Last night I was pooped and went to bed unusually early. Waking up unusually early, I felt it was a good time to update earthpages.ca. I enjoyed working on the above. As I research and revise these entries, I’m not only brushing up on my general knowledge but also on my ability to (hopefully) communicate fresh ideas to as many people as possible.
I’m not oblivious to the power of religious experience. When reading the Bible I’ve felt a tremendous sense of peace and certainty from time to time. But that doesn’t mean I agree with everything the Bible says. Or that I believe it all comes directly from the mind of God.
Call me irreverent if you like. But I just can’t wrap my head around the sexism, chauvinism, and violence advocated in a lot of holy books (the Bible included). True, the New Testament talks about love and peace. But at the same time it gives legitimacy to the Old Testament, which often runs counter to love and peace.
However, one thing I can say about the Bible. It’s realistic. It’s not some phony baloney sugarcoated gloss. All our human failings are found there. And maybe that’s partly why it has lasted so long. People can relate to it. It’s a human story. With God intervening and (apparently) showing us the way.
Never thought I’d be highlighting my own writing. But life always gives us the unexpected. The above is from an entry I wrote for earthpages.ca this morning. The Gospel of Thomas.
When it comes to a God, religion speaks of a higher being that is distant from humanity, one that lives in what may be another world, such as heaven. Spirituality stresses that God is within all of us, and there is no separation between humanity and this greater being. (Source: Article in above tweet)
Every time I see this distinction I get the impression that the person making it doesn’t really know what they’re talking about.
For instance, during Catholic Mass it might seem that some people woodenly go through the motions. To an observer they might appear to mumble words and sit or stand from sheer force of habit. But a mere observer has no idea what’s going on inside their souls.
Speaking for Catholics, some of my acquaintances tell me about their ongoing personal experiences with God, graces, and the spiritual intercession of saints. God is very close for these Catholic churchgoers. Also, the belief about the Eucharist, which many Catholics receive daily, is that the heavenly Christ appears in the flesh, right here on Earth. And for many, that is not just the belief but also the inner experience.
Sometimes when I’m going to Mass and see some unhappy looking passersby near the Church, I’m tempted to say, “Hey Jesus Christ is arriving here in about 10 minutes! Interested?” But I don’t, of course, because I have a pretty good idea what the answer would be.
I bet if a full person, replete with head, arms and legs were to appear out of nothing and broadcast his showtime later that day, the venue would be packed with crowds overflowing out on to the street. But because the Eucharist is a miraculous and subtle transformation/presence of inner substance but not of gross outward form, only some appreciate it, for whatever reasons. And I get the impression that most non-Catholics, especially non-Christians, just think the whole idea is silly.
Anyhow, I digress. The point is, it does no good to make a black and white distinction between religion and spirituality. Not only is it theologically misinformed but from my experience and from talking with other believers, it is misinformed on an experiential level.
When I was a college kid I didn’t take too much interest in clothes shopping. I mostly wore what was given to me. One day in a seminar everyone broke out laughing when I made a comment about “ivy league” types. I guess it was the colored cotton sweats and Lacoste (remember those alligators?) shirts that I used to wear. Pretty much all given to me.
Point is, I didn’t think about it too much. Sure, I knew they were “nice” shirts and that the poor didn’t wear them. (Let’s face it, clothes make all kinds of statements). But I also knew that I felt good in those clothes. That’s about as far as it went. I wasn’t consciously trying to elevate myself or put the less fortunate down.
As I got a little older I began to think about the connection between spiritual presence and clothes. Think of a judge, for instance, in all those elegant robes. Would she or he have the same effect if s/he just came to court wearing a pair of jeans? Well maybe, but I don’t think we’re quite there yet.
There clearly is some kind of spiritual connection between clothes and a person. I don’t think the presence is in the clothes, themselves. But it seems that wearing certain garments can bring on or be accompanied with a definite spiritual mark. And that can, as today’s tweet says, give us confidence or make us feel good.
So when the Bible says “care not what you wear” (paraphrase from the New Testament) I have to wonder just where that was coming from. And if it is entirely relevant to making it today. Also, it seems that women had more prohibitions than men.
Why am I not surprised? — MC
The new Hulu TV series “The Path” – described by Time as the streaming service’s “best show yet” – centers on a cult-like faith, Meyerism, whose adherents seek fulfillment under the guidance of their leader, Cal.
As pure entertainment, the show seems promising. But as someone who studies human cognition and why people believe scientifically dubious claims, I’m more interested in the real-life versions of Cal – specifically, the needs that leaders of cult-like faiths tap into that make them so attractive to certain people.
The illusion of comfort
An answer to this question can take a variety of forms. One that has gotten a considerable amount of attention over the years is the emotional comfort cults can provide.
California Institute of Technology psychologist Jon-Patrik Pedersen, in attempting to explain why people are drawn to cults, has argued that the human desire for comfort, in the face of fear and uncertainty, leads us to seek outlets that can soothe our anxieties.
In and of itself, the urge to quiet internal demons is not a negative trait. I’d argue that, to the contrary, it’s an effective adaptation that allows us to cope with the stressors, big and small, that bombard us on a regular basis.
However, cult leaders meet this need by making promises that are virtually unattainable – and not typically found anywhere else in society. This, according Pedersen, could include “complete financial security, constant peace of mind, perfect health, and eternal life.”
Beyond exploiting human desire for emotional comfort, cult leaders don’t always have the best intentions when it comes to the mental health of their followers.
Psychiatrist Mark Banschick has pointed out that cult leaders employ mind and behavioral control techniques that are focused on severing followers’ connections to the outside world.
These methods can actually deepen members’ existing emotional insecurities, while encouraging them to become completely reliant on their cult for all their physical and emotional needs. At the same time, they’re often told to sever ties with any friends or relatives who are not part of the group.
This can result in physical and psychological isolation, which actually exacerbates many of the problems, like anxiety and depression, that attracted people to the cult in the first place.
The anxiety and depression can become so overwhelming and feel so insurmountable that the followers feel trapped.
It’s a vicious cycle that can lead to truly tragic consequences, such as the well-documented 1978 Jonestown Massacre, when over 900 people died in a mass murder-suicide carried out under the supervision of cult leader Jim Jones. Then there were the Heaven’s Gate suicides in 1997, when 39 individuals, including cult leader Marshall Applewhite, willingly overdosed on phenobarbital and vodka in the hope of being transported to an alleged alien spaceship flying behind the (real) Hale-Bopp comet.
The case for reason
So just how can one face his or her fears, but avoid the potential danger of cult-like groups?
In a word: rationality.
Seeking reason-based solutions for emotion-focused conditions is by no means a new concept. Unfortunately, rationality is not as intuitively appealing as remedies that simply exploit sentimental cravings.
Sigmund Freud, in his 1927 text “The Future of an Illusion,” argued that religion was a mere mental trick constructed to comfort believers and help them overcome insecurities – even though their acceptance of dogma was irrational. While Freud’s position was focused on mainstream faiths, his highlighting of the emotional comfort central to them is analogous to the role that this element plays in cults.
His solution? Replace religion (or, in the present case, cults) with rational guides for living that deal with problems directly. Are you anxious about your appearance? Eat healthy and exercise regularly. Stressed about relationship problems? Talk directly to your partner in a clear and honest manner to arrive at mutually agreed-upon resolutions.
One could certainly argue that Freud, by highlighting religion’s negative elements, was ignoring the potential positive outcomes correlated with spirituality such as stable relationships, moral grounding and life satisfaction.
But there is no denying that emotions can cloud judgment and result in poor decisions.
For example, Gerd Gigerenzer, a German psychologist who studies decision-making, illustrated the very real consequences of favoring an emotional response over a more data-driven one. In his 2004 analysis of highway fatalities in the wake of the September 2001 terrorist attacks, he pointed out how people became afraid of flying in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. Many who still needed to travel ended up driving instead of flying in order to reach their destinations.
However, this influx of cars on the road led to approximately 350 more people dying in automobile accidents from October to December of 2001. As Gigerenzer noted, these deaths could likely have been avoided “if the public were better informed about psychological reactions to catastrophic events.”
It’s not easy to simply “use reason over emotion.” The fact that cults continue to exist – and that people continue to play the lottery despite the minuscule chance of winning, or insist on subjecting themselves to unproven cancer treatments such as urine therapy – is a testament to the potency of emotions as behavioral motivators.
Furthermore, this should not be taken as a directive to surrender our emotions, which can enhance human experiences in many ways.
But it’s important to be vigilant, and recognize the value of approaching decisions using logic, especially when emotion-driven choices can lead to negative, life-altering outcomes.
Which of these paths will Cal and his Meyerists pursue? My guess is emotions will win the day. In the fictional world of television, that’s OK.
But for those of us viewing their exploits from our living rooms, perhaps it’s an opportunity to think about our choices, and whether or not our feelings had the final say.