The Mattering Instinct: Religion, Humanism, and the Roots of Ideological Derangement

Andy Norman

Educated people are frequently astonished by the power of ideology. We are baffled by the extent of religious credulity, bewildered by its capacity for moral derangement. How, we wonder, do people convince themselves to become human bombs?1 How can mere ideas motivate creatures like us to massacre blaspheming cartoonists, butcher apostate bloggers, or run an Auschwitz?2 How is it possible that people’s thinking can become so unhinged? Despite daily reminders of ideology’s breathtakingly destructive power, the phenomenon stubbornly resists comprehension. It is high time we developed a working model of what I will call “ideological derangement,” in which seductive ideas thoroughly scramble the moral sensibilities of an individual or subculture.

We humans have built cultures that are tragically prone to the ravages of ideology. The Middle East, for example, has long been riven by religious and political violence. We’ve also built cultures that are relatively immune to such ravages. Enlightenment humanism, for instance, ushered in an era of European history in which religious enthusiasm declined, slavery was abolished, basic rights were secured for many, and incidents of several types of violence declined markedly.3

Steady progress toward a post-ideological world, though, awaits a root-cause understanding of the phenomenon. In this article, I sketch an explanatory framework that sheds light on the psychological underpinnings of ideological derangement. I explore a few of this idea’s philosophical and practical implications and suggest that it has unusual power to illuminate the workings of religion. It also affords a fresh take on humanism. Secular humanism, it turns out, is a potent antidote to humanity’s most destructive ideological tendencies. We can illuminate the darkest demons of the human psyche and build institutions that contain them—but only by understanding the psychological needs they exploit.

The Mattering Instinct

A curious feature of the human animal is our felt need to matter. We want to make a difference, to have our lives amount to something. In her 1983 novel The Mind-Body Problem, philosopher and novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein planted the seeds of mattering theory by having her main character identify “the will to matter” as a fundamental drive.4 Decades later, Goldstein expanded on the idea in two articles5 and a book.6 This writer’s interview of Goldstein for the Humanist magazine elicited other dimensions of mattering theory.7

I prefer to call the will to matter “the mattering instinct.” There is much that we don’t yet understand about this instinct. We don’t know, for example, whether it’s a true human universal. Also, its evolutionary origins remain a mystery. But forward-thinking researchers are working to fill in the gaps. It’s clearly a powerful shaper of human behavior, and we now know that comprehending its workings will shed light on important aspects of the human condition, among them:

  • how our identities form;
  • why we choose to sacrifice for the causes we believe in;
  • why we tend to be religious;
  • how we make social, economic, and political decisions; and
  • how ideologies form and persist.

Elsewhere, I’ve set out the basic tenets of mattering theory.8 To summarize: each of us harbors an understanding of what matters. This understanding orients us practically, but it is invariably partial (in both senses: incomplete and colored by self-interest). Imagine it encoded as a three-dimensional topographic map, with the things that seem to matter a lot occupying the landscape’s peaks and the things that don’t seem to matter much occupying its plains and valleys. The contours of these maps are shaped by facts and evidence, but they are also shaped, and sometimes distorted, by people’s felt need to matter. When reality frustrates our efforts to make a lasting difference in the world—as it tends to do—we find ourselves drawn to mythologies, pretenses, and delusions that provide an illusory sense of mattering. To use Goldstein’s felicitous metaphor, we form “mattering maps” that bolster our self-esteem. Too often, though, these maps become divorced from reality. They morph into fantastic ideologies (both religious and secular) that are tenaciously resistant to change and, in many cases, morally disorienting. Adherents of an ideology will deny facts that invalidate key elements of their worldview. Why? My supposition is that people will do almost anything—suppress facts, reject evidence, skew their thinking, give up their lives, even slaughter innocents—to safeguard their sense that they matter.

To matter is not just to have a sense of meaning or purpose. The latter is a merely subjective phenomenon, and often enough mental gymnastics can provide it. Whether one truly matters, though, is a question of fact. To matter, you must really make a difference, and not just in your own mind. Mattering is an embodied and relational phenomenon. The real existential question is not “What gives life meaning?” but “Do I matter?”

The mattering instinct, I want to suggest, is a root cause of ideological derangement. This hypothesis needs to be investigated empirically. It is not my aim to do so here, but it merits rigorous testing. The objective here is merely to sketch the explanatory framework and highlight its potential to illuminate otherwise baffling social and psychological phenomena.

I also contend that the philosophy of humanism is best understood in these terms. At bottom, humanism is a commitment to developing a shared, responsible, reality-based understanding of what matters: a worldview that also happens to immunize its adherents against the worst forms of ideological derangement.

What’s Wrong with Pretend Mattering?

It’s important to sympathize with those who indulge in pretense-based mattering. We all need to protect our sense of worth, and we’re all prone to wishful thinking and confabulation. So why not allow people their emotional crutches? Where’s the harm?

The problem is that pretend mattering serves short-term emotional needs at the expense of long-term collective well-being. Indulging in pretend mattering is, in a word, selfish. Though it happens in the privacy of one’s mind—and is therefore often thought harmless—it can, through indirect effects, harm others. This fact is not widely understood, but it is truly imperative that we comprehend it, for it is essential to both personal and collective moral growth.

Three qualities of pretense-based mattering maps make them morally problematic. First, they tend to be unstable: they’re vulnerable to evidence and argument, so they provide a shaky foundation for self-worth. Proponents of unstable mattering maps often lash out angrily at those who call attention to unwelcome evidence; religions have been known to viciously suppress dissent. Debunkers of validating myths are typically denounced as callous and insensitive, and atheists, of course, are especially reviled. Why? Because people build their lives around these ideologies, and criticism threatens their sense that they matter.

But it is not the debunker’s fault that ideologues build their worldviews on psychological quicksand. One needn’t be mean-spirited to challenge a warped mattering map. Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, for example, are often perceived as callous, but their challenges to religion can also be seen as deeply humane. Yes their critiques make many uncomfortable, and, yes, they can threaten a committed believer’s sense of worth. But lest we forget, their weapons in this fight are mere words. Is it even possible to confront religious pretense, or uncover its hidden costs, without appearing immoderate? Can even thoughtful, measured words get a fair hearing when someone’s sense of mattering is at stake? If pretense-based mattering maps create major obstacles to moral progress—and I believe they do—we need to destigmatize the process of challenging them. Critics can be hard to stomach, but it does no good to shoot the messenger.

Second, pretense-based mattering maps are divisive. Without evidence to anchor them, “faith-based” maps invariably drift apart, creating misunderstanding and sectarian conflict. The history of religion documents this claim in horrifying detail. Unfortunately, the critical dialogue that might otherwise forge a working consensus about what matters is compromised at every turn: by the myth that faith is a virtue, by the dysfunctional idea that everyone is entitled to his or her beliefs, by compassionate tolerance for “deeply held” convictions, by the anxious desire not to cause offense, and by our cowardly reluctance to challenge irresponsible ideas. All of these “humane” liberal tendencies allow mattering myths to grow and metastasize into ideological conflict.

Third, religious mattering maps tend to be morally disorienting. Why? Because supernatural imperatives often have little to do with the worldly needs that are the real basis of ethics.10 They give rise to skewed priorities. For example, Catholicism’s dogma-based stance against contraception is worsening an overpopulation problem that threatens the earth’s capacity to sustain life. Scripture’s “spare the rod, spoil the child” sanctions child abuse. Meanwhile, the Bible’s casual acceptance of slavery probably postponed, by several centuries, the abolition of a clear moral abomination. Even today, its condemnation of homosexuality continues to perpetuate discriminatory attitudes. If religions really are morally disorienting—and the evidence on this score is substantial—then we must say so, even if doing so feels intolerant and “politically incorrect.”

Note that worldviews distorted by the mattering instinct are inherently unstable, divisive, and morally disorienting: their promiscuous mix of real and pretend mattering makes them so. It follows that, when the mattering instinct compromises our commitment to evidence-based believing, it compromises moral character. To achieve true moral character, in other words, we must learn to resist the seductive allure of pretend mattering.

Humanists advocate for a shared, evidence-based understanding of what matters for just these reasons: we comprehend that reality-based mattering maps have great power to stabilize the human psyche, unite humanity, align our projects with real human needs, aid collaborative problem-solving, and further moral progress. The philosophy of humanism is, in many ways, a blueprint for moral progress.

How Religions Work

Billions of our fellow humans get something from religion that they do not get from science. It is a mistake, however, to characterize this something as a “way of knowing”—as the late evolutionary biologist Steven Jay Gould’s notion of “non-overlapping magisteria” implied. Religions are not ways of knowing; they are systems of beliefs and practices that serve the human need to feel significant. In fact, they persist because they cater to this need in ways that science cannot. They do this in three principal ways.

First, they afford their members community. Involvement in a community is an honorable, time-tested solution to the mattering problem. Communities let us matter to people who matter to us. This is a very real and immediate way to matter, and nothing about it is morally problematic as such. People need to connect, and the community-building function of religion should be honored—provided, of course, that its celebration of the “in-group” doesn’t morph into demonization of “out-groups.” Too often, though, religions start out celebrating an us and end up vilifying a them. This is a genuine problem with the religious approach to serving the human need to matter: it tends to exploit humanity’s tribal instincts rather than to dampen and restrain them. By contrast, humanism encourages its adherents to identify with all of humanity and crafts principles—among them human dignity, human rights, human autonomy, and freedom of speech—that tend to mitigate humanity’s most destructive tribal impulses.

Of course, humanists can also fall prey to tribal instincts. We’re prone to us/them thinking, too. It’s no accident, though, that the world has never witnessed roving bands of violent humanists: no humanist riots, no humanist-sponsored genocide, no humanist witch-hunts, no humanist pogroms. Humanism has largely avoided the destructive tribalisms that afflict so many religions. How has it managed this? Well, its key tenets demand that we humanize, not dehumanize, others. Humanism insists that, as much as possible, we influence others by persuasion rather than coercion. It celebrates reason, dialogue, inquiry, tolerance, and humility and, arguably, humanizes us thereby.

Religions also afford a sense of identity. They connect members to an enduring set of values, allowing them to feel that, by virtue of being a ______ (Christian, Jew, Mormon, Muslim, Buddhist, Confucian, Sikh, Jain, etc.), you help to perpetuate those values and thereby stand for something worthwhile. Insofar as it becomes an identity label, “humanist” functions in exactly the same capacity: it connects self-identified humanists to a set of values deemed constructive and worthwhile. In this way, the concept of humanism affords something that neither atheism nor science does.

Often, religions serve the mattering instinct by affording a mythology: a narrative, ideology, pretense, worldview, or belief-system that makes adherents feel special. “We alone,” they whisper, “are God’s chosen; we alone know the ultimate truth; we alone shall be saved.” The central message of Rick Warren’s mega-successful book, The Purpose-Driven Life, is “You matter to God.” Monotheisms have long peddled ideas that function in similar ways: God cares; you were made in God’s image; God sacrificed his only begotten son for you; you too can become an instrument of divine providence; you can matter by saving lost souls; and so on.

Unfortunately, such mythologies tend to make adherents feel like they matter more than non-adherents. They elevate a coreligious us at the expense of an irreligious (or wrongly religious) them. Some religions do a reasonably good job of moderating this effect. Others don’t. In our own time, we’ve seen forms of evangelical Protestantism metastasize into self-righteous, zealous fundamentalisms, and forms of Islam breed thousands of deranged jihadis. Clearly, this aspect of religious ideation is morally problematic, even when it starts off moderate and tolerant.

Religious mythologies also spread dysfunctional ideas about the nature and origins of morality. To genuinely believe that right and wrong are determined by the will of a supernatural being is to completely decouple your moral intuitions from the worldly needs and interests—and the empathic responses—that are the true basis of ethics. To so believe is also to render oneself manipulable by those who claim inside information about God’s will. The point, though, is not just that religious mythologies tend to be morally disorienting. I am also saying that, when we exempt “faith-based” ideas from critical testing (as we so often do when they appear to be of deep emotional importance to believers), they tend to morph into seductive ideologies. How, one might ask, can humanism compete with worldviews that exploit the power of myth?

Humanistic Approaches to the Mattering Problem

Humanism will only compete for real mind-share by addressing people’s need to matter. Congregational humanists do this by forming humanist communities and inviting people to join them.12 Insofar as people need the kind of congregational belonging that religions have traditionally provided, this represents an important social innovation. Proactive movement humanists (I am one) encourage people to self-identify as humanist and thereby stand for a set of values that has historically done much to improve human welfare—values such as reason, compassion, equality, and human rights. Both approaches can help to address a nonbeliever’s need to matter.

Religion’s third mechanism, however, is denied us: we cannot concoct mythologies or ideologies that make us feel that we possess a worth and dignity that others lack. Two things prevent it: our steadfast resistance to self-serving delusions and our affirmative commitment to equality of mattering. Humanists have a long and storied history of debunking destructive delusions, and the idea that we matter more is perhaps the most seductive and destructive delusion there is. To guard against such temptation, we also hold, as a central tenet, that all human beings matter and matter equally. In fact, we abhor efforts to deny others an equal measure of dignity.

It’s important to understand that humanism’s commitment to equality goes against the grain of human nature. The human nervous system evolved to prioritize self-care, and it generates a persistent illusion that me and mine matter more. Neural circuitry originally designed for self-care (by natural selection, of course) has been repurposed over millions of years of mammalian evolution to encompass also offspring, kin, mates, friends, and tribes. This gradual repurposing of information-processing capabilities that were once purely self-serving surely mitigates human selfishness, but it by no means renders us free of self-serving biases.

Of course, it’s not just the human nervous system that has this bias: natural selection predicts that all creatures will be found to have it. Humanism can be understood as an attempt to extend kinship sympathies to all of humankind, thereby overriding, or at least dampening, our native tribalism. (Humanists, by the way, are not barred from recognizing other sentient creatures as mattering in their own right; in fact, we humanists have historically been at the forefront of advocacy for the humane treatment of animals.13)

Can Humanism Compete?

If purveyors of religious and secular ideologies can wield powerfully seductive illusions to address people’s need to matter and humanists cannot, then how are we to compete? How can a worldview constrained by realism and evidence contend with worldviews that are not so constrained? Well, science is a reality-constrained worldview that manages to compete fairly well in the realm of facts; perhaps humanism can do comparably well in the sphere of values.

The solution here is to make a virtue of necessity. Yes, humanism’s “map” of what matters is constrained by evidence and equality, and this prevents certain beguiling metaphysical (and ideological) comforts. Humanism, though, can offer its adherents something far more valuable. For a worldview free of the need for pretense can be honest, candid, and whole-hearted. It allows us to quit worrying about the destabilizing effects of evidence and simply open ourselves to learning about our astonishing, awe-inspiring universe. Humanists can let go of common anxieties about the next life and really engage with the here and now. We can stop obsessing about God’s approval and really focus on human needs. In all these ways, humanism is freeing.

Yes, humanism requires that we give up cheap metaphysical comforts and narrow sectarian loyalties, but it allows us to identify with the cosmopolitan values that have always driven scientific and moral progress. It also allows us to focus on ends we know to be important (such as the well-being of conscious creatures14), undistracted by things we simply believe to be important (such as winning the approval of a jealous god). In addition, real understanding of the world’s causal structure, unblinkered by wishful thinking, enhances our ability to choose effective and appropriate means. For all these reasons, humanists are actually better positioned to matter—more likely, that is, to have a real, positive, and lasting impact on the world.

Inherent and Contingent Mattering

Am I saying, then, that humanists matter more than nonhumanists? No. Mattering, it turns out, comes in two flavors. There is inherent mattering, and all of us possess this in equal degree. Inherent mattering is the basis of human dignity and rights, and it stems from our being equal before the moral law. If I think that there are good reasons why you must treat me as mattering, I can hardly deny that the same reasons compel me to treat you as mattering.15 The symmetry of our positions vis-à-vis reason-giving discourse entails that we are equally deserving of moral consideration.

I am actually claiming that this symmetry is the ontological basis of human equality. Our equal human dignity—and equal possession of basic rights—are rooted in precisely this. Our sentience or capacity to suffer, of course, grounds our moral worth in another way. I mention this only in passing, for this is not a treatise on the metaphysics of morals. I do, however, hope to provoke further investigation into the metaphysics of mattering. Is the well-being of sentient creatures the sole root of real mattering? It certainly seems so for other things. A useful pair of pliers or a policy of treating people with respect matter too, but only because (and only to the extent that) they enhance or detract from creaturely well-being. Utilitarianism can be construed as a theory of mattering.16

In addition to inherent mattering, there is also contingent mattering: the kind of mattering that comes from making a difference. Such mattering can be accidental or achieved, and the difference made can be large or small, positive or negative. Nothing prevents the unequal distribution of this kind of mattering: some perish without having made a noticeable difference, and others accomplish things that change the course of history. On this front, life offers no guarantees. Humanism, though, affords us our best shot at living a significant, difference-making life. Why? Because understanding what truly matters and acting accordingly is the surest path to a life rich in meaning and purpose.

Humanism insists that we build a world where everyone gets to matter. Institutions that secure our basic rights and protect our dignity are essential and represent a good start on creating such a world. But we must also afford one another the essential ingredients of a life filled with contingent mattering—food, shelter, an education, freedom, and opportunity. Only then can we all live lives that matter in the fullest sense.


  1. Nichole Argo, a decision scientist who studies the psychology of would-be suicide bombers, suggests that “human bomb” is a more apt designation than “suicide bomber.” See her “Human Bombs: Rethinking Religion and Terror,” MIT Center for International Studies Audit of the Conventional Wisdom, 06–07 (April 2006).
  2. While political ideologies are not the focus of this essay, I do mean to suggest that the mattering instinct is the key to understanding the power of secular as well as religious ideologies. Nazism, for example, indulged in myths about a master race and promised adherents a meaningful role in an epic saga of a one-thousand-year Reich.
  3. Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature (New York: Viking, 2011). See especially chapter 4.
  4. The Mind-Body Problem (New York: Penguin Books, 1983).
  5. “Speaking Prose All of Our Lives,” The Humanist, January/February 2013; also “Femin
    ism, Religion, and ‘Mattering,’” Free Inquiry, December 2013/January 2014.
  6. Goldstein’s Plato at the Googleplex (New York: Pantheon, 2014) looks at the ancient Greek idea that only extraordinary lives are worth living and the particular spin on this idea that Socrates and Plato gave it. The book puts the concept of mattering to use and shows “why philosophy won’t go away.”
  7. “The Machinery of Moral Progress: An Interview with Rebecca Goldstein,” The Humanist, September/October 2014.
  8. “Getting Humanism Right-Side Up: A Reality-Based Mattering Map and Alternative Humanist Manifesto,” The Humanist, January/ February 2015.
  9. My invocation of “long term collective well-being” should not be understood as a blanket endorsement of utilitarianism. One can understand moral systems as functioning, by and large, to promote such well-being without committing to pure consequentialism. Put differently, one can view consequentialism as a useful first approximation metaethics without embracing utility-maximization as a proper guide to living well. Nor should Goldstein be viewed as committed to utilitarianism.
  10. See note 9.
  11. Some argue that an ideology of atheism spawned the violence of the French Revolution. This is controversial, but even if this were true, the offenders cannot, with any fairness, be called humanists.
  12. See FI’s October/November 2013 issue for a cover feature that examines the phenomenon of congregational humanism from multiple perspectives.
  13. A clear example is the humanism of Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Peter Singer. These “utilitarian” thinkers have done much to help us understand morality’s natural origins. They’ve also compelled us to confront the fact that we cannot coherently deny other sentient creatures moral consideration.
  14. Again, one can speak of the well-being of conscious creatures as a good first-approximation description of what moral systems are supposed to be about without committing to a narrow calculus of utility-maximization. See note 9.
  15. I must thank Goldstein for helping me understand this. See her “Speaking Prose All of Our Lives,” The Humanist January/February 2013.
  16. On a mattering-theoretic recasting of utilitarianism, Mill’s “Happiness is the only thing desirable as an end” gets replaced with “The well-being of conscious creatures matters inherently, and other things matter, to the extent they do, by contributing to, or detracting from, creaturely well-being.” I believe such recasting can help address some standard objections to utilitarianism, but I remain agnostic as to whether the result is best thought of as a refinement of utilitarianism or an alternative to it. My own view here may well diverge from that of Goldstein.

Andy Norman

Andy Norman is professor of philosophy at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and director of CMU’s Humanist Initiative. He is working on a book titled Unhinged: Faith, Ideology, and the Ethics of Belief, Boosting Mental Immune Response in the Ideological Animal.

“How, one might ask, can humanism compete with worldviews that exploit the power of myth?”

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