The Humanist Case against Patriotism

David Mountain

Among the various accounts of the First World War that appeared following the 1918 armistice, a little-known post-mortem by a Belgian lieutenant carries a striking assertion. “I was always as disgusted by the misuse of patriotism for the promotion of militarism and imperialism as I was by the prostitution of religious feeling to the purposes of worldly domination,” it begins. “I was convinced that there should be the same difference between patriotism and the State as there is—or ought to be—between religion and the State.”

After four years of hellish war, the author’s hatred of militaristic patriotism is easy enough to understand. For soldiers on both sides of the conflict, the bombastic jingoism of the recruitment drives quickly soured amid the realities of trench warfare, to the point where many soldiers “openly wished death on the fatherland,” as a panicked German communication reported in 1918. Rather, what is so arresting—certainly, what made me stop and think—is the plea that we regard patriotism as being as dangerous to the functioning of state and the freedom of its citizens as we do religion.

At first this suggestion might sound confused if not bizarre. An unpatriotic state? It is practically an oxymoron. In 2016, for instance, Zambian President Edgar Lungu insisted that patriotism was “cardinal for the survival of our nation.” The previous year, national pride was declared an “article of faith” by India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Russia’s Tsar-President Vladimir Putin struck a similar tone when, in 2015, he decreed it the “sacred duty” of all Russians “to be faithful to the great values of patriotism.” Even in countries less prone to rhetorical histrionics than Russia, national pride is so woven into the language and ceremony of the state that it would seem impossible to separate them.

Besides, it can be argued that patriotism and religion represent completely different ideas: Patriotism, unlike religion, makes no claims to the supernatural and presents little threat to a scientific outlook on life. It has no established codes of conduct and does not presume to tell us what we should eat, when we should work, or how we should have sex. And, in contrast to the criticisms deservedly heaped upon religion, it is overwhelmingly seen as a positive force in the world today.

A State Religion?

Nevertheless, it only takes a cursory glance to see that there is something peculiarly religious about patriotism—if not in its metaphysical claims, then in its moral and political authority. Nearly five hundred years ago, Machiavelli wrote that “there has never been in any country an extraordinary legislator who has not invoked the deity, for otherwise his laws would not have been accepted.” The principle still holds true, only today the deity is just as likely to be the nation, with its pantheon of patriotic saints and messiahs, as it is to be any divine being. As the political philosopher Herbert Croly commented in 1909, “the faith of Americans in their own country is religious, if not in its intensity, at any rate in its almost absolute and universal authority.” Consider how frequently patriotism is invoked to justify political decisions: Donald Trump cited it when he pulled the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement; Field Marshal Abdel el-Sisi used it to justify his 2013 military coup in Egypt; Mussolini appealed to a “boundless and mighty love for the fatherland” when he declared his intention of abolishing opposition parties in Italy. Every day furnishes new instances.

Patriotism encourages a dangerous sense of superiority in its followers and demands a level of respect, loyalty, and deference toward the state that rivals similar efforts by religion. After all, in The God Delusion Richard Dawkins acknowledges that only patriotism can inspire perilous moral absolutism on a level with religion. As a result, there is a certain missionary zeal among many patriots, who, not content with their own personal pride in their country, insist that all their compatriots be as devout as themselves. Politicians are subjected to meaningless tests of piety, whether it is wearing a flag lapel-pin in the United States or a Remembrance poppy in the United Kingdom, and those suspected of unpatriotic tendencies, like those who profess to worship no god, are treated with distrust at best and violence at worst. Only last year, students in India were pelted with stones by Hindu nationalists for supporting so-called “anti-national” policies. The intolerant atmosphere is encouraged by various patriotic denominations—you may know them as Republicans and Democrats, or Brexiters and Remainers—who despise one another for their “false patriotism” with a vitriol that would impress the more zealous adherents of many religious sects.

And as for sacred paraphernalia, the state can compete with the most baroquely ornamented faiths. Every country has its collection of national hymns and sacred texts, relics, icons, incantations, symbols, and temples, all treated with a devotional reverence. It is telling that the Qur’an and the Stars and Stripes have both been encumbered with similar codes of respect: neither should be allowed to touch the ground, have anyone turn his or her back to it, or be placed lower than any other book or flag. Even the Islamic belief that the Qur’an is the living word of a god is reflected in section 8j of the U.S. Federal Flag Code, the official government word on flag etiquette, which claims, incredibly, that “the flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing.” I make these points not to argue that patriotism should be considered a religion but to show that it poses some of the same threats to humanist ideals as does religion. Humanists have long focused their efforts on combating belief in the supernatural and with good reason: superstition and faith continue to present grave threats to peace, stability, and human happiness. Yet patriotism presents us with many of the same problems—something Thomas Paine made clear in his famous double proclamation: “my country is the world, and my religion is to do good.” Despite this, patriotism remains largely untouched by humanist criticism.

I am not suggesting that humanists change course but rather that we broaden our horizons to recognize which other institutions also threaten our hopes of a mature, rational, and peaceful world. At the top of this list, I would argue, is patriotism. Many humanist convictions, such as the importance of individualism and the need for intellectual freedom—not to mention a certain pragmatic level-headedness—demand effective criticisms of national pride no less than they do of any supernatural belief.

The humanist case against patriotism falls under two broad categories. The first is that national pride is an irrational belief and that it therefore goes against the humanistic commitment to reason. The second, more urgent, argument is that patriotism poses a real and serious threat to the well-being of people across the globe, whether by fueling divisions and hatreds or by smothering our right to think and speak freely.

Patriotism Is Irrational

The motley arguments trotted out to justify national pride may have plenty of passion and conviction, but all are united by a curious lack of rational thinking. We could start by pointing to the remarkable coincidence whereby most people on Earth are convinced that the country in which they happen to have been born also happens to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest, in the world. We could then make the rather obvious comment that, as Leo Tolstoy put it, “if each people and each State considers itself the best of peoples and States, they all dwell in a gross and harmful delusion.” We could follow this with the equally obvious point that all countries are far too big and diverse for any of us to really know, let alone in the “intimate” sense typically evoked by patriots. In the words of philosopher George Kateb: “one’s country—any country—is best understood as an abstraction, for it is a compound of a few actual and many imaginary ingredients … constructed out of transmitted memories true and false; a history usually mostly falsely sanitized or falsely heroized; a sense of kinship of a largely invented purity; and social ties that are largely invisible or impersonal.” The inconsistencies and contradictions quickly pile up. Why do patriots assume they can take pride in historic achievements with which they had no involvement? Why do they sneer at the patriotism of other countries yet venerate that of their own? Why are ideas of duty and sacrifice so noble in the hands of patriots but so dangerous among nationalists?

Then there is the ever-growing body of scientific literature we could cite that suggests that national pride is anything but a rational belief. Psychologists have shown that human beings have an innate tendency to prefer whatever groups they may belong to and to denigrate others. In one illuminating study, people simply needed to be told that they belonged to group A and not group B to regard their own group as “better, friendlier, more competent and stronger than other groups,” even though they had never even met any of their fellow group members. Working in tandem with this predisposition is a strong urge to explain our emotional preferences in rational terms, no matter how unsubstantiated or unconvincing our evidence. Humanists are no doubt very familiar with the pseudo-logic of the religious apologist but are perhaps less aware of their national equivalents: France is great because it serves French food; England is praiseworthy because it speaks English; and so on. These are genuine arguments I have encountered, always made with the utmost sincerity.

This desire to rationalize the irrational helps explain the peculiarly redundant post hoc quality of the various justifications of patriotism. Why, as a British citizen, should I be proud of democratic institutions in Britain but not in Canada, New Zealand, or Sweden? If my love of British culture makes me a British patriot, then why does my love of Spanish culture not make me a Spanish patriot? The truth is that no defense of patriotism really gets to the heart of the matter by providing an objective, rational explanation of why someone favors his or her country over all others. Short of changing my nationality, I can only ever be a British patriot. So why bother trying to rationalize it?

The logical vacuum at the center of patriotism, and the intellectual stubbornness of the many patriots who refuse to entertain any rational inquiry into their views, should impress no one, least of all a humanist. George Bernard Shaw could not have been more accurate in his summation of national pride: “patriotism is, fundamentally, a conviction that a particular country is the best in the world because you were born in it.”

The Dangers of National Pride

As with all irrational beliefs, patriotism does not always respond well to rational inquiry. I can personally attest that challenging someone’s patriotism is a sure-fire way to kill any conversation. And that is getting off lightly: in Russia, journalists who have questioned their country’s state-
enforced patriotism have suffered physical abuse, death threats, and calls to leave the country. In one particularly graphic incident in 2016, a journalist was pelted with excrement in retaliation for “pouring crap” on the Motherland in her reporting. Elsewhere, in countries such as Turkey, Indonesia, and indeed the United States, slander and insults against the country are imprisonable offenses.

This brings us to the dangers of patriotism—moral, intellectual, and physical. Dismiss for a moment the highfalutin speeches extolling the virtues of national pride. Look past the monuments, the paintings, the poetry. Instead, adopting the humanist’s moral consequentialism, ask this simple question: What are the consequences of patriotism?

Our Belgian lieutenant was painfully aware of one: the use of patriotism to support and endorse violence. As Europe sank into the First World War, its inhabitants greeted the conflict with patriotic jubilation, responding in their millions to recruitment drives—and dying in their millions as they performed their patriotic duty to kill for their country. True, their enthusiasm quickly vanished in the trenches, but by then the patriotic exhortations had done their job, swelling the armies of Europe with new recruits. The First World War was in no way unique in its patriotic appeals: every major conflict since at least the start of the nineteenth century, from the Napoleonic Wars to the ongoing Syrian civil war, has relied on stirring up national pride to summon support for its endeavors. In any country, wartime propaganda is flush with flags and national paeans; as the philosopher John Somerville remarks, “the making of war is the supremely patriotic profession and institution.” This is by no means saying that a world without patriotism would be a world without war—religion’s hands are far too bloody for that—nor is it arguing that soldiers are only motivated by a love of their homelands. Nevertheless, it remains undeniable that patriotism is one of war’s greatest cheerleaders, positively reveling in its endorsement and even the celebration of wholescale slaughter. Why else are soldiers’ coffins draped in flags? Why else do so many national monuments commemorate military endeavors rather than scientific, artistic, or humanitarian ones? Why else is it that over a third of the world’s 196 national anthems encourage us to die for our country?

Away from the frontline, another serious consequence of patriotism is a dumbing-down of domestic politics. The overwhelming popularity of patriotism has the effect of legitimizing appeals to national pride, no matter how irrational they may be. As a result, it tips the political arena in favor of demagogues—“those whose political views are the least sophisticated and most parochial,” as the philosopher Simon Keller writes, “those whose views can most easily be squared with a familiar and attractive national myth.” We need only look around us to see this process in action. Take your pick of any retrograde, destructive politician currently stalking the planet—Narendra Modi, Rodrigo Duterte, Donald Trump, Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin—and you can be sure that each makes regular appeals to patriotism to justify his actions. Let us not forget that Trump proclaimed his own inauguration a “National Day of Patriotic Devotion” or that Duterte has revived mandatory military training for Filipino teenagers “to instill nationalism, patriotism and discipline among the Filipino youth.”

In fact, patriotism shares with religion a disturbing obsession with children and their education; in many countries children from a young age are indoctrinated into the worship of their country. Indeed, if my critical (blasphemous?) treatment of patriotism here makes for uncomfortable reading, it is likely because most of us have had the principles of national pride and respect drilled into us since childhood. In Japan, for instance, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has asked that a “love of country” be one of the goals of state education, while in certain private schools children as young as three are made to memorize and recite the Imperial Rescript, in which they are commanded to “offer yourselves courageously to the state.” In the United Kingdom, teachers have been threatened with being barred from the profession if they “fail to protect British values in their schools.” And in the United States, where the Flag Code stipulates that Old Glory “should be displayed during school days in or near every schoolhouse,” a recently passed law requires publicly funded schools in Missouri to “recite the Pledge of Allegiance at least”—at least!—“once a day.” As with religious indoctrination, “patriotic education” is an affront to the humanist ideals of intellectual freedom and tolerance. It entrenches parochial loyalties and divisions of nationality and encourages feelings of superiority and rivalry. It suppresses reason under the weight of mindless mantras and numbs the child’s innate curiosity with platitudes and self-praise. Moreover, it is used by authoritarian regimes to brainwash entire generations into an unquestioning allegiance toward the state, regardless of its moral and political failings. For example, one study revealed that the longer a Chinese individual stays in state education, the more likely he or she is to support the government, despite the fact that the same government has consistently denied its citizens some of the most basic human rights. We should be even more concerned by measures such as patriotic education when we reflect on the inherent amorality of patriotism. National pride is a sentiment, not an ideology or philosophy; it is a feeling that we prefer our country over all others and nothing more. It therefore has nothing to say on matters of morality. As the economist Thorstein Veblen highlighted, “there is, indeed, nothing to hinder a bad citizen from being a good patriot; nor does it follow that a good citizen—in other respects—may not be a very indifferent patriot.”

Despite its amorality, patriotism is frequently used as if it constituted a moral argument in its own right; as the socialist Ernest Bax observed, “to be patriotic in whatever cause is tantamount to being virtuous.” U.S. President George H. W. Bush gave a brazen demonstration of this in 1992, when he pardoned or overturned the convictions of those involved in the Iran-Contra scandal. “The common denominator of their motivations—whether their actions were right or wrong,” he explained, “was patriotism.” Bush’s words clearly imply that any act committed in the name of patriotism, moral or otherwise, is justifiable. It is a tenet shared by politicians all over the world.

Patriotism and Humanism Are Incompatible

There is a well-worn response to these criticisms that will be useful to address here. This is the charge that the national pride that I target does not represent “real” or “genuine” patriotism, and that I have simply focused on unsavory examples of chauvinistic or nationalistic behavior. Following from this, it could be argued that there exists a nobler, morally engaged expression of national pride that is perfectly compatible with humanist aspirations. Indeed, could patriotism not be a vehicle for furthering humanism? Given that patriotism generally has nothing to say about the supernatural, the two might seem like eligible bedfellows. We may be tempted to point to examples such as the Romanian demonstrations of early 2017 or the ongoing Zimbabwean protests where demands for greater democracy and political freedoms have been framed in undeniably patriotic terms. Can we not be patriots and humanists?

Before addressing these points, it is worth noting that a humanist standing up for patriotism sounds eerily like a religious apologist. Cries of straw men and unfair criticism will be very familiar to anyone accustomed to the unconvincing defenses of religion, and those who claim that patriotism is necessary for morality find themselves performing an uncanny impersonation of C. S. Lewis. For the record, no correlation has yet been uncovered between heightened crime, or any other immoral behavior, and a lack of patriotism.

Nevertheless, patriotism’s apologists raise some serious issues. Let us begin with the assertion regarding “genuine” patriotism. A lot has been written over the past year about the “fake patriotism” of the current White House. “Trump has no idea what true patriotism looks like,” declares a typical opinion piece. The desire of patriots to distance themselves from such a man is more than understandable, but there is simply no justification for defining patriotism on moral grounds, given that—as we have already seen—the word is a morally empty descriptor. Besides, the success of people such as Trump rests partly on the fact that their patriotic appeals resonate with millions of ordinary people, whose patriotism we have no reason to dismiss as disingenuous.

The patriot camp fares no better in its hopes of an entente cordiale between patriotism and humanism. Any such aspiration is dashed by the group egoism at the heart of national pride, whereby a patriot is able to value his or her compatriots over other people for no reason other than they happened to be born in a particular country—even though, as we know, he or she will never know the vast majority of those compatriots. I remember when, following a Tunisian terrorist attack in 2015, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron warned that “the British public need to be prepared for the fact that many of those killed were British,” as if those of five other nationalities who died were somehow less deserving of our sympathy. This facet of patriotism stands in direct contradiction to any hope of moral universalism—the dream that all people could someday live on the same moral plane—in its insistence that our compatriots are somehow more worthy than other human beings. It is nothing less than a denial of the equal moral worth of all people.

But what about those Romanian and Zimbabwean protests? Or any other example of loyal dissent? I do not deny that patriotism can be used as a vessel for morally worthy actions. Yet the same could be said about religion. Indeed, there is also a strong Christian character to the current Zimbabwean protests, but I doubt that would convert many of us to Christianity. So why do we swallow the same arguments when they are made for patriotism? The case for democracy or a free press, or any other worthwhile cause, can be made coherently and powerfully without recourse to national egoism.

It is hardly as if national pride is a precondition of morality. The rare works of anti-patriotism scattered throughout the history of freethinking are wonderful examples of a deep concern for humanity that has nothing to do with a love of country. In the words of one of those thinkers, the writer John Godard: “the ideal which shall inspire men to strive to make the world better must be of an infinitely broader and nobler character than that of patriotism.”

Conclusion

The message of this essay is, I admit, stark. If I have made the case convincingly, we are compelled, as humanists, to reject patriotism for many of the same reasons we reject religion. Both are irrational beliefs. Both strengthen the murderous divisions that fracture the globe. Both are also unnecessary: there is not a single function of patriotism that cannot be performed equally well, if not better, by a morality that does not give compatriots special treatment but sees all people as equally worthy, regardless of their nationality. It seems that forgotten Belgian lieutenant may have been on to something when he advocated the separation of patriotism and state.

Accepting these facts about our own national pride is hard enough. Challenging the same pride in others is perhaps an even more daunting prospect. People tend not to react well when you question their most cherished beliefs—“to attack men in their tenderest point,” as the eighteenth-century essayist Johann Zimmerman described it in his critique of national pride. For many of us, our patriotism is part of our personal identity; it can be a painful process to cast aside the flag we have been wrapped in since childhood. Nonetheless, if anyone has the courage, integrity, and compassion to begin this process—to speak out against dangerous and irrational beliefs, to challenge age-old authorities, to champion the cause of a united humanity over parochialism—it will be a humanist.

David Mountain

David Mountain is a researcher and freelance journalist based in Edinburgh.


Among the various accounts of the First World War that appeared following the 1918 armistice, a little-known post-mortem by a Belgian lieutenant carries a striking assertion. “I was always as disgusted by the misuse of patriotism for the promotion of militarism and imperialism as I was by the prostitution of religious feeling to the purposes …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.