Thursday, January 3, 2013

Knowledge only accessible to me

I'm not entirely sure what distinguishes a religion from a cult.  Apparently, Mormonism was a cult but then it stopped being one when a Mormon Republican ran for President.  I imagine that there are some of my fellow non-believers out there who make little distinction between the two, but if I'm being honest, I can't exactly lump The People's Temple (you know, Jim Jones, Kool-Aid) in the same category as your average group of Lutherans.  There's a difference, even if I'm not able to define exactly what it is.  Sure, you could say that the difference is that one involved murder and suicide whereas the other doesn't, there are definitely groups out there that I would call a cult that aren't necessarily deadly - the Jehovah's Witnesses, The Purple People, and Mac users spring to mind.

What about Mormons?  Are they a cult?  I've had this conversation with some friends.  One of my friend definitely thinks they are, but I disagree.  Now, if we're talking about the Fundamentalists who live in those isolated communes with multiple wives, then yeah, that's a cult.  However, Joe Average Mormon?  I don't see him as a cultist.  They're too mainstream and more importantly, which I think is a major distinction, they're very open about their beliefs.  Mormons will tell you the whole story if you want to hear it (and in some cases, even if you don't).  There's just too much that's out in the open with them.

There is a relationship between cults and religions though.  Oftentimes, cults spring out of more mainstream religious movements, for starters.  Maybe the best way to look at this is for me to come up with a completely original analogy for religion that nobody else has ever thought of ever.  I'm going to say that religion is kind of like a drug.  No, that has the wrong connotation to it.  How about religion is like the poppy plant?  Opium?  Opiate?  Yeah, that's it.  Religion is like an opiate.  If you ever use that comparison, remember, you heard it here first, and you owe me a nickel every time you do.  After all, I'm a capitalist.

So, to continue on with this metaphor, religion can be for some like having a couple of beers after a stressful week of work.  It makes you happy, it gets your mind off your problems.  While you might not really NEED it, you could make the argument that it's doing more good than harm to you.  Of course, too much of it and you turn into an asshole, but you get my point.  However, there are other opiates out there like meth which pretty much ruin your life, and that's where the People's Temple comparison starts.  Then you've got all sorts of stuff in between.

Recently, I was doing some reading on cults as a bit of research for my senior English class.  We're reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, so I thought it was apropos to have them read about cults since we need to distinguish between the religion of the Nation of Islam and the religion of Islam.  I tell the students that in my opinion, the former is a cult whereas the latter is a religion.  (I make it clear that this is my opinion though, as there is no scientific scale that measures which is which.)  As a little writing exercise, I have them create their own cult, using various criteria that I've been able to piece together that all cults seem to have in common (like charismatic leaders, a combination of traditional religious beliefs with New Age, etc.)  One of the things that I noticed that all cults do is they have some kind of secret, for lack of a better word, knowledge.  It's stuff that only the leader, or people who are deep into the organization, are able to figure out.

For instance, Marshall Applewhite of Heaven's Gate was able to interpret various passages from the New Testament to let his followers know that it was about alien visitations and UFOs.  Charles Manson heard messages in songs from The Beatles.  Shoko Asahara of The Supreme Truth actually managed to travel into the future and witness the devastating effects of World War III.  (That happened in 2006.  You probably don't remember it because it didn't happen - most likely because Asahara managed to prevent it ala Terminator 2.)  And let's not get started on the Scientologists.  You've gotta get to Tom Cruise-level status until you finally realize that psychotherapy is a Nazi conspiracy.

So, that was one of the criteria that I had my students create - a source of "secret knowledge".  It could be an interpretation of Moby Dick.  It could be from the back of a cereal box.  Whatever.  The point is that not just any schmuck should be able to figure it out.  (I got some pretty fun bits of creative writing out of this assignment, by the way.)

Several days later, it occurred to me that this is something that's not really unique to cults.  Crap, this is what nearly every religious person does when they engage in debate with a nonbeliever.  They might not point out something that's obviously as wacky, but, still is kinda wacky.  You especially find this kind of thing with the Biblical apologist.  I was listening to a debate with Christopher Hitchens and Dennis Prager some time ago.  (You can probably find it on Youtube).  I remember that when Hitchens was talking about all of the atrocities and absurdities in The Old Testament, Prager hemmed and hawed about how he didn't have a problem because he had studied it in the original language and thusly had a greater understanding.  (I'm not using any quotes, because I might not be remembering this correctly.  However, I've heard this sort of a thing  from other apologists.)  In other words, you've gotta spend your whole life studying this damned book in order for you to realize that all the awful stuff isn't really that awful, and all the ridiculous stuff isn't all that ridiculous.  Heaven forbid that you expected it to just be straightforward and easily understood.  It would take some sort of all-perfect being to pass on something like that!

I've also gotten into discussions about specific passages where apologists refer to something called Strong's Exhaustive Concordance.  Basically, you can check that out to find out all of the possible translations, variants, connotations, and denotations of every damn passage from the Bible's original text.  It's aptly named, because you'll be exhausted when you realize what a ridiculous waste of time you've engaged in trying to fit square pegs into things that aren't even meant to have pegs inserted inside them.

Beyond that, you get the arguments from personal experience.  You know, God talks to people, but you can't record the conversations or objectively verify it.  People will tell you that they "know" that it's true because they have a personal relationship with the creator of the universe.  Basically, that stops any and all discussion, but it does it in the same way that a personal vision of the future stops discussion.  The truth of the matter can't be confirmed one way or another, making it indistinguishable from bullshit.

You also get a combination of the last two examples.  See, just reading The Bible isn't good enough.  You have to ask God to open your heart so you can read it the right way.  Obviously, if you're going into it as an atheist, you're going to have trouble asking this thing that you don't think exists.  Whatever you do though, don't read it while considering that it's untrue is a possible conclusion that you might reach.

I've even had somebody go so far as to use the phrase "other ways of knowing" in order to explain how one can "know" that his or her religious beliefs are true or not.  I'm not even sure of what that means.  Couldn't I just say that I have another way of knowing that your other way of knowing is malarky?  How could you verify it one way or another?

Well, in the 200th issue of The Amazing Spider-Man, you will see the prophecy that proves that I can figure these things out.  Of course, if you try and read it for yourself, you probably won't get that message.  You have to ask Spider-Man to guide you, and if he doesn't, and you still don't get it, then you're doing it wrong, obviously.  Send me money, and that will be a good first step toward figuring it out.


Justin McRoberts said...

So far as the Bible is concerned, I don't think it's "straightforward and easily understood." It's terribly complicated and odd. Biblical literalism, particularly of the brand you and I are familiar with is relatively new and (as you and I both know) fatally flawed. The Bible gets sold by large portions of Western Evangelical Christianity as a kind of road-map for life when the road it describes, the one traveled by its writers, is anything but simple and clear. But sales drives everything in most Western culture, so there it goes.

As for the difference between cults and religions.. i think some of it has to do with consensus and disagreement as features of practice. That, rather than the "my way or the highway" leadership of an individual. While there is a fair share of splitting among Protestants, most of it comes by way of a group deciding to skedaddle rather than being told to GTFO. (and normally those disagreements are on fringe(isn) issues rather than central issues). Which.. interestingly, makes the Judeo-Christian tradition look a lot like the Bible: Messy and choc-full of disagreement while held together somewhere in the middle my more prominent agreements.

Lance Christian Johnson said...

I realize that you don't think that The Bible is "straightforward and easily understood". However, there are those who make statements like "The Bible clearly says..." and if there's anything that it doesn't do, it's clearly state something - except how badly you can beat your slave.

Nolan said...

I don't know if Mormons are a cult or not. But I've had repeated conversations with them that go along these lines:

Me: "Yes, I know your origin story and most of your philosophy."

Mormon: "Oh, but you probably learned it from a biased source outside the church, so you don't really understand."

Me: "Actually, I read a book called 'The Mormon Experience,' written by official LDS historians."

Mormon: "Oh, but you can't just read a book to understand our faith. You have to be brought up in it and experience it."

Me: "I don't have to be brought up in your church to understand the story and see the logical, historic, and scientific flaws in the Book of Mormon."

Mormon: "You can't understand it unless you've experienced all that goes with it; you can't just judge the book itself..." ad naseum.

That's a pretty culty way of looking at things, but I doubt it's all that different from any other religion, just amplified.

Lance Christian Johnson said...

In other words, you'll believe it if you start out believing it first.

Circular reasoning works because circular reasoning works.

Justin McRoberts said...

" if there's anything that it doesn't do, it's clearly state something"

I don't fully agree with this. I'd say that the Bible doesn't clearly state everything. The other consideration is how the thing is read. And once we've removed the "magic book" element, it seems only fair to read it the way we'd read just about any other artifact from History; namely, to read it as it was written... and and not as a novel or text book.

As I read it, there is a central Narrative but it is peered at from numerous angles (poetic, historic, prophetic etc.. )

All that to say: I agree that when folks say "The Bible clearly states" they are often wrong, particularly when applying it to something about the government or gun control or women's rights.

Lance Christian Johnson said...

I disagree that there's a central narrative. I think that, like any work of literature, the reader brings something of himself/herself to what's being read. So, if you're looking for a central narrative, you'll find one...and many folks who'll say that there is one will disagree as to what it is. After all, Jews seem to think it's quite fine without all that New Testament stuff and Mormons and Muslims think it needs some additional chapters.

Ingrid Johnson said...

As long as the Mormons don't explain the "little undergarment" they have to wear I consider them a cult. You know that Marx said "Religion is opium for the people".

Ingrid Johnson said...

I think that the old testament is an account of how the people lived, how they related to God, and what happened to them according to their behaviour in a language they could understand. Later on some people called themselves Christians because they believe the prophecies in the OT about Christ had been fulfilled, and the teaching of Christ guide them in their daily life. It is quite simple, but people don't like simple, so they have to add their own interpretations.
Now, if Germans would have read "Mein Kampf" carefully, they would have known what was comming. There are still Germans who long for Hitler, admire him, and go along with his ideas, but there are many who know the truth because they also saw what happened, and now have become enlightened.
The Bible teaches us that nothing has ever changed in this world, and that people are looking for salvation since day one. True Christians feel they have found it, some need to share it, others are fine in their personal relationship with God which cannot be taught but must be found. Christ tells you how.
Lance, if you are not comfortable with this or think I am being stupid, don't post it.

Unknown said...

I am a bit perplexed at this idea of a lack of narrative. Perhaps you rather rather it be described as a "theme". Centralizing God center stage.
Agreed the bible can not be taken as "clearly stated". Afterall if we are always telling you that you have to "ask God for unsterstanding", then for any of us to excuse it as clearly stated would be moronic.
That said as Justin points out, even if read as a historical book, the central theme is there. A book written about describing God in all the complexities as best a human might describe any god. (it is afterall written from human perspective and words, sometimes reiterating what God told them. But still in human words. Hence the reason I believe it really isn't easy and straight forward)I'm sure the depths of Odin are at some point hard to fully comprehend to his followers, minus you whom I assume know him personally. ;)
And keeping with the central narrative or theme, Jews and
Muslims do basically agree on the main theme until the new testament. Where they differ is the belief that the Savior has come in Jesus. So their additional books are of course needed in their regards. The central flaws for mormonism is contradiction of their belief in a savior which the bible talks of coming. They accept Christ then add a more passionate belief in Joseph Smith and idealize him and build everything around him versus the savior. Personally if you are going to accept that the bible says there is a Savior, you really don't need to keep looking for more than him.
And I would unfortunelty categorize them as a cult due to their hidden practices in the temple. Though I hate to say that since I am close friends with so many of them.

Lance Christian Johnson said...


You should read some of the objections to the supposed "prophecies that Christ fulfilled". Jews, and secular scholars, point out that many of those prophecies are either fulfilled right there in the very same book and/or they're not even prophecies at all. But hey, what do Jews know about their own scriptures?

And following the teachings of Christ is NOT simple, which is why you have so many interpretations of exactly what that means. Many things that he says are outright ignored, and you're also stuck with the problem of how much he thinks counts from the OT.

And yes, I know what Marx said - you're kinda ruining my joke.

Lance Christian Johnson said...


I didn't say that there isn't a narrative. I just don't think that there's a "central narrative" that runs through the whole thing. For instance, the book of Exodus and the Gospel of Mark are telling VERY different stories and have a completely different narrative - which makes sense since they were written for different people in different time periods. (Unless you want to reduce the central theme to something as simple as "there is a God".)

Lance Christian Johnson said...

And while I do like all the comments and appreciate the conversation, it is worth noting that only Andrew has addressed my basic point in the blog.

I'm sure that many believers of different faiths read his post and scoffed at that kind of reasoning while not acknowledging that they basically make the same kind of arguments.

Ingrid Johnson said...

Lance, I am sorry, I figured it was a joke but one never knows with you. (Though I should have in this case). It's just amazing how people differ in their beliefs, no wonder the world is in such a confused state.

Nolan said...

Ingrid, you owe Lance a nickel.

Lance Christian Johnson said...

Well, everybody agrees that all of the religions (including different interpretations of the same religion) other than theirs is wrong, so that's something we all have in common. Folks like me just make it easier (and more honest) by saying that they're all wrong, period.

Justin McRoberts said...

I think something as simple as "the development of relationship between a people and their God over years" is still a narrative.

Lance Christian Johnson said...

I agree that that's a narrative, but I don't agree that that is the narrative.