them, is the last bastion of sanity in a world gone mad.  It is a decidedly small comfort, but a real one.    
                        Joseph S. Salemi

Copyright 2005 Joseph S. Salemi
All Rights Reserved