Nuclear war became a tiny bit more feasible with yesterday’s rocket launch by North Korea, and it remains the biggest existential risk we face today. We could also be hit by a massive asteroid unexpectedly deflected out of its expected orbit, or a massive solar flare could take out our electronics, or hostile aliens might invade. Life as we know it could be very severely disrupted or even ended. Shit happens, but the probability of any one of these happening in a given year is low, so life carries on.
Far bigger risks exist that won’t kill everyone but will reduce quality of life in coming years, even as technology development theoretically enables an almost utopian existence. In spite of a wide range of complex interactions, the vast majority of these quality of life risks can ultimately be traced back to the same thing, the biggest single threat to human well-being. That thing is sanctimony.
Sanctimony is pretended holiness, and very often accompanied by hypocrisy:
‘Righteousness accompanied by an unwarranted attitude of moral or social superiority; smug or hypocritical righteousness.’
I first listed ’21st Century Piety’ as a big future problem in my World Futures Society conference presentation in 2000. The talk was called ‘the future of sex, politics and religion’ and I recognized that although Christianity was declining in the West, the religious bit of human nature certainly wasn’t going away and I identified the following as some of the more obvious 21st century religion substitutes:
Many others have also inferred pseudo-religious motivations in these. It is certainly possible to subscribe to any of these without being sanctimonious, but when they become religion substitutes, they do very often go together.
The need to feel a sense of inner worth is a fundamental part of human nature. Translating to Maslow’s insights, self-actualizing it leads to a desire to occupy the moral high ground, while coupling it to security, social belonging and status leads to very strong reinforcement loops that become sanctimony. The traits in my diagram often lead people to believe they are genuinely better than those who do not share them. That reinforced belief in their moral superiority gives them a further belief in their right to impose compliance on others.
No big surprise here. We see this every day now. Holier-than-thou people lecture us from every angle, they use social networks to gang up on non-compliers, they lobby to have laws passed to lock in their beliefs, reward their compliant status and punish any infidels.
We even have familiar phrases to describe everyday consequences of this 21st century piety, this sanctimony such as ‘political correctness gone mad’ and ‘virtue signalling’.
My blogs often pick up on the dangers of sanctimony. It is sanctimony that is pushing us hard towards 1984. It is sanctimony that threatens to result in a Great Western War. Sanctimony is the primary force driving acceptance of millions of migrants without first making sure of each one’s identity, security threat potential or social compatibility with western values while condemning anyone who questions this recklessness. The achievements of this sanctimony are responsible for the rise of the far right opposition, potential conflict across Europe, closing down of Schengen and the raising of borders and tensions. Sanctimony may well prove the force that kills the EU. Sanctimony is the force increasing the divide between left and right in the USA and Europe. Sanctimony is the driving force behind the EU’s attempt to absorb the Ukraine, resulting in conflict with Russia. Sanctimony is reducing the pleasures of eating by legislating, taxing, removing or otherwise reducing things not deemed holy enough by the bishops of food, and their Pope Jamie Oliver. Sanctimony drives the major flaws and corruptions in climate science. Sanctimony forces the poorest people from their homes and drives up the cost of their food so that western environmentalists can have their carbon reductions. Sanctimony chops down the rainforests and drains peat bogs to make biofuels. Sanctimony plants solar panels on prime agricultural land while people starve. Sanctimony forces you via speed cameras to drive far slower than your ability allows, to get less pleasure from driving and still to feel guilty about it. Sanctimony causes increased loneliness and isolation for those not holy enough. Sanctimony censors and destroys knowledge, both historical and future. Sanctimony impedes cultural and social development. Sanctimony destroys personal liberty. Sanctimony makes the future into a gilded cage.
Nuclear war might kill you but probably won’t. Sanctimony is already killing many people and destroying many lives. It is making your life more difficult, more stressful, more problematic, less enjoyable, and it is just warming up. 21st Century piety may be a religion substitute, but sanctimony makes its converts show every bit as much zeal as the Spanish Inquisition. And no-one is safe because values don’t stay the same for long, but change on a random walk:
However holy you may think you are today, you will likely be an outcast before you get old, as I argued in
Sanctimony is far and away the greatest threat to human well-being. It has no permanent friends. It rewards someone on the moral high ground today, and burns them on a stake tomorrow.