Probably no one has coined as many memorable phrases about belief than GK Chesterton. His key insight was to observe that “human nature simply cannot subsist without a hope and aim of some kind”. Hope is like a drug which humanity can’t survive without. Therefore hope — and the faith that it will be fulfilled — is “as dangerous as fire.” The wisest treat it with caution because it can be twisted into a noose around their necks; but the most careless of humanity imagine themselves above it and fall into it more completely than those who see it from what it is. Chesterton wrote that “the modern world is filled with men who hold dogmas so strongly that they do not even know that they are dogmas. It may be said even that the modern world, as a corporate body, holds certain dogmas so strongly that it does not know that they are dogmas.”
The history of secularization can be understood not as a replacement of belief by reason, but an exchange of one belief for another. The traditional monotheisms were hustled out of the way so that they could sell Lenin in the place left vacant by Jesus. Perhaps no other century has seen more god-men than the 20th. Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Mao Zedong, Nicolae Ceauşescu, Saparmurat Niyazov, Ho Chi Minh, Kim Il-Sung, Ayatollah Khomeini, Sukarno, and Kim Jong-Il promoted a cult of personality. And there’s a reason for that. The dictators could only sell the box of matches with their likeness on the cover if they could darken the sun of faith. “During the peak of their regimes, these leaders were presented as god-like and infallible. Their portraits were hung in homes and public buildings, with artists and poets legally required to produce only works that glorified the leader.” Maybe Chesterton was right when he predicted that “the first effect of not believing in God is to believe in anything.”
But that hardly solves the problem. Caught between the need to believe and the danger of believing, what’s a society to do? For starters, it should be careful.
The most fascinating thing about cults in America, Western Europe and Japan is how ridiculous the objects of their veneration were. In 1973 a convict named Donald Defreeze, having failed to impress his fellow black prisoners, realized that the more educated the dupes, the better. Cons were allergic to cons. So he did the smart thing, went to Berkeley and he introduced himself as Field Marshal “Cinque” to the white middle class. His prospects improved immediately and DeFreeze proceeded to start the Symbionese Liberation Army, convert Patty Hearst and raise hopes for one tantalizing moment that he was going to lead the Revolution. If gunplay wasn’t your style, James Edward Baker who was the owner of a Sunset Strip health food restaurant before he renamed himself “Father Yod” or “Ya Ho Wa 13” could offer you membership in the Source Family. He led this quintessential cult until he died after stepping off a 1,300 foot cliff in a hanglider he had not learned to fly.
If you were tired of mainline churches, there was David “Mo” Berg of the Children of God whose female followers used sex to attract new adherents into his fold. His conversion rate was said to approach 100%, proof if any were needed, that if there is something more attractive than faith it is faith plus sex. But he was small potatoes besides Jim Jones, the founder of the People’s Temple, who threw socialism and politics into the mix. Jones convinced his followers to establish a “socialist paradise” in the middle of a South American jungle where he persuaded 913 people to drink poisoned Kool-Aid served out of galvanized iron buckets. It was the greatest single loss of civilian American life until September 11. For style, no one could surpass Charles Manson. Manson was the apocalypse, plus murder, plus music all rolled into one. All he left out were the flying saucers. Facile and evil, Manson recruited a coterie of followers called the Family. Hunkered down in a California ranch against the outbreak of Helter-Skelter, a race war he predicted would be triggered by the denial of white women to black men, Manson sent his killers out to Hollywood to butcher his enemies in cinematic horror style.
Nor were the Europeans, even after their experience with Hitler and Stalin, totally immune from the attractions of the dark flame. There was Raelism, founded by a French race car driver, which is described as “the largest UFO religion in the world”. And even in Japan, where you would think the directions up and down were well known, some persons turned to venerating Shoko Asahara. Asahara would impress his devotees by supposedly levitating, a feat apparently achieved by twitching his buttocks and farting, a process reminiscent of the half-propeller, half-jet aircraft drive of the 1950s. Ashara ordered a nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995. People too sophisticated to believe in Jesus may have no trouble believing in Xenu — or Gaia.
So why do smart people believe in dumb things? The author Scott Peck claimed that intelligence was no defense against foolishness, especially where belief was concerned. The intelligent were perhaps even more vulnerable than the simple precisely because they believed themselves to be immune when in fact they were not. All a cult leader had to do was flash his neon sign in the middle of a spiritual night and the vainglorious moths would come in their thousands, beating their wings against the electrified screen. If you built it, they would come. And whether the goals of the belief joint were Helter-Skelter, alien abduction or the Workers Paradise, these temples of the night would do a land-office business and all be built in the same way. All of them would have:
1. A charismatic leader demanding total authority at their center. From him would radiate authority through an elect group of followers. This is inevitable since power does not spring from the institution, but rather from the personal divinity of the god at its center.
2. Controlling techniques harnessing shame, guilt and peer pressure to bring dissidents to heel. Within a cult are only hymns of praise and condemnations of the wicked. Deviation from dogma would be treated as a moral failing; sin or blasphemy against a sacred leader and his goals.
3. Self-isolation from the world. Cults constitute little universes unto themselves; closed hermetic societies, where the “us” faces out against the “them”.
4. Extremist or fanatical behavior. In a cult excess is normal. Activity is frenzied, every emotion is at the highest pitch. People act as if possessed because time is short. The long awaited moment is at hand.
5. Secrecy and deception. Routine documents are concealed. Inquiries are treated with suspicion. Associations, personal histories, financial records, decisions — all go behind a firewall. Nothing is transparent.
But even here, I think, Chesterton points the way. The key defense against fanaticism is to open our eyes to the “wild and wasted” virtues of the world. It is to laugh, not in the cynical and cruel way of what passes for modern comedy, but with the clean humor of a child. It is to accept the sacredness of the ordinary; to credit the possibility that ordinary moms and dads can be wiser than a political leader who is “a sort of god”.
The only lasting defense against the seductions of slavery is the conviction that you are not a slave; that at some fundamental level each person, however poorly educated, can know something of the truth without an interpreter; that you can walk into any congregation and yet the Small Still Voice you hear will not be your pastor’s. The neon signs are fine, but you don’t have to go there. And if they see far, then even the moths in the dark valley can flutter past the garish neon, and with their hearts beating turn up their eyes to stars beyond the reach of their wings and start to fly.