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Revisiting Marx

Marx neu entdecken (Rediscover Marx): quapan

Marx neu entdecken (Rediscover Marx): quapan via Flickr

This essay on Marxist theory, Time to Reconsider: The Case of Wallace and Wolf, was written in the 1980s when I was an undergraduate at Trent University.

Please note that I’m not a Marxist nor a communist! Far from it. This assignment was part of a required course in sociology. I had to take the course if I wanted my degree. Simple as that. Turns out, my young, growing mind found sociological theory quite interesting (not just Marx), and generally aced out in it.

These days I can see the shortcomings of sociology. But back then, it was all-new and a big challenge, trying to score those A+ grades.

This was converted to PDF in 2009. Since then I’ve picked up a better scanner, so I might try redoing it some day. But this copy is legible.

Feel free to mention this – and the ideas it contains – in university and college assignments but be sure to use one of the standard citation styles if you do.

» Time to Reconsider: The Case of Wallace and Wolf

—MC


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Wake up! The social construction of sleep

Sleeping

Sleeping by soylentgreen23 via Flickr

If you can’t sleep, then get up and do something instead of lying there worrying.
It’s the worry that gets you, not the lack of sleep.

Dale Carnegie

It’s 2:42 a.m. Two cats howling outside my window woke me up. Unable to get back to sleep, it seemed like a good time to reflect on some of the cultural assumptions that modern, technological societies have about the idea of “a good night sleep.” 1

Don’t get me wrong. I’m the first to agree that sleep is a great restorative. The ancient Greeks extolled it as a sacred salve that releases mankind from the pain and worry of daytime reality. And the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, spoke favorably of dreams as the “royal road to the unconscious.”

Freud’s brightest student, Carl G. Jung, was also interested in dreams. Jung felt that our nighttime productions compensate for what we’re missing in daytime. Jungians also maintain that dreams guide us toward a greater, integrated sense of meaning.

Sleep Deprivation

In a National Geographic article a Harvard neuroscientist claims that US society is “tremendously sleep deprived.” If we don’t sleep well during the night, it’s usually recommended to try to nap, rest or meditate sometime during the day.

The controversial mystic Sri Aurobindo had a completely different view about sleep, one not supported by contemporary medical science. Aurobindo saw sleep as a sluggish, inferior form of consciousness that’s best overcome through intense meditation. In fact, Aurobindo claimed to have conquered the need for sleep. Christian monks also get less sleep than the average layperson but, arguably, for different reasons than Aurobindo’s.

Medical science tells us that sleep is important. The body synthesizes proteins faster in the retina and cerebral cortex during sleep hours, enhancing growth and restoration.2 Sleep deprivation actually impairs cerebral cortex functioning, this being the newest part of the brain to appear over the course of human evolution.

Sleep deprivation also has harmful effects on memory and contributes to anxiety and even paranoia. Keeping people sleepy is a great way to brainwash, manipulate or indoctrinate. No wonder cult leaders and political interrogators use sleep deprivation to get subjects to comply with their wishes (at the risk of offending some, one could argue that a similar dynamic exists in some monasteries).

Snake Oils

insomnia by Jonathan Jacobsen

insomnia by Jonathan Jacobsen via Flickr

Over the counter sleep medications tend to have deleterious side effects and don’t really engender sound sleep. No wonder so many online marketers are peddling the latest sleep-inducing herbs and alleged wonder-drugs.

Clearly, this is a case of buyer beware. Scam artists more interested in profit than helping people often have a crafty sales pitch, one which postmodern deconstructionists would have a field day with.

For instance, if you don’t get your eight hours every night some of these unscrupulous marketers will declare that you’re suffering from an illness.3 You’re then informed that substance X (which they happen to sell at their website) is the just thing for you. This idea is then backed up or, I should say, apparently backed up, by quasi-scientific truth claims. Your wonder-drug may be an extract, a herb or perhaps some other expensive snake oil—all to make you healthier, happier and a more productive member of society.4

Admittedly, this is an extreme scenario, one facilitated by cheesy internet and TV ads. There is solid scientific support for the responsible use of some herbs and extracts. Healing with herbs is also advocated in the Old Testament (Sirach 38: 1-15).

However, a recent CBC Marketplace documentary notes that we normally don’t know the long-term side effects of many herbs. It’s also good to remember that the phrase ‘side effects’ is a medical and pharmacological euphemism for unhealthy effects.

To take herbs and oils on the reassuring word of a total stranger seems unwise. Hopefully herb and wonder-drug companies will soon be integrated with reliable health officials to prevent the possibility of harmful side effects. A definite step in the right direction seems to be the Adverse Drug Reaction Database.

Allopathic sleep medications may also have unhealthy side effects and are often addictive. But sometimes their use can be more positive than negative, providing they’re taken responsibly and with professional supervision.

A red flag should go up, however, whenever anyone tries to make a religion out of any kind of treatment. Both allopathic and homeopathic practitioners can cling to their respective paradigms while closing their minds to new possibilities.

New Age Fancies

An artist's rendition of Neanderthals

An artist's rendition of Neanderthals via Wikipedia

Some New Age figures like Deepak Chopra say the electric lights and general hubbub of modern society have disrupted our natural biorhythms, often called the Circadian rhythm. These pundits of the soul lament that we’ve severed some kind of sacred connection with the natural environment and with our distant ancestors.

This calls to mind romantic myths of the natural man, or as some put it, the noble savage. But who can really say what’s natural and what’s not?5

Anthropological research suggests that Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals weren’t so different from contemporary mankind. Our distant friends probably awoke in the dead of night just as we do in the 21st century. Instead of worrying about money or health, our ancestors — if that’s what they were — probably suffered anxiety over hunger, hostile animals, ambushes, storms and seasonal weather changes.6 Indeed, a BBC article about Neanderthal violence indicates that life in prehistoric times was anything but idyllic.

So to say that primitives lived in some kind of stress-free, golden age replete with tranquil nights seems more like fanciful fiction than reality.

Transpersonal Connections

As to why we awake in the night, this is often attributed to personal stress or some kind of medical disorder. But in some cases, perhaps many, sleep disturbances could be caused by transpersonal connections.

By transpersonal I mean essentially spiritual connections among souls. Not everyone believes in this idea. But almost all saints and mystics do. (Mind you, Buddhists don’t really believe in souls, but they do believe in spiritual attributes that can migrate from one being to another).

One great figure who definitely believes in an individual soul is the Catholic saint, Faustina Kowalska. And her Divine Mercy Diary, makes frequent mention of transpersonal connections.

For instance, Saint Kowalska writes that she once awoke in the middle of the night in response to a distressed soul in need of prayerful intercession.

During the night, I was suddenly awakened and knew that some soul was asking me for prayer, and that it was in much need of prayer. Briefly, but with all my soul, I asked the Lord for grace for her.7

Like a lightning rod for other people’s anxiety, Faustina rarely got a solid eight hours sleep.

Polski: Fotografia św. Faustyny Kowalskiej

Polski: Fotografia św. Faustyny Kowalskiej via Wikipedia

For some, this kind of scenario is hard to understand. Perhaps one could imagine an intern who’s always on call. There’s a 3 a.m. emergency and the intern is awakened by her pager. And so it is, one could say, with the spiritual work of the sensitive soul or contemplative saint—but unlike the medical doctor, the saint doesn’t need a pager to sense what’s going on.

Again, most people just can’t imagine, let alone appreciate, this kind of dynamic. It’s far too subtle for the average person, mired in conventional wisdom and their historically informed conception of the universe and beyond.

For many, saints like Sister Faustina would appear to be an oddball, flake or, perhaps, mentally ill. And the tormented souls for whom she intercedes are just figments of her imagination or, worse, pathological hallucinations.

Sadly, this kind of materialist bias has crept into some corners of the contemporary Catholic Church, a place where a bona fide mystic like St. Faustina could, at one time, be recognized for what God called her to be—namely, a contemplative saint.8

Of course, most people aren’t called to be contemplative saints and must hold down 9 to 5 jobs to maintain a desired standard of living and to provide for their families. These folks are obviously necessary to society and it’s probably in their best interest to do everything possible to maintain a predictable nighttime sleep pattern. But let’s not suppose that this is a natural way for everyone. There are always important exceptions to the rule.

Sometimes these exceptions are built-in to an entire culture. Consider, for instance, India or South America. In these cultures a daytime nap is a normal and expected part of living. During the afternoon stores close, windows are shuttered and most everybody sleeps.

In the Western world, geniuses like Mozart, Winston Churchill, Elvis Presley and James Joyce took advantage of late night hours. Likewise, Jesus Christ, arguably the best man of all, stayed up to pray through the night.

It’s hard to imagine what kind of world we’d have if these outstanding individuals hadn’t surpassed cultural conventions and expectations. By the same token, not everyone is a born artist, politician or spiritual leader. And it seems only a relative few can stand aside and see beyond their immediate society. Indeed, getting a solid eight hours sleep can be quite pleasant. It’s reassuring to “fit in” with the real or imagined status quo, as most of us did in childhood.

But when childhood’s over, we must consider alternatives, especially if our “good night sleep” doesn’t come as easily as before. Waking up in the middle of the night — or perhaps keeping late hours — could be an opportunity for enhanced creativity and productivity.

For all we know, making the most out of unpredictable sleep patterns might be essential to the new global order, where one person’s day is another’s night.

Notes

1. I’m alluding to the idea of the ‘social construction of reality,’ outlined by the sociologists Berger and Luckman.

2. It’s conceivable that Sri Aurobindo managed to activate these metabolic conditions while meditating, but on this we can’t be sure.

3. Readers interested in the notion of the ‘medical gaze’ are referred to Michel Foucault’s The Birth of the Clinic.

4. An internal FDA study suggests that about 2/3 of FDA scientists have lost confidence in that agency’s ability to protect the public from potentially harmful substances. See “Inside the FDA,” CBS.news.com, December 16, 2004:  http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/08/26/health/main638721.shtml?CMP=ILC-SearchStories

5. The idea of the natural can be critiqued from sociological, philosophical and theological perspectives. Meanwhile, some maintain that the natural is qualitatively different from the volitional and the spiritual.

6. Ronald Wright’s discussion in A Short History of Progress is worthwhile, available on iTunes.

7. Divine Mercy in My Soul, p. 319. While the transfer of anxiety may not always be as clear and distinct as with this example of a recognized saint, it seems reasonable to suggest that everyone may be open, in varying degrees, to the ebb and flow of collective emotions and other psycho-spiritual qualities and experiences. In Indian philosophy, this points toward the idea of karma transfer, as noted by Indologist Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty in The Origins of Evil In Hindu Mythology. Also, C. G Jung and other transpersonal psychiatrists such as S. Grof similarly speak of syntonic countertransference.

8. (a) Not to ignore the possibility of spiritual deception. Please see ETs, UFOs and the Psychology of Belief and related articles at earthpages.org and earthpages.ca dealing with the idea of discernment. (b) The Church’s organizational structure stresses that the clergy conform (and to some degree laypersons) to a relatively fixed mode of worship and service. And perhaps in an attempt to be ‘modern’ and receptive to the scientific establishment, the Church seems to uncritically embrace some of the more spurious scientific ideas that are circulating today. This is no abstract point. In keeping with Michel Foucault’s thinking, giving credence to questionable discourses may have potentially harmful effects on individuals and society.

Wake up! The Social Construction of Sleep copyright © Michael Clark. All rights reserved.


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Postmodern Theology – Who’s got the power?

Postmodern Sock Monkeys.JPG

Postmodern Sock Monkeys by deglispiriti via Flickr

When I studied Michel Foucault and postmodernism in the 1980s, many so-called intellectuals overlooked the idea of the holy, as taken on its own terms, and focused on a stripped down notion of socio-cultural power.

Society was just the outcome of competing discourses and institutionalized practices of power. Everything else didn’t really matter. And if psychology did manage to squeak its way into an academic discussion, Freud was fair game but Jung, well, he was definitely out.

This approach seemed pretty thin and I remember talking about or, rather, trying to talk about the idea of the numinous and how it could relate to power, both psychological and social.

I’d written an essay on Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, groundbreaking back then, likening it to the numinous potential of Jungian archetypes. I only got an A- on that paper, probably because my sociology professor, although a nice guy, just couldn’t see the connection I was making between pop culture and spirituality. Ironically enough, the arguably silly distinction between pop culture and spirituality is still reinforced today by many religious people who insist on the primacy of their own rigid beliefs and agendas.

Later, in the early 1990s, I got interested in the ethical ambivalence of power. By this I mean that power isn’t always oppressive, bad or solely based on self-interest, as some professors seemed to say. In fact, power can be used for the good and, moreover, the Good can be powerful.

Fortunately, the postmodern scene has evolved since the early days. Bookworms and information seekers began to embrace figures like Jacques Derrida, who speaks to a ‘metaphysical space’ in-between linkages within endless chains of connotative signification.

Reminiscent of Sartre’s ‘gap of nothingness,’ the apparently radical postmodern agenda began to discern cracks in the interpretative process and was asking what might lay beyond them.

Spirituality perhaps?

A fairly recent trend called Postmodern Theology takes postmodernism in the opposite direction from it’s limiting beginnings. Postmodernism is apparently restoring the holy and encouraging meaningful interfaith dialogue in an age where many are turned off by religious dogmas and yet duped by the reductive claims of science. A good example of this trend can be found here: “Toward a Theological Understanding of Postmodernism.”

Contemporary postmodernism may be spiritually liberating or restrictive. On the plus side, the conceptual deconstruction of sacred texts, teachings and practices strips away bogus, culture-laden ideas about God and moral righteousness. But on the down side, some postmoderns still seem unable to consider the idea that power may be holy, that the holy is ‘good power,’ and so on.

At the other end of the spectrum there’s an equally unfortunate scenario where authoritarian personality types are consumed by a numinous power that’s less than God. These individuals haven’t developed any appreciation for postmodernism’s potential usefulness. In fact, these folks probably don’t think at all because they just know they’re right (at least, that’s what they say or imply).

One way to identify an authoritarian personality is in the inability to admit uncertainty. There’s always “no doubt” in an authoritarian’s mind. They simply must have things their way, intellectually and often practically. The last thing they’re willing to do is compromise, and this can happen in any religious, political, scientific or New Age circuit.

Perhaps the next important task for postmodernism is to strip away its elitist, specialized style and make its ideas more accessible to the general public. There’s a branch of philosophy that says if you cannot say things clearly, in a way that everyone can understand, chances are you don’t really understand it yourself.

While this approach engenders its own set of complications (e.g. how can we ‘make it clear’ if an audience always interprets what we say?)  it does seem worthy of consideration.

Copyright © Michael Clark. All rights reserved.


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Opinion – Olympic opening speaks volumes

Vancouver 2010 Inukshuk: janusz l / Janusz Leszczynski

Last night’s Olympic opening ceremony wasn’t my top priority. I wasn’t going to bother watching it but realized I should see what my country was up to.

After all, I graduated in sociology and should know how the Canadian Olympic officials chose to represent this country to the world.

I suppose considering the budget they did a pretty good job. But what I found sort of bush-league was how the emphasis fell on Canada’s greatness instead of the greatness of Olympic Sport.

When doing graduate work in India in the late 1980s I saw a similar phenomenon. Anything of merit in India was pumped up to emphasize how “world class” that country was.

Canada is much the same.

This might be a sign of some kind of grand national insecurity. I mean, if you’re really the best you don’t have to talk about it. You just do it… and most everyone gets that you’re number one.

Having said that, I am proud of some of the claims made about my country last night. I believe we are miles (oops kilometers) ahead of many other lands in terms of forging a working and peaceful cultural mosaic.

It’s easy to talk about the wonders of multiculturalism when you’re banning religious groups from your country or beating up on minorities. It’s quite another thing to actually live peacefully with many different kinds of peoples (and their divergent beliefs) in close proximity.

That’s probably what I’m most proud of. And it’s probably the future of not only Canada but hopefully the world.

So why the lingering social insecurity? Is it because the US media tends to ignore and sometimes mock us? And if so, who cares?

From my experience the Americans worth interacting with see past all that, just as the Canadians worth interacting with don’t construct an identity by saying “we’re not the US.”

How boring!

Defining oneself as Canadian by saying “we’re not America” is also a bit thin and hypocritical. Canadian media anchors, for example, often jump at the chance to appear ‘cool and hip’ by being on Twitter and Facebook.

Uh… what country developed those social media? Or WordPress, for that matter?

So let’s get real. Canada does get a lot of things right but also depends on the USA and many other countries to stay afloat.

It’s an international world. So why don’t we all start thinking that way?

–MC

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Review – The Conspiracy to Rule the World: From 911 to the Illuminati (DVD)

Reality Films

Reality Films

Back in the 1980s, I looked at the G-7 countries through an arguably simplistic lens.

Although getting top marks in sociology at university, in retrospect I was only dimly aware of what was happening in the world around me.

Graduate studies in India and later in Ottawa, Canada, certainly helped to open my eyes. But as Plato noted in The Republic, wide eyes can make for blurry vision. And once my eyes returned to sharper focus I realized just how little I really can know.

Conspiracy theories abound on the internet today on countless topics but, from my perspective, there’s little way to know what’s what.

Almost everything I see of importance comes through the media. A bit of Photoshop here, a touch of video editing there, and who knows what an unscrupulous profit seeker or mad-person could produce and try to pass off as fact?

Sure, I get impressions from time to time like anyone else, but these are just gut feelings and their verification often seems impossible.

The Conspiracy to Rule the World: From 911 to the Illuminati raises important questions and does this very well. But to an outside observer the movie cannot escape the irony that, while talking about presumed secret societies, social power and media deception, it too is part of the media.

Given that, the production company behind this DVD (Reality Films) differs from most. It pushes the envelope a bit further and attains a degree of self-awareness not found in, say, the major networks around the world.

A good example can be found in two other Reality Films where the British UFO investigator and former MOD employee Nick Pope is asked, on camera, if he’s just a government disinformation stooge merely pretending to be free of all the machinations of state power.

The second time he’s asked Pope discusses the issue, recognizing that viewers cannot really be sure if he is or isn’t (See Review – Nick Pope: The Man Who Left the MOD and Review: Lies and Deception: UFOs and The Secret Agenda (DVD)).

To return to The Conspiracy to Rule the World, however, the major bases covered in this film are:

  • The notion that ordinary men and women are unfairly ruled by elites and soon to experience a progressive lack of human rights and freedoms.
  • The allegation that an unspoken but all too real selection process ensures the legitimization and reproduction of hidden social agendas through the media.
  • The idea of the Apollo Moon Landings Hoax, conceding the (and I quote) “remote possibility” that the Moon landings actually happened but arguing that media coverage was augmented by still images and video footage taken during earthbound simulations.

All this, of course, just leaves us with more questions.

But in my opinion it’s far better to ask questions and consider all the angles before getting stuck on one particular point of view. And for that reason, alone, The Conspiracy to Rule the World is well worth a careful viewing.

–MC


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Religions and Cults

Copyright © Michael W. Clark
All rights reserved.

A fairly recent trend in the academic study of religion is to say there’s no difference among religions, cults and enjoyable pastimes.

Meanwhile, some Atheists, New Age believers and Pagans uphold organized religion as a great evil, saying it is a source of oppression and war.

These individuals may find it convenient to blame organizational behavior instead of identifying the root causes of fear, greed, anger, ignorance, hypocrisy and aggression.1 And perhaps some of the more forceful critics of organized religion harbor these negative qualities and project them onto an amorphous idea of religion2–i.e. the big bad ‘other.’

Not to say that organized religion doesn’t have its pitfalls but a great number of people also say it carries distinct advantages.3

Religion and Structure

Throughout history most religions have exhibited some degree of organizational structure. One might even ask if religion could exist without structure.

Hinduism, for example, which many often say has no overall organization, supports local priests who preside over temples or shrines. Moreover, Hindu priests manage funds contributed by believers–this is particularly evident during religious festivals.

Even the esoteric guru-disciple tradition exhibits a structure and hierarchy. Absolute beginners answer to lesser gurus; lesser gurus answer to greater gurus; and greater gurus answer to God. Moreover, greater gurus usually have a plethora of workers and volunteers underneath them, each with specific or possibly rotating duties.

The average ashram is not a chaotic nor a democratic place. Quite simply, there’s a charismatic leader with many followers. And, again, it’s all very structured. Although some say Hinduism in its diversity is unstructured, in definitely has its own kind of structure.4

The Dark Side of Structure

Most of us are aware that organized religion has done bad things in the past. Religion has legitimized violence though the centuries, the most obvious examples being the Crusades and the cruel torture and killing of so-called witches.

Not only that. Contemporary religious leaders have sheltered pedophiles known to have preyed on the young and innocent. Meanwhile some organized religions seem to reiterate infantile cosmologies and a deep-rooted and harmful chauvinism, both traceable to archaic cultures.

But is religion the cause or, rather, should we look to the authoritarian personalities who perpetuate organizational aggression and oppression?

This individual-centered view would probably seem too simplistic for most contemporary sociologists. Some neoMarxists, for instance, would say that over time the ideological structures of organized religion become formally codified (e.g. the Code of Canon Law or The Westminster Confession). As formal codes becomes reified they are sometimes said to facilitate the reproduction of repressive cultural attitudes and practices.

In essence, mankind creates rules which, in turn, confine the creators.

A Moderate View

While children tend to see the world in terms of black at white, projecting their fears and dislikes onto a “bad” other such as organized religion, another perhaps more mature perspective takes a middle road.

This is the view that individuals are born and raised in societies and subgroups already imbued with organizational structure. And human nature being what it is, not all of those structures are entirely good. At some point one must choose to utterly reject or work within and try to make a positive contribution to worldly structures. This isn’t toeing the line or kissing up but more like not rocking the boat so as prevent it from capsizing. After all, a capsized boat can’t be steered to shore.5

But sometimes existing structures are so oppressive that they simply have to be modified. Here we have the enduring figures like Martin Luther, Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein who created new paradigms because the existing ones didn’t work for them.

Great personages tend to radically overhaul or articulate entirely new structures. They’re compelled to overcome environments not in synch with their temperaments, interests, long-term observations and moral convictions.6

Religions and Cults

Fundamentalists usually see their particular beliefs as the only truth, making it relatively easy for intelligent people to bracket their silly claims.  But rarely will intellectuals sitting on the fence consider the possibility that one religion may, in fact, enjoy more divine favor than another. To uncritically say “all religions are the same” or “all religions and cults are the same” seems superficial.

By way of analogy, let’s say I enter a store, ask the clerk for tofu and she gives me a bag of peanuts. Would I buy it?

“It’s all the same; they both have protein,” the clerk proclaims.

But it’s not all the same, especially if I’m allergic to peanuts and eating them could be lethal.

Consider another analogy: I’m driving through the countryside. It’s a scorching hot day so I pull into a gas station and ask the attendant for a cold bottle of water. He hands me a beer.

Thirst quenchers are all the same,” he says.

Again, they’re not all the same. And if I drink beer instead of water, would I be a safe and responsible driver?

While some might say that I’m forwarding a kind of fundamentalism of my own, nothing could be further from the truth. In actual fact I find any kind of uncritical fundamentalism somewhat frightening. And while it might be politically correct or expedient to publicly affirm that all religions are the same, I’m more interested in the advancement of knowledge instead of passing on convenient fabrications or well-intentioned imaginings.

Progressive theory is rarely developed by tiptoeing around in a state of fearful acquiescence. If I have perceived real experiential differences across religions, as a scientifically-minded person I’m bound to say so. Even when viewed from the outside, most mature thinkers would agree that the attitudes, beliefs, teachings and practices of different religions and cults exhibit not uniformity but tremendous diversity.

Some define religion as “anything that inspires.” But this definition seems spurious. Would we say that watching a soccer game is a religious pastime? Some might say yes. But I’d contend that religion not only hints at but articulates a belief in the spiritual dimension–at something more than this. And if ritual is present, it may be more or less structured and, likewise, more or less public.

As for cults, the intended usage in this article approximates the third of five definitions provided by Merriam-Websters online dictionary: “a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious; also : its body of adherents.”

These are just working definitions, certainly not etched in stone. Instead of trying to provide exhaustive definitions for religions and cults, a precarious task at best, the following chart attempts to summarize some of the main beliefs and practices found within religions and cults.

Again, this outline is not the final word on religions and cults. The attributes listed in each column don’t universally apply and many of the distinctions are debatable. In keeping with sociologist Max Weber’s approach, however, these categories are ideal types.

Ideal types are generalized constructs designed to stimulate thought. They don’t provide precise definitions nor exhaustive descriptions.

Beliefs

Religions

  • Glorification of God (or for Pagans,gods/goddesses, often said to be different manifestations of God)
  • Revealed truth claims
  • Prophecy, especially but not necessarily in the past
  • Primacy of Love (for God and neighbor)
  • Heavenly, cosmic and/or social justice
  • Emphasis on freedom and free choice to humbly cooperate with a divine plan
  • Emphasis on God’s mercy
  • Inherent human dignity
  • Life a priceless gift from God
  • Human beings created slightly lower than angels (Catholicism)

Cults

  • Glorification of charismatic leader holding a particular theory about truth and demanding absolute loyalty to themselves and organization
  • Revealed truth claims
  • Prophecy
  • Primacy of cult’s survival (unless group is suicidal, in which case it survives in another world or cosmic plane)
  • Emphasis on blind obedience
  • May emphasize punishment and/or impending doom
  • Human beings inferior or underdeveloped compared to cosmic entity or entities embodied or mediated by leader

Liturgy

  • Officiated by priests, pastors, ministers,rabbis, imams, or equivalent (may or may not be hierarchical)
  • Use of a sacred text(s) describing moral truths and often archaic cosmology
  • Usually congregate at specific buildings (e.g.temple, mosque, church)
  • Often involves rites, sacraments, or festivals
  • May involve worldly sacrifice for spiritual causes and rewards
  • Group and private prayer
  • Mystical but not magical component (except Pagans often say “‘white magic” is religious)
  • Messages from a single leader, possibly disseminated by an inner circle
  • Use of text(s) describing truth, often with an abundance of hard-to-prove cosmic theories (e.g.Earth was seeded by aliens)
  • Based on an extreme scenario (e.g. world is”evil” or “primitive”)
  • May involve orgiastic ceremonies, chanting,dancing, and mind-altering substances
  • Involves worldly sacrifice for spiritual causes and rewards
  • Group or private prayer to the leader or the being/energy he or she allegedly embodies (e.g.aliens, wise eternals, etc.)

Practice

  • Missionary work and potential converts welcomed(except in traditional Hinduism, where one can only be born a Hindu)
  • Limited theological debate permitted
  • Pilgrimage (essential, advantageous, or accepted)
  • Actively concerned with social betterment, charity and building a community of believers
  • Involves almsgiving and donations for missionary activity
  • Pedagogy, scholarship, scripture reading, cultural and artistic events
  • Clearly proscribed ethical guidelines
  • Economic support through members
  • Meditation, contemplation, prayer
  • Unethical recruitment style, including deception and false promises
  • Discussion and democratic change forbidden–critical outsiders “don’t understand”
  • Members exploited for free or inexpensive labor
  • Separated from the outside world
  • Previous family ties severed
  • Members adopt new names and family identity
  • Manipulation of members’ emotions, hopes and dreams
  • Often ruthless methods of control
  • Selling of magical elixirs and/or ill-founded philosophies
  • Leader coldly views recruits as”investments” instead of free human beings
  • Subtle or aggressive brainwashing

Ideal Attitude

  • Loving God and others
  • Avoidance of selfishness
  • Humility
  • Enhancement of individuality (except for some Hindu and Buddhist meditative ideals of negating individuality in Brahman or Nirvana, respectively)
  • Loving obedience to leader and cause
  • Psychological and financial dependency
  • Possibility of arrogance (i.e. “we know best”)
  • Loss of individuality

Other

  • Organization continues and often grows after death of founder (Weber calls this the ‘routinization of charisma’ but this overlooks the idea that genuine Spirit may continue to inform and inspire a religious community throughout the course of history)
  • Finances usually or partially open to public scrutiny (e.g. figures are posted in Catholic parish bulletins but the Vatican Bank isn’t open to public scrutiny)
  • Violence condoned in extreme situations (e.g.”The Just War”)
  • Organization usually has relatively short longevity-dwindles after death of founder
  • Finances concealed
  • Sometimes former members speak of a cult’s alleged use of scare tactics through financial or physical threats
Above chart elaborates on many sources, including Gregg Stebben’s Everything You Need to Know About Religion (The Pocket Professor, Denis Boyles ed., New York: Pocket Books, 1999: 25-26).

As a final word, perhaps a tentative solution to the immense diversity among so-called religions and cults is expressed in the song “One” by Bono and U2:

One love

One blood

One life

You got to do what you should

One life

With each other

Sisters

Brothers

One life

But we’re not the same

We get to

Carry each other

Carry each other

- One from Achtung Baby

relig_cults_circle2

Notes

1. John Locke says something quite similar in A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689).

If men enter into seditious conspiracies, it is not religion inspires them to it in their meetings, but their sufferings and oppressions that make them willing to ease themselves. Just and moderate governments are everywhere quiet, everywhere safe; but oppression raises ferments and makes men struggle to cast off an uneasy and tyrannical yoke. I know that seditions are very frequently raised upon pretence of religion, but it is as true that for religion subjects are frequently ill treated and live miserably. Believe me, the stirs that are made proceed not from any peculiar temper of this or that Church or religious society, but from the common disposition of all mankind, who when they groan under any heavy burthen endeavour naturally to shake off the yoke that galls their necks.

See also Religion and War.

2. Projection seems to be a widespread and recurring defense mechanism. This concept is defined in Daryl Sharp’s Jung Lexicon.

3. When attending Mass, for instance, it’s often psychologically, socially and spiritually uplifting to be among people from all walks of life who share common or similar core beliefs. Years ago, while regularly attending Tai Chi classes, a similar but not identical dynamic arose.

4. Not unlike the Catholic newsletters and donation forms that arrive in the mail today, while I was residing in India the local priest sent children to my door, selling tickets for an upcoming puja.

5. See the parable of Matthew 13:24-30. This idea of working within structure takes many different forms. Contemplative saints, for instance, may be intensely involved in the world while seeming remote to worldly people unable to appreciate the belief that contemplative prayer is extremely necessary and demanding work.

6. While some say that anti-Semitism figured in Freud’s choosing to abandon a scientific career in favor of specialized medicine, Henri F. Ellenberger in The Discovery of the Unconscious emphasizes the far less menacing reasons of professional seniority and Freud’s upcoming marriage. Without a change of plans “Freud would have to be content for a very long time with an inferior and poorly paid position” (p. 433).

Further Reading

Religion » Cults


1 Comment

Mysticism and the Idea of Sainthood, Part 4: Saints and Medical Science

Copyright © Michael W. Clark 2008.
All rights reserved.

This is Part of a series.

Part 1 » One or Many?

Part 2 » Mysticism, Science and Politics

Part 3 » Different Interpretations

From a psychoanalytic perspective, the Freudian would say that alleged spiritual visions are fantasies stemming from the libido.

That is, the sex instinct simply attaches itself to an imagined object.

Similarly, the staunch materialist would contend that spiritual visions are mere hallucinations stemming from inner psychological states.

There is no heaven, hell nor afterlife for the materialist. Religion merely comforts weak-willed individuals thwarted by a mysterious and oftentimes harsh world.

Saints and Medical Science

Historically speaking, some of the saints might seem a bit destructive, uncompromising and obsessive.

Consider self-flagellation, hair shirts and St. Thomas More who had six Lutherans burned at the stake for heresy before he, himself, succumbed to the executioner for not sanctioning Henry VIII’s divorce.

What a mess.

In retrospect alleged saintliness and perhaps even some instances of martyrdom might seem pretty neurotic and more like the clash of rigid, judgmental personalities than some kind of holy ideal to be emulated.

If the saints of old could walk through a time machine to the present, some might seem barbarous, sadomasochistic or even insane.

But one thing is certain–because each saint lived in a distinct cultural setting, each met with a unique form of interpersonal and cultural misunderstanding and, in many cases, unspeakable oppression.

Not a few saints were taken as witches and devil-worshipers.

Joan of Arc, for instance, was condemned by an ecclesiastical court and tragically burned at the stake only to be found innocent by the Holy See 24 years later. And nearly 500 hundred years after her death she was canonized–that is, officially bestowed the status of sainthood.

As to whether some of the historical saints were psychologically disordered – or partly so – is a complex, arguably culture-bound question.

Critics of psychiatry say that aspects of this developing science are tantamount to a cultural weather vane, responding to transitory legal, economic and political influences. This kind of critique opens up debate as to the meaning of biological, psychological, social and spiritual normalcy.

One historical example favored among some anti-psychiatry and gay rights activists has to do with the psychiatric conceptualization and treatment of homosexuality.

The American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) classification of homosexuality changed in 1973. Until that time homosexuality was construed as a disorder.  In 1972 a homosexual likely would have undergone extensive therapy in an attempt to change his or her sexual orientation to the supposedly healthy norm defined by the APA.

But in 1973, not so. Suddenly it was psychologically normal to be a homosexual.1

And one only has to consider psychiatry in Nazi Germany for an extreme example of cultural forces influencing the supposedly objective medical sciences.

Contemporary medical professionals are fully aware that this or subtler form of this dynamic could recur.2

Meanwhile, the BBC reports that some pharmaceutical corporations allegedly have used uneducated, impoverished people in underdeveloped countries as human guinea pigs for potentially dangerous drug testing.3

It’s hardly surprising that prominent intellectuals like Michel Foucault, Thomas Szasz and R. D. Laing question the very concepts of mental health and illness, while the psychiatrist C. G. Jung tries to redefine the issue within an apparently natural-cum-spiritual agenda of “achieving wholeness.”

More recently, the Czech psychiatrist Stanislav Grof envisions intense personal crises as “spiritual emergencies” that are best handled with holistically informed care.

Often, those episodes hold a powerful healing potential if understood and accompanied correctly. They are what we call a spiritual emergency.4

Conclusion

Where does all this this leave us? Are saints simply sick people hiding from the world or are they sublime seekers pointing to a greater reality?

The previous Parts 1-4 attempt to situate mysticism and the idea of sainthood within a contemporary cultural matrix.

In today’s world, a bona fide saint might be faced with unique challenges. He or she might be mishandled by an incompetent doctor, priest or insensitive friends and family members.

Historically, we’ve seen the unfortunate dynamic where family, friends and associates become angry and embarrassed, even hostile toward a potential saint. Two outstanding Catholic saints, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Francis of Assisi, for example, were both temporarily imprisoned by their families in a misguided attempt to prevent them from pursuing essentially spiritual vocations.

And as noted, Joan of Arc was condemned to the flames and we have no reason to believe that similar, if perhaps subtler, dynamics couldn’t happen today.

As medical, religious and legal dialogue continues as to how alleged visionaries and saints are to be best handled in contemporary society, we would be wise to remember that in his own day even Jesus Christ was occasionally thought to be mad and demon-possessed (John 8:49).

And some still say that he was.

This might, in part, be due to the fact that it’s not always easy to live the Christian message as related in the New Testament.

Rethinking the idea of personal empowerment and allowing God to be our primary source of power and joy can be challenging, especially if success is measured solely through the lens of the immediately visible.

1 Meanwhile, the Catholic Church continues to regard sexual activity such as masturbation, homosexuality, contraception and unmarried sex as fundamentally disordered, opposing medical mores in these areas.

2 Milgram’s famous experiment suggests that even good people do bad things in certain circumstances. And Festinger’s research indicates that when compelled to lie some people actually start to believe in their untruths in an attempt to eradicate so-called ‘cognitive dissonance.’

3 BBC online News (South Asia): “Drug Trials Outsourced to India,” 22 April, 2006.

4 Dr. Stanislav Grof cited by Nadine Kreisberger, “Mystic Musings” in The Indian Express, 18 March, 2008.

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