Recently, I finished reading Lawrence Wright’s new book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollwood, & the Prison of Belief, about Scientology. It’s a lucid history and examination of the movement. I wrote a review of the book over at the Proximal Eye, here. In that review, I touched on a few of the concerns I harbor in regards to religious movements, Scientology in particular, but all of them in general.
The central question in Wright’s book—and indeed in others, for instance Jon Krakauer’s Under The Banner Of Heaven about Mormonism—is the question of volitional surrender. Why do people hand over the keys to their being to institutions and ideologies that are often based on dubious claims, led by people with clearly autocratic tendencies, to live lives of functional servitude, if not physically certainly intellectually?
There are separate questions here, concerning different stages. For those born into a group, being raised within its codes and customs, the Outside is by definition alien and the individual is required to do exactly the reverse of the adult who comes into that group from the Outside. The same question can apply to the apostate who has grown up knowing nothing else—why would you throw over all that you know to embrace this Other Thing? (The Amish offer an excellent example of the problem, with their practice of rumspringa, a kind of wanderjahr for the youth to go see the outside world and decide for themselves whether to stay or leave the community. It would seem to be a fair practice, offering freedom of choice, but how fair can it be? One can read a book about another culture, “know” it intellectually, but that’s a far cry from being able to operate within it, or understand it on any visceral level. Instead, it’s a kind of wilderness test, which more than likely causes sufficient anxiety that a return to what one has known one’s entire life is virtually guaranteed except for the most adventurous—which may serve the community by culling out those so independent-minded who may cause problems later by nonconformity.)
It would be easy to dismiss certain problems with cultism by seeing past eras as offering essentially little to counter the claims of a charismatic proselyte offering a path to transcendence, but the fact is most of these movements seem immune to any kind of counterargument for those who seem determined to join something that offers them such a path. For the first generation of Mormons, it didn’t matter that Joseph Smith was obviously coming up with his revelations out of his own head. When his wife called his bluff on polygamy, all she managed to do was sheer off a splinter group and increase the resolve of the core followers. What was happening was a sophisticated con, but it didn’t matter, not to those surrounding Smith and later Brigham Young. It was at that point no longer Smith’s revelation but theirs. He couldn’t have stopped if he had wished to. The intricate and alchemical brew of group coherence had happened and it had become Another Thing, an Experience that was true as an experience, regardless of the facts or the motives behind its inception. The followers had created it and made it its own entity.
Which would suggest that the thing being believed in is less important than the clear need on the part of the acolyte to believe.
Subsequently, this creates a hermetic seal around the object of belief, because belief is not real unless it is absolute. Criticism of the tenets of faith are not so much attacks on details as on the act of believing. The whole being of the believer becomes so intertwined with the thing believed as to be one and the same, inseparable. Personal. And yet, curiously dispassionate. It’s not so much a choice as an inevitability, a recognition, an “of course” moment, a “how could I have been so blind?” revelation…
…which automatically renders any question of “how can I be so blind?” inadmissible, unhearable, unsupportable.
It has nothing to do with intelligence. It’s all about meaning.
The central question of all philosophy is simple: Why am I here? Even philosophies that seem to render this as an unanswerable—and therefore purely academic question—start from there. It’s a good question. What is my purpose in this life? Religion supplants the inward-directedness of this by offering more cosmic possibilities, often of an unknowable nature, which require belief. Faith. No matter what, there is a purpose, a point, and even if I can’t see it, it is at least there. Meanwhile, here are some guideposts, some rules, some practices that will keep me on a path more or less in sympathy with this higher purpose. By serving this belief in a telec universe, our own sense of purpose can be, if not answered, at least validated, even if the cause is abstruse or abstract.
Trusting that purpose will be fulfilled simply through faith is not sufficient for the organizations commanding the obeisance of their membership. If there is a purpose, then actions must be taken to fulfill it, and in lieu of any other clear program, conversion becomes their raison d’être. They must be seen to be purposeful. What higher purpose, then, than to change the world. The clearest way to do that is to convert the world to their cause. (This is functionally impossible, because there has always been and will always be competing doctrines, but it does raise an interesting question of what would they do if they achieved this end? After the point at which everyone believed in the same thing, what next?) And so the continual proselytization such institutions sponsor. (This has the added benefit of redirecting any kind of skepticism from the proselytes potential to ask questions of their own faith into a concern for the potential converts lack of faith.)
There are many definitions of cults, some of which contradict, but at base it is a tricky thing because a “cult” bears sufficient semblance to well-established religions that the only apparent difference is size. If a charismatic preacher with a hundred followers claims to speak directly to god, he’s a nut. But if the pope makes the same claim, it is accepted as a matter of faith and accorded a kind of respect the preacher cannot command. Size. A hundred people can be deluded, but a billion? At that level, we tacitly acknowledge that Something Else Is Going On.
My own test has to do with permeability. Is there egress equal to ingress? How easily can people leave? What restrictions are placed on individual interaction with the so-called Outside World, if any? It’s one thing to claim that people are free to leave at any time, but if the organizational structure requires a cutting off of contact, a limitation of information from outside the group, whether physically imposed or simply a matter of conformity to the group, part of its identity, then it becomes a question meriting a closer look. Cult? Or religion? Or, more accurately, cult or church? The Amish offer an apparent open door, but it’s not really. Young Amish go out on their rumspringa utterly unprepared because all their lives up to that point have been lived in a bubble that limits information, limits experience, limits contact, and then makes it an either-or test. (That the limits are self-imposed does not matter since they are self-imposed in order to avoid group censure.) They are unequipped to make the kinds of judgments and choices so many of us take as a simple right to associate with whom and in what way we choose. (The big difference regarding the Amish is they do not proselytize. They don’t go out actively recruiting. This, to my mind, removes them from cult status and makes them simply what might be called a Pocket Culture.)
A cult guards itself from the Outside by demanding its members shut out anything not wholly contained within the cult. It actively discourages interface with the world at large. Sometimes it will go so far as physically impede such contact.
But the members will accept this. The question brought up by Wright’s book is, why?
If one genuinely believes that their salvation is at stake, that they risk losing an eternal soul should they question—if, in other words, fear is the motive for strict adherence to a set of doctrines and behavioral restrictions—then it is possible one is being abused. We have ample evidence and example of abused children remaining intransigently loyal to their abusers. The possibility of inhabiting another condition, whether “better” or not, is unthinkable, because they risk their identity.
Within the precincts of certain ideologies, part of the experience is literally seeing the world in a different way. The “truth” of the doctrine is exampled in this seeing. Things “make sense” in ways they never did before. (It doesn’t matter here that this new way of seeing can happen with any conceptual breakthrough and that if we’re lucky it happens all the time, throughout life, as a natural part of learning.) That apparent “clarity” can become so important that anything which endangers it must be avoided, actively shut out. Questions about the central doctrines simply cannot be entertained when the stakes are so high.
In this way, the apparent glassy-eyed acceptance of conceptual weirdness within certain cults makes sense as the only possible path for someone who has achieved a fragile balance because of a framework of belief and is afraid of losing it by questioning the very beam on which they now stand. The tragedy is that this balance should be theirs no matter which beam they stand on, but the institution has convinced them that it is not theirs should they question or leave. People feel they have found a home, but a home is a place from which you can come and go as you please, bringing back what you find, enlarging it and decorating it with new things. The door is never shut in either direction. Wright’s subtitle posits “the prison of belief” and that pertains when the door is shut and you either don’t leave or if you do you can never come back, which turns the world to which you’ve escaped into just another prison.
Ironically, the one in the deepest cell may be the figure at the center of the movement. The founder. Jim Jones, Joseph Smith, L. Ron Hubbard, all the others. None of them could stop being who their followers thought they were. Ultimately, it killed them all. They had even less freedom to leave. Their task was to design the prison and always be in it. One wonders if they in any way fulfilled their own definition of purpose.