(Where Perhansa pokes a stick in the hive of religion trying to get stung)
“When one person suffers from a delusion it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called a Religion.” – Robert Pirsig
Before you get all worked up and loaded for bear, I’m not saying anyone who harbors religious beliefs is delusional. I wanted to get your attention–now that I have it. With the passing of the father of the Moral Majority, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, I found myself wondering what makes Americans particularly gullible and susceptible to religious hucksters, faith healers, revivalists and the like. From Elmer Gantry to Citizen Kane to Billy Sunday to Billy Graham to Joel Osteen, Americans seem to be quite infatuated and in love with the powerful, charismatic, revivalist wooings of hucksters, con men, promise-makers, biblical cherry-pickers, and peddlers of instant-salvation and success. Read on.
Though evolution has been the bedrock of biology and science in general for more that one hundred years, a recent Gallup poll revealed that only 12% of Americans believe life on earth came about through natural processes without the intervention of a divine being. Though we’ve viewed the planets within our own Solar System, and have seen the heavens filled with thousands of galaxies through the Hubble Telescope, Americans of all shapes and sizes believe in magical powers of telepathy, Scientology, crystals, alternative medicines, Kabala, clairvoyants, angels, ghosts, UFO’s and all manner of “unnatural” phenomena. What gives?
Those who find the televangelists and new age gurus repulsive and hucksters at best, are left wondering why anyone believes this crapolla. It’s no better in the business world where “leadership witchdoctors” pedal the transformative insights of the latest “leader” into six easy steps to success (and yes, I’m often asked to do this for clients). Are Americans so much more “advanced” and “sophisticated” with their iPods, Blackberries, and cyber-connectedness when they overwhelmingly believe in the infallibility of ancient texts, parlor tricks, silver bullets and campfire stories? We buy self-help books by the truck load promising to transform life from one of monotony to one of deep meaning, successful relationships, greater sex and unlimited personal power—all for $29.95. I’m open to your thoughts. What follows are some of mine.
Is it the result of a poor educational grounding? Do we not spend enough time teaching logic, reason, philosophy and history? Do we spend too much time reading fairy tales to our children and not helping them distinguish reality from fiction? We are an ingenious nation. We’ve fostered great writers, thinkers, scientists, humanists. How can we achieve all that while believing in so much that contradicts or outright denies what we know with confidence about the reality of our physical universe?
Perhaps it’s a by-product of our free market/consumer culture. Everything can be bought and sold, including theology and salvation, at such a quickening pace that one has little time to think about the “truth” of the idea, only its’ momentary appeal or pragmatic application. We are not fascinated with what endures, rather with what is “new” or “interesting”.
Along with the cult of consumerism is the cult of charisma. We tend to put our trust in charismatic people without evaluating their character or the consequences of their words and ideas. We are always looking for heroes, idols, gurus, or experts. In business we elevate people like Jack Welch to god-like status because of his “success” without ever checking to see how it was achieved and asking: “What if everybody behaved that way?” The premises and promises of our charismatic “leaders” don’t have to be validated against any standard or even based in fact or reality in the “market.” We worship “technique”. If it worked for Rudy or Jack or Bill, it must be true and it will work for me. Pizzaz sells, not truth, elegance and complexity. Our political system dwells in the same simplicity that makes it seem more akin to entertainment than social science.
Perhaps it’s due to our idolatry of “individualism”. It’s every woman for herself (and men too). Faith is a “personal choice,” I can believe what I want and whatever works for me whether it holds up to any intellectual scrutiny or not; if it feels good it must be true. Couple this with our societal desire for instant gratification and success and you have deadly combo. We truly believe that we can accomplish, obtain, or achieve whatever we want without much effort. Grace is cheap. Salvation can be acquired through a moment's confession and remorse even if the rest of one’s life is a lost cause. Character development is less important than action. We can wipe out a lousy character with single heroic deed or altruistic sacrifice; we can salve our consciences for all the sins of omission and commission by giving money to the work of our favorite charity or televangelist.
Perhaps it’s the thread of anti-intellectualism and the distrust of knowledge and reason that has been an underlying mark of the American psyche. In America, the entrepreneur is valued above the philosopher. We want things neat, simple and common-sensical. Our philosophy of life needs to be pragmatic and fit on a t-shirt or bumper sticker. Perhaps it’s our youth and our egotism. We haven’t learned the hard lessons of the Europeans. Existentialism never sold well in America, we didn’t have the depth of existential experience to understand it. We haven’t acquired the wisdom of age, the natural distrust of things that seem to easy, and the healthy degree of skepticism that keeps one from being suckered at every turn. Maybe it’s our optimism (which also is a characteristic of youth). We like things to end happily ever after. We’d rather read Psalms than Ecclesiastes. We relate to David felling Goliath not Job sitting in despair in an ash heap scraping his sores with broken pot shard. The ugly gargoyle gets the girl.
Some have argued that it’s the poverty of relativism, secular humanism or post-modernism that makes people turn back to the “bedrock” truths of the Bible or the Koran. I don’t buy it. A thoughtful person can see the flaws as well as the truth in cultural relativism and the underlying nihilism in post-modernism without turning to primitive beliefs.
I have many more thoughts and ideas and could go on but I’m curious to know, two hundred years after the Puritans why do so many still believe there’s a stick-wielding, hell-threatening god who watches our every move (especially if it involves our genitals) looking for a chance to lower the whammy on us? Why, like the cowardly lion, do we still believe in spooks? What are your thoughts?